I have to confess a longstanding prejudice against Gregory Rabassa, who’s won just about every award he could win and is probably the translator whose name is most familiar to the general reader. I was reading Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch) and using Rabassa’s translation to help me through the hard parts, and I began realizing Rabassa had misunderstood idioms, mistranslated words, even left out entire chunks of text. Of course no translator can escape the occasional lapse, and if he had been some unknown I would have been more inclined to forgive and forget, but this was the great Rabassa, and I was mightily disillusioned. Well, it turns out that was his first translation, and he hadn’t even read the novel when he started translating it, so I guess I should let it go; at any rate, I look forward to reading his forthcoming book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, discussed in an interview with Andrew Bast published in the NY Times Book Review.

“My thesis in the book is that translation is impossible,” Mr. Rabassa said. “People expect reproduction, but you can’t turn a baby chick into a duckling. The best you can do is get close to it.”

He certainly seems to have had a good life:

When he returned to the United States after spending time in Italy and Northern Africa, Mr. Rabassa lived on Morton Street, watched Charlie Parker play in Greenwich Village and wrote poetry. He studied for his master’s in Spanish at Columbia, then, tired of the language, kept on with his studies but finished his doctorate in Portuguese. At a cocktail party Mr. Rabassa met an administrator at Queens College and he ended up being hired as a professor there…
In the case of Cortázar, Mr. Rabassa developed a relationship with him, and they became good friends, spending days and nights listening to 78’s of Count Basie and Lester Young. Mr. Rabassa translated Luis Rafael Sánchez and lounged with him on the beaches of Puerto Rico. And after translating “Seven Serpents and Seven Moons” by Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, a former Ecuadorian ambassador to Mexico, he ended up with one of the author’s paintings hanging on his apartment wall.

(Thanks go to Bonnie for the link.)


  1. This is very depressing news, as I have read a lot of Latin American literature (as a Spanish major)both in the original and translated by Rabassa. I always thought he sat at G-d’s right hand, so to speak. And Rayuela, talk about an oldie but goodie, especially all the parts in Paris.

  2. I think for most of us who started reading Latin American literature in translation during and after the Boom, Rabassa has always been a kind of sacred figure. When Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale came out in English last year, I reread Rabassa’s translations of the novels and stories at that recount some of the same events, and damned if I didn’t like Grossman’s Garcia Marquez far better than Rabassa’s Garcia Marquez. (I’m not speaking to the accuracy, just to how enjoyable the prose is.) Though I probably should account for the possibility that the author’s style may have improved over the years …

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