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 …

  3. William Boyd says

    I read Spanish [L. 2] well having scored a 3 at the Foreign Language Institute, thus satisfying the USAID fluency requirement [on the spoken language, they rated me a 4–“near native,” of which I am quite proud but daily I keep pounding away at the language). Now deeply into “2666”, a moderately easy read despite the occasional slang, is a long, long read. Before “2666”, knowing that if were to penetrate Bolano, I’d be better off figure easing into it by tackling “Los detectives salvajes,” a much shorter, most enjoyable tale that took me back to my Mexico City days as a student in early 1969.

    But before attempting Bolano again (some 10 years ago, I had a go at one of his works, finding nothing worth reading–the same as I had for Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives,” which upon second read during my two years in Bolivia I enjoyed thoroughtly), after a short visit to Guatemala, I was inspired to read the entire of Miguel Ángel Asturias’s “Mulata de tal.” Finding it difficult due mostly to having to search out vocabulary and idioms not common to any other work of Spanish I’d studied, as a reading aid I picked up Rabassa’s translation. For the most part, his translation did help, except for the occasional missing paragraph and one or two alleged translations that within context made no sense (e.g., in the Losada 1963 edition, page 86, see “de una sentada from”Asi lo hizo aquel y Piedrasanta entro al reposo mirada de una sentada.” Rabassa renders this adverbial as “of a legislative session”).

    At any rate, this served as a lesson for me: Read only the author’s original and depend on any of the numerous online resources to solve, call them, lexical oddities.

    Thanks for reading my blathering.

  4. No, thank you, both for commenting on this ancient post and for confirming my feelings about Rabassa! I’ve learned the same lesson reading Russian.

  5. (Oh, and I have a copy of Mulata de tal I bought half a century ago in Buenos Aires, but have never got around to reading it…)

  6. My experience of Rabassa was similar to yours. I wrote my dissertation on Rayuela and referred frequently to Rabassa, but with increasing frustration. An example which burned itself into my memory at the time:

    Cortázar: “Sobre el dolor físico como aguijón metafísico abunda la escritura.”

    Translation: “Concerning physical pain as a spur to metaphysics, much has been written.”

    Rabassa: “On top of physical pain like a metaphysical pinprick, writing abounds.”

    He makes similar nonsense of a lot of perfectly clear statements that Cortázar makes when waxing philosophical, thereby creating Cortázar’s reputation among some Anglophone reviewers (I’m looking at you, John Wain) as a goofy surrealist writer. He also treats negatives in different clauses as examples of negative concord, thereby reversing the meaning of sentences.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Wow, that’s bad.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    i am not sure about your “spur to metaphysics”, i.e., given the context (things that make the narrator aware of the separation between his body and his soul) and the next sentence (where the narrator describes pain as a dual weapon, both physical and mental) I would say “metaphysical barb” (I agree that “pinprick” is unfortunate).

  9. @PlasticPaddy: Thanks, that makes a great deal of sense.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    A spur is a barb. Dar coces contra el aguijón. Wider den Stachel löcken. Some horses break into a metaphysical gallop.

  11. David Marjanović says

    (Incidentally the only occurrence of löcken in the entire German language.)

  12. „Parteien, die die Klasseninteressen der Herrschenden vertreten, werden nur das in der Presse veröffentlichen, was diesem Klasseninteresse nicht schadet, und wehe dem, der dagegen löckt.“ –August Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus

  13. (Oddly, that Bebel book came up at LH in 2010.)

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Except for its cousin frohlocken.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Bebel towered in his time.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Surely the resemblance between frohlocken and “frolic” is only seeming ?? At any rate, I finally have a superior German word for what the Dog Sparky does in the park when I can let him off the leash. The word had not occurred to me before now for this setting.

  17. David Marjanović says

    The Bebel quote is clearly an allusion to the Bibel quote; its existence is still remarkable, though.

    de.wikt on frohlocken:

    von spätmittelhochdeutsch vrōlocken; der zweite Bestandteil locken geht wohl auf löcken in der ursprüngliche Bedeutung „vor Freude springen“ zurück

    Suggested English equivalents are “exult” and “rejoice”.

    en.wikt on frolic:

    From Dutch vrolijk (“cheerful”), from Middle Dutch vrolijc, from Old Dutch frōlīk, from Proto-Germanic *frawalīkaz. Compare German fröhlich (“blitheful, gaily, happy, merry”).

    The first element, ultimately from Proto-Germanic *frawaz, is cognate with Middle English frow (“hasty”); the latter element, ultimately from *-līkaz, is cognate with -ly, -like.

    …so, froh “happy” is the cognate part. I’d translate fröhlich as “merry, cheerful”; “gay” worked splendidly 100 years ago, too.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    It is hard for you to kick against the goads. Acts 9:5 (KJV, final period). Luther (1545) has Es wird dir schwer werden, wider den Stachel lecken. DM will now explain German unrounding again. Most modern translations omit the sentence.

    Danish has stampe mod brodden, where brod is, i.a., a goad for oxen (obsolete), but also used metaphorically without awareness that the image is from the Bible or that it’s a cattle goad — I always thought it was something like a wasp sting (also brod) you were kicking against with your foot, but the oxen are presumably just stamping their feet and refusing to move.

  19. David Marjanović says

    DM will now explain German unrounding again.

    Looks like the word was present in Luther’s presumably native Upper Saxon, which is unrounding, but was already extinct in the still-rounded varieties known to him (Low German and maybe East Franconian), and he didn’t dive deep enough into etymology to reconstruct the ö.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    I always thought “kick against the pricks” referred to a pack animal (mainly horse or donkey) kicking out with the hind legs and usually also making an upward jump when stung or goaded. Does the bull do this in bullbaiting/fighting?

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is a link where you can read “Rayuela” online (I supposed you had the book, so I did not include it before).
    Thanks for mentioning it. I think Marías does the “internal monologue where nothing progresses or things progress extremely slowly” type of story (maybe one should call this “inaction”/”anti-thriller” ) better, but I should read more Cortazar.

  22. Lars Mathiesen says

    I can’t speak to the original Greek(?) but the Danish bible translators put stampe (nearly equivalent to E stamp) instead of sparke or even slå ud which is what you describe.

    (I’m pretty sure I remembered the fixed phrase as sparke mod brodden, but that’s probably just because stampe is a rarer world. I’m not finding it as a common variant, but it seems there are alternative translations using sparke mod pigkæppens stik and the notes explain that trying to kick the goad will hurt you more than them — in this case, God).

    Well, I can copy from the Internet: σκληρόν σοι πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν — λακτίζω can both be ‘kick’ and ‘trample,’ it seems, so I’m still not sure if Saul (the ox in question) is kicking at the ground or God’s prod.

  23. Thanks, PlasticPaddy. I do still own my copies of Rayuela, both the original and the quasi-English (the latter with many exasperated annotations).

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