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The Translator's Voice: An Interview with Gregory Rabassa

Gregory Rabassa

By Thomas Hoeksema

This article on Gregory Rabassa initiates a regular feature in Translation Review will focus on the role of the literary translator. Each issue will contain an extensive examination and evaluation of a prominent literary translator. The series is designed primarily to emphasize the translator as creative writer, and to call attention to the growing acknowledgement of the literary translator as a skilled artist."The Translator's Voice" will be a forum for the translator's views on the art and process of translation. Because the translation problems are different, the series will feature translators of all literary genres.

Each article will include complete background information on the translator's professional achievements, an interview segment in which the translator discusses theoretical and practical aspects of his translation experience, and critical statements on the extent, quality, consistency, and impact of the translator's work.

In effect, "The Translator's Voice" series will initiate an ongoing dialogue among translators whose thoughts on the recreative dynamics of literary translation will amplify the growing body of critical and theoretical material dealing with the translation process.

The Translator's Translator

During the recent World Congress of the International Federation of Translators at Montreal, the association's president Jean-Paul Coty declared that "In spite of doubters past and present, translation is henceforth a profession." His statement confirms the impressive theoretical and artistic achievements in literary translation during the past fifteen to twenty years.The translator has emerged from near anonymity to be a visible and active creative presence. If translation has emerged as a profession, there is an implicit acknowledgement of the appearance of the professional literary translator--the individual whose singular talent has silenced the skeptical critic and legitimized translation as a recognized profession.

In the field of contemporary Latin American prose, one of the richest sources of translation projects, Gregory Rabassa stands out as a prototype of the professional literary translator. His achievements have established a standard for all translators in the field, and the considerable quality and exposure of his translated works have facilitated the emergence of translation as an identifiable profession. In fact, his relatively brief translating career parallels the extraordinary developments in literary translation during the past two decades.

As a prominent representative of the translation profession, it must be noted that Mr. Rabassa's career has been attended by nearly universal praise for his work. In the field he is regarded as the translator's translator--his unique gift for recreative work has yielded enduring models of translation, and his critical and theoretical comments on the craft, process and art of translation offer perceptive guidelines and creative insight for translators at all levels of experience.

A survey of prominent Latin American critics and scholars reveals the extent of Rabassa's influence on the translation of Latin American narratives. Alastair Reid specified the range of Rabassa's impact: "The best of Latin American writing owes about two-thirds of its existence to Rabassa, for, single-handed, he has translated the milestone novels of Vargas Llosa, Jose Lezama Lima, Julio Cortazar, Miguel Angel Asturias, and many other writers."

Fellow translators and critics stumble over one another's superlatives in characterizing Rabassa's skill as a translator. Ronald Christ, editor of Review 77, states that Rabassa's "broadminded approach as well as his generosity in dealing with texts, translations, and other translators have resulted in his becoming not only the producer of excellent translations but also the incarnation of the model translator." Prominent translator, poet, and editor Willis Barnstone characterizes Rabassa's translations as exhibiting "an uninterrupted consistency...in which the subtlety and poetry of the original comes through magnificently, and, as Fray Luis de Leon said, as if 'born in the new language'. Perhaps Mr. Rabassa's most important achievement is that he himself is invisible. The translation never calls attention to itself. Rabassa creates the perfect counterfeit."

In what must qualify as the most outrageous compliment, Dallas Galvin, Coordinator of the Translation Center at Columbia University, states that "many Spanish-speaking people who are bilingual prefer to read Rabassa's English, because it is clearer than the original Spanish." This statement is, of course, paralleled by Garcia Marquez' extravagant compliment paid to Rabassa's English rendering of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Familiar with English, Marquez has said that he prefers Mr. Rabassa's English version to his own original Spanish text.

Much of the chorus of verbal applause for Rabassa's work is engendered by the conspicuous translation success of Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. John S. Brushwood, author of many books on Mexican and Latin American literature, observes that Rabassa's translation of Marquez' novel "overcomes difficulties that would sear the imagination of most translators." William Kennedy concludes that "On the basis of One Hundred Years of Solitude alone, Gregory Rabassa stands as one of the best translators who ever drew breath."

Rabassa's translation career, begun by sheer chance in 1960, received its crowning appellation when the eminent Alfred A. Knopf designated him the "Pope of Translators." Rabassa's initial translation effort was desultory and casual. In 1960, he was asked by the editor of Odyssey Review, located at Columbia University where Rabassa was then teaching, to provide assistance in compiling Latin American writing for an issue on literature in translation.When translators could not be found for all the material, Rabassa volunteered his services. Although the editor was pleased with his work, Rabassa recalls that "I still didn't think anything of it, and had no idea of going on in translation." The next step was a call from Sara Blackburn, an editor at the Pantheon Book Publishing Company. Rabassa's translations with Odyssey Review had impressed the editors at Pantheon, and he was asked to translate a new novel by a young Argentine writer, Julio Cortazar. The novel was Rayuela, which became Hopscotch in Rabassa's English version. Rabassa's translation career had begun with one of the primary works of contemporary fiction.

Since that auspicious debut, Gregory Rabassa has received more formal recognition than any translator before him. Two prestigious awards include the National Book Award for Translation in 1967 (for Hopscotch), and the P.E.N. American Center Translation Prize in 1977 for his English translation of Marquez' Autumn of the Patriarch. Rabassa's current translation projects reveal two interesting directions in his work. He recently completed the translation of Julio Cortazar's latest book (A Manual for Manuel), but he is also hard at work on Seven Serpents and Seven Moons. The latter novel is by an Ecuadorian writer, Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, who is unknown in the United States. Rabassa has not been commissioned to translate the book; he calls the project a "labor of love." His work with the Aguilera-Malta book resembles his inaugural work seventeen years earlier with Cortazar's Hopscotch--each book possesses a potential which can be brought to fruition through Rabassa's translation skills.

One index of Rabassa's importance to the translation profession is the number of articles and essays which have been published in Latin America and the United States that feature Rabassa's contributions as a translator. Such articles have appeared in journals in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and in such United States magazines and papers as Publisher's Weekly, The New Yorker, Review 75, and The Wall Street Journal.

A further tribute to his value to the translation profession is that Rabassa is in constant demand as a speaker, panelist, and advisor in the area of literary translation. His untiring efforts on behalf of translation constitute a major contribution, both to the scholarly inquiry into translation, and as an encouraging voice for established and beginning translators. His work can be appreciated on many levels. His English versions are totally free of 'translatorese' and can be read without making allowances for the exigencies of linguistic transfer. In addition, a comparative reading reveals his consummate skill in transferring the energy and substance of an original text. It is, perhaps, Rabassa's absorption and recasting of a writer's 'style' which constitutes his primary skill. The balance he achieves between subordinating his own instincts to the author's, and yet enriching and communicating the author's stylistic distinctiveness in English, is inventively and fluidly managed by Rabassa.

Gregory Rabassa's achievements as a translator are difficult to measure. In historical terms, his translations parallel the introduction into English of a whole generation of Latin American writers whose innovations have revitalized the novel and established new directions in short fiction. His notable translations of Cortazar's Hopscotch and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez have provided the English-speaking world with two of the most significant novels of the twentieth century.Rabassa's always faithful, yet richly imaginative prose not only renders the spirit and essence of the writer he translates, but his linguistic and poetic sensitivity have established a standard against which all prose translation from Spanish must be measured. His talent as a translator is confirmed by the ease with which he has handled widely-diverse styles of writing. From the experimental word games and often abstruse foliage of Hopscotch to the imagistic word-flow of Autumn of the Patriarch, Rabassa's translations express the integrity and unique texture of the original author.

At a time when many translators receive and are content with minimal recognition, Rabassa is accorded nearly co-creative status with the original author. He is perhaps the only contemporary translator who has reached the level of recognition and acknowledgement of his rights as a translator in near conformity with the much-publicized goals of the P.E.N. American Center Conference on Literary Translation held in New York City in 1970.

In recent discussions and correspondence with Gregory Rabassa, he responded to a wide range of questions dealing with the theory and art of literary translation, with special focus on his experience in the field of contemporary Latin American prose. His lucid, perceptive observations make a powerful case for the necessity of including the translator as a dialogue participant in any discourse on the creative process.

One of your current projects is the translation of an Ecuadorian writer, Demetrio Aguilera-Malta who is virtually unknown in the United States. Do you anticipate that your translation of his book, Seven Serpents and Seven Moons, will initiate his 'discovery' by the American reading public?

I cannot say whether a translation of his novel will help him be "discovered" because I am often baffled by the American reading public's whims and likes and dislikes.It could happen, it might not. I think that Aguilera is important because he represents an overlap between generations. More than Asturias, he is in the spirit of the new period. In some ways he is ahead of his younger contemporaries. In Aguilera we see touches of the surrealist, particularly in his novel of dictatorship El Secuestro Del General, which antedates The Autumn of the Patriarch and there might be those who will say derivation. The difference could be too that Aguilera is quite interested in the theater and I think we are finally going to see an outburst of good, new theater in Latin America comparable to the wave of fiction. There are already a great many good plays, many tending towards the theater of the absurd and right in the middle of "the mainstream." Aguilera shows the importance of the theatrical moment in the novel. My wife Clementine considered his position so important that she chose him as the figure to be studied to prove that the epic is alive and well in Latin America hiding out in the novel. Her book on this theme will be out soon. I only hope that the American public will be discerning enough to give Aguilera a boost. This would also do him well among his compatriots, many of whom still look abroad for the signal to grant recognition to one of their own.

One of the advantages you've enjoyed as a translator has been a direct collaborative involvement with a number of the writers you have translated.With which authors have you collaborated, and what attitudes do they take toward the translation of their work?

I have collaborated with several authors with varying degrees of helpfulness. Of all the authors I have done the best by far to work with is Julio Cortazar. His English is quite good and he is a conscientious reader. He also has great respect for what the translator must do (being one himself) and therefore never asks the impossible. Many times Julio has even suggested a slightly better turn of phrase in English, sometimes one that is quite slangy. He also has a good eye for spotting slips in meaning. Sometimes a seemingly innocent word or phrase is really something else quite different because the context is Argentine slang. Julio is also quick to praise, which makes one feel particularly good. Mario Vargas Llosa, whom I mentioned, is always quite helpful, but he cannot be trusted because his English is not as strong as he thinks it is. Sometimes he will question a translation in the margin and give the "real" meaning of the phrase, which is exactly what I had said in English. Of course, I quietly ignore such things. Mario is really quite helpful, however, and often his suggestions work out well. His English really is better than I may have implied and he certainly can catch inaccuracies in most cases. Garcia Marquez lets one go his way and is satisfied with the overall impression he has.Actually, his style is such that there are really very few queries necessary. H is vocabulary is quite classical and universal within the Spanish context. There may be only a dozen words or expressions in a book that I have to ask him about. As I said before, his prose simply leads the translator along. It is hard to botch him up if you know what he wants to do. Gabo is hard to track down sometimes and there have been occasions when I have had to use educated guesses as to the meaning of words. Fortunately they were not crucial, but I dread the day when the translation police will haul me out of bed and put me to torture.I am not worried so much about muffing something like this in Gabo's case because he is notorious for his acceptance of all possible interpretations of his work. He has been known, like Joyce, to have agreed with things that were never anywhere near his mind when he was writing. Dalton Trevisan is a compulsive changer. This is seen in many changes of words that occur between editions of his works. My translation of his stories represents, ultimately a fifth version of the original tale.

There are the changes between editions; then he will make further changes in ink in the second edition; when I send him the translation to look over, he will make further changes that have nothing to do with translation, and it seemingly could go on and on. (This I find to be a problem of translation itself. I am never satisfied with what I have done, which is why I dislike reading proofs. When the book comes out I never reread it because I will see all the changes I want to make. This is not so with something of my own that has appeared in print. Many times I am not only completely satisfied with it, but, with the intervening distance in time, quite pleased with it, as if someone else had written it.) There was an interesting collaboration with Jose Lezama Lima for a time before political events took a hand. I would send Julio Cortazar, Lezama's dear friend and admirer, finished pages. Julio would pass them on to a Cuban friend in Paris who was returning home, who would give them to Lezama. After Lezama made his comments, the route would be reversed. In spite of all, this was a quicker method than direct mail which was well nigh impossible given the U.S. boycott of Cuba.The Padilla episode put an end to the triangular system, which had been quite helpful. At present I am working quite well with the Brazilian Osman Lins during the translation of Avalovara, a complex novel which needs explanation now and again. His collaboration is very similar to Cortazar's, as his novel is rather like Julio's work too.

Do you have a consistent strategy or technique that you employ in the mechanics of your translation routine?

I am not sure that I have any technique. I certainly have no strategy (I ammore of a tactician, if it comes to that) and I am not sure whether I have an approach or not. It is really very simple: I just sit down with paper and a dictionary handy and go to work. About the only preliminary effort expended was a reading of the book. Sometimes this had taken place a while back so that it is all a bit hazy. This might be to the good, if my experience is any example.I must confess, and I have confessed to Julio, that I translated Hopscotch as I read it. I did have to go back and change some things, but only a snippet here and there, nothing important. I think that this bears out my contention that a translation is nothing but a close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible. When I do a book I go along as fast as I can, trying to get the meaning down so that I can use this first draft with confidence. If a phrase resists me I put it down in some awkward but accurate form to be dealt with later. More to give myself a break in routine than anything else (although it enables me to ship chunks of translation off to the author periodically), I will stop after twenty or thirty pages of manuscript text and go back over it for the re-write. Here I work more slowly and check out words I could not find in the dictionary and find a smooth solution for the rough passages I have left in the raw. More often than not this is the final draft. Here and there are some queries for the author which are duly marked so that he can answer them when he sees his copy. They are so few, as are his suggestions, that I can easily incorporate them into the final copy. People often ask me who types my material. A typist would be handy but also it would make the whole process slower. My main reason for typing my own copy, however, is that there are any number of changes I make as I do that final copy. Naturally I think they are all for the best, but often as I look over the rough draft and the changes I will go back to what I had in the first place. I think this may have to do with the day I am working. From academic influence no doubt, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are Mon-Wed-Fri words and Tu-Th-Sat words. I work pretty much the same on all books. If it is a technique, it is a technique I have fallen into through pragmatic habit, so it is quite comfortable. I find that one must be quite comfortable when translating (the same as with writing), as there are enough discomforts in the work itself.

In very general terms how long does it take you to complete all the drafts and inquiries necessary to translate a book?

I cannot answer this as specifically as one would want. External circumstances vary in each case: academic chores, travel, illness, planting snow peas, etc. All of these elements vary from week to week and so affect the book under translation. If there were some sort of translation meter to measure the time spent on the work itself I could give an answer in hours. If I try to think about this, however, it becomes intrusive and spoils that external comfort that I deem so necessary. Stop-and-think time is another factor that varies from book to book. I will never know, probably, how long it takes me to translate a book. I do underestimate the time quite often, however, when setting a deadline with a publisher. My optimism may be based on an idealistic vision of smooth sailing at the typewriter because there was nothing else to do. In planning such things one must take into account buying bread and reading The New York Times, a rather lengthy operation on Sundays especially.

In a recent exchange with Ronald Christ, editor of Review 77, I commented that a translator of prose has greater latitude than a translator of poetry--that the prose translator has less of an obligation to precise shading and nuance. Do you agree?

This is a very personal matter and therefore difficult to judge. I think that every translator has his version, there are very few identical. I can see this from translation seminars I give where students never coincide in translating the same work. I can only say that I have my versions and I always prefer them, naturally, understanding the other fellow's arguments and positions all the while. I do think that prose should be as strict as poetry in hewing to the original. I really think that the reverse of what you say is true: the poet must often use more flexibility in order to preserve in some way the formal structure of the poem. This has always been the problem with Dante. Sinclair's prose version is admirable; I have used it many times in teaching with great success. (Of course, he meant it as an aid to reading the verse printed next to it, but it is nowhere near a trot). I think that Ciardi has done well in getting close to the terza rima (to reproduce it is, of course, impossible), but in doing so he has had to take certain liberties that were not necessary in Sinclair's case. Prose translation is pretty well under control; it is too often the poets that we must keep in check.

Which of the novels you have translated since Hopscotch in 1966 has posed the greatest difficulties and translation challenges?

It is hard to single out any single novel as being the most difficult. Paradiso might win the overall prize of those published. There is one novel, still unpublished in English, however, which has so far succeeded in defying me, which is Fundador, by the Brazilian Nelia Piñon. Her style is so personal and so Portuguese that it simply will not come over into English. She has milked the native secrets of Portuguese stylistic possibilities more than any writer ever has in that language and, indeed, I can think of no writer in any other language who has achieved so much from the unique native pith of his tongue except perhaps James Joyce (Nélida Piñon is not at all what we would call "Joycean"). People keep marveling at my translations of Cortazar, such a difficult writer, and yet, I think that he has been substantially "easier" than Asturias, especially when the grand old lengua was at his worst. Strange, but I find bad writing much more difficult to translate than good writing, no matter how complex the latter may be. I have practically sworn off doing academic treatises and such after finding that they are more often than not twice as hard to do than a good novel or story and so terribly boring from the translator's point of view. Strange as it may seem to some, I think that Garcia Márquez has been the "easiest" to translate, and The Autumn of the Patriarch (if hindsight can be trusted) rolled along at a jolly clip. It was like a good, enjoyable reading.

What method did you use in translating Hopscotch? Did you play 'hopscotch' with Cortázar's chapter progression while translating?

The translation was really not that difficult. This kind of difficulty seems to spur inventiveness and play, which is a lot of fun. Julio has always been a lot of fun to translate. It's because he knows that humor and pathos are really all the same thing, what should be called love, maybe. I didn't play hopscotch with the book, but went through it from beginning to end. It seemed to work and I think it was more fun that way because that's how you're really supposed to read the novel. Julio was startled that so many critics took him so deadly seriously when he was only half-serious about the idea of doing the book in different ways.

In an article on translation you state that there is "...the question of which is more important in translation, accuracy or the flow of prose." Many of the books you have translated are heavily dependent on the "flow of the prose" to achieve their effects. Some compromise with accuracy may be necessary to preserve the stylistic flow or tone of the original. Have any of the novels you've translated focused this problem in a particular way?

I can only speak of the ideal, which is that both are present.I cannot see consciously sacrificing too much of one for too much of the other. Quite frankly, this is a problem that I have not come upon too often, at least consciously. At times an editor has found a phrase here and there that is awkward or that doesn't sound English. This of course means that accuracy had prevailed over flow, but it was not done consciously in any compensatory way. It just happened like that.

Did you encounter an 'accuracy versus flow' problem with the unorthodox syntax of Autumn of the Patriarch?

No, that was not a great problem with Autumn. Here, as with most of what I have done by Garcia Márquez, I was as close as it is possible for me to "automatic" translation (something like automatic writing). I find that one great merit of Garcia Márquez' prose is that it leads the translation along so easily. Quite often, on going back over something, I tell myself that this is the only possible way it could be said in English, and most of the time it is felicitous. I think that in most cases accuracy can be fitted into the proper flow by a careful browsing among synonyms. This is where the bilingual dictionary is a good tool, a good mind jogger. I would think that the problem of accuracy/flow is more evident in the translating of poetry and I have done very little of that, although I have edited quite a bit. It is with poetry that I find ore mischief being done to accuracy than with prose.In most cases it need not be so, but so often the translator is also a poet in his own language and simply cannot restrain his great bardic ego to the detriment of the foreign poet's message. To sum up this rather hazy explanation I shall continue to be hazy by saying that accuracy, indeed, must be sought consciously, while flow is left to instinct or whatever else we want to call it. This would seem to be meat for the structuralists and some of their adepts have struggled with this question, but, as in the case of all soft sciences, their general theories cannot be applied in the laboratory, which is the individual translation itself.

In previous discussions you have alluded to the hazards of rendering dialogue in fiction. You stated that dialogue is more difficult in prose than drama. What exactly are the problems in rendering dialogue in a fiction translation?

I am not sure now what I might have really meant when I said that dialogue is ore difficult in fiction than in drama. I imagine I meant that on the stage we have the added help of the director and the actor to make the dialogue come alive and ring true. The writer (and through the translator) must do all this on the printed page. I have had trouble with some authors, I think Asturias in the main, who attempt to reproduce phonically the sounds of conversation when regional or class variants of pronunciation are involved. As I said, the dramatic writer can rely on the actors to supply this. In translation such a transfer becomes awkward. I do not care much for the technique in the original and I try to get by in a translation by some other means, relying heavily on the reader's imagination. Sometimes one can invent a sort of artificial rusticism, if that is what the author is trying to convey. On the other hand, back to a translator's duties, the aim is to reproduce the work, clone it in another tongue, so to speak, and all the warts and hairs should be there the way they used to be on the pages of The Nation and The New Republic. This is what I meant, in effect, when I said that translators should not be in the silk purse business. I think that a number of translators who appear to be naturally a bit stiff seem to show this trait even more and therefore more harmfully in dialogue. Modern dialogue has got to be natural. Maybe some people just don't know how to talk.

Since you have translated authors from many different countries and regions in Latin America, you certainly face the problem of transferring different national or regional idioms. How much of a problem is it to move from the Spanish of Vargas Llosa and Peru to the Spanish of, for example, Cortázar and Argentina?

The problem of dialects and regionalisms has not been great for me, due largely to the authors I have done. One welcome characteristic of the "new" novelists is that they tend to shy away from any nonsensical folklorism and let the ambience provide any necessary local color. Thus I cannot say that there is any great wrench in going from Cortázar to Vargas Llosa, for example.Cortázar will use some outrageous examples of lunfardo, the waterfront slang of Buenos Aires, in a great deal of his dialogue, but it is overcome. Mostly, with these authors, region comes to bear with certain local terms scattered throughout the book. Since these words are not exotic in the context they are used in, there is no need to keep them so in translation. Indeed, Vargas Llosa often worries about this last possibility, a seeming over-exoticism in the English version where there is none in the Spanish, or at least the Peruvian version. Garcia Márquez, as I have said is classical and Cervantine, and with Lezama Lima the problem is more often with neologisms. Even Asturias, for all of his myth-making and anthropology can be lofty rather than local.

Based onyour broad exposure to Latin American fiction, what are your views on the matter of a continental consistency or interrelatedness among the major Latin American narratives of the past ten to fifteen years?

I think that Luis Harss has put his finger on it succinctly with the very title of his collection of interviews with writers: Into the Mainstream. It is my impression that what these authors have in common with each other is precisely what all authors, modern authors have in common. Now they are members of the club.Previously they were a backward group writing the way others had in days gone by. A successful anachronism must be ahead of its time, never behind (Although Machado de Assis, who wrote twentieth-century novels in the nineteenth century was not recognized outside of Brazil until just recently. It may have been because he wrote in Portuguese). Octavio Paz says somewhere that poetry is one and I would think that by poetry he meant poesis, including all artistic creation. The idea of fantasy and circularity and other themes in Latin America really turn up everywhere if one looks for them. Then, when we speak of Latin America we are including Brazil and that country has been quite foreign to the Spanish-speaking republics and vice-versa. What they have had in common has obviously been shared with Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.

In your article "The Ear in Translation," you convey a clear impatience with the translation critic. Has the quality of translation criticism changed since you wrote the article in 1970?

I am not really as hard on translation critics as it may seem in the article to which you refer. Alastair Reid says what I meant to say when he speaks of the "translation police." The critic too often seems to vary between two extremes: in one case he will go after the details, the trees, as it were, and give little consideration to the forest.I have found that in many cases, most cases, what the critic says is true; there has been a mistake, sometimes through ignorance, but quite often through carelessness (I doubt that there are many translators from the Spanish who cannot keep sentar and sentir separated). The critic is really wasting space in these cases because the errors pointed out are usually banal and unimportant. This type of critic, the nitpicker, often an academic involved with the language of the original (I dislike the term "target language" because for me a target is something to be killed, maimed, or, at least to be shot at with selfish intent), often fails to consider that terribly slippery appraisal of a translation, the consideration of the work as a whole an how it comes out.

Isn't it true that few critics possess the requisite skills and background to even evaluate a translation?

Yes, there are critics who don't know enough if anything of the original language and can thus not speak to the merits of the translation, but only discuss the work as such.It may be that mistakes have made it a somewhat different book, so that any interpretation will subsequently be a false one.This critic is often the one who also ignores the translator completely, treating the novel, if such it is, as if it had been written in English.All this feeds the translator's paranoia alarmingly.

In reviewing the Strong Wind the Washington Post states that "his (i.e. Asturias') language richens and creates a tropical ambience that is stifling, maddening and omnipotent." This total identification in the statement between Asturias' original language and your translated rendition is most curious. Is this the ultimate compliment to the translator? Or, is this kind of statement an example of how the translator and the fact of translation are virtually bypassed in the evaluation of the work? The bland assumption that the translated version is Asturias' language does not do justice to the language of Asturias, nor does it reflect any aware of the translator's role.

It should be pointed out that in other quarters this same translation was castigated as being "non-English" among other things. It was these reviews that prompted my remarks on "the silk-purse business." All I can say is that comments as in the Washington Post review are, as you say, "bland assumptions." They are, of course, accuracy aside, a compliment to the translator's skill, but, at the same time, they demean him by not giving him credit for having rendered the language into English to produce such effects upon the reviewer. This would be one of the cases I have mentioned before, of the reviewer who has no recourse to the original. I should hope that he is not dumb enough to think that Asturias wrote in English. This would seem to be an additional argument for the placing of the translator's name on the dust jacket of the book. The P.E.N. Manifesto on Translation calls for this, but so far University presses and Knopf seem to be the only publishers who do it with any degree of consistency.

Repeatedly, one encounters the phrase "superbly-translated" by Gregory Rabassa, and then nothing more is added to give substance to the compliment. A one-line superlative is preferable to being ignored, but isn't that knee-jerk phrase about "superb translation" the critic's way of avoiding the hazards of hard critical inquiry into the quality of the translation? Isn't it yet another way the translator is enshrined in anonymity?

Needless to say, such phrases and the praise they bear are welcome dessert. I think that if I were so objectively frigid as not to enjoy them, even when they are patently foolish, I would not translate as well as I do.I am not sure that it is another way of enshrining a translator in anonymity.He is mentioned in the review and unless the book is a new translation of a classic I don't think the review in its enforced brevity should dwell too much on the translation. It is really the book itself that the public is interested in and I think the substance of the review should be addressed to that fact.A discussion of the translation as such should be saved for magazines like this one, which is why they are so welcome and so needed.

An encouraging sign for all translators is the increased recognition of the translator's role by foundations and federal funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This is a very good sign. I saw the list of NEH grants awarded last year in translation, and the importance of the books is obvious. Also, a good many of the translators are known quantities so that these books will receive good treatment. I'm sure that some of the names I did not recognize are those of good people too, as they have been carefully screened. Perhaps more than any other literary endeavor this side of poetry needs more financial help than translation. In relation to this matter we also have the new interest in the teaching of translation. I am still not sure that translation can be taught from scratch any more than poetry can, but working with it at this level is certainly helpful to those who have the ability, however it is obtained. I have had a lot of fun with these courses and I had more pleasure when he or she got a degree. Like writing courses, such groups could also be a valuable source of new and needed talent.

What approach do you take in your translation workshops and classes?

In my classes we discuss various theories of translation, if there are such, talk about some of the classic translations and compare different versions and criticize them, but the main part of the course is student work. This is read and commented on and the group as a whole will pitch in when one member has a particular problem. This whole process speaks well of the possibilities of collective translation, several minds prodded by each other. In class it worked well and at Odyssey it also served when we would all pore over a poem and improve it no end.

Is there a graduate degree program at Queens College in translation?

The doctoral program in comparative literature at CUNY awards the Ph.D. for a translation if it is complete with a scholarly introduction, notes, and a bibliography.I think that the value of these contributions is much greater than a good many critical dissertations which are often little more than dutiful exercises. I would hope that this becomes more widespread and perhaps tied in some way with the NEH program in translation. In spite of some last-ditch opposition from language teachers who disdain translations (Is their Sumerian that good, or don't they read Gilgamesh?) there are more courses in literature in translation for students to advancemore quickly in a comprehension of the literature of a people than by a laborious passage through the likes of a Dona Perfecta or Pepita Jimenez. This whole general interest in translation is all to the good, including benefits for those who teach languages.

Despite the increased interest in translation, an official for NEH recently stated that "the United States is behind many other countries in the number and quality of its translations." In your opinion, is this a valid generalization?

I am not sure that this is true comparatively. A lot of other countries do more translating, but quite often they are translations of our own junk novels and non-books that will soon fade away. There are, certainly, a lot of books that should be translated from what we chauvinistically call the "minor" languages. I cannot speak in figures due to a lack of knowledge or contacts, but I do know that Portuguese has a lot of works that need translation. I think that if there is an insufficiency and lack of interest it is due to our traditional insularity as regards foreign languages and cultures. A cold look at the new interest in "ethnicity" will show that it pretty much reduced to gut-stuffing, peasant music, and language that is often a sub-standard utterance. More kielbasy than Copernicus. It is significant that a foreign book rarely makes the Times best-seller list, while it is equally rare in Brazil for a Brazilian book to make their best-seller list.

Punctuation difference between languages can pose special problems to the translator. Did your work, for example, with Autumn of The Patriarch and its unusual syntactical patterns raise translation problems with punctuation?

Working in other languages has all but ruined my knowledge of the rules of punctuation. About all I have left, like so many other grammatical notions, are the things I learned from Mrs. Morrison in the sixth grade. Spanish punctuation differs from English quite a bit. Also, its writers tend to ignore what rules there are quite often. There are two extremes, those who use very little punctuation and those who use too much. The translator is often led by the writer, at least I am, and I will find myself following a pattern of punctuation that is un-English to the dismay of the copy editor. When the first "chapter" of The Autumn of The Patriarch was published in The New Yorker, they combed Gabo's hair and straightened his tie with commas and paragraphs. I did not see that too much mischief was being done, but I did draw the line at the use of semi-colons. This was all compensated for by the fact that Gabo broke the shit barrier at The New Yorker. The word had never been printed before and there was a flurry of high-level meetings to see what to do. In the text it was impossible to use any euphemism with any proper effect, so in went that word.

Is there such a thing as a definitive translation? Can we speak of a final, 'authorized' translation and attribute the same stability and creative harmony to it that we routinely ascribe to an original creative entity?

I wish there were different translations .I really don't know of any, only of some that are better than others. I have always felt that while the original endures and remains eternally young, the translation ages and must be replaced. One thinks of Rider Haggard's She or a queen bee and her drones. The King James Version is close to a definitive translation, but that is for liturgical and historical reasons. We are so used to it that despite inaccuracies and all for many of us it is the Bible, and we resent new casting of age-old phrases and expressions. We're so used to the wording of the King James, to its cadence, that all the others indeed sound like translations and it sounds like an original. I am not sure why this phenomenon of aging takes place. It certainly should mean that in many ways the translation simply isn't as good as the original, an encouraging idea which means that we choose classics for style and expression as well as content and meaning. Then there is the question of language change, which is taken up by George Steiner at the start of his study After Babel and is so cogently put by Borges in his ficcion "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote."

Do you think of your own translations as definitive?

No, I am quite sure that, for example, if Garcia Márquez' work endures as a classic of the ages, they will, alas, be reading someone else's newer version five hundred years from now.I think that I do have the scant comfort, however, that I will not be around to witness the triumph of the upstart translation. It seems that new translations of books come in droves only when the work has become quite venerable. The Dantes of the past few decades could fill a fair-sized shelf. The fact that so many exist would imply that we have yet to see a "definitive" translation. The same is true in many ways of the Greek and Roman classics.

It appears that the role of the literary translator has changed during the past decade--emerging as a more vocal and active creative force. What influence can the literary translator have on critical, linguistic, or aesthetic theory?

The translator's role today is basically what it has always been:the purveyor of things written in another tongue. He makes things accessible. We could o on from there with all kinds of paeans, but I don't really like gushiness which has become such a banal influence in the arts (cf. rock and roll lyrics as compared to those of Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart). While the translator's role remains the same, the acceptance of that role has changed some and must change some more. His efforts are rewarded better financially as publishers have become more careful about their translations. Critics are still short-sighted and most often fail to see the vital link between the translation and the essence of the book, do not consider that they are not really reading the author but someone else's work as the result of the assumption of an alter ego. This is kind of a peasantry attitude, in line with our fast foods and instant gratification (horn-blowing), but we must remember that taste has had to be cultivated in this new land the same as hybrid corn. Getting back on track, the translator has two uses for literature: what he has done, that is, the work he has given us in our own language, and also the way he has done it. The first of course is of great value to readers and students of literature for whom the original is inaccessible. The second can be helpful in seeking answers to the problems of expression itself. The translator may be the one person who exists simultaneously in two different worlds: as he works he must be both critic and writer, writer and reader. This position of his, unique in the literary world, is what makes his presence valuable beyond the mere idea of middleman and is good reason for his receiving more recognition and consideration.

Gregory Rabassa was born March 9, 1922, in Yonkers, New York, and grew up in New Hampshire. During his undergraduate experience at Dartmouth, Rabassa recollects that "Ramon Guthrie taught me how to read and Stearns Morse taught me how to write." During World War II, while serving with OSS, Rabassa manifested a translation talent. At times, he was called on to paraphrase the clear text of a secret message written in a cipher that was easy to break. These exercises were similar to the obstacles encountered in literary translation. He completed an M.A. degree at Columbia University in 1947 submitting a thesis on "The Poetry of Miguel de Unamuno." He was awarded a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1954; his dissertation was titled "The Negro in Brazilian Fiction Since 1888.

Mr. Rabassa began his academic career at Columbia University in 1946 as a Lecturer, and left the university as an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese in 1968. Since 1968, he has held a position as Professor Romance Languages and Comparative Literature at Queens College, City University of New York.His editorial associations have included service with Revista Hispanica Moderna, Odyssey Review, Nueva Narrativa Hispanoamericana, and Lusi-Brazilian Review, and he has provided consultant service to virtually every major American commercial press.

Translation Review, Volume 1, 1978.

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