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IF THIS BE TREASON by Gregory Rabassa


Translation and Its Dyscontents: A Memoir

by Gregory Rabassa

Pub Date: April 27th, 2004
ISBN: 0-8112-1619-5
Publisher: New Directions

A fine summing-up by the translator who brought such notable Latin American authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar to the attention of English-speaking readers.

In three parts, Rabassa surveys his long, distinguished career in translation. The first essay, “The Many Faces of Treason,” treats the “varieties of betrayal” inherent in his art: betrayal of the word (can stone ever be truly equivalent to the French pierre?), betrayal of the authors (by imposing our culture onto theirs) and betrayal of himself, since every translator is also a writer who must execute someone else’s vision. “In the Beginning” charts Rabassa’s life—defined by serendipity, he asserts coyly. By his account, he wandered more or less by chance from Yonkers, where he was born in 1922, to Dartmouth, to military service in WWII, to graduate work at Columbia in Spanish and Portuguese (because journalism involved “too much legwork” and law “too much grinding”). When he agreed to editor Sara Blackburn’s request to translate Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch), he hadn’t even read it. Here, Rabassa introduces his modus operandi: “True to my original instincts (or perhaps my inherent laziness and impatience),” he writes, “I translated the book as I read it for the first time.” It was a successful technique, apparently, because he ended up translating five other books by Cortázar, works by Guatemalan novelist-folklorist Miguel Ángel Asturias, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize, and many of García Márquez’s novels. The author declared that he liked the English version of his huge bestseller One Hundred Years of Solitude better than his original Spanish—“Maybe in some way I was simply translating in a way close to the way he wrote it,” Rabassa notes earnestly (and clunkily). Part Two, “The Bill of Particulars,” discusses in some detail each author he has translated, while Part Three’s single essay declares his “ultimate dissatisfaction with any translation I have done.”

Grateful readers of these works in English will disagree.