Tuesday, June 21, 2016

So Long to Gregory Rabassa: Translator Par Excellence

by Scott Adlerberg

Last week Gregory Rabassa, the great translator from Spanish and Portuguese, died at the age of ninety four.  Since so many books I love, primarily Latin American works, have been translated by him, I thought I'd forgo anything crime-related this week and just pay a little tribute to Rabassa. I know that for years whenever I was in a bookstore and would grab a novel by Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or somebody else from Latin America, the first thing I'd check to see was whether Gregory Rabassa was the translator.  I can't read Spanish or Portuguese so would it really have made a difference to me if somebody else was translating?  I don't know.  And obviously I did read (and do read) Latin American works translated by others.  But after reading Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (which Marquez famously said Rabassa improved with his English translation), I just felt that with Rabassa's name there, I'd be getting the closest approximation of the author's voice as is possible to get in a different language.  Such a variety of styles, such different types of novelists - but the constant was that translator, a man born in Yonkers in 1922 to a Cuban father and a mother from New York City.

Anyway, here's a few of the Rabassa-translated novels I've read over the years and can never forget.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar (1963)

The book with 155 short chapters you can read, let's say, in any number of ways. You can read the first 56 and just forget about the last 99 (Cortazar tells you this at the outset), or you can read all the chapters by hopscotching around the book according to instructions given.  If you're adamant about having no guidance whatsoever, you can also read the chapters in any order you want, though you may get less out of the book this way.  If this all sounds overly cute and precious, it isn't. Hopscotch takes work, but it's also a game.  There are puzzles within puzzles and there's no need to fight things. Go with the flow. Cortazar wants you to.  One clue to his thinking: the man loved Charlie Parker and bebop jazz.  This is a book that tries to make the reader improvise as he works his way through the story. 

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquz (1975)

One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite Marquez work, but this book comes in a close second. It's a portrait of a dictator of a fictional Caribbean island country, a tyrant of monumentally grotesque proportions.  The book is dreamlike and has as many marvels in it as Solitude, but what's amazing is how it's written. The sentences run for pages and pages and pages, and the imagery is remarkably dense with weirdness, and yet it all flows beautifully. Once you get used to its rhythm, it becomes a fairly easy read.  As always, Marquez's sheer storytelling power carries you on its wings.  But how the hell did Gregory Rabassa translate this? The book took Marquez several years to write and you might guess it took Rabassa that long to turn into English.  But apparently it didn't.  You wouldn't think of this as a beach or vacation read, but  those are exactly the place and time to read the book. You need a hot place and plenty of free time to sink into The Autumn of the Patriarch.  Want an alcoholic drink beside you? Not a bad idea.  But it's the book itself that will make you drunk. 

Also noteworthy for Marquez's use of a variation of a famous class-inflected line:  “...the day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole”

Mulata by Miquel Angel Asturias (1963)

Pure psychedelia, Guatemalan style.  I read this long ago and can't remember the plot details, to be honest. But that's also because the plot blurs; Mulata is a book that I'd have to rate as hallucinatory as any I've ever read. The material is drawn from Mayan mythology and Catholic lore, and if you can imagine a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life, you'll have some idea of what this book is like.  

I have my old Avon Bard edition here beside me, so I may as well put down what the back cover says to describe the book: 

"One day the Fly Wizard - so called because of the way he dressed to gain attention - made a secret pact with the Corn Devil.  In return for limitless wealth all the Fly Wizard had to do was expose himself at Mass so that women would commit sin by looking at his private parts and then take Communion without confession...The Fly Wizard did it and became so rich even his bones turned to gold  And that was just the beginning..."

A lot goes on and everything keeps changing in shape and substance in this rumbling, swirling book. Stories pile upon stories, and there are people, demons, gods, and creatures of all sorts.  Sex among these myriad forms of life happens often and results in odd offspring. Again, I can only marvel at Rabassa's skill in translating this stuff from one language to another.  

My guess is that if you used to take acid and miss it, or like Bizarro lit, you'll go for Mulata

I could go on.  There are several other works Gregory Rabassa translated that I read, but these three give a good indication of the magic he could work with gnarly material.  They are also three books I remember reading when I couldn't get enough of Latin American fiction (a craving I've never lost and don't expect to lose), and I'm glad I was able to give a modest tip of the hat to the person who brought these books to the entire English reading world.

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