New Spanish Books Interview with Gregory Rabassa

Gregory Rabassa ((March 9, 1922 – June 13, 2016) was an American literary translator from Spanish and Portuguese to English.He taught for many years at Columbia University and Queens College.He received the PEN Translation Prize in 1977 and the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation in 1982.

Q-What makes a good literary translation great?  Do you believe that literary translation can be taught?

A-The answer to this question must of needs be most complex.  A fine translation of a bad book cannot be termed “great” even though it is perfect qua translation.  It is a case of the manufacture of a silk purse out of a son’s ear, and that is not our business.  A great translation would have to be of a great book and in such a way that the thoroughgoing greatness of the first remain in the new version.  To my mind this borders on the impossible.

Q-Is it necessary for a literary translator to also be a writer?

A-As a translator manipulates words in what we call writing, he must of needs be called a writer.  What makes him different is the fact that he must also be a close reader.  If his skills are combined judiciously we will have naught but a mere scribbler.

Q-What makes poetry translation difficult?  Is there a theory behind it?

Unless languages change their sound patterns and structures, which hold them together in a unique way, they will never hear their poetry translated.  What results is what Robert Lowell wisely termed an approach, just the way words can only be an approach to reality.  Literary theory always seemed a hopeless cause to me, an incipient physicist in high school and college.  Too many unknowns for any decent theory, much less hypothesis.

Q-What work have you enjoyed the most translating?

A-The works I have most enjoyed translating must be the novels of Machado de Assis, especially Brás Cubas.  From Spain it would be the works of Juan Benet, where I found many aspects that I had unknowingly pondered myself.  And of course, there is Julio Cortázar, the writer I was closest to and knew the best.  I have just done some Jorge Amado and he is ever a delight.  There are so many books I have liked that I am sure I would have liked translating.

Q-Who has been the most challenging author to translate?

A-This has to be José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso with its Joycean neologisms and turns of phrase. Juan Benet also has moments that need deciphering.

Q-What makes Spanish literary translation unique? Who are some of your favorite Spanish authors and new talents?

A-Every language has its unique identity and this is most evident in translating.  As one who translates both Spanish and Portuguese I find these differences quite obvious.  More than the differences in words, it is those in the sounds that shows and affects the translation.  Spanish, in spite of its numerous variations about the world, is a much more “formal” language than its Romance compeers.  I have said that you can’t say “ain’t” in Spanish, but you can in Portuguese.  This would apply to the written language, of course, not the vernacular.  Comics tend to mock its very stateliness, e.g. Cantinflas.

Q-How is the world of literary translation today as compared to when you did your first translation?

A-There are more of us, we are doing a better job, and there is more quality stuff to work with.  There are exceptions to this, of course.

Q-In your opinion, what would it take for there to be more available translations in the US?

A-First we would need a more literate and less provincial reading public, and second there has to be some kind of subvention as publishers, needless to say, are there to make money.

Q-What is the state of translating Spanish literary works into English?

A-Spanish books fare well if they are good, and there are quite a few, but they tend to be bumped in with anything Hispanic and thus their impart is vitiated.

Q-Looking back, can you share with us what was your best and worst experience in your role as a translator?

A-Both would be with the same book, One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It was a joy to hear Gabo say that my English read better than his original Spanish, but at the same time, in those days royalties were non-existent or skimpy for translators and groaned as the book took off with great sales and acclaim.

Q-Have you read "Gregory Rabassa's Latin American Literature: A Translator's Visible Legacy" by María Constanza Guzmán? What do you think of it?

A-Of course I like it, although I sometimes feel that I am being subjected to an autopsy.  Also a great deal of linguistic theory escapes my poetical mind.  It really is a fine study and I am thankful for it.

Q-Is there fair recognition of literary translators in general?

A-Books like the above are what a more serious recognition of translating needs.  Edith Grossman’s new analysis is a fine introduction to the field.  My own book is more of a rambling memoir, although I think now that my title might be more apt for Edie’s work.  My answer to the question is that it’s getting better.

Q-What has been the highlight of your career?

A-Both the beginning and the ending, starting with the National Book Award at the start and receiving the National Medal at the end.

Q-Among all the awards you have been honored with, which holds the most meaning for you?

A-I am most pleased with the awards I have received from ATA, ALTA, and the PEN American Center, because these are the judgments of my peers.

Q-How did it feel to be named a 2006 National Medal of the Arts Honoree?

A-It felt comfortable.  I was glad to be honored for the whole translation community.  We had arrived.  I was also pleased that my friend and fellow translator Robert Fagles was also receiving a National Medal of Humanities at the same time.

Q-Is there an author that you have yet to translate who you would love to translate?

A-They are numerous.  Almost every time I read a book in Spanish or Portuguese.

Q-What motivated you to write ''If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents''?  If you could achieve a certain objective with the book, what would it be?

A-I was asked to write a book on translation, so I went at it.  I simply meant to recount my experiences with books and authors and also say some words concerning the making of a translation and its concomitant miseries.  I did not think I was writing a memoir, but they called it that and subsequently won a prize as such.  All to the good.

Q-What advice would you give an aspiring literary translator?

A-If I am feeling low, I would say, “Try something else, like snipe-hunting.  If not, I would tell him or her be careful and trust in yourself.  Either yu can or you can’t or maybe a little of both.

In the New Spanish Books Website you'll find a guide to current Spanish titles with rights available for translation in the US, complete with reviews of titles selected by a panel of experts from the US and up to date information about the Spanish publishing scene, translation grants, Spanish literary prizes, recent translations, news and events in the US and more.

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