Rabassa of Queens College has brought the finest gems of Latin
American literature to the English-speaking world. CUNY Matters
editor Ron Howell interviewed him this summer. Rabassa is proud
to be from a CUNY family. His wife Clementine C. Rabassa is Professor
Emerita of Humanities from Medgar Evers College.
|Professor Gregory and Clementine Rabassa
CUNY Matters: Professor [Gregory] Rabassa, you’ve translated
the most significant novels to come out of Latin America. Tell
us about some of them.
Rabassa: Well I suppose you’ve got to start with 100 Years
of Solitude, which is probably the most famous. But then there
is the first one I did, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar . . . That
was 1965 and it won the National Book Award, so I look upon that
as kind of a landmark . . .
How many books have you done?
About fifty, I’d say.
But that’s more than a book a year.
Sometimes I do more than a book in one year.
Two books or three books sometimes and then another year with no
books. But it averages out.
Now, after forty years of translating others, you’re writing
your first book, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents.
Tell us about it.
Well, the “y” is a play on words, of course. It (refers
to) mistakes that are made in translations.…The book is a
memoir of sorts. It’s not about theory. I don’t think
there’s any place for any theories in literature or art for
that matter. It’s about how a translation works and all of
that. The second half is talk about authors. I discuss my experience
with each one—two or three pages, sometimes more, for each
one . . . It will be out in the spring, with New Directions.
Was writing your own book more, or less, difficult than translating?
It was much easier. Maybe it’s the nature of the book. I wasn’t
writing fiction, so I didn’t have to imagine anything. I didn’t
have to look much up.
How do you approach translating novels as esoteric and magical as
those you’ve worked on?
I sit down with the typewriter, book, dictionary and I think maybe
the best explanation is . . . that I read the book, but then I read
it in English as I put it down on paper. Then I’ll go back
and rewrite it, smooth it up.
Of the authors you translated, which were you closest to?
I was probably closest to Julio Cortazar. Garcia Marquez I met a
couple of times but he wasn’t around very much. He let me
go my own way. But Julio visited us a couple of times, he listened
to old jazz records, my 78 collection and all that . . . And then
there was Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, the Ecuadorian novelist who was
living [in exile] in Mexico. He was getting kicked out all the time.
But I got to know him quite well and my wife, Clem, wrote her doctoral
dissertation about his work.
What can you say, Professor, about this amazing explosion of the
past thirty years in immigration from Latin America? How has it
affected the teaching of literature at CUNY?
It has brought us students, as immigrants or the children of immigrants,
and that has boosted our programs. I think also, the interaction
amongst students gets other students involved in what the culture
is. Spanish at Queens is the runaway language for language teaching
and a good many of the students go on to study the literature.
You teach a course, Hispanic Literature in Translation. What’s
the experience of teaching like now, after several decades?
When I first started teaching I was about the same age as my students,
and I still labor under that delusion. So I’m sort of surprised
when I realize that these students here could be my grandchildren.
But I still have this sort of idea of equality, which I think helps
because it saves you from pontificating.
Tell us about where you grew up, your family, and the schools you
I grew up out
in the country north of Hanover (New Hampshire). So I went to Dartmouth,
got a nice scholarship. In high school I studied French and Latin.
I didn’t take Spanish until I got to college. The old man
[my father], he was Cuban but he didn’t speak much Spanish.
My mother was a New Yorker WASP so English was the language [at
You mentioned a love of jazz. Is there an intrinsic relationship
between a love of music and a love of foreign languages?
I do think [music] may have something to do with translation or
the ear for language. I like chamber music more than anything else.
. . . My old teacher, Ramon Guthrie, who was a poet and quite a
fellow, a veteran of the Escadrille Lafayette in World War I, he
claimed that Proust wrote his novel based on the structure of Beethoven’s
fourteenth quartet. So I play that lots of times. . . . I guess
that’s the connection. Maybe. I don’t know.