“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)
Those are not the words of Gabriel García Márquez. They’re the words of Gregory Rabassa, his translator, who died on June 13, 2016, aged 94.
Rabassa was held in such high regard that Márquez was willing to wait three years for Rabassa’s backlog of work to clear before the translator could get to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was worth the wait. Márquez said the English translation was better than the Spanish original and described Rabassa as “the best Latin American writer in the English language.”
The authors Rabassa translated make up a virtual Who’s Who of Latin American literature: besides Márquez, he translated Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, Miguel Ángel Asturias, and Mario Vargas Llosa from Spanish, and Clarice Lispector and Jorge Amado from Portuguese. His translations brought their works to a wide audience and helped to ignite the Latino Boom of the 1960s and 70s.
He was particularly close to Cortázar. They hit it off when they discovered a mutual love of jazz, something that Rabassa mentioned in his memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. In this memoir he also discussed elements of the art of translating. About the now-legendary opening sentence of Márquez’s novel, he said he chose the word ‘remember’ instead of ‘recall’ because he felt “it conveys a deeper memory.” He used ‘distant’ in ‘distant afternoon’ rather than ‘remote’ because he didn’t want the reader to think of “inappropriate things as remote control and robots.” “Also,” he added, “I like ‘distant’ when used with time. I think Dr. Einstein would have approved.”
Rabassa was suitably garlanded. He won pretty much every award a translator of fiction can win, including the PEN Translation Prize and the inaugural National Book Award in Translation, and he taught for two decades at Columbia University and subsequently at Queens College, CUNY.
Once, discussing how he sometimes made educated guesses about foreign words, Rabassa said, “I dread the day when the translation police will haul me out of bed and put me to torture.” Not even close. His work was simply immaculate.