Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Literary translator Gregory Rabassa, photo from SUNY/Albany
Many years ago, I studied Russian, Spanish, and some American Sign Language. I idolized translators and interpreters, and one of my biggest heroes was Gregory Rabassa, most famous for his translation of Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." (His 2005 memoir is also a real treat, "If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents.") Here was a guy whose translation of one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature was reportedly praised by García Márquez himself as being better than the Spanish original. I got a chance to speak with Rabassa back in 1998. We met at a coffee shop near his apartment in New York City, and I was pleased to find that this titanic figure was thoroughly friendly. Here is a little snippet from our interview. 
Assuming that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, what is the next best thing?

That depends on the definition of translation. The fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation is part of the definition of translation. We think too much in terms of the ideal, that translation is possible in that sense. I don’t think it is. Translation is an approximation.

Is it possible to translate culture?

That’s the problem. Words are culture. When you translate something—back to the idea of perfect translation—you really aim to translate the spirit of the word rather than the word. Too much emphasis is given on the translating the word.

Does the translator ever play the role of editor?

No, I think the translator should leave that to the editor. That goes to the parable of the editor, the writer and the agent who are on safari. They got lost from their group, and suddenly found themselves in the middle of the desert, no palm trees or anything, and they get to the end of their rope. Finally, they see palm trees in the distance, and they hope it’s not a mirage. They get there, and it’s an oasis. In the middle of the oasis is a nice little pool of water. So the agent and the writer plunge into the water, they’re drinking it, and they look up and see the editor pissing into it. They ask, “What in the world are you doing?” The editor says, “I’m making it better.” Which is what editors always say they’re doing. Translators shouldn’t edit, except with the assent of the author. Translators do edit somewhat, but it’s minor. You don’t really improve; you drop prepositions, you change the syntax a little bit, verb forms.

Can different translations of a book change the entire meaning of a book? Can they be that radically different?

It has to do with time, I think. The originals last, but translations get dated so easily. In Russian, Constance Garnett did a wonderful job of introducing the stuff, but the translations are no good for us anymore, because we’re in the 20th century and they sound very Victorian. I knew something was wrong when I first read Russian novels. I could see that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were two completely different people, and yet they sounded alike [in Garnett’s translations]. I thought, this couldn’t be. What it was was that Constance Garnett was making them both sound like her.

Technical translators have to have expertise in engineering or whatever other field they're working in. Do literary translators have to be experts in literature?

No, I don’t think so. The only expertise would be, I think you would have to have read, a lot of reading, so that expressions can come back out of you. The experience would just be building up your literary sense. You’re not analyzing, unless you’re asked to write a preface.

Have you ever considered re-translating books you’ve already translated?

They’ll all be translated again. Translations just don’t seem to last. I don’t like to re-read a translation of mine ten years later, because I start getting second thoughts.


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