LIFESTYLE

Celebrated translator of great novels by García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, dies at 94

Gregory Rabassa with President George W. Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush, receiving the 2006 National Medal of Arts.

Gregory Rabassa with President George W. Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush, receiving the 2006 National Medal of Arts.

The translator to some of the best-known works by Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and other Latin American authors, has passed away.

Gregory Rabassa, a longtime professor at Queens College died Monday at a hospice in Bradford, Connecticut, after a brief illness, his daughter Kate Rabassa said. He was 94.

Rabassa's work was an essential gateway to the 1960s Latin American "boom," when such authors as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar became widely known internationally. He worked on the novel that would come to define the boom – as well as the genre it spawned, magic realism – García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," a monument of 20th century literature.

García Márquez often praised Rabassa, saying he regarded the translation of "Solitude" as a work of art in its own right.

Rabassa told Fox News Latino just weeks after the Colombian writer’s death in April 2014, that he became enchanted by the lyrical language and epic scope of the book.

“His imagination was working, working,” Rabassa said. “He wasn’t just writing, he was creating mythology, like the ancient tales of the Greeks and the Romans.”

García Márquez lavished the translator with similar praise. “He told me that the translation was even better than the original,” recalled Rabassa.

Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of García Márquez's later novels told the Associated Press on Tuesday: “[Rabassa] is the godfather to us all ... He's the one who introduced Latin American literature in a serious way to the English-speaking world."

In 2001, Rabassa received a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center for contributions to Hispanic literature. He was presented a National Medal of Arts in 2006 for translations which "continue to enhance our cultural understanding and enrich our lives."

Language was a lifelong fascination for Rabassa, whose father was Cuban and mother from New York City's Hell's Kitchen. He was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922, and raised on a farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, near Dartmouth College, where Rabassa majored in romance languages. Fitting for the future translator, he served as a cryptographer during World War II, later joking that in deciphering secret messages it was his job to change English into English.

After the war, Rabassa studied Spanish and Portuguese as a graduate student at Columbia University and translated Spanish- and Portuguese-language works for the magazine Odyssey. He broke into mainstream publishing in the 1960s when an editor at Pantheon Books asked him to translate Cortázar's "Hopscotch," a stream-of-consciousness novel published in Spanish as "Rayuela."

He went on to translate from Spanish and Portuguese the works of future Nobelists García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, as well as Jorge Amado and José Lezama Lima. Some of the most important works he translated include García Márquez's "The Autumn of the Patriarch," Vargas Llosa's "Conversation in the Cathedral" and Amado's "Captains of the Sand." 

"A good translation is always a re-creation in another language. That's why I have such great admiration for Gregory Rabassa," García Márquez told the Paris Review in 1981. "My books have been translated into 21 languages and Rabassa is the only translator who has never asked for something to be clarified so he can put a footnote in. I think that my work has been completely re-created in English."

Rabassa's contribution to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was evident immediately, through what became the novel's immortal, English-language opening sentence: "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."

Critics who say that García Márquez’s book with its use of magic realism is out of touch with modern Latin America, “aren’t very bright,” Rabassa told FNL in 2014. “We’ve got enough old, straight, dry, gray realism. This is art.”

Rabassa's approach was unorthodox. He would often agree to take on a book before having seen the text and then translate as he read it for the first time. In his 2005 memoir, “If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents,” Rabassa acknowledged laziness might have been a reason for not reading the book twice, but he also believed "by doing things this way, I was birthing something new and natural."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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