“One of the best translators who ever drew breath” — Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016), A Personal Remembrance
In the late 1960s, Latin America suddenly emerged as the focus of new attention and concern in the United States’ political and cultural circles. Fidel Castro’s assumption of power in Cuba in 1959 and the subsequent widespread fear of Communism throughout Latin America spooked the federal government. Among the Eurocentric literary elite, the Spanish of Latin America and Latin American literature had long been ignored, relegated to a cultural backwater.
While the federal government carried out new policies and machinations to control the political issues, one man and one work of literature revolutionized the USA’s Eurocentric cultural focus: Gregory Rabassa’s 1970 English translation of 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (1967) as One Hundred Years of Solitude. A testament to the persistent and significant impact of this translation is confirmed by the fact that it has never been out of print and remains probably the first introduction to Latin American literature for most Americans.
Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Greg — who was my professor at City University of New York (CUNY) — translated into English the most distinguished figures of Latin American literature, including Nobel Prize winners, the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, the Mexican Octavio Paz and Peru’s Vargas Llosa, as well as a long list of other “Boom” writers. Even today, my most vivid memory of being in Greg’s graduate seminars on Latin American literature during the very early 1970s is the day that Vargas Llosa attended. I was literally shaking all over while shaking his hand. Greg’s translations also introduced major names of Brazilian literature to US audiences, including Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, Osman Lins, as well as the premier woman writer of Latin America’s twentieth century, Clarice Lispector.
One critic wrote, “On the basis of One Hundred Years of Solitude alone, Gregory Rabassa stands as one of the best translators who ever drew breath.” Always humble about his success and the prizes he received for his translations, Greg was also a founder of the PEN America Translation Committee which recently held a tribute to him where many of his authors, fellow translators and editors expressed true admiration for the man and the artist.