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Remembering Gregory Rabassa, 1922-2016

(The following is a post by Georgette Dorn, Chief, Hispanic Division.)

Detail of Latin America map. Washington, D.C. : Central Intelligence Agency, 2006.

Detail of Latin America map. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2006.

The world lost one of the great, if not the greatest, translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature into English and thus into the English-speaking world, when Gregory Rabassa passed away at the age of 94 on June 13, 2016 in Branford, CT. Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez famously said that his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was better in English than in its original Spanish.

I met Rabassa in 1979 when he came to the Library of Congress to present his translation of “Seven Serpents and Seven Moons” by Demetrio Aguilera Malta. Rabassa said that he never read the book before be began translating it into English in order “to keep an open mind…and maintain suspense.” All he needed was the author’s book and a dictionary. He was an amazing wordsmith with an enormous vocabulary and great knowledge of Luso-Hispanic society and culture. Rabassa was an invaluable consultant to the curator of the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, suggesting many of the writers that we subsequently recorded for posterity.

Gabriel García Márquez.

Gabriel García Márquez.

In addition to García Márquez, Rabassa translated many of the Latin American Nobel Prize winners of the 20th century, among them Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, and Miguel Ángel Asturias. Other greats he translated and thus made available to the English-speaking world include Julio Cortázar (whose novel “Hopscotch” became a best seller), Juan Goytisolo, José Donoso, Clarice Lispector, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Jorge Amado, José Lezama Lima, and classics Eça de Queirós and Machado de Assis. The Library has ninety-nine translations by Rabassa. His memoir, which focuses on the art of translating, is also part of the Library’s collections.

Julio Cortazar, author of The Winners (Pantheon) / José Gelabert. Created/published 1965.

Julio Cortazar, author of The Winners (Pantheon) / José Gelabert. Created/published 1965.

Rabassa taught at Columbia University and later at Queens College until 2006. He received many honors throughout his career, including the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Translation and the PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation and the National Medal of Arts in 2006.

You can find descriptions of books translated by Rabassa and more information about his memoir by searching the Handbook of Latin American Studies.

One Comment

  1. Taru Spiegel
    July 20, 2016 at 11:42 am

    So sorry he’s gone. Lovely tribute.

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