By Robert Ast
Aficionados of Latin American literature know that Gregory Rabassa is a highly respected translator of Spanish and Portuguese, with translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Machado de Assis to his credit (among many others). What may be less widely known is that Rabassa got his start as an educator at the School of General Studies.
After a stint as a cryptographer for the OSS during World War II, Rabassa went to Columbia for graduate work in Spanish and Portuguese, both of which he also taught at GS. Many of his students were his age or older, and most had served in the war effort; in fact, in the GS hallway Rabassa ran into an Army sergeant he’d known while stationed in Italy.
“After the war, a lot of GIs enrolled at GS, and, of course, it was coed,” he said. “There were some former WACs [members of the Women’s Army Corps], and older women who wanted to get a degree. The students were a good bunch … When I became full-time, I was moved over to Columbia College; it was all-male and mostly traditional. There were a few GIs, but not too many. I missed the mixed grouping I had in GS, and the older students who had a broader understanding of things.”
Rabassa was also part of the “Columbia nucleus” that produced the short-lived but influential Odyssey, the first academic review to publish many young Latin American authors who later enjoyed great success. His first book-length translation was Julio Cortazar’s complex and dazzling Hopscotch, for which he won the first-ever National Book Award for Translation. Working on Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit gave Rabassa a way to describe the translator’s difficult—and often uncelebrated—role.
“It’s Julio Cortazar’s idea … a Greek word, paredros,” he explained. “The concept came from the Egyptians. It’s a sort of doppelganger: someone who’s there and not there. But it’s not quite a double. It’s almost schizophrenic—the other aspect of you. I suppose it could even fit ‘muse’ or ‘guardian angel’. I thought that perhaps the translator could be the paredros for the writer in another language.”
Rabassa recently published If This Be Treason, an account of his translating experiences, and in May 2006, the PEN American Center awarded it the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir. Now in his eighth decade, he continues to translate and also teaches two classes a semester at Queens College.
“I enjoy the students,” he said. “Out in Queens it’s a hodgepodge of ethnicity and national origin. … And I still labor under the delusion that my students are the same age as I am; it makes for a good relationship.”
Rabassa’s translation of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is taught regularly in the Columbia English department course “Twentieth-Century Comparative Fiction,” a course available to individuals over 65 as part of the Lifelong Learner Program through the School of Continuing Education.
If This Be Treason is published by New Directions and available in bookstores.