Translation and Its Dyscontents*
The Bill of Particulars
Excluding shorter pieces I have done, stories, essays, an occasional poem, the writers I have translated thus far number twenty-seven, with some awaiting publication and others for the propitious and appropriate moment when I can get to them. The works are largely fiction, with one small poetry chapbook, a literary study, and a social history. This varying array of personalities, styles, languages (Portuguese and Spanish), and nationalities all funneled into the work of one translator reveals how this last must in some way undergo a kind of controlled schizophrenia as he marshals his skills at mutability. My own experience in this matter has not been all that complex or worrisome. As I have said before, I follow the text, I let it lead me along, and a different and it is to be hoped proper style will emerge for each author. This bears out my thesis that a good translation is essentially a good reading; if we know how to read as we should we will be able to put down what we are reading in another language into our own. I might have said into our own words, but these, even in English, belong to the author who indirectly thought them up.
What follows will be my rap sheet, a consideration of my experience with the authors I have translated and, most especially, with their work. In some cases the work has been multiple, in others only a single book. My contacts have been personal with some, by correspondence with others, and in the cases of Machado de Assis and Vinícius de Moraes regretfully only through their work, although I do have some recordings of Vinícius reciting his poetry and singing his lyrics in a way that would have made Sinatra envious.
Hopscotch was the book that got me started in translation, that won me that National Book Award, and also led me to do One Hundred Years of Solitude. García Márquez wanted me to do his book but at the moment I was tied up with Miguel Ángel Asturias’s “banana trilogy.” Cortázar told Gabo to wait, which he did, to the evident satisfaction of all concerned. So Hopscotch was for me what the hydrographic cliché calls a watershed moment as my life took the direction it was to follow from then on. I hadn’t read the book but I skimmed some pages and did two sample chapters, the first and one farther along, I can’t remember which. Editor Sara Blackburn and Julio both liked my version and I was off and away.
What drew me to the novel and to Julio were the variegated interests he and I had in common: jazz, humor, liberal politics, and inventive art and writing. As I have said, I read the complete novel only as I translated it. This strange and uncommon procedure somehow followed the nature of the book itself and I do not think it hurt the translation in any way. Indeed, it may have insured its success. Cortázar had divided his book into three sections: “From the Other Side,” “From This Side,” and “From Diverse Sides,” the last subtitled “Expendable Chapters.” He gives instructions on how to read the novel, saying that it consists of many books, but two above all. We can read it straight through, but stopping at the end of the second section without continuing into the third. Then he lays out a table for a second reading in which chapters from all three sections are co-mingled in a different order. Each chapter in this system has the number of the next chapter to be read at its end. The last chapter, however, 131, tells you to go to 58, which you have just read and were told to proceed to 131, so that by this scheme you end up with a broken-record effect, where the needle keeps jumping back and repeating and the song never ends. Read this way the novel never ends, while if read the first and seemingly proper way it does, saying “. . . let himself go, paff, the end,” implying that Oliveira, the protagonist, has defenestrated himself.
One stiff-necked critic was outraged that he should be called upon to read the novel twice. Julio wrote me and figuratively shook his head over the fact that the poor boob did not know that he was being toyed with. He went on to say that it was bad enough to ask people to read his novel once, let alone twice. He would never do such a thing. When I finished the translation I remembered the instructions at the beginning and realized that I had offered a third reading of the novel by simply barging through from the first page to the last. What that obtuse critic had not realized was that hopscotch is a game, something to be played. The version that Julio had sketched out on the cover of the novel was evidently the way the game is played in Argentina, starting on a square called Earth and following the numbers to a square called Heaven. It was only natural that his intellectual friskiness should have been noticed by his countryman, Jorge Luis Borges, who was the first to publish Julio’s work. Would that their poor, troubled and so often solemn birthplace had been more like them in its history. Cortázar also maintained that our species was misnamed and should have been called homo ludens (nothing to do with any coughing gays).
In translating Hopscotch I think I was well served by my instinctive way of letting the words lead me. I say this because I did manage to get the drift of what the various and varied chapters were saying. Julio always matched his characters with their dialogues and monologues. He was quite keen in his awareness that the same person is apt to have a different style of speaking when talking to someone else than when talking to himself. Some primitive societies manage such discrepancies by a variety of case endings if not completely different lexicons. With Cortázar one has to be quickly aware of these twisty little tricks of expression that he’s apt to pull. In one chapter Julio has Oliveira, his sometime narrator and some say his alter ego, glance at a book he has picked up in La Maga’s room. The first line is strangely alien to both the period of the action and the style of the novel we are reading. But the second line says, “And the things she reads, a clumsy novel . . . ,” and we realize that Cortázar is alternating, line by line, what Oliveira is thinking and what he is reading in her novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. I had to tread very carefully through this part so as not to let Oliveira’s words influence those of Galdós and vice-versa.
This admixture is matched many times by the inclusion of such things as official documents from unesco, where Cortázar worked as a translator himself. This last fact, instead of making me quiver with insecurity under the scrutiny of a master of the trade, relaxed me instead with the knowledge that Julio knew from experience what I was up against. Indeed, in some cases he would make suggestions that only a translator could make. So when I came to the documentation that he used to spice up the novel I found myself doing what he was doing for a living, faithfully translating the reports and resisting the temptation to make them conform a little. In one case there was no need for concern; he had devised a haiku made up of a list of Burmese names that he must have come across in some report or other.
As the first part of Hopscotch and some of the “Expendable Chapters” take place in Paris, quite a bit of French is woven into the narration. This could have been translated, but I left it as it was. Had Julio wanted these spots in English he would have translated them into Spanish in the first place. I also saw no reason to dumb the book down for readers of English and insult them in that way. I also left the Spanish intact sometimes for other reasons. Like any song, tangos are better left in the original or great and sometimes hilarious damage is done. I remember my opera-loving father’s chuckling over the absurdity of translation in opera as he cited a recitative he had heard in a performance sung in English instead of Italian that went “Here comes the woman with the milk.” The effect is the same as the one I mentioned earlier when Mr. Smith replaced Mr. Bean at Merrill Lynch, which could have been the reason for James Merrill’s abandoning the family trade.
It’s hard enough to figure out what to do with languages other than the author’s or the translator’s, but what does one do with an invented one? Cortázar has one such tongue in Hopscotch. It’s a language of love in that it describes amorous activity. It really isn’t necessary to understand the words. The way they’re strung together tells us what’s going on. Their sound is suggestively helpful too. It is like Góngora’s seemingly arcane poetry. I have found that knowing in detail what he’s on about calls for exegesis and the death of his poetry. A simple reading aloud renders a feeling of what he is saying, much like the meaning we extract from a piece of music without knowing which notes are what. We can read Mallarmé’s poem or listen to Debussy’s prelude and the effect should be the same. This is how we approach Julio’s glíglico. I had to translate it, however, so I put it into Gliglish rather than English and I think I kept enough of its substance to make even Mr. Frost happy, but I wasn’t out to please him, only my readers and perhaps Mr. Joyce.
I was aided in this venture by having listened to all manner of phrases from a language called Vermacian, put together by my daughter Clara at an early age to be spoken to her Snoopy doll. It was just foolish enough to match the foolish nature with which she had endowed him. Like Gliglish, it has an English base, which would lead some to call it a dialect. Snoopy himself would simply say of himself that he had a “speech defeck,” not such an acceptable term today, better left in Vermacian. For some mysterious reason it veers toward the Slavic in its endings, with genitive-sounding things like Snoopev, Momev, and Dadev. This has defied explanation on everyone’s part and calls for the expertise of a psycho-linguist. Clara had met Julio and was impressed with his height, comparing him to President Lincoln and calling him “the six-foot-four man.” In his correspondence there would always be a sketch for her. As can be seen from some of his stories, there is some kind of bond between Cortázar and small children, a mutual recognition and understanding that goes beyond notation. In many ways he was a great child, large and pure, and children can sense those who are their peers, even when they look them over coldly as one dog does another.
Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude and Hopscotch are the two books I have translated that have gone through the most editions and reprints. Even as I write this, One Hundred Years has suddenly appeared on the best-selling paperbacks in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a spot it never obtained when it first came out. This is quite heartening to me as a lover of good literature but saddening to me as a translator. This is because in earlier days translation was “work for hire,” like spreading manure on a suburban lawn, paid with a one-time fee. There was never any question of royalties unless the author involved was Homer or Virgil and the like. It is painful, therefore, to see an old translation surging along while I sit here and calculate what I might have been hauling in had I done it last year. Cass Canfield Jr. did get me some royalties on the first paperback edition but that went out of print long ago. There is something on occasion from the Book-of-the-Month Club, but in general, as far as I’m concerned, the book might just as well be in the public domain. Let me stop whining, though. It’s too prevalent among translators, as like so many famished locusts, they pounce hungrily on the hors d’oeuvres at literary affairs. We must take what small comfort we can in knowing that we are doing something honorable in a world of imposters, pretenders, and bourgeois tradesmen, as old Prince François so aptly put it in “The Fallen Sparrow.”
As I mentioned before, it was Julio Cortázar who told García Márquez to wait for me when he was seeking a new translator for his novel and I was tied up with something else. It all seems to have worked out to the satisfaction of everyone, critics included, although there have been the usual occasional brickbats from Professor Horrendo. This was one of the times, as in the case of Clarice Lispector, that I had read the novel before, with no idea of translating it. As in that case I knew I had something good before me. People who had read the novel in Spanish were talking about it intelligently, sometimes not so intelligently, but always with a kind of awe. I suppose that this should have scared me off, but in matters of translation and a few other things I don’t frighten easily and I was ready to take it on. As I said, this was a book I had read before translation and I realized that had I followed my usual pattern the outcome might have been somewhat different. I wonder now whether that version would have been better or worse and if I were to translate the novel now after having taught it so many times and having read what others said, whether I would be improving on it or only making it worse. All of this, of course, comes down to the fact that every time we read a book it becomes a different one. That’s why we can heft, consider, and tolerate version after version of Dante without complete satisfaction but enjoying the reading all the while because the Tuscan is lurking behind the English words.
The immediate problem for me was what to do with the title. A translator must hope that the book he is to do has either one easily translated word for a title or perhaps the name of the protagonist. In some cases the original title is simply out of the question in a different language and care must be taken to see that the solution falls within the spirit of the original. If I may be permitted a mixed metaphor of jargon and military slang, when the target language is missed the critic has naught to do but wave Maggie’s drawers. A simple declarative title like Cien años de soledad should offer no trouble whatever. Think again. We can pass de and años, they stand up fine, even though años would have to go if we opted for century, because that’s what a hundred years comprise. I turned that option down rather quickly. Cien is our first problem because in Spanish it bears no article so that the word can waver between one hundred and a hundred. There is no hint in the title as to which it should be in English. We are faced with the same interpretive dilemma as the translator of the Aeneid as he starts off with Arma virumque cano. A man or the man? By Latin standards it could be (and is) both. Virgil didn’t have to decide but his translator must. In my case I viewed the extent of time involved as something quite specific, as in a prophecy, something definite, a countdown, not just any old hundred years. What is troublesome, of course, is that both interpretations are conjoined subconsciously for the reader of the Spanish, just as in the Latin example they are for the Romans. But an English speaker reading the Spanish will have to decide subconsciously which meaning is there. They cannot be melded in his mind. I was convinced and I still am that Gabo meant it in the sense of one as this meaning is closer to the feel of the novel. Also, there was no cavil on his part over the title in English.
When we come to soledad we have a similar bit of ambiguity, whether it is one of Empson’s types or not is still to be ascertained. The word in Spanish has the meaning of its English cognate but it also carries that of loneliness, bearing both the positive and the negative feelings associated with being alone. I went for solitude because it’s a touch more inclusive and can also carry the germ of loneliness if pushed along those lines, as Billie Holiday so eloquently demonstrated. Gabo must have liked the choice, too, else he would not have made that outlandish but ever so welcome remark that he liked the English version better than his own original Spanish. There is one claim or interpretation of his, however, that always sets me to thinking. Somewhere he stated that he thought my technique was to read the book through and then just sit down and rewrite it in English. This would be great to accomplish and, indeed, it has been done any number of times when a tale or legend has been turned about and appropriated to create a second masterpiece. My young granddaughter Jennifer has done just this in devising a marvelously Pyrrhonian version of the Hansel and Gretel story where the witch comes off clean. How could it have been that Gabo was thinking of a technique completely the opposite of the one I followed, word by word? In this case I had read the novel first, so there may be an inkling of truth in what he said. Never having written a novel (yet), I am not sure how it is done, but I imagine that plot, theme, characters, the whole conglomeration is there in the novelist’s mind and all that is needed is paper, pen, and time. As a matter of fact, this is how García Márquez says he himself did the novel, that it all came together in his mind and he just sat down and strung together the words needed to express it. Maybe in some way I was simply translating in a way close to the way he wrote it.
Opening lines are often the most quoted and remembered parts of a story: Proust’s Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure, Cervantes’s En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, Kafka’s Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, Dickens’s It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So it has been with this book: muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre le llevó a conocer el hielo. People go on repeating this all the time (in English) and I can only hope that I have got them saying what it means. I wrote: “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.” There are variant possibilities. In the British army it would have been a “firing party,” which I rather like, but I was writing for American readers. Había de could have been would (How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?), but I think was to has a better feeling to it. I chose remember over recall because I feel that it conveys a deeper memory. Remote might have aroused thoughts of such inappropriate things as remote control and robots. Also, I liked distant when used with time. I think Dr. Einstein would have approved. The real problem for choice was with conocer and I have come to know that my selection has set a great many Professors Horrendo all aflutter. It got to the point that my wife Clem had to defend my choice (hers too) against one such worthy in a seminar in which she was participating. The word seen straight means to know a person or thing for the first time, to meet someone, to be familiar with something. What is happening here is a first-time meeting, or learning. It can also mean to know something more deeply than saber, to know from experience. García Márquez has used the Spanish word here with all its connotations. But to know ice just won’t do in English. It implies, “How do you do, ice?” It could be “to experience ice.” The first is foolish, the second is silly. When you get to know something for the first time, you’ve discovered it. Only after that can you come to know it in the full sense. I could have said “to make the acquaintance of ice,” but that, too, sounds nutty, with its implication of tipping one’s hat or giving a handshake. I stand by what I put down in this important opening sentence.
Then there is the measure of sound. In Spanish, García Márquez’s words so often have the ring of prose poetry. They are always the right words because their meaning is enhanced by their sound and the way in which they are strung together in rhythmic cohesion. Thus it should be possible to interpret these words/notes from another tongue in the sane way that a melody can be passed from instrument to instrument as its essence is preserved albeit in a different tone. I am rather satisfied with what I have done in this respect and I can look upon my work more as transposing than translating. I haven’t looked at other versions of One Hundred Years to see how my peers in other languages have done in this respect although I did peruse the one in Portuguese from Brazil. As the mingling of sounds in Brazilian Portuguese has all the tones of a string quartet or more, it is inevitable that the translation from stately Spanish should sing in quite a different way. I use this last description of the Spanish language to point out how Gabo is the direct heir of Cervantes in his instinctive sense of how to use the language. Like the master’s, his language will never get stale and I can only hope that my English will carry on in the same way.
New York City
Gregory Rabassa was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922. He studied at Dartmouth College and in 1942 volunteered for the army, serving in the Office of Strategic Services. When he returned to the United States after the war, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. His English translations of works by such literary giants as Jorge Amado (Brazil), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), Clarice Lispector (Brazil), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru/Spain), José Lezama Lima (Cuba), Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), and Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia/Mexico) have become classics in their own right. Rabassa served as a special guest for the 1975 WLT Puterbaugh Conference honoring Julio Cortázar and returned to the University of Oklahoma in 1986 to serve as a juror for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, nominating Günter Grass for the award. Rabassa is presently a Distinguished Professor of Romance Languages & Comparative Literature at Queens College, New York.
“From the May-August 2005 issue of World Literature Today (79:2), pages 37-41. Copyright © 2005 by World Literature Today.”
*From If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, copyright © 2005 by Gregory Rabassa, forthcoming in May 2005. Published by arrangement with New Directions. To order a copy of If This Be Treason, visit the New Directions Web site (www.wwnorton.com/nd).