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In Memoriam: Gregory Rabassa, 1922–2016

By The Editors

Image: Earl Fitz with Gregory Rabassa. Photo courtesy of Ezra E. Fitz.

The great translator Gregory Rabassa died June 13 at ninety-four. You can read an excerpt from his memoir, If This Be Treason, here. In the meantime, some translators from Spanish share their thoughts and memories.

From Earl Fitz

To help honor the memory of the great teacher, scholar, and translator Gregory Rabassa (1922–2016), I thought you might be interested in my rendition of one of his favorite stories. To me, it illustrates quite well Greg’s extraordinary humanity, his intellectual capaciousness, and his love of literature and life. The story (as best I can reconstruct it from the many times he told it to me over our forty-six years of friendship) is this:

Greg was a Staff Sergeant of Infantry with the US Fifth Army, first in North Africa and later in Italy, which he helped to liberate (a point of great pride for him). While bivouacked in North Africa, during a lull in the fighting, he was, one day, trying to get in a quick shave. He’d found a piece of broken mirror to look into and proceeded to fill his helmet with water (cold water, he’d say, citing this as a real hardship). As he was shaving away, his thoughts drifted off to a famous section in Part One of Don Quijote, a novel that he had read (in Spanish) and loved. The part that had caught his attention was the episode where a befuddled Don Quixote mistakes a common barber’s basin for the helmet of the great hero Mambrino and puts it on his head, thus cementing, in his mind, the parallel between them. What amused (and delighted) Greg was how his real-life situation was the opposite of the Mambrino episode; while in Cervantes’s telling of it a fictional character mistook a shaving basin for a celebrated helmet, Greg was using a very real helmet and letting it serve as a perfectly suitable shaving basin. Greg would then laugh and say that, right there in an army camp in North Africa, during World War II, life was imitating art, except in reverse. And although we never spoke of it, I’ve always thought that Greg did not at all mind the other, more implicit parallel that this story also suggests, namely that Greg, as an American GI, was, like a true knight errant, seeking to right one of humankind’s most terrible wrongs.

Image: Gregory Rabassa with Ezra E. Fitz. Photo courtesy of Ezra E. Fitz.

From Ezra E. Fitz

Gregory Rabassa has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, the relationship began even before I was born.

My father, Earl Fitz, was a graduate student of his at the City University of New York in the early 1970s. His own father had died shortly before that, and Greg was kind enough to take a young farm boy from rural Iowa with a love of Brazilian literature under his wing in the Maçã Grande.          

The two of them would remain close even after my father graduated. We ended up settling in Pennsylvania, and often took the train from Harrisburg into Manhattan to visit Greg and his lovely wife, Clem. For me, it was as natural a thing as visiting my grandparents. On one particular occasion, while the grown-ups were talking, my siblings and I were busily emptying the bowl of candy that had been set on the coffee table. That’s when Clem looked over toward us. “The children are grazing,” she observed wryly. The scene in their apartment could easily have been a translation from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, when Mrs. Prothero asks three tall firemen in their shining helmets if they would like anything to read.

I grew up to become something of a translator myself. Continuing, I suppose, with the family business. And we stuck up for one another. Gerald Martin published a biography titled Gabriel García Márquez: A Life in which he referenced Greg and the great Edith Grossman a grand total of four times. A bit miffed, I fired off a corrective letter to The New York Times, expressing my displeasure with the fact that “you can count the references (to the translators) on Jerry Garcia’s right hand.” As any self-respecting Deadhead will tell you, that famous hand consisted of only four fingers. The Times published my letter, but not before removing my musical reference in favor of the more mundane “on one hand.” In the epic, never-ending struggle between translators and editors, Greg preferred the original.

As I write this, I have on my desk a letter Greg once wrote to me. It was postmarked February 6, 2006, which would have been just a few weeks after I was diagnosed with brain cancer. In it, Greg wrote, “You come from good stock and we know that soon you will be back at your chores of rendering Iberian Romance into elegant English. Hang in there, buck up and all that, and have our love, best wishes, and good hope.” Later, during a phone call, he gave me the same advice that a British paratrooper once gave to him right before they jumped out of a plane together back in World War II. But I think I’ll keep the details of that one to myself.

Now, though, here I am, ten years later, having faced that particular firing squad, remembering all those distant afternoons and trying to write something similar to him. Not about him, but to him. Hang loose there, Greg. As Juba said in the movie Gladiator, “I will see you again . . . but not yet . . . not yet . . .”

Image: Gregory Rabassa. Photo courtesy of Ezra E. Fitz.

From Christina MacSweeney

Any attempt to say something meaningful in a few short lines about the enormous influence the truly great Gregory Rabassa has had on translation itself and on broadening the scope of literary texts available to English-language readers seems a task almost doomed before one starts. 

From a personal viewpoint, it was his work that introduced me to many Latin American authors before I felt confident enough to read them in the original Spanish. And I probably wouldn't be a literary translator today without that influence—in addition to his obvious talents as a translator, his intelligence, passion, and generosity affirmed my intuition that translation was a space I could and wanted to inhabit. Something I could aspire to.

So perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say is thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Gregory Rabassa, for your influence on my reading, and also on my life.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­From Dick Cluster

About the quality and influence of his translations, nothing needs to be said, because there they are! About his talks and writings about the process of translation, I so much appreciated his insight, humor, modesty, and down-to-earth-ness. He loved telling jokes about the ambiguity of words. One I remember particularly:

“A rancher from Texas was visiting a farmer in New Hampshire. The Texan, looking around the small farm, boasted ‘You know, I can drive my truck across my ranch all day and never get to the end of it.’ The farmer thought a while and then said, ‘I know what you mean. I had a truck like that once too.’”

From Megan McDowell

Gregory Rabassa is the reason I’m a translator. I read Hopscotch when I was twenty-two and it made me curious about so many things. That book is where my awareness of Latin American literature began, and from there it grew into a love and a vocation. I met Rabassa when I was working on my Master’s in Literary Translation at the University of Texas at Dallas. Rainer Schulte invited him and Margaret Sayers Peden and Susan Bernofsky to talk to about ten of us translation students—a lunch with the greats—during the ALTA conference. He was so warm and genuine. Someone made me show him my tattoo, a sleeve of a hopscotch around my forearm. He just raised his eyebrows, smiled, and nodded. I don’t think he was impressed. 

Gregory Rabassa was a force for good in the world, and he’ll be missed. 

Published Jun 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 The Editors

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