Enchanting translator of Latin American enchantment
New York — Gabriel Garcia Marquez has won the Nobel Prize, and the surprising thing is that many people were not surprised. When a foreign writer wins, there is usually a puzzled pause while Americans look up the complete works. With Garcia Marquez, the delight didn't skip a beat. His novel ''A Hundred Years of Solitude'' was a best seller here. It is the rambunctious tale of Macondo, a kind of twisted Eden, where, among other extraordinary happenings, a young girl ascends to heaven while hanging out the wash, and her sister-in-law is angry over losing the sheets. That book, with its magical transformation of reality into something much more pungent and funny, enchanted readers enough to get them looking for his other works, and for more books by Latin American authors.
When they did, they inevitably turned to the work of Gregory Rabassa. Mr. Rabassa has translated all Garcia Marquez's books, and many other Latin American tamperings with reality. Since ''A Hundred Years of Solitude'' made a big hit in translation here in 1970, Latin America has become part of the literary world. The days are long gone when Lionel Trilling could remark that perhaps Latin American literature would be interesting only to anthropologists. Latin American literature is out in paperback.
Rabassa won't take credit for this mass enchantment. But without him and his dictionary, our senses of reality would not have taken the samba-like turns and twists that Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Luis Rafael Sanchez (to mention a few) put them through. He is a small, twinkling man who teaches comparative literature and romance languages at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is also modest. Sitting in the lounge of the CUNY Graduate Center for an interview, he batted away praise with the kind of aplomb other people use to doff their hats.
He is merrily intellectual, mumbling learned wisecracks too fast to laugh at before he goes on to the next. He won't claim to have a special pipeline to the Latin American mind, although Garcia Marquez said his translation of ''A Hundred Years of Solitude'' was better than the original, and Julio Cortazar let him title one of his books (''A Manual for Manuel,'' a pun that doesn't exist in the Spanish ''Un Libro para Manuel'').
Rabassa, the son of a Cuban father and an Anglo mother, grew up in an inn in New Hampshire, where his father took his family to live when his Cuban sugar business failed in the '20s. But he doesn't think of himself as exotic. When asked if he feels he is of two worlds, he replies that he is - of New England and Long Island (where he now lives). He heard Spanish spoken at home, but didn't study it until he went ''to Dartmouth, of course. Being close by.'' He so readily affects a New Hampshire accent to say this that one assumes it wasn't much trouble for him to learn to speak Spanish convincingly. But one doesn't even try to compliment him on that.
Julio Cortazar, who pushes time and space around by slicing his books in pieces and then pasting them back together so that the characters are linked not by chronology or locale but only by coincidence and friendship, must be happy to note that Rabassa came to translating ''by accident.''
He was an editor at the Odyssey Review, a little magazine that published foreign literature. They needed someone to translate some of ''Hopscotch,'' Julio Cortazar's aptly named novel. Rabassa gave it a try, and Cortazar's editor asked him to translate the whole book. That happened to win him a National Book Award for translation in 1967. From there he went on to translate other works. The big breakthrough for Latin American fiction in the United States came with ''A Years of Solitude.'' But it was bound to happen. ''Several of these writers had books out and they were talked about in this country before 'A Hundred Years,' '' Rabassa says. ''I think he (Garcia Marquez) nailed it down.''
What he nailed down was an outrageous way of reinventing reality. All novelists do this, but Latin American authors seem to take more liberties. They mention real people in the middle of fantastic events, or they may be very specific about real places, but have fantastic characters. For example, two Argentines in Julio Cortazar's ''62: a Model Kit'' ride all the buses in London in numerical order while having an argument about whether sparrows are mammals or not, much to the disgust of fellow passengers.
In Latin American novels there are mysterious happenings told with everyday details, such as the way the priest in ''A Hundred Years of Solitude'' regularly drinks a glass of chocolate milk and levitates for his parishioners. There are large doses of the absurd and the surreal, but there are also generous helpings of down-to-earth humor. The more audacious the authors get, it seems, the more likely you are to find something completely ordinary happening in the middle of it all. Some of the books have a strong sense of place, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said that he is influenced by Faulkner, but ''I have my own little theory,'' Rabassa says, holding up a finger. ''It's much more exotic. Which is that they just picked up where they left off. In other words, that the first modern Latin American novel was 'Don Quixote.' ''
Rabassa says Cervantes (who wrote ''Don Quixote'' in the early 1600s) is a much more modern writer than ''the 19th-century novel that you think of as the model of the novel. . . . The English stole Gibraltar, they stole Jamaica, and you'll say . . . 'they stole the Falklands!' More important than that, they stole the novel. There was no continuation of the novel in Spain after Cervantes. . . .'' Instead, the English and French took it over and developed it , so that by the 19th century in Spain ''they were writing an Anglo-French novel in Spanish. They weren't really following Cervantes.''
Now, Latin American authors are following Cervantes, and we follow them through Rabassa's work. But he won't say that translating all this is particularly difficult. His translations are sensitive not only to the meaning but to the style of the original as well. But he insists he is following, too: ''I do them instinctively by following them closely. If you follow them close enough, they'll lead you and then you'll reproduce them in that sense. . . . Sometimes Cortazar's a hard writer to read. That doesn't always mean difficult to translate, because the dificulty comes over in the English. . . . Difficult sentence in Spanish, difficult sentence in English, and I've done my duty.''
His favorite way to translate, ''which is an awful thing, heresy, I suppose, '' is ''what I did with 'Hopscotch': don't read it until I translate it.'' He confesses this in a hushed voice, but goes on to say this is because of ''a theory I have, that maybe translation is nothing but close reading. Close as possible. And I think the translator is really more a reader than a writer in that sense.'' So he reads the novel through quickly, translating with a dictionary, to get the meaning, ''and then I rewrite to make it sound better. . . . Once the meaning is there then I can toy with the style. Mostly word order.'' Then he retypes it. ''My mother's surname is Scotch, so I'm a tightwad. And the second final typing is my last chance to change. Where a typist would make a very nice copy of my corrected rough draft, I make a very nice copy, but also I will make some last-minute changes, sometimes substantial.''
That he dispatches the novels so quickly is dizzying to think about when you read ''Macho Camacho's Beat.'' Luis Rafael Sanchez' Puerto Rican novel about a guaracha, or popular song, is written so that the sentences all move to a Latin rhythm, and are full of clever interior rhymes. Translating the rhyme into English, he said, was just another reading exercise.
For all his reading, close reading, and following, Rabassa is not a mere observer on the literary scene.His translations of Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, and Luis Rafael Sanchez have been taken to the hearts of American readers in large enough numbers to come out in paperback. And they have been taken to the minds of American writers, as all novels should be. (He sees English novelists Thomas Pynchon and Anthony Burgess as involved in the same transfigurations of reality the Latin Americans are, but ''I think they struggle. The novels don't read as easily as some of these wilder novels down there.'')
Now that Garcia Marquez has won the Nobel Prize, Rabassa says, ''I think it's good for the literature,'' and remarked of the reaction in Colombia, ''How nice it is that a writer can be a national hero.'' He says there is a sense of ''Odysseus come home,'' since Garcia Marquez has said he wants to start a publishing house with the money, returning to Colombia from self-imposed exile in Mexico. And because of Latin American novels moving into the mainstream, ''Latin America is now part of the world. It used to be called the European world . . .'' but now the ''third world'' isn't left out. For all his modesty about what he does (when asked if he had a sense of mission when translating Latin American authors, he looked shocked and said, ''I think of the Bowery . . .''), he does something very special when he translates.
He makes the voice of the writer not just audible, he makes it familiar. This is more than overcoming an accent. This has to do with knowing just what the author is trying to say, and saying it in an equivalent way. Slang is hard, he says. Equivalent current US slang would get old, so ''What I try to do sometimes is to invent slang. Make something that's slangy. Not slang, but slangy, and since it's not slang, it'll never be passe.''
Naturally, he picked up that trick by reading. The Spanish writer Valle Inclan, writing on the Mexican revolution, used all sorts of colorful expressions. Rabassa asked a Mexican if it was slang, and he said, '' 'No, I've never heard it, but it could be.' ''
Regional speech is another problem. ''You've got a gaucho or somebody. You can't make him sound like a cowboy, you have to make him sound like an English-speaking gaucho. There's a difference. So you invent a little.''
If translation is just close reading, he is a very creative reader. What he reads, we can read. Sometimes he goes even further and finds an American publisher for a book he believes in. Even so, he won't take credit for our delight in this treasure-trove of strange new novels.
''Well, I'm glad,'' is all he will say. ''I'm glad they're reading some stuff. People who hadn't paid attention to it before will now come up to me and say, 'Oh, what's new? What's coming out down there?' and so forth. . . . It's really what happened to Russia in the 19th century. They found there was a lot of good stuff.''
In both cases, of course, people couldn't tell it was good stuff until it was translated. So move over, Anna Karenina. It's time to read the Latins, the good stuff of the 20th century.