Viva Rabassa

I’m feeling all fangirl today because The Rumpus just asked me to do an interview with Gregory Rabassa, the great translator from the Spanish and Portuguese responsible for bringing us the game-changing One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in 1970, along with work by Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many others, including Jorge Amado, who would have been 100 this year, which oddly makes him only a decade older than the man who has been indefatigably translating the Latin American classics for our benefit since well before I was born. As a translator, Rabassa has had an enormous influence not only on generations of young writers in the U.S. – for whom magic realism opened new doors that they were eager to dash through – but also, indirectly, on the literature of Latin America, since the huge success of magic realism in the U.S. (and then in other countries that followed the trend here) helped fuel the huge literary blossoming generally known as El Boom. Sylvia Molloy has written fascinatingly about this inadvertent leveraging of literary power; magic realism, she notes, wasn’t at all a dominant trend in Latin American literature until American publishers started throwing money at it. But that’s a whole other story.

Meanwhile, I remember reading my worn second-hand softcover copy of One Hundred Years (also a favorite of Bill Clinton, by the way) when I was in high school, the perfect age to have one’s mind blown by a mode of storytelling that changed my idea of how you could go about describing the world. I think lots and lots of young writers had a similar experience. I wonder if the book is similarly important to young writers now.

In any case, Rabassa has exercised a decisive effect on the development of American letters ever since he won the National Book Award for his translation of Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch (a book that can be read in more than one sequence) in 1967. He went on to win a great many more prizes for his influential work, including the PEN Translation Prize in 1977, the 1982 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation and a 2006 National Medal of Arts.

Despite his advanced years, Rabassa has remained faithful to his art. His latest translations are a pair of short novels by the great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado: The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, and The Discovery of America by the Turks. Both of them have just been published by Penguin, and both will be presented tomorrow evening in a program in honor of Amado’s centennial. Rabassa will be reading from his translations and speaking about his work. He will be joined by Rivka Galchen, a novelist, short-fiction author and essayist whose work I admire very much, along with the engagement with which she promotes the reading of foreign-language literature in this country, a cause very much after my own heart.

The Rabassa/Galchen Amado summit will take place at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute (which is hosting the event on behalf of the Americas Society), 684 Park Ave at 68th St., at 7:00 p.m. For more information, see the Americas Society website.

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