By Ezra E. Fitz
I always think of Greg Rabassa on Memorial Day, for not only was he one of the finest translators to ever draw a breath on this earth, but it’s also important to reminisce over his service during World War II, and how those two roles occasionally crossed paths in unique and surprising ways.
Greg often referred to GI’s like him as “dogfaces,” but in fact he held the rank of Staff Sergeant of Infantry with the U.S. Fifth Army, and was stationed first in North Africa and later in Italy, which he helped to liberate: a point of great pride to him. His old Army jacket still fit him to his last days, and he wore it proudly every year on Veteran’s Day, though he always preferred the European version of the holiday, Armistice Day. He’d wear that jacket and stand outside his apartment building, and as people would walk by and thank him for his service, he would grin wryly and say, “Well, you oughta!”
He once told us a story of when he was bivouacked in North Africa, and during a lull in the fighting, he was 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 scene in Part One of Don Quijote, where the befuddled knight 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 version, a fictional character mistook a shaving basin for a celebrated helmet, but here Greg was, using a very real helmet and letting it serve as a perfectly suitable shaving basin. Greg laughed and said that, right there in an army camp in North Africa, during World War II, life was imitating art, except in reverse. And although he never mentioned this part, we’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.
I’ll end here with one last memory of mine: we’d often talk on the phone about movies, especially those starring Peter Sellers or the Marx Brothers, but one day the subject was Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. I was telling Greg about a scene in which a soldier on watch spotted a corps of Russian armored units in the distance, and warns his fellow soldiers by calling out, “Tanks! Tanks!” But in the French version of the film, his warning is erroneously yet hilariously subtitled, “Merci! Merci!” We laughed about that particular mistranslation, and then there was a pause. I could tell Greg was getting tired. “That was fun,” he said, bringing our conversation to a close. “Let’s talk again soon.”
That was the last time we ever spoke.