Gregory Rabassa, ATA Gode Medalist and Legendary Translator
March 9, 1922–June 13, 2016
(Note: The following is an excerpt from a piece published in The New York Times on June 14, 2016.)
Gregory Rabassa, 94, esteemed translator of Latin American writers Julio Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, and Gabriel García Márquez, died on June 13, 2016. Rabassa, a longtime ATA member, was the recipient of ATA’s Gode Medal (1980), the U.S. National Book Award for Translation (1967), the PEN Translation Prize (1977), and the National Medal of Arts (2006), among others.
Literary critics often cite Rabassa’s work, and particularly his English translation of Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as playing a pivotal role in the Latin American literary movement of the 1960s. Márquez often praised Rabassa, saying he regarded the translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a work of art in its own right. “He’s the godfather of us all,” Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of Don Quixote and several of Márquez’s books, told The Associated Press. “He’s the one who introduced Latin American literature in a serious way to the English-speaking world.”
In 2001, Rabassa received a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center for contributions to Hispanic literature. He received a National Medal of Arts in 2006 for translations that “continue to enhance our cultural understanding and enrich our lives.”
Language was a lifelong fascination for Rabassa, whose father was Cuban and mother from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. He was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922, and raised on a farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, near Dartmouth College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Romance languages.
He served as a cryptographer during World War II, later joking that in deciphering secret messages it was his job to change English into English. After the war, Rabassa studied Spanish and Portuguese as a graduate student at Columbia University and translated Spanish- and Portuguese-language works for the magazine Odyssey. He broke into mainstream publishing in the 1960s when an editor at Pantheon Books asked him to translate Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, for which he won a National Book Award for translation in 1967. Around the same time, Márquez asked Rabassa to translate One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rabassa’s other translations included Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, and Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sand.
Rebassa taught at Columbia University from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, when he joined the faculty of Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He retired in 2007.