Two Translators, One Fantastic Conversation

The Rumpus has published a fantastic conversation between two of translation’s best—Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, and, now Kafka) and Gregory Rabassa, translator of Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Mario Vargas Llosa, Machado de Assis, and so, so many more.

They cover just about everything in here. The time Rabassa got cheated out of his royalties from the runaway bestseller One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Rabassa: I got screwed—you wouldn’t believe—the one where I got the big screwing is Cien Años.

Rumpus: I read that in your book.

Rabassa: I got a few hundred dollars, something like that. The Americas Society, which was then the Center for Inter-American Relations, was hosting Guillermo Castillo, a sculptor who ran the artistic division. He was one of the pioneers in getting publishers to do Latin American literature by paying for the translation. And what the translator got was, before royalties and all that, not that much. But it cost the Center quite a lot. They paid for Cien años de soledad. They gave half of the money to pay me. And then the book came out and ran away. Not a penny went to the Center. And Guillermo Castillo was very angry about that. But he kept on supporting translations. Alfred Knopf was very good because he saw to it the translator’s name was on the jacket.

Rumpus: Did you ever live only off translation? Would that have been possible for you?

Rabassa: No. I don’t think so. If you want to call it living. I would’ve had to grub for something outside. Or else I would have had to fight for it. And I’m not that type. I’m a subversive fighter.

Rumpus: When did you start being able to get royalties on your translations?

Rabassa: I really don’t remember. The sad thing is, I’ve been getting them ever since a certain date, but it hasn’t made much difference—it’s meant an extra cup of coffee. The one I like is Machado de Assis. Because he’s dead, I am Machado de Assis! I get all the royalties on that one. It’s a small check these days, but nice to have.


Rabassa: Borges told his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni: “No traducir lo que digo, sino lo que quiero decir.” And quiero decir in Spanish has that beautiful double meaning, which is where it means “I want to say” and “I’m trying to say.” “I’m trying to do something” means “I want to do something.” And of course, Borges is always trying to say something and never gets to say it.

The quality of translations today:

Rumpus: Do you think that the quality of translations, overall, has gotten better? I mean, on average. Have our translations gotten better? Stayed the same? Gotten worse?

Rabassa: I think they’ve stayed the same. Maybe they’ve gotten worse because I think writing has gotten worse. But I don’t think there’ve been any great advances—except with the classics. I’m thinking of Bob Fagles, who turned out the three great epics. He’d been at it a long time.

And so much more . . . make sure to check it out.

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