If This Be Treason

If, as George Steiner avers, every act of comprehension is an act of translation, the process by which literature of one language is rendered understandable in another, fully knowable though it can never be, merits respectful attention. If This Be Treason is a bold though truncated incursion by a well-known translator into this mysterious realm.

One approaches this surprisingly slim volume at once assured and fearful. Surely, as translator nonpareil of Latin American novelists, Gregory Rabassa has to be the best possible guide. However, as most American-born readers speak only English, will they care to take on a book by a multilingual writer who is disinclined to condescend to his audience? Perhaps the question should be slightly but tellingly restated. Can the nonspecialist take Rabassa? It is the voice of this translator of Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado and some thirty other Latino authors that will win readers or turn them away.

Although Rabassa labels his first original book a memoir, its tone is that of an apology (in the olderthe Latinatesense of a defense, not an expression of regret) for literary translation. Professor Rabassa’s tone is doggedly chip-on-shoulder. Early on, the reader is told that a certain “Professor Horrendo,” the translator’s ugly familiar, will sit in judgment, tossing “the usual occasional brickbats.” Here Rabassa is referring to what is arguably his most famous translation, that of García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), an effort that its author, according to the translator, declared better than the original. The twelve-page chapter devoted to the Colombian novelist’s masterpiece provides Rabassa’s best proof of how inexact yet demanding literary translation can be.

For Rabassa, the problems with Cien años de soledad began with the first word, because in Spanish cien bears no article, while its English equivalent must be expressed as “one hundred” or “a hundred.” Says Rabassa, “I viewed the extent of time involved as something quite specific, as in a prophecy, something definite. A countdown, not just any old hundred years. . . . I am [still] convinced that Gabo [García Márquez] meant it in the sense of one as this . . . is closer to the feel of the novel. Also, there was no cavil on his part.” Soledad is similarly ambiguous, for the word carries the meaning of its English kin“solitude”but also the sense of loneliness, thus bearing both the positive and the negative feelings associated with being alone. “I went for solitude because it’s a touch more inclusive, also carrying the germ of loneliness.”

Mightily impressed with the English version, Gabo also praised Rabassa for what he assumed was the translator’s usual technique of reading a novel through in the original and then rewriting it in English. However, except for Cien años de...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)


Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 4 (February 15, 2005): 219.

Library Journal 130, no. 8 (May 1, 2005): 84-85.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 15, 2005): 36.

Newsweek 145, no. 19 (May 9, 2005).