New Directions; First Edition 2005
Today's guest is Helen Oclee-Brown, a commercial translator from French and Spanish into English. Helen has an undergraduate degree in modern languages from the University of Southampton and a master’s degree in specialised translation from the University of Westminster. After working in house for an international marketing agency and for a translation company, Helen became a freelance translator in 2009. She firmly believes in the importance of professional associations and is an active member of the British ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) and MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators). Helen lives in Kent in South East England. We warmly welcome her first contribution to the blog. Helen@HelenOcleeBrown.co.uk
You may not know his name but you probably have some of his work on your bookshelves. Gregory Rabassa is a giant of literary translation. He has translated more than thirty Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking authors, many of whom hail from Latin America. Rabassa's translations have opened the eyes of English-speaking readers to the rich wave of folk-inspired modern literature produced during "The Boom" by authors such as Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and, of course, Gabriel García Márquez.
If This Be Treason is Rabassa's slim yet thought-provoking memoir. It is liberally peppered with linguistic delights, historical facts and literary references – it's clearly the work of a master wordsmith and it really keeps you on your toes. Despite being a memoir and featuring many a personal anecdote, Rabassa maintains a sense of distance throughout. Perhaps this is because, as a translator, he is used to a life in the shadows, merely following his authors' words, an idea that he insists on "to the point of boredom" (his words not mine).
And yet following an author's words does not mean shirking any responsibility. Far from it. The translator's greatest burden is to consider his own treason, as Rabassa goes on to do in the first of his memoir's three sections. Here, he plays on the old Italian cliché traduttore, traditore. Does he, or any translator, betray the language, the culture, the author or "saddest of all" himself when translating? As translators well know, some sort of betrayal (or loss) is almost inevitable. Indeed Rabassa goes so far to say that translation is mere imitation because we cannot perfectly replicate in one language what we say in another. And yet we must try. As Rabassa says, "Translation may be impossible, but it least it can be essayed."
Rabassa also uses the first section to delve into his background. For someone who fell into translation, he was quite well prepared. The child of word-loving parents, with grandparents from four different countries, he enjoyed a linguistic education and embarked on a brief military career that took him to far-flung Europe and Africa as a cryptographer. Rabassa then goes on to set out his stall on such thorny issues as translation theory (as a proud "dinosaur" he's not a fan), large publishing houses (he doesn't much like them either) and what he sees as the role of the translator (again, you simply follow the words).
He is rather scornful about teaching translation: "I've tried to teach the unteachable. As I have said before, you can explain how translation is done, but how can you tell a student what to say without saying it yourself? You can tell him what book to read but you can't read it for him." And reading is a hugely important subject, as silly as that sounds, because Rabassa seldom reads the books he translates before getting down to work, saying "When I'm translating a book, I'm simply reading it in English". Incidentally, Rabassa sees translation as an art, not a craft ("You can teach Picasso how to mix his paints but you cannot teach him how to paint his demoiselles").
The second section is the meatiest part of this tome. In it, Rabassa discusses the thirty or so authors that he has translated. He deals with them in chronological order because each work influenced the next in some way. It's an experience game, after all. Rabassa recalls some of the authors with great affection, having met many of them, become great friends or simply studied their work when a student. Some he some lavishes with praise: Juan Benet is the Proust of Spain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the direct heir to Cervantes, and Clarice Lispector, he says, "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf" – high praise indeed. His deft, understated phrasing also lends itself to the heart-breaking fate suffered by Lispector, with the brutally simple note that she "was not treated well by life".
Unsurprisingly, Rabassa devotes more pages to Gabriel García Márquez than to any other author, having translated six of his novels. García Márquez was said to have preferred Rabassa's English translation to his original. True to form, Rabassa deals with this compliment in characteristically modest style: "My mystical feeling […] is that Gabo already had the English words hiding behind the Spanish and all I had to do was to tease them out". As a side note – and a rather shocking one – Rabassa did not receive any royalties from this work.
Politics is an inescapable theme, although one Rabassa does not dwell on too much. Magic realism, that oft-debated term, was in Rabassa's mind a folkloric call for freedom and justice. Elsewhere, he briefly mentions how difficult it was to send drafts back and forth to José Lezama Lima in Cuba and describes how "the brutes who have ruled the place so often" left writers impelled to explore the darker aspects of the Latin American psyche. Against the weight of such history, it's hard not to share Rabassa's mischievous delight that Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, founder of the Ecuadorian Socialist Party, was given his big break by the beacon of capitalism that is The Wall Street Journal.
Throughout the book Rabassa plays down his role, commenting rather charmingly that he is "quite aware that the translator is the squire of the arts, but comfortable with the fact that it was Sancho Panza who made Don Quixote possible". He sees it as his job to transpose rather than to translate, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that his translations retain that sense of "the other". To do this, he proposes a pleasant little test: reading the translation in the character's local accent. How many of us have found ourselves doing just that when reading one of his translations?
In the third (very short) section, Rabassa judges his own treason – he has dismissed all other (often self-appointed) authorities within the book. Reassuringly, he suffers from the same affliction as many translators: he is simply never satisfied with his work when he looks back at it. One can never be too sure of oneself. So, are we translators guilty as charged? I will leave it up to you to find out the verdict.
Some have criticised this book for being a bit brief, but I suspect that it is purposefully short. The real stars of the show are the works themselves, both the authors' original Spanish or Portuguese texts and Rabassa's English readings. And with that in mind, I feel that this book, for all its brilliance, should come with a warning. If you're blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with an inquisitive mind, then this tiny tome may not be a quick read. I for one couldn't help but reach for the originals in my collection and compare sections to Rabassa's exquisite translations. Time well spent, in my opinion.
Helen Oclee-Brown, Commercial Translator