Translating with Greg Rabassa: The Last Book

Often, and rightly, celebrated as one of the greatest literary translators of all time, Gregory Rabassa was, toward the end of his long and distinguished career, dealing with a number of physical ailments. He was in pain and could no longer sit comfortably in the chair at his table where, on an old manual typewriter, he would produce his marvelous translations, one after the other.

In the early 1970s, I had been a student of Greg’s at the City University of New York. Afterwards, we became close friends and, between 5:30 and 6:00 pm, Eastern Time, would speak nearly every day on the phone. There was a lot of laughing. Often raucous laughing, involving jokes, puns (the more multi-lingual the better), stories (many of which seemed to get better and better the more we told them), and limericks. And politics. Rarely literature.

One afternoon, after we’d been roaring at one of our favorite limericks (from the “Abuses of the Clergy” section of an anthology of limericks he’d given me and that we both loved), he mentioned that though he had finally finished his translation of Bernardim Ribeiro’s 1554 pastoral romance, Menina e Moça (which, in a moment of inspiration he had decided to call Maiden and Modest (Tagus Press, 2012)), he did not feel up to reviewing it one final time. He was especially concerned that, because of the considerable discomfort he was in, he might have missed something or that he had failed to get something quite right. He asked me if I would step in and edit his version against the very complicated and challenging original text. Pleased to be able to help, I, of course, said yes, though not without considerable trepidation. Menina e Moça was a tough assignment!

Not surprisingly, Greg’s effort was astonishingly spot-on. I found only a couple of very minor slips, which we easily corrected. Now published in a beautiful edition by Tagus Press, Maiden and Modest provides us all with a hitherto little-known masterpiece of Renaissance fiction.

But late though it was in Greg’s career, Maiden and Modest was not his final translation; a short Eça de Queirós narrative, Saint Christopher (Tagus Press, 2015), was, and I had a hand in its completion as well. A considerably more direct hand, as it would turn out.

Shortly after beginning the Eça novel, Greg suffered a fall, one involving the hard, sharp edges of escalator steps. He suffered cuts, contusions, and broken ribs. Once more, he found himself in considerable discomfort; it was even painful for him to breathe. And he certainly could not sit up and translate. Again, my phone rang and again Greg asked if I could lend a hand. But this time was different; this time, he was asking me to finish the translation he had started. Though this was a very different proposition from the Menina e Moça experience, where I had served as a kind of personal editor, I again said yes.

In the very first sentence of Saint Christopher, Greg had found himself forced to make a decision that, once made, would resonate again and again throughout the text, becoming, finally, a basic motif. The challenge was: What to do with the Portuguese word “servo,” which can mean a variety of things, from “servant” to “hireling” and from “servitor” to “serf.” Making what he liked to call a “tactical” decision (that is, one based not on some theory of translation or a grand strategic scheme but on context, a particular set of textual conditions within the larger narrative structure that demanded a particular interpretation), Greg, an infantry sergeant in World War II, opted for “serf,” a term that would come, as the text itself eventually does, to suggest the Peasants’ Revolt in 14th-century France.

But, serendipitously (a word Greg liked and, as he mentions in his book, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, used to describe how he became a translator), it also smacks of Proudhon, whose ideas about social justice permeate this hagiographic text as much as Christian ones do. While the unsuspecting English reader is somewhat startled to see a simple and humble woodsman immediately described as a “serf,” she is being prepared (as the Portuguese text does as well, albeit in a less obvious fashion since the word, “servo,” makes the difference between “servant” and “serf” much less stark) to respond to a basic political message the novel makes, one that gains in strength and intensity as it winds its way to the conclusion.

The problem I faced, as I came off the bench to try and finish the translation for Greg, was how not only to translate the text (as if that were not difficult enough!) but to do so in such a way that would mimic the style and tone of Greg’s initial efforts. I wanted a smooth, seamless transition. I did not want there to be a rupture, or a noticeable break, between the pages that Greg had done before turning the project over to me and the translation that I would do of the remaining pages. I did not want to tarnish the brilliance of his opening efforts, and I felt acutely the pressure not to do so. The question was: How not to?

I began by rereading the entire novel two times, the second time very carefully, as a translator would, that is, trying to consider every aspect of its composition. As we all know, there’s a big difference between the reading an average reader gives a literary text and the one a translator gives it. I’d read the novel in graduate school, but that had been decades earlier. And that initial go-through had been none too good. To translate S. Cristóvão, and to do it properly, I needed to know it much, much better. I needed to be aware of every aspect of it. Greg’s words weighed on me: “The translator is the text’s best, most complete, reader.” So I got to work, in earnest.

My second decision was then to study the portion Greg had already done and to compare it, word for word, line for line, and section by section, with the original Portuguese, which, though written in the late 19th century, had a distinctly medieval cast to it. This step was both crucial and revealing; it showed me how Greg himself was reading the text, how he was interpreting it, and, most important of all, how he was re-writing it in modern American English. I paid close attention to all the decisions he was making, not just as the meticulous reader but, more to the point, as the translator, the person who was charged with bringing Eça’s egregiously underappreciated novel to life for the English-speaking world. Having reread the entire narrative twice (three times and more, one could say), I knew how it worked, how it developed, and where it went. I knew what it wanted to do, what point it wanted to make, and what ethos it wanted to generate. I knew its characters, its plot structure, and its famous conclusion, which, if handled poorly, would fatally flaw the entire work in terms of the reader’s reception of it.

But most of all, I had come to realize how complicated and exquisitely mannered its style was. Replicating this, I knew, would be tough. Questions of diction, syntax, figurative language, and tone always are. But this is where the translation game is either won or lost. I knew that, too. What was richly ambiguous and allusive in the original could all too easily become merely confusing and awkward in English. This had to be avoided at all costs.

In seeing all this, as I studied what he had already done and compared it with the original, I also understood yet once again why Greg Rabassa is the great translator that he is. I saw his genius, as a reader but also as a writer.

Greg had always maintained that a good translator had, in the final throw of the dice, to be a good writer. If you weren’t a good writer, he liked to say, you would never be a good translator. Being a trained linguist was not enough. If it was good literature in the original language, it had to be good literature in its translation, and in much the same ways. That was the standard. Bringing one language across and into another, as the Germans say with their verb for translation, “übersetzen,” is one thing, but turning it into a kind of literature that reproduces, so far as possible, the original is quite another. I was confident I could do the one, but I was less sure I could do the other, or, at least, well enough that my effort would be even marginally comparable to what the Master himself had already done. As I’ve said, I felt the pressure.

“Servo” appears everywhere in S. Cristóvão. But, from time to time, it also appears in different contexts, and this meant that I could not just unthinkingly crank in “serf” for each usage. Occasionally, in my judgement (and making here the kind of decision a translator has to make) the proper English version would be “servant.” These latter cases had not yet appeared in the original text when Greg had to abandon the project. These decisions were left for me to make, and, based on my reading of Eça’s text, I did the best I could. I would ask myself this question: “If Eça were writing his novel today, and in modern American English, which word would he use?” Usually, this would help me decide. Usually, but not always. Every translator knows this dilemma.

Greg had told me not to try and guess what he would have done (I’d mentioned that that had indeed been my plan; he said, “Don’t.”), but to trust my own judgements and interpretations. I said I would, but that, except for those sections further ahead in the novel that seemed, for various reasons, to depart from the opening style, I was going to try and match my style to his. He told me to do my job, by which he meant be a good reader and a good writer.

Although there were many additional “tactical” decisions that would have to be made, my experience with the word “servo” illustrates the nature of my attempt to complete the translation that Greg had set in motion. And, as I’ve said, to do this in such a fashion that the reader would not be made at least immediately aware of where Greg left off and where I began. That was my goal. Did I achieve it? I’ll let the reader be the judge.

Image: Courtesy of Earl Fitz, by Ezra Fitz