In 1982, the same year that Gabriel García Márquez, who died Thursday, April 17, at the age of 87, received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gregory Rabassa ’44, his English translator, was given an honorary degree by his alma mater—Dartmouth College.
García Márquez’s praise of Rabassa’s work—that he preferred the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to the original Spanish—is widely reported. Speaking with Dartmouth Now on April 18, Rabassa waved away his own credit for that accolade. “That’s more of a compliment to the English language,” he says.
Rabassa’s translation of the Colombian novelist’s El otoño del patriarca as The Autumn of the Patriarch won the 1976 PEN Translation Prize.
García Márquez, says Rabassa “could tell a tale. That’s what he brought back to modern literature: the power of fairy tales, of the epic.”
Rebecca Biron, professor of Spanish, says that, “in the his best writing, and especially with Cien años de soledad, García Márquez opened a magical door for a global readership. He invited us in to explore marvelous realms: Macondo, Colombia, Latin America, human life. To be able to say we shared time on the same planet with him, even on the same continent, is incredible.”
Rabassa arrived at Dartmouth with French and Latin (which he studied at Hanover High School) as well as “kitchen Spanish learned from my father,” he says, intending to be a physics and chemistry major.
“Reading Proust with Professor Ramon Guthrie changed that," Rabassa said. He started “collecting languages” at Dartmouth—Russian, Portuguese, a more formal Spanish. After World War II—he tells a story of unexpectedly running into his former French professor, who had also joined the war effort, in Algiers—Rabassa earned a PhD in Portuguese at Columbia and eventually embarked on the path that led him to become the translator of García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, and others.
Rabassa was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Queens College in New York.