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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation / memoir


If This Be Treason

Gregory Rabassa

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase If This Be Treason

Title: If This Be Treason
Author: Gregory Rabassa
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 189 pages
Availability: If This Be Treason - US
If This Be Treason - UK
If This Be Treason - Canada
  • Translation and its Dyscontents
  • A Memoir

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Our Assessment:

B : breezy, cursory translator memoir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 6/5/2005 Angel Gurria-Quintana
The LA Times . 14/8/2005 Michael Henry Heim
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/5/2005 William Deresiewicz
Voice Literary Supplement . Spring/2005 Jorge Morales
The Washington Post . 24/4/2005 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is no disputing Rabassa’s importance as a literary translator. His memoir, however, is strangely insubstantial. What might have been an elegant and insightful investigation into the art of translation is padded with avuncular humour, sideswipes at academics and literary critics, and metaphors that fall flat." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "One might even say that the volume, slim as it is, consists of several books. It is, as I have implied, an apologia -- a defense, not an apology -- for literary translation; it is a memoir, one boy's story, so to speak, of how he came to ply the craft; it is a rumination on America's literary culture; and it is an annotated reading list of Spanish and Portuguese literature in the form of short essays on each work he has translated." - Michael Henry Heim, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though he discusses names, addresses, and titles, he reveals few details of his technique, save for the occasional bombshell." - Jorge Morales, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Though dubbed a memoir, If This Be Treason (...) remains more scrapbook than book. (...) Nothing here is really what you'd call profound, but much of it is excellent literary entertainment." - Michael Dirda, The Wasington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       If This Be Treason is presented in three parts -- though the last, By Way of a Verdict, is barely a page in length. The bulk of the (not very bulky) book is devoted to first the translator and then the translations.
       In the first part, Rabassa offers some general thoughts on translation, as well as family and personal background that went into shaping him as translator. From an early fascination with language to the stations of his life that (far from inevitably) led to him becoming a translator, Rabassa offers a general introduction to his career. More quick profile and general musings on the art than full-fledged memoir and in-depth analysis, it nevertheless offers some insight into his philosophy, approach, and working habits (and what formed these). Particularly notable: Rabassa generally doesn't read the books before he translates them:

I used the excuse that it gave the translation the freshness that a first reading would have and which ought to make others' reading of the translation to be endowed with that same feeling. I have put forth this explanation so many times that I have come to believe it, loath as I am to confess that I was just too lazy to read the book twice. I do think, really, that by doing things this way I was birthing something new and natural
       The second and longest part of the book takes up, author by author, the works Rabassa has translated -- his "rap sheet". Debuting with Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (a translation for which he won the National Book Award, when they still had that category) and a few years later translating that best-known of all Latin American novels, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rabassa was responsible for some of the major translations from the Spanish and Portuguese over the past four decades. The list of authors is impressive, and includes Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Juan Goytisolo, António Lobo Antunes, and Machado de Assis.
       There are a lot of authors, and a lot of books, and Rabassa doesn't devote much space to them individually. What he offers is general observations about each book and author, and then a few title-specific issues -- often dealing with the titles themselves, which are surprisingly often good examples of the problems faced in translation. It's all of some interest -- especially his comments on some of the lesser-known works -- but generally the reader is left wanting to know a great deal more.
       There are quite a few fun personal details, such as U.S.-based Rabassa and off-limits Cuban-based José Lezama Lima corresponding about the Paradiso translation via diplomatic pouch in Paris (courtesy of Cortázar), as well as some interesting insights and admissions, including:
At the risk of offending or dismaying my many friends who speak Spanish, I must admit here and now that I prefer Portuguese, especially in the Brazilian oral mode with all its unique sounds and rhythms.
       Throughout one wishes he'd go in more depth and offer more explanation, as some of the most interesting observations come as mere asides -- the difference between the Portuguese spoken in Brazil and that spoken in Portugal, for example, or when he writes:
I do find that with a language in which I am rather weak, like Russian, I do know just enough to enable me to read poetry along over so many unknown words and yet get to understand it in some ways better than in an English translation that is loud and clear.
       Also of interest is how Rabassa came to translate many of these books -- though again he unfortunately does not provide much detail: several of the books he's translated were at the request of an author or an author's relative, etc., and without a contract with any English-language publisher (explaining why some of them are still unpublished), whereby Rabassa doesn't explain who paid him (or if he got paid at all).
       The book offers a decent survey of modern Latin American (and a bit of Spanish and Portuguese-language) literature, a quick introduction to a nice sampling of authors and books. But it's a cursory look, and throughout one wishes that Rabassa took the time to regale his readers at a more leisurely pace. Occasionally annoying, too, is the sometimes forced jocular tone -- Rabassa jokes around a lot, but much of it isn't particularly funny (it's the sort of stuff that will do in conversation (think cocktail party chatter) or a classroom-lecture, but falls flat on the page).
       A breezy, entertaining look at one translator's (impressive) career, If This Be Treason does offer adequate rewards and considerable food for thought, though not quite enough reflection or detail.

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If This Be Treason: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gregory Rabassa lived 1922 to 2016. He was a leading translator of works from the Spanish and Portuguese into English.

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© 2005-2016 the complete review

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