Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services
WHITE HOUSE HONORS QUEENS COLLEGE PROFESSOR GREGORY RABASSA
WITH NATIONAL MEDAL OF ARTS AS FOREMOST TRANSLATOR
OF LATIN AMERICAN LITERATURE
FLUSHING, N.Y., December 6, 2006 – Gregory L. Rabassa, Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at Queens College and one of the world’s leading translators of Latin American literature, has been awarded the 2006 National Medal of Arts. Prof. Rabassa received the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence from President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush at a ceremony last month in the White House Oval Office.
Nine other notable artists and organizations were honored along with Prof. Rabassa. They are: dancer Cyd Charisse, bluegrass musician Dr. Ralph Stanley, Cincinnati Pops orchestra conductor Erich Kunzel, classical composer William Bolcom, photographer Roy R. DeCarava, industrial designer/sculptor Viktor Schreckengost, arts patron Wilhelmina Holladay, Interlochen Center for the Arts’ School of Fine Arts and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans.
According to Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts which manages the National Medal of Arts nomination process, these individuals and organizations have “all made enduring contributions to the artistic life of our nation. Whether by translating the masterpieces of Latin American literature or bringing genius to the design of everyday objects or simply preserving the great musical heritage of New Orleans, their work has enriched our national culture.”
Now 84 years old, Prof. Rabassa has taught at Queens College since 1968. In that time, he has achieved widespread recognition for his translations of over 50 books by some of the greatest Latin American writers of the 20th century, including Jorge Amado, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Lezama Lima and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is perhaps best known for his translations of Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In April 2005 Prof. Rabassa published a memoir of his life and celebrated career called If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, which was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post and other major media. Eschewing such modern technological conveniences as the computer for a conventional yellow writing pad, Prof. Rabassa describes himself as a “temporal immigrant from the 20th century” who will “translate Elvis into Frank Sinatra, and … the Beatles into Count Basie and get along very fine that way.”
A product of multi-lingual parents – his father was from Cuba and his mother was of Scottish and English ancestry – Prof. Rabassa knows French, Latin, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, German, and some Russian and ancient Greek. His facility with languages earned him an assignment during WWII as a cryptographer for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. Prof. Rabassa, who holds a master’s in Spanish literature and a doctorate in Portuguese from Columbia University, has also taught both languages there.
When it comes to translation, Prof. Rabassa says, “The private sphere we inhabit is largely secret… My feeling is that this may hold the deepest instincts we put to use when we translate, before we lard it over with reason and its . . . rational attributes.”