I suppose that to be considered a memoir, Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents should have a tighter narrative, but it doesn’t nor did it ever intend to. Instead, the book revolves around a loose series of anecdotes; most importantly, reflections on his relationship with the mythic roster of Latin American authors that he has worked with over the years. If you want, you can gloss the makings of a philosophy on translation, though these thoughts only come in passing. The profession does not define nor does it dominate his perspective, but rather provide context for someone that seems to take life as it happens.
Rabassa’s famously does not read a book before translating it, preferring to do so as he goes along. He alludes to this by comparing translation to nothing more than a reading, one that avoids the dogma of criticism, but remains preserved in print nonetheless. This instinctual approach to translation is more interpretation than anything else. In regard to the title, this idea of treason defines the role of the translator. Rabassa alludes to the struggle for recognition, the development of the discipline, the many considerations that factor into the work itself, and so on. His writing in many instances proves insightful, even poetic: old age is the baroque moment of existence; not to mention his sharp sense of wit and genial prose.
In the beginning, Rabassa explains his almost casual entry into the discipline, something that today would most certainly be considered privilege. However, he describes this casualness with an awareness of his good fortune. As a result, his narration is one of convenience and opportunity. He describes the way language influenced his childhood and the way his ear developed. This propensity for language then becomes an interest in literature, and to another extent, the cultures themselves and the people who represent them through their writing. Despite this informal approach to translation, there is still a deep knowledge and respect for the literary traditions he comes across through his work. Many times he laments the lack of attention received by an author that he particularly enjoyed.
In the end, you can read the book for an insider’s perspective into some of the most influential Latin American writers of the 20th century. Rabassa’s legacy is almost canonical in that regard. But you also appreciate the art of translation, and how fluidly Rabassa makes reference to all the different languages that have informed his understanding of life and the work that he does. Above all, there is a humility to this text, a series of lyrical musings filtered through the lens of a responsible and lucid narrator.