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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Techniques  »  Analysis of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Cien años de soledad, by Gabriel García Márquez

Analysis of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Cien años de soledad, by Gabriel García Márquez

By Roser Bosch Casademont | Published  09/12/2011 | Translation Techniques | Recommendation:
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Roser Bosch Casademont
Da Inglese a Spagnolo translator
Membro da: May 14, 2003.
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Roser Bosch Casademont

Analysis of Gregory Rabassa’s translation
of Cien años de soledad, by Gabriel García Márquez


This article analyses 10 passages of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Cien años de soledad, by Gabriel García Márquez. The reason of this choice is twofold: first, the Spanish original is considered the masterpiece of the Colombian Literature Nobel Prize winner; second, Rabassa’s translation has been widely acclaimed, not the least by García Márquez himself, who declared Rabassa’s translation to be superior to his own original.

Cien años de soledad, the story of the Buendía family in the imaginary town of Macondo, is considered as one of the five key novels in Hispanic American literature and “one of, if not the, most influential Latin American texts of all time” (1). It was a revelation in the magical realism genre, where magical elements blend with reality and are told as normal occurrences in a detached tone.

Gregory Rabassa had translated works of Julio Cortázar, who recommended him to García Márquez. Accordingly, García Márquez waited three years for Rabassa's schedule to become open so that he could translate One Hundred Years of Solitude. (2)

According to Thomas Hoeksema, translator and Professor of English:

In what must qualify as the most outrageous compliment, Dallas Galvin, Coordinator of the Translation Center at Columbia University, states that “many Spanish-speaking people who are bilingual prefer to read Rabassa's English, because it is clearer than the original Spanish.”
(…). John S. Brushwood, author of many books on Mexican and Latin American literature, observes that Rabassa's translation of Marquez’ novel “overcomes difficulties that would sear the imagination of most translators.” William Kennedy concludes that “On the basis of One Hundred Years of Solitude alone, Gregory Rabassa stands as one of the best translators who ever drew breath.” (3)

Therefore, with both a source and a target text so exceptional, the resources used in the translation are of great interest and inspiration.

This article analyses the various transformations occurring in the translation process of the selected passages (morphosyntactic, lexico-semantic and pragmatic or cultural) as well as identifying other translation decisions such as cultural transposition, connotative meaning, translation loss, compromises, and different types of compensation.

In addition, it is interesting to examine whether the English translation tries to “foreignize” and/or “domesticate” some expressions of the source text. To this end, it is important to examine the background of the novel.

The story takes place in a fictional Colombian town called Macondo –initially a small settlement with barely any contact with the outside world and which eventually grows into a large town with a banana plantation– during 100 years, or seven generations of the Buendía family. Given this setting and its magical realism style, it’s an “exotic” book even for Spanish readers. In addition, one would imagine that García Márquez’s artful and rich prose would be extremely difficult to reproduce faithfully in another language.

Before such a challenging text, the options open to the translator throughout the book were either to try and “domesticate” the text, by adapting the foreign elements to the English language and culture, or to remain close to the original maintaining many of the foreign Hispanic elements. Rabassa took the latter choice in many occasions by using calques and some occasional exoticisms, as it will seen in the analysis of the passages, when there was no easy way to adapt the text to the target language. Given the above mentioned context of the novel, I think in most cases this was a wise decision in order to preserve the “outlandish flavour” of the Spanish original. However, there are some instances where this resulted in an important translation loss, as observed particularly in the 8th analysed passage.

In many other circumstances, Rabassa adapted the translation to the target language as required to preserve a natural flow (rethorical domestication). While cultural transplantation –replacing items specific to the source culture with items specific to the target one– was not an option for the translator given the Colombian setting of the novel well known by the readers, on the other hand the translator often chose communicative translations, rendering the source text expressions by their appropriate cultural counterparts in the target language. He thus managed to make himself “invisible” to the English-speaking readers, so that “the translation never calls attention to itself. Rabassa creates the perfect counterfeit”. (4)


Abbreviations used:

ST: source text
TT: target text
TL: target language

Passage 1

Source text
José Arcadio Buendía, cuya desaforada imaginación iba siempre más lejos que el ingenio de la naturaleza, y aun más allá del milagro y la magia, pensó que era posible servirse de aquella invención inútil para desentrañar el oro de la tierra.

José Arcadio Buendía, whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius1 of nature and even beyond miracles and magic, thought that it would be2 possible to make use3 of that useless invention to extract gold from the bowels4 of the earth.

1 lexical transposition (ST “ingenio” would rather mean “inventiveness”, “ingenuity”). Compromise: the translator chose a word which flows better than a literal translation (and of similar phonic effect to the ST).
2 grammatical transposition (TT conditional for ST imperfect past)
3 grammatical transposition (TT verbal periphrasis for ST verb) and addition of reflected meaning with wordplay “make use of that useless…”. This is a form of translation loss
4 morphosyntactic transformation involving lexical semblance between ST verb and TT noun / compensation by splitting (expansion): the ST verb “desentrañar” is rendered as “extract from the bowels” as there is no TT verb that would convey the same meaning

Passage 2

Source text
Los niños habían de recordar por el resto de su vida la augusta solemnidad con que su padre se sentó a la cabecera de la mesa, temblando de fiebre, devastado por la prolongada vigilia y por el encono de su imaginación, y les reveló su descubrimiento.
-La tierra es redonda como una naranja.

The children would1 remember for the rest of their lives2 the august solemnity with which their father, devastated3 by his4 prolonged vigil and by the wrath of his imagination, revealed his discovery to them:
“The earth is round, 5 like an orange.”

1 Grammatical transposition (TT conditional for ST imperfect past + preposition)
2 grammatical transposition (TT plural for ST singular), required by target language
3 translation loss: “se sentó a la cabecera de la mesa, temblando de fiebre” left untranslated. It is puzzling why the translator decided to omit this, as there is no compensation elsewhere. It is unclear whether it corresponds to decisions of detail or whether it is a translation slip, as the translation of most of the book is quite literal.
4 grammatical transposition (TT possessive adjective for ST article)
5 sentence marker: addition of a comma in the TT

Passage 3

Source text
Quienes recordaban sus encías destruidas por el escorbuto, sus mejillas fláccidas y sus labios marchitos, se estremecieron de pavor ante aquella prueba terminante de los poderes sobrenaturales del gitano7.

Those who remembered his gums that had been1 destroyed by scurvy, his flaccid cheeks,2 and his withered lips2 trembled with3 fear4 at 5the6 final proof of the gypsy’s7 supernatural power.

1 Exegetic translation or expansion: addition of “that had been”. It is a decision of detail.
2 sentence marker: addition of a comma after “cheeks” and omission of a comma after “lips” in the TT
3 lexical transposition: translation of a preposition in the ST by a different one in the TT. Collocation reasons: “to tremble with fear” (not “of fear”) in English.
4 generalizing translation: the ST “pavor” is rendered by the TL hyperonym “fear” (wider and less specific than the ST term). This causes a translation loss.
5 lexical transposition: translation of a preposition in the ST by a different one in the TT. It is a decision of detail, as “to tremble before something” would be also valid. There is a certain translation loss, as “trembling before” may imply more respect or astonishment.
6 lexical transposition (TT article for ST adjective).
7 morphosyntactic transformation (TT Saxon genitive noun for ST prep+noun)

Passage 4
Source text
Sus sueños terminaban frente a ese mar color de ceniza, espumoso y sucio, que no merecía los riesgos y sacrificios de su aventura.
-¡Carajo! -gritó-. Macondo está rodeado de agua por todas partes.

His dreams ended as he faced1 that ashen2, foamy, dirty sea, which had not merited3 the risks and sacrifices of the adventure.
“God damn it!”4 he shouted. “Macondo is surrounded by water on all sides.” 5

1 grammatical transposition (TT periphrasis for ST adverb)
2 compensation by merging (TT adjective for ST periphrasis)
3 grammatical transposition (TT past perfect for ST simple past)
4 illocutionary particle. Compensation by splitting (one word in the ST rendered as a short phrase in the TT). Communicative translation: the translator chose a TT expression which conveys the same meaning as the ST one.
5 sentence marker: different punctuation used in the TT (“”) than in the ST (-) to mark the dialogue.

Passage 5
Source text
En medio del tropel de botas, de órdenes contradictorias, de cañonazos que hacían temblar la tierra, de disparos atolondrados y de toques de corneta sin sentido, el supuesto coronel Stevenson consiguió hablar con Arcadio. «Evíteme la indignidad de morir en el cepo con estos trapes de mujer -le dijo-. Si he de morir, que sea peleando.»

In the midst of the tramping1 of boots, contradictory commands, cannon shots that made the earth tremble, wild shooting, and the senseless2 sound of cornets, the supposed Colonel Stevenson managed to speak to Arcadio. “Don’t let me undergo3 the indignity of dying in the stocks in these women’s clothes4,” he said to him. “If I have to die, let me die5 fighting.”

1 grammatical transposition (TT gerund for ST noun) and lexical transposition (TT “tramping” = “trudging” for ST “tropel” = “throng”). Compromise: the translator compromises the literal meaning of the text in favour of fluency and a phonic effect similar to the ST
2 morphosyntactic transformation (TT adjective for ST prep+noun)
3 lexico-semantic transformation (rendering of “evíteme” by a periphrasis in the TT)
4 generalizing translation: the TT “clothes” is a hyperonym of the TL “trapes”, i.e. less specific (with the subsequent translation loss)
5 lexico-semantic transformation (ST “to be” in subjunctive mood rendered as “die” with imperative “let me”). Decision of detail: the translator chose to repeat the verb “to die” as a literal translation wouldn’t work so well in English

Passage 6
Source text
-Usted querrá decir -corrigió el oficial con una sonrisa amable- que es la señora madre del señor Aureliano Buendía.
Úrsula reconoció en su modo de hablar rebuscado la cadencia lánguida de la gente del páramo, los cachacos.
-Como usted diga, señor -admitió-, siempre que me permita verlo.

“You must1 mean,”2 the officer corrected with a friendly smile, “that you are the mother of Mister3 Aureliano Buendía.” Úrsula recognized in his affected way of speaking the languid cadence of the stuck-up4 people from the highlands5.
“As you say, mister,” she accepted, “just6 as long as I can7 see him.”

1 lexical and grammatical transposition (TT “must” in present tense for ST “querer” in future tense): communicative translation
2 sentence marker: TT inverted commas (“”) for ST hyphens to mark dialogue
3 compensation in kind: rather than translating “señora” (as well as “señor”), which wouldn’t work in English, the translator chose to emphasize “Mister” with the use of italics
4 compensation in place (addition of “stuck-up” before “people” for ST “los cachacos” at the end of the sentence) as well as compensation in kind (as “cachaco” is a colloquial word for both a gentlemanly person and someone from the capital, with the effect in this context of “stuck up”)
5 communicative translation. Translation loss, as in Colombia “páramo” would have a particular connotative meaning: an attitudinal meaning towards its people (compared to the Caribbean temperament of the inhabitants of the lowlands).
6 illocutionary particle. Adds emphasis to the request.
7 lexical and grammatical transposition: different verb and sentence construction in TT

Passage 7
Source text
«Tanto joderse uno -murmuraba el coronel Aureliano Buendía-. Tanto joderse para que lo maten a uno seis maricas sin poder hacer nada,» Lo repetía con tanta rabia, que casi parece fervor, y el capitán Roque Carnicero se conmovió porque creyó que estaba rezando.

“A person1 fucks himself up2 so much,” Colonel Aureliano Buendía said3. “Fucks himself up so much just4 so that six weak fairies5 can kill6 him and he can’t7 do anything about it.7” He repeated it with so much rage that it almost seemed to be8 fervor, and Captain Roque Carnicero was touched, because he thought he was praying.

1 exegetic translation or expansion. There is a certain translation loss, as “uno” in the ST clearly refers to himself (he could well say “Tanto joderme…”), while this is unclear in the TT
2 calque, with a foreignizing effect (as this expression wouldn’t normally be used as such in English)
3 generalizing translation: the ST “murmurar” is rendered by the TL hyperonym “say” (less specific than the ST term). This causes a translation loss.
4 illocutionary particle
5 exegetic translation or expansion (addition of “weak”)
6 idiomatic addition of “can” in the TT
7 rephrasing, exegetic translation or expansion (explicitly stating the subject and adding “about it” in the TT)
8 addition of “to be” and grammatical transposition (past tense in TT “seemed” for ST present “parece”)

Passage 8
Source text
Allí lo puso José Arcadio Segundo, en el instante de derrumbarse con la cara bañada en sangre, antes de que el tropel colosal arrasara con el espacio vacío, con la mujer arrodillada, con la luz del alto cielo de sequía, y con el puto mundo donde Úrsula Iguarán había vendido tantos animalitos de caramelo.

José Arcadio Segundo put him up there at the moment he fell1 with his face bathed in blood, before the colossal troop2 wiped out the empty space, the kneeling3 woman, the light of the high, drought-stricken4 sky, and the whorish5 world where Úrsula Iguarán had sold so many little candy7 animals6.

1 lexical transposition: generalizing translation (TT expression is wider and less specific)
2 Partially overlapping translation: the literal meaning of the TT expression adds some detail not explicit in the literal meaning of the ST expression (“military troops”), while it omits some other sense that is explicit in the literal meaning of the ST expression (“tropel” as “mob”). Compromise: again, the translator compromises the literal meaning of the text in favour of a phonic effect similar to the ST
3 grammatical transposition (TT gerund for ST participle)
4 morphosyntactic and lexical transformation (prep+noun in ST rendered as noun+adj in TT, plus addition of communicative/collocative “stricken”)
5 calque –maybe to have a foreignizing effect? – with the subsequent translation loss. According to Dr. James McCutcheon of Niagara University,
“Gregory Rabassa's English translation of this crucial line (…) does not adequately transmit the emotional impact the original Spanish version has on the reader. (…) The problem is that (…) the equivalent meaning in English would be much closer to the expletive "fucking". (…)While the expletive used in this revised translation might seem offensive to some readers, it more adequately transmits the abrupt bitterness in tone expressed by the narrator in the original Spanish version, the only time in the novel he displays any such emotion. (…) This is particularly noteworthy, considering again the scene during which the narrator can seemingly no longer contain his emotion: the massacre of thousands of men, women and children by government troops based on a real massacre that occurred in 1928 near García Márquez's childhood town.” (5)

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. McCutcheon interpretation – “whorish” does in no way cause the same impact as the ST expression. The TT equivalent would have been “fucking” or, at least, if a less offending word was to be used, “damned” or “bloody” (cf. the translation as “the F-word” in the English speaking media of the same adjective recently uttered by a famous Spanish football manager referring to another equally famous coach…) (6)
6 morphosyntactic transformation (TT “candy” used as adjective without need of ST preposition “de”)
7 morphosyntactic transformation (TT “little + noun” for ST diminutive suffix “-ito”)

Passage 9
Source text
Amaranta se sintió tan incómoda con su dicción viciosa, y con su hábito de usar un eufemismo para designar cada cosa, que siempre hablaba delante de ella en jerigonza.
-Esfetafa -decía- esfe defe lasfa quefe lesfe tifiefenenfe asfacofo afa sufu profopifiafa mifierfedafa.

Amaranta felt so uncomfortable with her defective diction and her habit of using euphemisms to designate everything that she would always speak1 gibberish2 in front of her.
“Thifisif”, she would say, “ifisif onefos ofosif thofosif whosufu cantantant statantand thefesef smufumellu ofosif therisir owfisown shifisifit3. 4”

1 grammatical transposition (TT conditional for ST imperfect past)
2 partially overlapping translation: the TT expression does not exactly convey the same meaning as the ST one –meaning “code”– but adds the meaning of “rubbish” or “nonsense”, implicit in the context
3 Compromise: rather than adding the same particle “-fa/fe/fi/fo/fu” at the end of each syllable, the translator chose different particles inserted between syllables in the TT, such as “-if/fos/osif/sufu/tantan/fesef/mufu/osif/isir/fisi/…”, to render a similar phonic effect (although losing the “code” component)
4 Within the “encoded” sentence, “Esta es de las que le tiene asco a su propia mierda” rendered as “This is one of those who can't stand the smell of their own shit”: change in deictic “those” for ST “las”, and communicative translation of “le tiene asco” as “can't stand the smell” in the TT

Passage 10
Source text
-Pobre la tatarabuelita -dijo Amaranta Úrsula-, se nos murió de vieja.
Úrsula se sobresaltó.
-¡Estoy viva! -dijo.
-Ya ves -dijo Amaranta Úrsula, reprimiendo la risa-, ni siquiera respira.

“Poor great-great-grandmother1,” Amaranta Úrsula said. “She died2 of old age3.”
Úrsula was startled.
“I’m alive!” she said.
“You can see4” Amaranta Úrsula said, suppressing her5 laughter, “that6 she’s not even breathing.”

1 translation loss: the affective meaning (a type of connotative meaning) of the ST diminutive suffix “-ita” is lost in the TT as it is neither translated nor compensated for (a possible compensation could have been “Poor dear…”, but this might mean compromising the flow of the sentence)
2 translation loss: again, the close bond conveyed by the ST pronoun “nos” remains untranslated and not compensated elsewhere
3 addition and grammatical transposition: nominalization of ST adjective “vieja” as “adj+noun” in the TT
4 rephrasing / addition of “can” in TT
5 grammatical transposition (TT possessive adjective for ST article)
6 deictic (creates a subordinate clause, while in ST there are 2 different sentences)


As a conclusion, one can’t but admire the way Gregory Rabassa’s manages to deliver an accurate translation of the novel (even literal on many occasions) which at the same time has a very natural flow and preserves the elegance, richness and evocative language of García Marquez’s prose. He succeeds sin doing this by using a wide range of strategies, from exoticisms to all sort of communicative translations, including lexical and grammatical transpositions, morphosyntactic transformations, etc. On a wide range of occasions he uses calques and rather literal translations which seem to emphasize the “foreignness” of the text; on many others, he makes compromises in favour of flow or phonic qualities (rethorical domestication). A good translator must accept that there will be all sorts of decisions to take and compromises to make, and here the challenge was taking the best possible decision on each occasion and bringing the readers of the TT close to a tale taking place in such a distant setting (linguistically, culturally and even in terms of reality, given the genre of the novel).

There are obviously some instances of translation losses where the target text won’t have the exact same effect on the English-speaking readers than the source text on their Spanish-speaking counterparts. However –apart from a couple of “mistranslations” mentioned in the previous analysis–, in the case of Rabassa’s work this is the perfect example of “translation loss” understood “not [as] a loss of translation, but of exact ST-TT correspondence in (the process of) translation. (…) Our concept of translation loss is, therefore, not opposed to a concept of translation gain; where the TT gains features not present in the ST, this is a form of translation loss.” (7) This would be wholly illustrated by García Márquez’s assertion that he preferred Rabassa’s English translation to his own – what was being “missed” by the English-speaking readers was more than offset by Rabassa’s splendid translation.

And the translator’s merit is that he achieved this flow by letting himself be “led” by the ST –he’s known to read for the first time many of the books he translates as he’s working along, as he believes the translator must act both as a reader and a writer–, while at the same time displaying a masterful command of the English language with all its nuances, synonyms and resources.

Borrowing Venuti’s concept of the translator’s invisibility, the merit of Rabassa’s work is getting into someone else’s skin and making the readers unaware that the novel was originally written in another language. In the words of Gregory Rabassa himself:
“García Márquez is said to have remarked that he liked my English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude better than his own original Spanish one. I can only humbly assume that the credit lies with the English language, that the book should have been written in English and I was only trying to correct that mistake. My mystical feeling, however, is that Gabo already had the English words hiding behind the Spanish and all I had to do was tease them out.”


1 Wikipedia, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
2 Wikipedia, Gregory Rabassa.
3 Hoeksema, Thomas. 1978. “The translator’s voice: an interview with Gregory Rabassa”. Translation Review, Volume 1, 1978.
4 Hoeksema, Thomas. 1978. “The translator’s voice: an interview with Gregory Rabassa”. Translation Review, Volume 1, 1978
5 McCutcheon, James. 2009. “A Key Word in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Translation Journal, Volume 13, No. 3, July 2009.
6 Antony Kastrinakis. “Pep’s F-word dig at Mourinho”. The Sun, 27 April, 2011.
7 Hervey, H., Higgins, I., and Haywood, L.M. 1995. Thinking Spanish Translation: A Course in Translation Method. Spanish to English. London: Routledge, p.16
Rabassa, Gregory. 2005. If this be treason: translation and its dyscontents, A memoir. New York: New Directions, pp. 43


García Márquez, Gabriel. 1973. One Hundred Years of Solitude. London: Penguin Books. Translated by Gregory Rabassa.

García Márquez, Gabriel. (1967). 1980. Cien años de soledad. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés.

McCutcheon, James. 2009. “A Key Word in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Translation Journal, Volume 13, No. 3, July 2009. URL:

Halka, Chester S. 2000. “One Hundred Years of Solitude: Two Additional Translation Corrections”. Journal of Modern Literature - Volume 24, Number 1, Fall 2000, pp. 173-175

Hervey, H., Higgins, I., and Haywood, L.M. 1995. Thinking Spanish Translation: A Course in Translation Method. Spanish to English. London: Routledge.

Hoeksema, Thomas. 1978. “The translator’s voice: an interview with Gregory Rabassa”. Translation Review, Volume 1, 1978.

Mott, Brian. 2009. Introductory Semantics and Pragmatics for Spanish Learners of English. Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions Universitat de Barcelona.

Rabassa, Gregory. 2005. If this be treason: translation and its dyscontents, A memoir. New York: New Directions.

Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

Wikipedia, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Wikipedia, Gregory Rabassa

Wikipedia, Magic Realism

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