Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez in 1975: ‘He would say things like “you’re my voice in English” and I just melted.’ Photograph: Isabel Steva Hernandez /Colita/Corbis

An agent I knew called me one day and said: “Would you be interested in translating García Márquez?”, and I said: “Are you kidding me? Of course I would.” It was for Love in the Time of Cholera and I sent in a 20-page sample. I thought about it long and hard, as you would imagine, because there are as many ways to translate a text as there are translators.

I thought about what style of English I was going to use and apparently made the right choice. He did have one comment, which came by way of his agent, Carmen Balcells in Barcelona, and that was that in Spanish he didn’t use adverbs – that is words that in Spanish end in “mente”; the equivalent in English would be “ly”. His request was that I eliminate all of those from the translation. It’s very hard to figure out how to say “slowly” without the “ly”! So you find strange phrases like “without haste” in the books because I’m avoiding “ly”. It was like being back in school, having a very strict composition teacher. But also, I thought, he must be a damn good writer to be so aware of what he’s putting into his writing.

When I got to know him, I found him an utterly delicious man. He was very funny, with a straight-faced wit. I never knew what the expression “a twinkle in the eye” meant really; I couldn’t visualise it until I met him, because his eyes did twinkle. He was very witty, very smart, very underplayed. A very attractive person. We talked mostly about literature, a little bit of gossip. He would talk about Woody Allen, whose movies he admired. At the beginning of the 00s, I was terrified and excited at the prospect of translating Don Quixote and mentioned it in a note to him. I needed to talk to him so his secretary got on the phone and said: “Please hold for Mr García Márquez” and his first words to me were: “So I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes.” When I finished laughing we got down to business. I could see that twinkle in his eye all the way from Mexico City.

He had a simplicity of manners that was very charming. He would say nice things like “you’re my voice in English” and I just melted.

The last time I saw him was a while ago because he got sick and when he came here it was to Los Angeles, where one of his sons lives. He was seeing American doctors. So his travels to the US were to the west coast, and not New York, where I am.

I was really grief-stricken when he died. I felt as if the world were a smaller, darker place without him. It followed very soon after the death of [fellow Colombian writer] Alvaro Mutis, who died the previous September, and I translated his writing too. They were very close friends. Each other’s first readers. To lose Mutis and then García Márquez, I really felt very sad.

I recently reread Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s one of the great love stories. I’ve just finished teaching it and I thought, Oh my god! Imagine writing this. Just fabulous. In my opinion, he was one of the great novelists of the 20th century – right up there with Joyce, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner. I can’t imagine Toni Morrison writing without García Márquez; I can’t imagine Salman Rushdie writing without him. We should remember him with joy. And with the immense respect that genius deserves.

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