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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Interview Series > “We’re Rewriting a Work of Art”: An Interview with Anne McLean
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Anne McLean studied history in London, Ontario and literary translation in London, England. After a decade and a half in the UK, she now lives in Toronto, where she translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs and other writings by many authors including Héctor Abad, Isabel Allende, Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, and Enrique Vila-Matas. In 2004, the first of five books she’s translated by Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, was awarded both the Premio Valle Inclán and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In 2009, two of her translations of Colombian novels – The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez and The Armies by Evelio Rosero – were short-listed for the latter prize, which Rosero’s book went on to win. She was awarded the Cruz de Oficial of the Order of Civil Merit in 2012 in recognition of her contribution to making Spanish literature known to a wider public. In June 2014, her translation of The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Anne McLean


This interview was conducted over email by Catalina Gómez

What led you to become a translator of Spanish-language literature?

I imagine innumerable factors contributed at various points, but the short answer is: Julio Cortázar. I came late to Spanish, having learned French at school, studied history at university and worked at a book store for a couple of years after that. I read a lot of Latin American literature in translation then and eventually travelled to Colombia and Central America toward the end of the 1980s and spent a bit of time in Spain in the early ‘90s. As my Spanish improved, I began to read more contemporary fiction at the same time as going back to some of my favorite books to try to read them in the original. You discover new things every time you reread a great book, both about yourself and about the world, the book, life in general . . . but in the case of Cortázar, and specifically in the early short stories, I felt as though I were discovering a new author, a voice I’d never heard before. I wasn’t really thinking about translation at the time, just reading and wondering and eventually I saw an ad for a one-year MA in literary translation and considered the possibility. I was lucky enough to study with Peter Bush, an eminent translator of Latin American and Spanish literature in England, who is a very inspiring and collaborative teacher.

Back then I was quite critical of Cortázar’s first translator, the American poet Paul Blackburn, and I feel a bit bad about that now. I think there is something about Cortázar’s unique narrative voice(s) that is so personal, so intimate, that every single serious (or seriously obsessed) reader of his will have their own version of his voice in their head. Blackburn’s Cortázar to me sounds more American than Argentinian and more ’60s than ’50s (when most of the early stories were written), or contemporary (which Cortázar still sounds in Spanish to me, somehow). I do think it’s high time for retranslations of some of those stories, but I also suspect that back in the ’60s Blackburn’s versions sounded the way Cortázar wanted his stories to sound in English.

Can you describe the process of translating a book? Has it changed/evolved for you?

For anyone not obsessed with words and how they fit together and what they can do, the process of translating a book will probably sound incredibly boring: sitting in front of a screen, or propped up on the couch or a park bench with a stack of pages and a red pen, puzzling over nuances and shades of meaning and music over and over again, and occasionally enjoying the flow of sentences that somehow come off the Spanish pages and out through my fingers as if they were meant to be expressed in English. But it is actually much more fun than it looks, for writers who enjoy challenges.

The process hasn’t really changed much. Sentence by sentence, word by word, I still feel like I’m learning how to proceed every single day, guided by the prose of the original. For the most part it’s a fairly intuitive process, which makes it hard to describe. It’s basically a very in-depth and at times tortuous reading, followed by rewriting (which will be followed by several rewritings, by hand after the first draft), as you puzzle out how each Spanish sentence is doing what it’s doing, and try to do as many of those things as possible in an English sentence, which means performing the same task by using a quite different material and set of tools, but in the end hoping to achieve a similar result for a different readership.

How do you balance tone and syntax in a translation? And what parts of the Spanish language are most challenging to convey in English?

We’re not really trying to convey parts of the Spanish language. We’re rewriting a work of art (if we’re lucky) in English that was originally written in Spanish. I suppose in literary translation what we try to do is not rely on our “normal” tones or syntax in order to allow the author’s crafted tone to come through in the new language. In some ways it’s similar to what an actor does with a script, or what a musician does with a score. It’s an interpretation, but the goal is to reproduce, or get as close as possible to the artist’s original vision.

I usually try to follow the syntax of the original (as much as English allows) in my first drafts, but it also depends on what the prose is meant to do. If it’s a passage of dialogue in a novel, meant to be spoken by plausible characters, and we want the reader to be able to suspend disbelief and hear these characters speaking to each other as if they were real people, then you have to forego some of the specificities of Spanish and make the phrasing sound believable in English. There are lots of things the Spanish language does that English would do in a different way, but then there are also lots of variations within Spanish—all the various ways of saying “you” (usted, tú, vos, ustedes, vosotros), for example, depending on who you’re talking to and where and how many and the fact that verb endings allow Spanish speakers to let the pronouns remain unspoken quite often. But this is something that points to the dangers of literal translation (if such a thing were even possible). A Spanish writer can write a 10-sentence-long paragraph with each sentence starting with a different verb (with its implied subject), and a translator seeking to mimic that syntax could end up with 10 sentences each starting with the exact same pronoun, which might result in a less lively piece of prose.

So I guess the translator has to rely on his or her own writerly ear in the final draft, and then on her editor’s judgment and ear in the next phase

In our event with Juan Gabriel Vásquez here at the Library of Congress you said that you translate the same no matter who you are translating, and that translation has “much more to do with the narrative voice than with the author.” Can you expand on this and provide an example?

Well, of course it’s the author who has created the narrative voice, so it does depend entirely on the author, but I think what I meant was that when I’m rewriting Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s sentences I’m not thinking how would Juan say this, but how would Gabriel Santoro say this, or Antonio Yammara, or Sara Guterman, or Javier Mallarino (or the third-person narrator relating his story), who are all Vásquez’s creations and their voices are his inventions, but it’s their voices I have to listen to and recreate on the English page.

One of the best examples would be the novel Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, the narrator of which is called Javier Cercas, a character who is not exactly the author, though they share some things—such as a friend called Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer who lived in Blanes back in the late ‘90s when the novel was set, and who spoke in a markedly Chilean way in a novel otherwise populated by Castilian and Catalan characters and voices. I hope readers might be able to detect a slightly different lilt in the character’s English, which I hope they’ll read as Chilean English even though the real Bolaño’s Spanish was not necessarily particularly Chilean-sounding, having lived for decades in Mexico and Spain.

But the point is, I translated Soldiers of Salamis in 2002 and I didn’t meet Javier until I’d submitted the translation to the publisher. I’ve translated four or five more of his books since then and we’ve become friends, and I sometimes meet readers who are fans of that book who at some point in the conversation reveal that they think the author is just like the narrator of that novel. But to me they sound very different and always have, in Spanish and in English. They have a lot in common, but one is the carefully crafted persona of the other, who is an actual person.

As one of the most active translators of Iberian and Latin American literature today, what do you think publishers, booksellers, and literary organizations might better do to promote it in the United States?

As a Canadian translator, much of whose work has been commissioned by British publishers, I find it hard to address this last question, but I think a lot of publishers (perhaps especially small presses such as the dynamic and inspiring Archipelago Books, based in Brooklyn), libraries, book shops and cultural organizations are doing great work in promoting literature in translation and helping it reach people who would be interested if they knew it existed. Perhaps one of the keys is not to underestimate readers.