Books | 4/24/2009 12:00:00 AM
The invisible hand
Translator Anne MacLean is behind the recent nomination of two Colombian novels for the Independent foreign fiction prize.
“I have got no literary nationalism”, MacLean told Semana, although she also confessed that because of destiny –her sister worked as a teacher in Cali, Valle del Cauca province- Colombia was the first Spanish speaking country she visited in 1988, when she did not speak Spanish, a language she later learned during her travels through Central America and Spain.
“I read The Informers because two Spanish writers recommended it to me: Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Javier Cercas. I read The Armies because its Spanish editor, Juan Cerezo, told me about it and compared Evelio Rosero to Juan Rulfo and Horacio Castellanos. I didn’t believe him but when I read it I admitted that he was right, although Evelio does not agree with that. But I am no expert in Colombian literature or anything similar to that”. MacLean says that because she had never translated a Colombian writer before The Informers.
The experience of this professional historian and translator with Spanish speaking authors was based on Argentinean writers like Julio Cortázar abd Tomás Eloy Martínez, and Spanish authors, especially Cercasm of whom she has translated all his books and with whom he had won the Independent prize in 2004 with Soldados de Salamina.
“Those of us who have been very lucky to have been translated by her end up with the embarassing impression that she makes our books better. Anne is, so far I know, the best that can happen in England to those of us who write in Spanish”, wrote Cercas from Spain.
In the shadows of the original
“Nearly all my relationship with the Spanish language and its literature has been a matter of luck or by chance. I never studied the language, I learned it while travelling and with a lot of reading”, said MacLean, who had already learned many Latin American classic works in English when she learned Spanish. “At first I wanted to read García Márquez in his own language, but when I did I found out that he had been translated so well by Gregory Rabassa (and also by Edith Grossman), that reading “Cien años de soledad” was exactly like rereading “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. That sounds right, but it is not common that a translated novel is so similar to the original version”, explains MacLean, who shows with her enthusiastic answers that she thoroughly enjoys being nominated. And she deserves that, since the prize rewards both the writer and the translator (the 10,000-pound prize is divided between the two of them) and she is the only translator who is taking part with two novels this year. The other four books in the competition are translations from Hebrew, French, Albanese and Chinese.
“Anne was commissioned to translate from Spanish because she is one of the best translators in the business. She has great knowledge of Hispanic culture and great skills to find the equivalent in English of a great variety of narrative styles and languages”, Bloomsbury publisher Bill Swainson (who is in charge of publishing the works of Javier Cercas, Tomás Eloy Martínez and Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the UK) told SEMANA.
MacLean is currently translating “Historia Secreta de Costaguana”, by Vásquez, who exchanged 200 e-mails with MacLean while she was translating The Informers. He explains that she represents a variety of translator which is almost nonexistent, “the one who, more than being an expert in one language, is obsessed and convinced that his task in life is to stop readers of his own language from dying without having known the readers of the other language”.
The most wonderful aspect of this woman who is obsessed with novels and poetry is that she not only translates books perfectly, she also fights to find a publisher when she falls in love with a book. That happened with The Armies, of Evelio Rosero, book she presented to various publishing houses until she managed to convince Christopher MacLehose, “one of the publishers who has worked the most to bring foreign literature to British readers”. “He is the person who has tried the most to translate one of my books into English, with an incredible generosity. She translates parts or chapters and then recommends them to publishers over and over again. And it is definitely not easy to convince an English publisher”, admits Héctor Abad Faciolince, of whom MacLean is translating “El olvido que seremos” and for which Mac Lean, according to Swainson, has already found a publisher.
It is nearly a heroic deed to have a book published in the UK which ist not originally published in English. Only 3 per cent of the books published every year have been written in other languages. “But that includes accounting handbooks and things like that. If we talk only about literature of fiction, I think the percentage is even lower”, the translator added. Her success is therefore double. One for translating two Colombian authors, and the other for putting them on the list of the best books.