The Novelist and His Translator – Javier Cercas and Anne McLean

Readers of this blog may be familiar with Javier Cercas’ novel Soldiers of Salamis. I recently came across an interview Cercas granted to the Russian online newspaper Rusia Hoy during a literary festival in Bilbao, Spain. The writer  used the occasion to stress the importance of translation and express his respect for the role that translators play in world literature.

Below is my translation of his answer to the interviewer’s question “In your opinion, where do translators stand in relation to writers?”

They’re readers who rewrite what they read.

Obviously, they are readers who rewrite what they’ve read, but in a certain sense, all readers mentally rewrite a text while they read. That’s to say, when you and I read Don Quixote, we’re also jotting it down in our minds. My version of Quixote is bound to be different from yours. Borges addresses this phenomenon of how the reader transforms what he reads in his short story “Pierre Menard.” A translator does the same thing, with the novelty that he transports what he reads into another language. Interpretation is fundamentally an impossible, but at the same time necessary, task. What I want to say is that although it’s impossible for a translation to transmit exactly what a source text expressed in the writer’s own tongue, I believe that translation is necessary. Naturally, a good translation is a work of art. It’s an important, difficult, and worthy enterprise.  A translator does everything possible to achieve the impossible: faithfully transmit to the reader in a new language the essence of what was expressed in the original language. This is very difficult to do. I have an enormous respect for translators.

Cerca has developed a long-term working relationship with translator Anne McLean, who has brought not only Soldiers of Salamis, but also his The Speed of Light and The Anatomy of a Moment to English-speaking audiences.  Their collaborations have been well received by the critics. In her review of The Speed of Light for The Times, Christina Koning  recognized the complicity between the writer and his translator, saying, “Cercas is a fine writer, and Anne McLean’s translation admirably conveys his lucid style.”

McLean has also translated works by other Spanish and Latin American writers, including Julio Cortázar, Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vázquez, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, and Carmen Martín Gaite. She was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 and 2004 for her translations of Los ejércitos and Soldados de Salamina. McLean describes her approach to literary translation in an interview published in the website New Spanish Books, in which she makes a very interesting observation about translating an artist’s style, as well as his or her words: “All good authors have their own styles and you have to somehow transmit that to the reader. Good translators have to reinvent their style with each book.”  Transmitting an author’s style is only one facet of Anne McLean’s impressive talent for transporting what she reads to a new language. In awarding the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to McLean’s translation of Evelio Roser’s Los ejercitos, jury chair Boyd Tonkin praised both author Evelio Rosero and McLean, concluding that her translation, “captures every shade and nuance of this story in words that match gravity and grace.” What  does it take to be a good translator according to McLean “One quality that might not be advantageous to a novelist but that can contribute to good translations,” she says, ” is humility.” She believes “it helps to recognise that no one can know the world of a novel better than the person who created it and translators shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions.”

New Spanish Books is a joint project of the Spanish Publishers’ Association (FGEE) and the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX) with the assistance of the Economic and Commercial Office of the Spanish Embassy in London.