English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. First in the series is Anne Mclean, whose translation of Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment received an award in 2010
The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne Mclean
“All these things happen in Spain, where everyone and everything seems to be plotting against Adolfo Suárez (or where Adolfo Suárez feels everyone and everything is plotting aginst him). Outside Spain the situation is no more favourable for the Prime Minister; it was, but it isn’t any more, among other reasons because since he came to power Suárez has done the oppostie of what the world has done: while he was trying desperately to shift to the left, the world calmly shifted to the right.”
Interview by Polly Roberts
Cercas wrote The Anatomy of a Moment as someone who had personally experienced growing up during Francoist Spain; within the text he explores his interest in ‘the frontiers between morals and politics’ with the passion of first-hand experience. Did you find it difficult to approach this exploration without the personal connection to the Franco years?
That’s something that never actually occurred to me, though I suppose it might have been easier had I grown up in Spain, though I might then have been more inclined to transmit my own experiences rather than Javier’s. A translator’s job is similar to an actor’s or a musician’s: interpreting the score or breathing new life into a text, creating a new version for a different audience, a readership that might also have less common experience than many readers of the original might have had. The passion of the first-hand experience and the personal connection belongs to the author, but I hope it comes across through my words.
You had worked with Cercas in the past translating his title Soldados de Salamina, for which you were awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Does it make it easier to translate a title by an author whom you have worked with before?
I’ve translated five of Javier’s books now, two novels, two novellas (which Bloomsbury published in one volume) and Anatomy. I’ve just started working on his new novel, which came out in Spain a few months ago, and I can’t say that it ever really gets much easier. I might be more comfortable with his prose and more confident, perhaps, in my ability to recreate it, but it’s always challenging. I tend to translate the work of stylistically adventurous writers so if they’re trying new things with each book, then so am I.
How did you originally come to create a partnership with Cercas as a translator of his titles?
I wrote a report on Soldados de Salamina for Bloomsbury just after the London Book Fair in 2001 and a few months later was lucky enough to be commissioned by them to translate the novel. I sent a few queries by email once I’d finished the first or second draft but we didn’t meet in person until a few months before it was published in England. But we hit it off pretty much immediately and have been friends ever since. I ask him a lot more questions these days and don’t always wait until I’ve finished a first draft (though that’s not something I’d recommend).
Soldados de Salamina is a piece of fiction – which did you find easier to translate: the fiction prose of Cercas or the non-fiction of The Anatomy of a Moment?
Well, Soldiers of Salamis is not entirely fictional and Anatomy of a Moment is certainly not written in standard non-fiction prose. Javier actually claims both books are novels (without anything in Anatomy being fiction), and he makes a pretty good case (though it would take about ten pages to explain).
How much were you aware of the history before you translated The Anatomy of a Moment? To what extent did you feel you had to carry out your own research?
I knew there’d been a coup attempt in 1981, but not too much else. I always read a lot around the books I’m translating. I need to feel I know the background and there are some excellent British historians who write about Spain. I didn’t do anywhere near as much research as Javier did but a fair bit.
In the original Spanish, Cercas writes in very long, extended sentences more typical to the Spanish language – your translation retains the lengthiness of his sentences. Did you find it hard to decide how much to maintain the length of the original sentences?
I didn’t find it hard, though I have been taken to task for it by reviewers, occasionally. Long sentences are more common in Spanish prose than in English but Javier’s sentences are not typical Spanish sentences; they are carefully crafted, well-considered Cercas sentences and are as long as they need to be and I try to respect that. It’s also quite fun and challenging to recreate them in all their glorious lengthiness in English.
Anne McLean is a Canadian translator. After a degree in history and a stint as a bookseller, she began to learn Spanish while living in Central America. Anne later moved to England where she completed a Master’s Degree in Literary Translation. She has since translated works by Julio Cortázar, Javier Cercas, Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vázquez, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Carmen Martín Gaite, among others. She was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 and 2004 for her translations of ‘Los ejércitos’ and ‘Soldados de Salamina’.