A word from the translator with Anne McLean

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Anne McLean, whose translation of The Sound of Things Falling won an award in 2013

In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once The Sound of Things Falling - Book Coverowned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above. Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare. The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vásquez; translated by Anne McLean

Interview by Grace Hetherington

Even in translation, the superb quality of Vásquez’s prose is evident, captured in Anne McLean’s idiomatic English version’… Do you find this comment negative or positive? How might we challenge the view that translated work is ‘second-best’?  

My first reaction when I read that was indignation but I realise the reviewer was trying to praise the author while pointing out that the version he’d read – the version he’d been able or lucky enough to read – was a mediated version. In other words, I think the reviewer meant his sentence to be admiring and not insulting and had he thought about it for half a second more, he might have phrased it differently.  

How do you feel about the way reviewers make judgements on translations, when it is often likely they haven’t read the original? 

As a translator of mostly contemporary literature I don’t really consider those able to read the original as my readership. I translate for people who read in English. I feel I can recognise a good translation from Hungarian or Japanese, without having any idea of how the original sounded, so I don’t have a problem in general with reviewers who don’t know Spanish expressing their opinions on what they perceive as the quality of my translations. I recently noticed this sentence:

‘…while I haven’t read the original Spanish text, I can only say that [the translator] is unlikely to have made such handsome bricks without good, abundant straw.’

I thought that was an interesting way for a reader who might not have a second language to look at it, and one that wouldn’t have occurred to me. Translators don’t really look at the original as raw material, but rather as a work of art to be reflected, or replicated, or taken apart and rebuilt in as much the same way as possible, using entirely different materials, which is what makes it so ‘impossible’, challenging, fun and also what makes it difficult for reviewers to know how to praise or critique. An insightful, enthusiastic, intelligent reviewer of another Colombian book once wrote, parenthetically, after admiring a sentence:

‘(I suspect that in the original the repetition of “sure” on either side of the comma was more noticeable. Still, at least the translator noticed it.)’

In fact there had been no repetition in the original sentence and I had used the word in two different senses in English, which it doesn’t have in Spanish. So, perhaps I was compensating for another moment somewhere else in the text where I hadn’t been able to reproduce an echo or recapture some felicity of the prose in Spanish, or perhaps it had just struck me as a nice effect that English offered when I was reworking and rewriting the sentence. Still, at least the reviewer noticed it.

This is the third of Vasquez’s novels you’ve translated. Had you read much Colombian literature before deciding to translate his work?

I read Gabriel García Márquez before I knew any Spanish, in the marvellous translations by Gregory Rabassa and then Edith Grossman, and re-read some of his books as my Spanish improved, but I’m no expert on Colombian literature. Strangely, within a year of reading Los informantes for the first time, I’d read another couple of books by two other Colombian authors that impressed me enormously as well, both of which I eventually translated: The Armies by Evelio Rosero and Héctor Abad’s Oblivion: A Memoir (which I co-translated with Rosalind Harvey).  

Do you think this book challenges assumptions Anglophone readers may have about Colombia?

I hope so. I’m not sure I’m best placed to generalise about Anglophone readers’ assumptions. I have certainly learned a lot from all his books, and not just about Colombia.

Describe The Sounds of Things Falling in three words.  

No. I’m afraid I can’t. I don’t think any description of something as complex as Juan’s novel could do it justice, let alone a three-word one…, which might go some way towards explaining why I’m a translator and not a publicist.

Anne McLean has translated the works of Javier Cercas, Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Padilla and Tomás Eloy Martínez. Her translation of Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle Inclan.

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