Anne McLean is a Canadian translator who lives and translates in Yorkshire. This twice Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winner is the living proof of the saying "where there is a will there is a way" as she began to learn Spanish in her late twenties and grew familiar with Cervante's tongue while living in Central America. Years later in England she decided to take a Master's Degree in Literary Translation and that is how Anne McLean got to translate 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.
What would be a “typical” Monday for Anne McLean? Being a freelance, how do you combine your job and your life?
Well, there is no fixed structure to my workday but if I’m working on a first draft then I’ll be at my computer with the book I’m translating open beside it. When I get to my desk I try to begin translating first thing otherwise I tend to get lost and distracted answering e-mails.
Translating is a long process that involves several steps. First of all, reading the book and taking notes as I often do a report on a book long before I translate it, but of course, I report on far more books than I translate. Then I begin to do the first draft of the translation, which I try to do quickly without overthinking every word. It’s like asking yourself “How would this character say this sentence in English?” and then writing it.
The next step is reading that first draft together with the original Spanish, making sure I haven’t missed anything. Where the English version is not very clear or several options are possible, I’ll include those in square brackets so that later on I can choose the best one. Then I’ll read this second draft, polishing and choosing what works best. I print out and edit by hand each consecutive draft and then put these changes into the version on the computer. The third or fourth draft goes to the publisher and then I’ll go through the feedback I get from the editor and then the copyeditor and then I’ll read the whole novel again when the publisher sends me the proofs.
Do you get any kind of feedback or help from the authors of the books you translate?
Well, this varies enormously from author to author. I try to make notes of my questions or doubts while I’m writing the first version and sometimes these things will come clear to me later in the process and sometimes I will just ask. Some of the authors I translate know me quite well, and forgive the glaring gaps in my knowledge of their language, and when I talk to my colleagues I discover that I really have been enormously lucky as my authors are all extremely generous and patient. I wish I could get a bit of feedback from Julio Cortázar but we can’t have everything…
Which are the problems that you encounter while translating? How do you cope with the different varieties of Spanish and English?
Well, that is definitely one of the difficulties: the different varieties of the language, the vocabulary, different idioms used in Argentina, Spain, Cuba, etc. ... For example, when I was translating The Armies (Los ejércitos), a novel by Evelio Rosero, who is Colombian, the dialogues are very different to those in Spanish from Spain but at the same time they’re also extremely different to the dialogues in the novels of Juan Gabriel Vásquez, for example, who is from Bogotá.
There is also the problem of varieties of English. I translate for both American and British publishing houses but I speak Canadian English, which often makes things easier, since I’ve always been aware of the disparities in the way people speak and understand each other, or don’t, and it sometimes complicates things as well.
Well, those are, let's say, the problems with grammar and vocabulary, which are on the surface and probably easier to tackle, but what about the style, the slang. Do you translate that too?
That's true. 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.
With slang, there are several options. Some people choose to translate, for example, Mexican slang into, say, Brooklyn slang, but I prefer to try to keep the reader believing the characters are Mexican. Sometimes I leave the odd word in the original if there’s enough context for the meaning to be clear, and otherwise I try to write a kind of language that’s somehow sounds like spoken language. But it’s different with every author and every different kind of slang you come across, so it’s impossible to lay down rules about it.
Which is the most difficult author that you have ever translated?
All of them [laughs]. No, but seriously, it’s just not a very easy thing to do. At least not for me. I found Evelio Rosero’s prose very difficult, as it’s quite poetic and yet there were scenes of such terrifying violence. It could be said that the better the writer, the easier it is to translate their work, but during most of the process they all throw up their own distinct challenges.
Your next translation is over 400 pages long. How long does it take to translate a book of those characteristics?
I really don’t know because I work on more than one book at the same time, as well as reading and writing reports. Ideally I like to leave time between the second and third drafts in order to come back to the translation thinking of it as an English text and not as a Spanish one.
And now, here it is our key question. Why do you think translations are less common in the UK than in other European nations? Please, do help us to solve this mystery.
I really do not know. There are lots of theories. For example, English is a language that allows you to read literature from many different countries. But then so does Spanish! You can read books from almost the world over (India, South Africa, Canada, the West Indies, Australia...) in English so a British reader who wants to get a view from elsewhere doesn’t need to get it from a translated book, but can find it written in their own language.
Another paradox is the difference between translation in the UK and in a country where many books are translated, such as Spain. In Spain, publishers demand fast and accurate translations. Despite Spain being full of skilled translators, these two qualities, speed and accuracy, do not always go hand in hand, and I think there is far less appreciation of the creative aspects of literary translation. Books don’t have exact replicas in other languages and recreating them takes time and a lot of thought and I think Spanish publishers tend to be rather less receptive to that fact.
In addition, translators probably get a bit more respect in the UK. One reason might be that translators in the UK and the US usually get to translate pretty great books as publishers are so reluctant to buy foreign books that the ones that do manage to get translated are usually of extremely high quality.
Another reason might be that not many editors here read other languages anymore, whereas in Spain and in other countries publishers and editors often do read at least English, and often French or German or Italian as well. There are, of course, some notable exceptions in the UK publishing world.
So if the publisher is the deciding factor and he does not speak Spanish or French, how comes a British publisher to buy the rights of a book written in a foreign language?
Most books are sold by Spanish publishers or literary agents. For example: Soldados de Salamina was sold by Tusquets who offered it to Bill Swainson (Bloomsbury), who commissioned me, and several others, to read the book and report on it. And that’s the usual way a contemporary book will get into the UK market. There will be some buzz about it in Spain and/or Argentina, Mexico, … and often, the translation rights will already have been sold for other languages and territories before a British publisher will take any interest.
But there are other ways of getting a publisher’s attention. For example, once a translator has worked several times for an editor you get to know what kind of books he might be interested in. So if I read a book and I think it’s the kind of book that Publisher Y might like I will certainly tell them about it. But it has to be said that most publishers are far more likely to say no than yes, most of the time.
Anne, you have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize twice. How does that affect the sales of a book? Is that a key factor?
Of course, if a book receives the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize we hope its sales will increase. But if an author book got the Nobel Prize for Literature sales would soar. [laughs]
Reviews are very useful, though I really don’t know to what extent they affect sales. The Armies and The Informers, which were both shortlisted this year for the IFFP, had been reviewed in papers like the Financial Times, Guardian, Times, TLS, Independent and some magazines.
The grants that the Spanish Ministry of Culture distributes are also very important to UK publishers. I’m sure these grants make it easier for Spanish publishers and literary agents to sell Spanish literature in the UK, as 80% of the cost of the translation of the book is covered by the grant. This is necessary because if we want a book written in a foreign language to compete fairly with a book written in English this grant covers part of the gap created by the costs of the translation.
I think publishers would like it if the books selected by the Panel of Experts of New Spanish Books automatically received a grant (as apparently happens with other similar projects run by countries such as the Netherlands or Finland). But we wouldn’t want those to be the only books eligible for grants either, and it would be extremely helpful if books by Latin American authors could also be supported.