My greatest failure as a reader is my inability to read literature in a second language. I have something of an ADD problem with languages, and have never gained fluency in any beyond English. I learned Spanish in high school, Gaelic in college, Russian in my free time, and I’m now just beginning to dabble in French. I may know enough Spanish to get me around Spain on vacation without looking like a total idiot, but I’m lucky if I can count to ten in Russian anymore without throwing in a few Gaelic numerals.
Recently I noticed just how much I was missing out on when I saw how many works by Julio Cortázar (1914 84), one of my favorite writers, have not been translated into English. Archipelago recently released the first English translation, by Anne McLean, of The Diary of Andres Fava. I was so impressed by the novella that I wanted to get in contact with McLean to talk about the work of translation and the books of the masterful Belgian-born Argentine who is so well-known by Spanish and Latin American readers, but virtually invisible to English-speaking ones.
McLean translates works mostly from South America and Spain, but Spanish is actually her fourth language, and she didn’t speak a word of it until well into her 20s. She was politically involved at the time, and had traveled to Guatemala to see the revolution first-hand.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” McLean says. “I just went traveling and spent a few months in Mexico and ended up staying in northern Guatemala for half a year, and then a bit longer than that in Nicaragua. A few months after the Sandinistas lost the elections, I came to England for a while, and used to go to Spain when my visas ran out to teach English, improve my Spanish, and get some circulation back in my toes.”
When McLean first moved to England in 1996, she saw an ad for a master’s program in “The Theory and Practice of Literary Translation.” Since earning her MA, she’s translated works by Javier Cercas, Ignacio Padilla, Carmen MartÌn Gaite and Paula Varsavsky. The authors themselves hail from a range of countries including Spain, Cuba, Argentina and Mexico. Translating works from different lands that ostensibly have a common tongue presents an interesting challenge for someone in McLean’s line of work. “There are many, many different Spanishes,” the translator says, *#8220;just as there are lots of different Englishes.”
She continues: “The variations in vocabulary and accent between, and within, Iberian and American Spanish don’t necessarily have much to do with the styles of the authors who write in them, though sometimes, of course, they do. If there’s a lot of dialogue, and especially if it’s colloquial, it’s very difficult to keep alive in translation, but it’s not necessarily more difficult to translate slang from Buenos Aires than slang from Barcelona; the tricky thing is to make it sound believable in English, but still have the characters who are speaking it sound as if they’re from Buenos Aires or Barcelona. “A few years ago I co-translated a novel called Shadow Without a Name, by Ignacio Padilla. Ignacio’s part of a group Mexican writers who, fed up with flying iguanas and thunderclaps of butterflies, deliberately set their novels in Europe and write in a sort of mid-Atlantic Spanish. My natural English is Canadian and [co-translator] Peter Bush writes in British English, so we ironed out each other’s idiosyncrasies in a way that was quite true to Ignacio’s intentions in the original.”
But McLean didn’t get her first chance at translating Cortázar until a she used a little bit of friendly harassment.
As a reader, it had taken McLean a few runs at works by Cortázar before she really got it. “I read Blow-Up and Hopscotch and We Love Glenda So Muchin the 1980s before I knew any Spanish, and I was intrigued, but I didn’t really get obsessed until I read Deshoras, probably in about 1993 or so. There’s a story in that book his last collection of short stories called ‘Pesadillas’ (‘Nightmares’) that was a breakthrough for me, because it was the first time a piece of writing in Spanish hit me with full force.”
The Harvill Press in 1998 reprinted some of Cortázar’s work in an anthology of short stories, and McLean tried to convince them to bring out more. Her perseverance paid off when a Harvill editor, Euan Cameron, eventually passed along her name to Archipelago Press in the U.S. when they were looking for a translator for The Diary of Andres Fava; the result of McLean’s effort was brought out last month.
Literature in translation may always be low-profile in bookshops, but what can lead to even greater frustration for McLean is the simple lack of appreciation for a writer who is one of her favorites.
“In decent bookshops you see Hopscotch and Blow-Up, and in really good ones, you might find a few more. But he has become an obscure author in English, which Spanish and Latin American readers find pretty hard to believe.”
“On the one hand,” she continues, “it is a great shame that more of his work isn’t in circulation in English, but it also means there are many, many readers who still have the discovery of Cortázar to look forward to, and that’s something I envy. I think a Julio renaissance is long overdue, and it could be time to look at re-translating a lot of his early stories.”