Canada | 2010, 2011
Anne McLean translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs and other writings by authors including Julio Cortázar, Héctor Abad, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Enrique Vila-Matas. Books she’s translated have been short-listed for the IMPAC award, received the Premio Valle-Inclán, and twice been awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas in 2004 and Evelio Rosero’s The Armies in 2009. She also returned to Santa Maddalena in 2011.
Santa Maddalena is a beautiful place full of dangerous distractions: striking, interesting furniture, objects, paintings in every room, each with a story; delicious food, exquisitely prepared, served and discussed a couple of times a day; the Tuscan spring advancing by the hour; a landscape that conjures up and contains all sorts of classical and modern stories; wild and domestic animals dashing away from or galumphing towards an encounter; a hub of literary, artistic and political gossip of the highest order … It’s almost a miracle that so much good writing gets done in such surroundings. But somehow it does. The days seem longer in Santa Maddalena. Freed from the stresses and obligations of normal life, we managed to cram in hours and hours of writing, translating and reading (Beatrice and Grisha’s bookshelves another tempting and inescapable distraction), as well as walking, talking, eating and dreaming.
I was there to work on the translation of Javier Cercas’ Anatomía de un instante, a hefty and fascinatingly intricate dissection of the attempted coup in Spain in February 1981. Few atmospheres could be more distant from that of the quiet rooms Beatrice provided (well, actually, most modern ambientes are pretty far away). In my head and on the screen of my laptop, Spanish politicians – Communists, Falangists, Socialists, Christian Democrats – stood up to civil guards and soldiers or ducked under their benches to shelter from a hail of bullets. Outside the thick stone walls, birds sang, lizards darted across the stones, between the vines, and no traffic could be heard; sometimes a dog or a deer barked, a woodpecker was often busy on a nearby tree. Before I could get stuck back into the coup d’état though, I had to complete the final polishing of the last chapters of the English version of Héctor Abad’s devastating and delightful El olvido que seremos, and agonize further over the untranslatable beauty of its title. Again the streets of 1980s Medellín were a very far cry from Beatrice’s Tuscan haven. But it somehow seemed easier than usual to immerse myself in distant worlds. Gregor von Rezzori, after all, wrote here of long-gone Bukovina; Bruce Chatwin conjured up Wales, Australia, maybe even Argentina … Both the writers who were there with me in March and early April were in the early stages of future books and not yet ready to talk about them (though my upstairs neighbour and I compared word counts most days; if she’d written half as many words as I’d translated, I felt she’d won), so we often ended up discussing the nitty-gritty linguistic, cultural, political etc. impossibilities of saying the same things in the same ways in different languages.
Having only three fleeting weeks, due to a bereavement, instead of a luxurious six was my main regret, but in the end I managed to produce a first draft of over a hundred pages of Anatomy of a Moment, as well as put finishing touches to a couple of other projects. I look forward to going back next year for another distracting and diligent three weeks. Santa Maddalena – quiero decir, Beatrice – offers rare privilege: time and space. A beautiful space, both inside and out, testimony to her unerring eye for elegant simplicity and detail. I don’t know how she manages the trick, but somehow there is time there to enjoy many, many of the distractions while devoting most of it to producing good and serious written work.