Christina MacSweeney (Literary Translator)

Christina MacSweeney studied the MA in Literary Translation at UEA. In 2016 she was awarded the Valle Inclán Translation Prize for Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth; her translation of Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. She has also contributed to many anthologies of Latin American Literature and published shorter translations, articles, and interviews on a wide variety of platforms. Her most recent translations are: A Working Woman (Elvira Navarro), Empty Set (Verónica Gerber Bicecci), Tomb Song and The House of the Pain of Others (Julián Herbert). Her translation of Valeria Luiselli’s Los ingravidos (Faces in the Crowd) was recently adapted for the stage at The Gate Theatre, London. Her next publication will be Jazmina Barrera’s essay On Lighthouses.


Everyday Isolation: Silence and Noise

As with many others working within the publishing industry, isolation is part and parcel of my job. So, ironically, it seems like I’m actually communicating more these days as friends and family phone or email to check that all is well. I’ve even enjoyed a one-hour Skype chat in Spanish with a correspondent from México’s El País about the upsurge of writing by women in Latin American literature. So, life goes on, with the only difference that my normal isolation is somehow fenced in by the duty to behave responsibly, to think of others and their wellbeing.

I’m mainly working on two very different projects: one (a novel Karla Súarez with the title Havana Year Zero) is set in Cuba during the economic crisis of 1993; it has an intricate plot, is full of life, vivid voices and humour. My other project is an artist book, and is by the Mexican visual artist and writer Verónica Gerber Bicecci: here the action takes place in a ghost town in a former helium mining area of northern Mexico. I like to alternate between the two projects as their rhythms and voices are so different it gives me a sense of varying the routine of my week between the bustle of the city and the silence of the deserted town.

And that movement between silence and noise also seems to be characteristic of a wider everyday experience now. Many people have commented on the beauty of waking to the sweet sound of birdsong rather than traffic, and that is true for me too: I love sitting quietly over my first coffee, watching the clouds, noting how buds are turning into green leaves on the tree I can see from my window. But I also feel somehow relieved when the white vans of a nearby food delivery company drive by, showing me that the world is continuing, that I’m not alone in it. In spare moments, I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and that sense of open space, space you can get lost in, is also, paradoxically, comforting. She notes that explorers say they are never lost because they don’t know where they are going in the first place; and if I don’t exactly know where I’m going right now, maybe it’s not as big a problem as I might think, maybe I can just keep walking (mostly in my head) and see where the journey takes me.

And of course amid the silence there is also noise. Thursday evenings are very special noise, when the whole street comes out to cheer on the wonderful NHS workers (and think of many others who are also keeping our society going). It feels good to express gratitude to these selfless people, but there’s also something cathartic about the exercise: we’re allowed to shout, whistle and whoop for a few minutes. What a relief! Last Thursday, when I returned to the silence of my flat after that brief period of release, I suddenly remembered a moment in the December of 1999, when I was living in Caracas, Venezuela. We’d had weeks of torrential rain, with clouds so heavy and low that the Avila (the mountain range that separates the city from the Caribbean coast) was lost to sight for days on end. What happened came to be known as the “Vargas Tragedy”, when the terrain on the coastal side of the Avila gave way and descended towards the sea in massive landslides. Back in the 1990s, Caracas was a very lively city, full of noise and bustle, but when news of the tragedy began to leak out (tens of thousands of lives lost, hundreds of thousands left homeless, people trapped on the coast with no escape route) we were dumbstruck, silenced: we moved around like ghosts through the streets, taking food to the supply centres to be distributed among those in need. Forget the parties, even car stereo systems were strangely muted. At that time, I lived on the top floor of an apartment building that was on the flight path to the city’s small civilian and military airport, La Carlotta. What I remembered last Thursday evening was hearing the first helicopter coming over to land: the noise was awful, but I wanted to go to my window and cheer that helicopter because I knew it was part of the rescue mission, contained forty or so people brought to safety. During the following weeks that noise, that din, brought hope to a city in shock.

So, silence and noise in the everyday isolation of life: both of them necessary as time for thought and contemplation; time for recognition of those who deserve my gratitude and for the hope that wherever it is that this journey takes me/us will be a welcoming place.