Mexican/Spanish translator Selma Ancira first learnt about the Baltic Centre in
Visby from colleagues she met at the Translation House Looren in Switzerland.
She applied, and was accepted for a three-week
residency last spring.
– I had never been to Sweden before and I must confess that I fell deeply in
love both with Stockholm and with Gotland. This is a magical island! My stay at
the Baltic Centre hadn’t even finished yet, when I was already feeling
nostalgic for this place and wanting to come back.
Let us start with her first name. Selma Ancira´s
father, who was a Mexican actor and a devoted reader, was very fond of the
novels of the Swedish writer and Nobel laureate, Selma Lagerlöf.
– When I was born, in 1956, my
parents decided that my name should be Selma, because they both loved the
writer. My name was a wonderful present from my parents.
We are sitting in the library of the Baltic Centre for
Writers and Translators, the day before Selma will return to Barcelona. This is
her second residency at the Centre and she has been
here almost a month. It is February and the cobblestone streets are covered
with snow and ice.
– To come to Sweden as a translator, to discover this gorgeous island, has been
for me a wonderful experience. Somehow, she says, maybe because of my name – I always
knew where it came from – I am very fond of Sweden. Every morning, when I open
my eyes and see the cathedral, the rooftops, the sea, I feel so grateful. It’s
so beautiful! This quiet and peaceful place offers golden conditions for work.
We work surrounded by beauty! Can you imagine anything better?
Every day in Visby, regardless of the weather, she
walks along the seafront, and in the forest and the historical town. She is a keen photographer.
– I enjoy going for long walks with my camera. Translating, walking and taking
photos is my entire life here. And after a day with Tolstoy and the sea, or
Tolstoy and the forest, meeting my colleagues in the dining room is incredibly
enriching. I have learnt a lot from other writers and translators in the house.
It´s a climate of friendship and creativity.
She is now translating Leo Tolstoy’s two-volume book
of aphorisms, “The Path of Life”, from Russian into Spanish.
– It´s a philosophical book of more than 500 pages. It has never been
translated into Spanish before. When I arrived here in January, I thought I
would be able to translate half of the first volume and, guess what? Yesterday I finished the draft of the whole
first volume! It’s incredible how much you are able to
In the 1970s, when Selma finished school in Mexico,
she moved to Russia (Soviet Union at that time), to study at the State
University of Moscow, focusing particularly on the work of the great writers of
the 19th century. As her father was a theatre actor, very much in love with
Russian literature, she had grown up with Chekhov’s plays, Gogol’s stories and
– I think that was the reason why I decided to go to
Russia. It was somehow a logical consequence of the education I had received. I
applied for a grant and got it. I spent nine years in Moscow: one year to learn
Russian, five years at the University, studying Russian literature and
language, and then three years for the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).
– It was difficult in many aspects. I was very much attached to my family, and
for the first time I found myself far from home. The climate was extremely
different from what I was used to. When I arrived in Moscow, I didn’t know a
word of Russian, so at the beginning it was kind of complicated. But still it
remains as one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It taught me a lot.
Not only a new language.
At that time Selma played the quena, the traditional
flute of the Andes, in a folk music ensemble with other students from Latin
America. They travelled to different cities of the Soviet Union, playing their
music. That also, she says, was an unforgettable experience.
For many years she thought that after finishing her
studies, she would devote her life to teaching Russian literature and language.
But something happened to change her plans. She read a book containing the
letters that three poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, Boris Pasternak and Marina
Tsvetayeva, wrote to each other during the summer of 1926.
– I started reading those letters and suddenly I felt that I needed to
translate that book. I had to share with my people the treasure I was discovering.
Summer 1926” became the first book that Selma Ancira translated, at the age of
twenty-three, with the support of Evgeni Pasternak, the son of the poet.
–That´s how it all started. And from that moment on, I have devoted my life to
translation. I think it is my mission in life.
During her last year in Moscow she started learning
Greek, the language she wanted so much to learn ever since as a child she got a
postcard from Athens while her parents were traveling in Europe. The image of
the temple of Parthenon on Acropolis stayed with her and she promised herself
that she would visit that beautiful place one day.
– In Mexico, she tells me, parents traditionally give a great feast for their
daughters when they turn fifteen. I asked my parents to take me to Greece
instead, and so they did! We all travelled to Greece. The nature, the culture,
the sound of the language, the bewitching sea, the ancient world with all its
beauty fascinated me.
The summer of 1982, she went to Mexico to work as a
Russian interpreter at the theatre and music Festival Cervantino. During the
festival she was given the opportunity to spend time with the Greek troupe and
try to learn more of the language.
– The last day when we were having breakfast together at the hotel, a
representative from the Greek ministry of culture offered some presents to
different people who had worked with the troupe. I couldn’t believe it when I
heard my name. I was offered a grant for one year at the University of Athens
to study Greek language and literature. He said: “During these days we could see how
much Greek language means for Selma and we want to encourage her”.
Since then, Selma has translated more than a hundred
titles from Russian and Greek into Spanish. She has received prizes for her
work, including the “National Translation Prize” in Spain, the “Pushkin medal”
in Russia and the “Tomás Segovia” award for literary translation in Mexico. She
was recently honoured by the prestigious “Read Russia” award for her anthology
“A Whimsical Landscape of Russian Literature” published by Fondo de Cultura
Economica in Mexico.
– I am very lucky, she says, because I have been able to translate mainly the
books that I like, the plays that I choose and the authors that I am very fond
of. Those with whom my soul feels deep empathy.
– For me it´s very important to get to know an author really
well, and to let him or her become part of myself. That’s why most of
the time I translate the same writers.
– In my literary biography there are few authors, but lots of books.
In 1988 she moved to Barcelona. Since then, she has
been working for publishing houses in both Spain and Mexico. Selma Ancira is
fascinated by traveling. She makes a point of visiting the places her authors
write about. She says that it´s very important to know the spots that she will
describe in her mother tongue.
– I’ll give you an example. In ”Loxandra”, Maria
Iordanidou writes about daily life in Constantinople, today Istanbul, at the
beginning of the 20th century. How could I report a dish if I don´t know how it
tastes? How could I describe the colours and smells of a city that I haven´t
visited? I really needed to go to Turkey and see for myself the places that she
describes in the book. In my opinion, my own experience enriches the
translation a lot.
Among her most stunning experiences was translating
Nikos Kazantzakis’ masterpiece “Zorba the Greek”, a book that brought her to
the island of Crete and to the peninsula of Peloponnese.
– I really enjoyed that translation, although it was very hard work.
Kazantzakis is a very difficult author. Among the difficulties I had when
translating the book was to find the words that have already disappeared from
the Greek language. I travelled to Crete, met old people and asked them about
the meaning of words that were never in dictionaries, because they were only
used in that particular part of the island. To find
these lost words was an amazing experience.
Selma Ancira’s photographs have been shown in
exhibitions around the world. Her latest exhibition, “The Sea is a Dream”, was
selected to officially open the new Hall of Contemporary Art in the State Museum
of Fine Arts in Tatarstan, Russia, in 2016. Wherever she travels, she always
takes her camera with her. Sometimes her photos have become the covers of the
books she has translated. One day she hopes to exhibit her pictures from
– Photography is a passion for me, to catch and preserve a moment of beauty.
Translation is also a passion. And I could say the same about traveling… I
guess it´s the way I have to be in this world.
Text and photo: Maria Molin