Cagibi had the pleasure of conducting this interview with translator Megan McDowell in late 2018, in November through January. We were first introduced to her work in by way of her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s Private Lives of Trees, published in 2010. She has since translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain, including other works by Alejandro Zambra. Her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home won the 2013 English PEN award for writing in translation. Other authors translated include Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. Her translation of a collection of stories from Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds: Stories (its Spanish title Pajaros en la boca), has just been released, January 9, 2018, from Riverhead Books. Mouthful of Birds: Stories is McDowell’s second translation of a book by Schweblin; earlier she translated Schweblin’s first novel Fever Dream (its Spanish title Distancia de rescate), shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Kentucky, she now lives in Santiago, Chile.
Cagibi: You’ve translated so many books and stories. Is it true that you don’t do this full-time? How do you manage to do as much as you do? This would be inspiring for others to hear.
Megan McDowell: It was true up until a couple of months ago, but I’ve quit my day job now! I was working part time in an investment bank, five hours a day. It got to be too much and I was approaching burnout, so now I’m devoted 100% to literature. I’m poorer but more well-rested.
Cagibi: We read that what prompted you to become multilingual was when a publisher did not hire you, and you learned it was because you did not speak a second language. For our readers here, would you mind talking again about how you became proficient in Spanish?
McDowell: That’s true, I mistakenly got the idea that knowing another language would help me get a job in publishing, which was what I wanted to do back then. I also just really wanted to live for a while outside the U.S., and I was drawn to Spanish mostly because of the books and music I was into, so I started buying grammar books and teaching myself. Then in 2004 I moved to Chile and that’s when I really started learning. I started late, as an adult, but I was pretty disciplined/ nerdy about it. I avoided other gringos in Chile and I always loved grammar exercises. I don’t really know what happened with Spanish, because I’ve since lived in Portugal and Switzerland and I didn’t have the discipline to learn Portuguese or Swiss-German.
Cagibi: How did you begin this work? How did you originally come to the work of translation? Did you fall into it, or climb into it?
McDowell: I definitely climbed into it. I was interested in translation from the start, before I even knew Spanish, which is not the way things usually work. I loved to read books in translation, and I always wanted to be involved in publishing literary translation in some way. My first translating job was in 2005, when I started working at a British shipping company in Valparaíso. I translated legal documents and all kinds of reports—environmental, accident, insurance. It was a good job and I loved Valparaíso but I knew I wanted to translate literature. So I moved back to the States and started a Master’s program at the University of Texas at Dallas. While I was there I took a translation workshop and my project was a book by Alejandro Zambra called The Private Lives of Trees, and that was the first book translation I published. I guess you could say I was lucky.
Cagibi: Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees—I’ve never read anything that as elegantly harnesses the power of imagination to survive deep loneliness and loss as this slim novel. I can’t think of a better word than survive. I was so moved when I first read it many years ago, and I return to it again and again. There’s a moment that comes to mind in the narrative, on page 75 in my copy, in which the narrator is imagining his daughter later in her life:
She knows that very soon Ernesto won’t come back. She imagines herself disconcerted, then furious, and finally invaded by a decisive calm. It’s all right, there was no commitment, as it should be: one loves in order to stop loving, and one stops loving in order to start loving others, or to end up alone, for a while or forever. That is the law. The only law.
This passage came to me as you say that you loved places—Valparaíso—and needed to stop loving Valparaíso in order to start loving translation. When you look back on this book, have some things about this novel stayed with you? Do you look back on this first workshop, this first book, with fond memories of the translation process, or was it a struggle to untangle the language?
McDowell: I’m so pleased to hear how the book affected you! I love The Private Lives of Trees, and a lot of it has stayed with me; it was foundational, I was just starting to develop my strategies as a translator. There are things I would change in the book (and will in future editions), but I’m still proud of that translation, and I stand by it. I always remember the part where the main character, Julián, starts translating lines by Emily Dickinson into Spanish, and I had to think about how to translate his translations into English. The final section of the first part of the book is like a prose poem adaptation of Dickinson:
“Tolerar, soportar, tolerate bear, carry, endure, shoulder, countenance, take charge of; take charge of the night—accept the darkness, live with our portion of the night, accept a part of the night, defeat the darkness, remain after the light, go deep into the night, take charge of the darkness, take charge of the night.”
I love those lines, how they build in crescendo. Those words—bear, endure, etc.—often call this section to mind for me. In Multiple Choice, when we were writing new exercises for the English translation, there’s one that playfully calls back to them:
I guess that’s the kind of intertextuality a translator can accentuate when you work with an author over many books. It’s also something that was gained in translation, which I like to emphasize because people always talk about what is lost, which I think is a misplaced focus.
Cagibi: The books you’ve translated have had a variety of formal choices—the suspenseful and intense Fever Dream, no chapter breaks; the short prose-poem-like no-chapter-number sections of Diego Zúñiga’s Camanchaca; and the playful composition of Zambra’s Multiple Choice as a standardized test. Are you drawn to odd formal choices? In what ways does the work feel different for you than when translating more conventional, let’s say dense, prose?
McDowell: I suppose I am drawn to unusual formal choices, yes. I think the thing that comes first is always the experience of reading; I want to be surprised and caught up by a book, and all the books you mention do that partly through formal invention. Story is the basic thing, the fundamental thing, but I’m also interested in ways of organizing a story, or the question, like you see in Multiple Choice, of how much or little is necessary before the reader can construct her own story. I’m not at all against traditional forms, I’m sure they’re not exhausted; maybe I somewhat distrust them, and I need to be convinced a writer isn’t leaning on our expectations and reinforcing tropes, which feels lazy and boring. I incline toward books that make us question our expectations as readers.
Cagibi: What do you do in a difficult moment of translation, when the original phrasing doesn’t feel like it’s even possible to cross over to English, and the original author can’t help—maybe the complexity of the language feels way out of reach—how do you work through a moment like this? Can you give us an example from one of the texts?
Well, those moments come up all the time! As I alluded to before, in the translation of Multiple Choice, we significantly “changed” the text in translation. The format is based on a multiple choice test, and the first couple of sections rely a whole lot on wordplay and cultural reference. In the translation we changed many of the questions themselves, trying to take advantage of the resources English offers while still maintaining the themes of the original. For example, a lot of people wondered why we didn’t call the book Facsimile, since that’s the direct translation of the Spanish (Facsimil). But in Chile the word has another resonance, it’s used specifically in relation to the university placement test that the book is based on, and in English it would have lost that entirely. The idea of copies or multiples is also a theme that runs through the book; ultimately, we decided Multiple Choice was the best title. But almost every exercise in the first section and many in the second are like that—plays on words that would be difficult or impossible to translate “literally” without adding footnotes to explain the joke, something I try to never do.
Another example is in a story by Mariana Enriquez’s Things we Lost in the Fire, called “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt.” The main character, Pablo, is a tour guide in Buenos Aires who leads a “murder tour” to the sites of famous crimes in the city. The Big-Eared Runt was a famous serial killer who murdered children in the early 20th century, and one of his most gruesome crimes involved driving a nail into a child’s head. That is also the crime that led him to get caught, when he went to the boy’s funeral out of curiosity to find out whether the nail was still there.
Pablo loves his job, but his wife, who has just had a baby, wants him to quit and get a better one. We see Pablo grow obsessed with the Runt, to the point where he begins hallucinating him while he’s giving his tours. His resentment toward his wife and baby also grow, as he feels more and more excluded by their closeness and his wife’s nagging. Toward the end of the story Pablo remembers a tongue twister from his childhood: Pablito clavó un clavito/ Qué clavito clavó Pablito? / Un clavito chiquitio.
It’s a tongue twister about a boy named Pablo driving in a nail, and it hints that maybe Pablo’s baby’s head will meet a bad end. Clearly a tongue twister doesn’t translate well, and I couldn’t substitute an English one because the content is key. So I did two things: In a scene where Pablo is giving a tour and a tourist asks a question, I added a line about how Pablo knew the tourist was Caribbean because of “the way he pronounced the word clavo, nail.” That way, attentive readers will learn the word and be able to understand something of the tongue twister. I also included a memory about math class when he was in school. Here’s the full paragraph:
Pablo went back to his house thinking about the nail, and then about a math teacher he’d had in school. Whenever he got a problem right she’d say, “Pablito! You hit the nail on the head.” Then he thought about a tongue twister his mother had taught him when he was little: Pablito clavó un clavito. / Qué clavito clavó Pablito? / Un clavito chiquitito. He opened the apartment door to find the tableau that had become so common in recent months: the television on, a plate with Ben 10 cartoons on it smeared with the remains of pureed squash, a half-empty bottle, and his bedroom light turned on. He looked in. His wife and son were sleeping on the bed, together.
I added the part in bold, thinking that it’s another saying that involves nails and heads. But I still didn’t want to take the tongue twister out, and we kept them both hoping for a cumulative effect. It was also useful to have the teacher use the diminutive, so that readers are clear that Pablito refers to Pablo.
But in your question you ask what happens “when the author can’t help.” Fortunately, my authors always can—they are all alive and willing to answer questions and offer input. Even if they don’t speak English (Mariana and Alejandro both do), they can still understand the problems and offer insight. They can also sign off on my suggestions—essentially offer “permission” as authorities on the text. I’m not sure how much my approach would change if I were translating an author who was dead; maybe I would feel like the text were more set in stone, and I would turn to footnotes more. As it is, I tend to think of a text as alive and alterable, and my relationships with my writers as more or less collaborative.
Cagibi: I’m taken by the metaphor of “rescue distance”—in the book, it refers to this mother’s vague and unyielding fear, a constant nagging distress, that she must keep her daughter within close enough distance to rescue her, if need be. And of course it’s unreasonable, but it feels so relatable, so universal. And as a metaphor it could be applied in other ways—I found myself asking, what do I keep within rescue distance? Language and literature are my answers—are they for you as well? Is the very act of translation an act of keeping language and story within rescue distance?
McDowell: Well now that’s an interesting question! The metaphor of rescue distance is the central concept of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, and the idea is that as a parent, no matter how closely you watch over your child, you can never really protect her from the evils of the world, and also you can never really know her. Both of those are very uncomfortable things for parents to think about, which is a big part of why that book keeps people up at night.
What do I keep at rescue distance? I feel the question’s phrasing might come too close to equating books and children, which is something I try to avoid. Language and literature are probably the most important things in my life, but I know I don’t have the power to rescue them in any small way, it’s more the other way around. But yes, translation is definitely a way of keeping story and language close by, it’s a way of reading deeply and making a book or story my own in the way that a reader makes a beloved book her own. I feel a sense of ownership of and distance from my books, and maybe that dual feeling comes close to the spirit of “rescue distance.”
Cagibi: In our Cagibi Express interviews, we like to ask, “Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.” To put this in the context of distractions for you as a translator when you are traveling: Is there something particular to travel that you experience as a translator? Whether it’s traveling to countries where you speak the language or do not speak the language.
McDowell: Hmmm, well the short answer is that travel IS one of my favorite distractions. Also when I travel, I read more for fun and less for obligation—I read things that I’m not translating or thinking about translating, I read in English.
From the point of view of translation, it’s hard to articulate what travel means to me, and also what home means. I live in Chile, where I’m always a foreigner, and from a certain point of view I’m always traveling. But living in Chile is great for me as a translator, I’m always deepening my understanding of the language and learning about new writers. I’m also always trying to make myself at home in a place that patently is not.
I’m writing this from Kentucky, where I grew up, visiting my family for Christmas. It’s strange to come back here after being gone so many years. It’s home, but it’s not, time has passed and I’ve changed. Maybe I could say that as a translator, travel is a way of life, a way of positioning yourself between cultures and languages that means you’re never really at home and you’re never really not. I think I feel most comfortable when I’m out of my comfort zone.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” In the translation work that you do, pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe.
McDowell: I definitely wouldn’t want a space as vast as the universe. I think that writing and translation have many things in common, but one of the differences—one of the beautiful things about being a translator—is that we never have to confront the abyss of the blank page. We always start with something. I always feel amazed when I think about the process of making a book out of nothing; I don’t think I could do it. So I think I’d need a restricted space, something to work within, some defined limits. But I also need open space within those limits; some of my most productive times have been spent at residencies, where your time and living space is built around creative production. It’s often hard in daily life to structure time and space for working, and time at a residency is cordoned off for work, it clears out space in your brain to work in. I can’t handle working in a messy space either, it’s too hard to focus on one thing; I have trouble with that because I’m always working on several things at once. So I’m going to choose c).
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write (to do your work of translation)? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
McDowell: I did my Master’s at the University of Texas at Dallas—a great program in a city that wasn’t for me. All I wanted was to go back to Chile, so I agreed to work at my friend’s hostel in Valparaíso for the summer (which in Chile is winter). The job consisted of living in this big, drafty old house in a room without windows, and working reception from 8am to 8pm for 7000 pesos a day (a little over 10 bucks). It was always cold, there were hardly any guests, and I basically never saw the sunlight (and yes, I’m still friends with that guy). I spent a lot of time hiding in my bed with its electric blanket, reading and working on stuff for school. I think that was the most uncomfortable working environment I’ve ever had, but it paid off because that was the trip I discovered Alejandro Zambra. When I went back to Texas I started working on his book for a translation workshop, and it eventually led to my first book publication.
Cagibi: What are you working on now?
McDowell: I’m working on two novels now; the first is Museo Animal by Carlos Fonseca, a literary epic about disguise and art. The other is Kentukis, Samanta Schweblin’s most recent novel, a kind of contemporary dystopian about voyeurism and the infantilizing nature of technology. Look for both in 2020!
I’m also finishing up corrections on two other books, both by writers being published for the first time in English. The first is Humiliation, short stories by the young Chilean writer Paulina Flores, who is definitely one to watch. The other is Crossed-Out Notebook, by the Argentine writer Nicolás Giacobone, who is best-known as a scriptwriter. It’s a gripping psychological novel about a director who kidnaps a scriptwriter and keeps him in his basement and forces him to write award-winning movies.
Cagibi: We look forward to reading these new works! Thank you, Megan!
Cagibi Issue 5