Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Megan McDowell, Translator of Chilean and Argentine Literature

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Kentucky-born, Santiago-based Megan McDowell is one of those names that you’re certain to come across if you’re even vaguely interested in Latin American literature. A prolific translator of Chilean and Argentine fiction, she has a truly impressive roster of titles under her metaphorical belt and – honestly? – her work ethic terrifies me.

Most notably the translator of Mariana Enríquez and Alejandro Zambra (both of whom I’m, rather embarrassingly, yet to read), McDowell has also translated Samanta Schweblin, Paulina Flores, and Lina Meruane. (In fact, her translation of Meruane’s Seeing Red was one of my first forays into Latin American literature some years back.) Literature aside, her gloriously cloud-like cat Bubbles is a thing of beauty.

Here, we discuss saying screw you to the idea that literary translation isn’t a sensible career path, navigating the nuances of Chilean Spanish, and the need to trust translators.


Lauren Cocking: What does translation mean to you, whether that’s as a concept, a practice, or a career?

Megan McDowell: It’s a way of life, I guess. The fact that I live in Chile has been really important for me as a translator. I started learning Spanish late, so I think it was really important for me to immerse myself in order to just catch up. And the longer I’m here, the more I learn about the culture, the language. Translation is something I think about all day, every day. My life is a constant search for the concentration that I need in order to sit in front of a computer and get really deep into whatever book I’m working on. So, you know, it’s the way that I interact with the world, mostly.

LC: Has learning Spanish later affected anything for you in terms of people’s attitude or your approach to translation?

MM: It hasn’t affected how people treat me, I don’t think, but it took me a long time to think that I would be able to be a translator. I didn’t realise I didn’t have to be fully bilingual in order to do it. I’ve always felt like I was at a disadvantage. I mean, I don’t feel like that anymore, but even when the first book I translated came out, I didn’t feel like I could really call myself a translator.

LC: Have you found that literary translation often has to go hand-in-hand with other work? That it’s tough to make a career out of it?

MM: I did a masters degree and had a focus on literary translation, and I remember we would have translators come and talk to us in classes and they would say: “you don’t make money on translation, this is not something you can do as a career” and I was like: “screw that! I’m totally going to do it.” And later of course I was hit with the reality that they were right, and for a long time I really struggled.

As with any art, when you’re starting out as a translator, there are a lot of people who want you to work for free or for very little, so you definitely have to have some other form of income and for me, I bartended, I waited tables, I taught English classes, I did a lot of things. I started a PhD program. Thank God that didn’t last!

LC: What were you going to do?

MM: It was a program in Switzerland, I wrote a proposal for a dissertation on translating Latin American writers, and I got as far as taking a couple of classes, but then I had to leave Zurich. But I’m really glad I don’t have an academic career now. I feel like I dodged a bullet on that one. And then when I came back to Chile, I spent three years working part time at an investment bank, which kicked my ass because I was working five hours a day there and then trying to work on my books at night and on weekends. It was exhausting, but it really set me up for where I am now because I bought my house, I have my residency in Chile and now I work full time on literature, on translating books. I’m really glad that I can say it’s a career now.

LC: I noticed that most recently you’ve transitioned into translating more works by women. Is that a conscious decision?

MM: When I first started, the books I translated were by men, and obviously that wasn’t a conscious decision, but at some point – I think at the same time as everyone else – I realised that there were way more translations by men than by women getting published. So, it’s like: “oh, I should do something about that.” But I didn’t really have to try that hard – there are lots of great women writers out there, and publishers were starting to really look for them. I started translating Lina Meruane, and her book, Seeing Red, is the only project I really actively tried to find a publisher for. I did a sample and wrote a reader report and shopped it around, and eventually it was published by Deep Vellum. That’s the kind of thing I wish I could do more of, actively promote projects I want to do. Soon after, I got offered two great books relatively close together, by Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin. And after that I couldn’t take on all that many new projects, I was mostly trying to keep up with the books my writers were putting out. Though I have taken some, by both women and men: Paulina Flores, Nicolás Giacobone, Daniel Mella. There are books in the pipeline for this year by Sara Mesa and Juan Emar. Maybe because I’ve only translated one book by each of those writers, I don’t get asked about them as much.

I don’t think I’ve really turned down any books by men in favour of books by women. If I’ve turned books down, it’s because either I didn’t want to do them or I didn’t have time.

LC: Do you still pitch titles to publishers?

MM: Well, I haven’t pitched anything in a really long time. That’s partially because I stick with the same writers over time, and lately my writers have been very prolific. Alejandro Zambra and Mariana Enríquez last year published two giant novels [Poeta chileno and Nuestra parte de noche]. And that’s pretty much my year right there.

I would really like to do more pitching. I feel like it’s kind of a responsibility that I don’t fulfil, because editors sometimes ask me what I want to do, and I just can’t do any more. But I also work as a mentor, so I try to help my students find good projects, in lieu of pitching books.

LC: Is there anyone you have your eye on?

MM: Right now, I’m reading a book by [Uruguayan writer] Fernanda Trías called Mugre rosa. I won’t talk about the plot because I’m not finished with it, but I can say it’s beautifully written. Her book of short stories [translated by Annie McDermott] is going to be published by Charco Press, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from her.

LC: I was looking at who you’ve translated, and you tend to stick to quite a tight geographical location – mostly Chile, mostly Argentina, although you’ve also done a couple of Spanish and Cuban titles, including My Favourite Girlfriend was a French Bulldog by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias. Is this something you do consciously? Do you think that people can translate literature from a country that they’re not intimately familiar with?

MM: Can they? Yes. Is it more difficult? Also, yes. For me, because I learned Spanish here in Chile, it’s what I feel more comfortable with. I never know everything, but in Chile I know what I don’t know. The rhythm and the music of Chilean Spanish is what is in my head and the further I get from Chile, the more difficult it is for me. At this point, I’m pretty good with Argentine Spanish.

One thing I still have trouble with…cussing is really difficult. Like, when it’s not the cusswords that Chileans use, it’s hard for me to know the register.

I really wish a publisher would pay for me to go to the north of Argentina and stay there while I translate Mariana Enríquez’s book, because I don’t know those places or what they feel or sound like, and I’d really like to have them in my skin in order to really feel the story…but obviously no one’s going to pay for me to do that.

LC: Yeah, that makes sense. I read in an interview about how “as a twin, you define yourself…in relation to each other, not as a discrete entity.” Thinking about translation, do you find that constant comparison a frustration or a freedom?

MM: I think it’s more of a freedom, because I understand what it means to always be comparing two things, for one thing to exist in relation to another, but for it to also have to stand alone, independently. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with that comparison.

I think the hardest thing for a translator to do is to let go of the original. I mean, it’s hard for me too. I still struggle with that. For me, the editorial process is really important because I see how people are reading what I translate. It’s hard to get the Spanish out of your head and to really think what works in English and what doesn’t, and I think beginning translators really struggle because there’s this idea: “oh, I want to be faithful, faithful, faithful to the original,” and it takes a long time before you realise being faithful to the original means letting go of it. Maybe it’s counterintuitive, but I have a sense that being a twin makes me more comfortable with difference between two supposedly identical things. That’s my theory.

LC: You said that people love to hate translators. Why?

MM: I think translation has gotten a really bad rap. The most common thing that people think about with translation is what’s lost, which is so detrimental, because obviously you gain a whole new book and literature depends on translation. But if you go through – and I don’t recommend this, but I have on occasion done it – Amazon and Goodreads reviews, people will say things like: “I’m giving this four out of five stars, even though I loved it, because it’s a translation and I know I’m not really reading the actual book” or “I’m sure the original must be even better.” The assumption that a translation is inherently inferior seems to be the culturally accepted idea, and it’s one people don’t really interrogate much, they just accept it.

LC: Do you think that’s an attitude you only see in Anglo countries, such as the US and the UK? Do you think you would see a critique like that from a Latin American or Spanish reader?

MM: That’s a good question. My impression is that in non-English speaking Europe, translators and translation are much more respected. In Latin America, in general, translation itself doesn’t have a bad reputation, but I think people don’t really consider it a creative practice. I think there’s this idea that the translation just is and people don’t question it much.

LC: Do you think that’s just due to the exposure to translation in everyday life through cinema and literature?

MM: Maybe, although people do like to criticise subtitles – that’s definitely a thing! I think people just are more willing to read in translation here. You grow up reading translation and some readers are aware of what is a good translation and what’s not. But it’s really indicative that there are no literary translation programs, not in Chile, at least. If they exist, they might be in Mexico.

LC: Yeah. I think it also speaks a lot to the dominance of a white Western canon, even in countries where it’s not predominantly white, Western or English speaking. And that has a lot to do with the attitude to translation, I think, too.

MM: Absolutely, yeah. There’s a cultural hegemony of Anglo culture, and the silver lining of that is that people here [in Latin America] are more willing and curious to read books translated from English at least. And you compare that to the States where people are so xenophobic and closed off to the world, that they just don’t even think about it. They don’t have that curiosity.

LC: Absolutely, and this reminds me of something you said in a LitHub profile: “while there were books everywhere by white American writers from middle class backgrounds, there weren’t that many perspectives that came from outside the English-speaking world.” Is this also a criticism that could be levelled at people working within literary translation too, which is dominated by white, middle class Americans and Brits. And if so, how can that be changed?

MM: That’s a really good and important question. Yes, I do think that that criticism can be levelled. Most of the people who translate Latin American literature are white ladies like me. It’s hard to make a living at any kind of art, and in order to deal with that kind of precariousness you have to have a support system. I guess that middle-class white people tend to be the ones who have the luxury of taking chances and trying to do something they love, but that isn’t a great career choice if you’re trying to feed a family or just survive. Translation tends to be poorly paid, like all art, though unlike other art forms there’s no chance it will ever pay off in fame or glory. There are no famous translators. In short, there are high entrance barriers and not a lot of incentives.

So, how can we change that? I’m not sure. Identifying the problem is a start, and acknowledging that it’s important to have a range of perspectives and to open up the translation and publishing world, make it less of a club. Intuitively I’d say it would entail concerted efforts from publishers and academic programs to identify obstacles to minorities in translation, and find ways to overcome them. I’m afraid it would have to involve money of some sort, paying translators better, awarding grants, funding programs. Translation would have to be more highly valued, and I do hold out hope for that.

LC: Yeah, definitely. Thinking more about your translation practice, you’ve said that the last step is to collect adjectives and adverbs. First of all, hilarious. Second of all, accurate. What are some translation critique cliches that you’d like to put to bed?

MM: That’s a really good question. I think there are words that reviewers go to directly and they don’t really think about it that much; I think of words like limpid or seamless. These words that are basically synonyms for transparent, which all go back to this idea that the translator should be invisible and that the job of a translation is to make it seem like it’s not a translation. I understand that, but I don’t think that should be the goal.

LC: How would you prefer people to talk about your translations?

MM: That is very possibly a question I’ve never asked myself. I think I find it most gratifying when people look at what I’m doing overall. I guess you have to talk about the translation as the work of both the writer and the translator. I should say that I really do appreciate the adjectives and adverbs—they represent a positive shift, reviewers are trying to acknowledge the translation. Used to be, the translation was only mentioned if the reviewer wanted to criticise it. I don’t know how to say this in a short pithy way. I guess it would be trust translators.

LC: What are you working on at the moment?

MM: Well, I turned in my draft of Poeta chileno, and right now I’m working on Nuestra parte de noche by Mariana Enríquez. I’m also working on editing a book called Yesterday by Juan Emar, which is the very first book I started working on back in grad school. It’s gone through several iterations since then, and now it’s going to be published by a British press called Pereine. And I’m working on some stories for the Granta: Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists.

LC: What have you been reading from Latin America recently?

MM: A book that I’m really excited about these days is Piñen, which is by Mapuche writer Daniela Catrileo. It’s a short book, just three stories, and it came out with a small Chilean press called Pez Espiral. It’s really good, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Header image of Megan McDowell is © Sebastián Escalona.

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