The Making of a Tireless Literary Translator
Why Megan McDowell Never Stops Working
Megan McDowell, a translator from Kentucky living in Chile, has had eight books published in the past two years. “It’s not really healthy what I do, because I work a lot,” she tells me. “But a lot of those books I’ve been working on for a really long time.”
McDowell first started translating Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lágrimas—a novel about a famous mathematician living in a cabin in the Pyrenees—when she was in Switzerland in 2012. Restless Books published it four years later. Seeing Red, a book about writer Lina Meruane’s descent into near-blindness, was another project McDowell picked up around that time. She read the book, loved it and, in addition to undertaking the translation, worked alongside Meruane to find an American publisher. Deep Vellum finally picked it up and put it out in February 2016.
The other six books: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Riverhead), Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (Hogarth), Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga (Coffee House), Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné (Knopf), and My Documents (McSweeney’s) and Multiple Choice (Penguin) by Alejandro Zambra.
McDowell says that “translation is like creative reading. You have to read really deeply and have an interpretation and feel for a text in order to re-create it.” She generally approaches a book as an ordinary reader before attempting a first translation draft, revising that draft until she feels it’s perfect. Then she puts it aside—ideally for a few months—and comes back to it with the fresh eyes of an editor, questioning everything. After that, McDowell finally sends the manuscript to an editor at a publishing house.
But the process varies with each project: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, written in the form of a standardized test, contains so much wordplay and technical gymnastics that it required a re-write in the original Spanish in order for her to translate it. McDowell and Zambra collaborated on entirely new content to convey the effect of Zambra’s original idea.
“Translation is like creative reading. You have to read really deeply and have an interpretation and feel for a text in order to re-create it”
The books McDowell translates all tend to be innovative in their approach. They’re mostly thin, but they bring an explosive quality. They consist of razor-sharp sentences and self-contained vignettes; it’s possible to read many of them in a single sitting. They defy traditional storytelling conventions while guiding the reader through surreal landscapes of South America and Europe.
Take Fever Dream, a novel that was just nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. Fever Dream consists of no more than about 25,000 words and features a sustained nightmarish conversation between a dying woman and a young boy in a rural hospital in Argentina. Like many of McDowell’s books, Fever Dream finds its visceral effect in an intense focus on simple images—a hot steering wheel, a coffee mug on a front lawn, a cigarette between the lips. “Strange can be quite normal,” one character explains. “Strange can just be the phrase ‘That is not important’ as an answer for everything. But if your son never answered you that way before, then the fourth time you ask him why he’s not eating, or if he’s cold, or you send him to bed, and he answers, almost biting off the words as if he were still learning to talk, ‘That is not important,’ I swear to you, Amanda, your legs start to tremble.”
As a freelance literary translator—and there’s no other kind—McDowell’s catalog demonstrates her power as a curative force, as well as the precarious nature of her work. Of her last eight books, each one has been published with a different press, and you can find McDowell’s name on only two of those covers. Even when she’s working with great writers and great presses, the compensation is minimal—in some cases close to nonexistent. For the first time ever, she recently received a royalty check for one of her books: 500 dollars. She shrugs. It’s something.
Indie presses are the exception, she says, but, “when you’re with a big press, they just want to hide the translator’s name. I get it: my name isn’t going to sell books. I’m not a translator for the fame or the money.” She hesitates. “I guess then the question is why am I a translator?”
“I grew up in Kentucky, and I read a lot of books,” McDowell tells me. Her dad was from Alabama and her mom from Missouri. “And I just—I always had in my head that I would leave Kentucky. So I did when I went to college.” McDowell studied English at DePaul University in Chicago, where she first became interested in literature in translation. Reading Julio Cortázar, in particular, had a big influence on her.
After college, McDowell got a position as a Publishing Fellow with Dalkey Archive Press. Over the course of that year, she only read Dalkey books, which turned out to be a lot of weird stuff—and she fell in love. “When you study English literature in college, you read the things that everyone reads,” McDowell says, “I loved those things, too, but it felt like I was discovering treasure to be reading these great writers that I’d never heard of before.” She applied to work full time at Dalkey, but says that she was young and scared and bombed her interview. They later told her that the reason they didn’t hire her was because she didn’t speak another language.
McDowell sought to correct that. A friend talked with her about helping him open a cultural center in Valparaíso, Chile. She became obsessed with the idea and moved there ahead of him—teaching English in Santiago for a year. In total, McDowell spent about three years in Chile on that trip. She learned Spanish, but she still wanted to be working in publishing, and she wasn’t.
So she moved back to the U.S. to get a Masters Degree at the Center for Translation Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, but didn’t stay away from Chile for long. After her first semester of graduate school, McDowell returned to Santiago for three months. She traveled around to bookstores, talked to editors, and asked everybody about the most interesting writers working in Chile. “They told me lots of different things,” McDowell said, “but they also all told me Alejandro Zambra.”
McDowell read Bonsai by Zambra and asked him if she could translate it. He said it was already taken, but he sent her the Private Lives of Trees instead—a short, meta novel about a father improvising a bedtime story for his daughter. McDowell translated it and sent it to Melville House. They didn’t take it. Worried that it wasn’t any good, she put it away. But a year later, Open Letter publisher Chad Post asked to see her translation, and Private Lives of Trees came out from the press in 2010. Since then, Zambra and McDowell have published three more books in English, including Ways of Going Home, winner of the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation.
“One of the luckiest things I ever did was translate Alejandro,” McDowell says, “He’s a great author and one that I love, and that’s now who I’m associated with. So now when there’s a writer who fits along with him, I’m a candidate.”
After a few nomadic intervening years, McDowell began a phase of high-productivity when she returned to Chile in 2014. “When I finished my Masters Degree and couldn’t really get a job in publishing, I thought, where in the world do I want to go?” She lived in Portugal and Switzerland, but she was translating Spanish books for English presses and didn’t feel connected to the literary culture. “I decided to come back to Chile—not knowing if it was a good idea at all.”
To give her economic stability and make her efforts toward literary translation possible, McDowell now works five hours a day translating for an investment bank in Santiago. Speaking to the furious workload of the last year—when she translated Fever Dream, Things We Lost in the Fire, and Multiple Choice—McDowell says it was exhausting. Between the investment bank and translating those books, she didn’t have time for much else.
This tireless work is all to the tremendous benefit of English readers who, through the work of McDowell and translators like her, have gained access to some of the most innovative and thrilling writers in the world. McDowell has translated the English-language debuts of three Latin American women who are tossing hand grenades into established patterns of how stories work: Lina Meruane, Samanta Schweblin, and Mariana Enriquez mix genres, invent new forms, and terrify. They might make you feel that the novel is dead, and that it’s crawled back out of its grave as something more unsettling and exciting. While the literary culture in Chile and Argentina remains male-dominated, McDowell says that it’s not hard to find great literature by female writers. “There’s so much, and it’s so good.”
It hasn’t always been this way. “We used to talk about literature in translation, period, and we’re just now starting to talk about the disproportion of men who are translated relative to women,” McDowell says. “Literary history is male, and the women are the exceptions.”
At the moment, McDowell is working on something totally different: Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, a tell-all by Virginia Vallejo about her five years as Pablo Escobar’s lover. “I’m busting my ass to get it finished by the end of the month because they’re making this into a movie with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, and they want to launch the book along with it. It’s a pretty crazy story,” McDowell tells me. Descriptions of Gucci dresses and grisly murders rest side by side. “It’s salacious. It’s kind of like a soap opera.”
“We used to talk about literature in translation, period, and we’re just now starting to talk about the disproportion of men who are translated relative to women.”
She also just finished translating a semi-autobiographical book by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a famous Chilean-French writer, director, and spiritual guru. “His mother is a character who never talks, she only sings.” McDowell says. “He takes the events of his life and turns them into mythology.”
And that’s not all. McDowell’s next project will be Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection, Pajaros en la Boca, and Alejandro Zambra’s book of essays No Leer.
There wasn’t any one moment when McDowell woke up and decided she wanted to be a translator. “But at least for the past ten years, I’ve made translation my lifestyle,” she says. “Its what I do, and it’s hard to separate myself from translation.” When McDowell was little, she wanted to be a writer. But as she grew up, read more, went to college and graduate school, and traveled, she observed that 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. “Translation just seemed more personally interesting to me. And like it was more important.”
McDowell is the most selfless sort of artist there is. She’s a brilliant writer who has dedicated her mind, time, and creativity—her entire life—to lifting up the work of other people. Fortunately for English readers, it sounds like she’s about to have another exhausting year.