Interview: Megan McDowell

Translating New Worlds with Megan McDowell

It is hard to put into the words the effect Megan McDowell has had on my life, although maybe it’s best to say that in 2012 I read her remarkable translation of Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees and everything changed. I was living in Melbourne then, and studying creative writing, and while I was enjoying those texts we studied in class – Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – I was also searching for that modern kind of literature that might tell me more about love or loss or family or growing up or trying to stay young in the world as I knew it, and perhaps even offer some solutions as to how to better structure and articulate my own ideas too. Of course, Zambra was – is – twelve years older than me, but through McDowell and her subsequent translations of Ways of Going Home, My Documents, Multiple Choice, Not to Read and Chilean Poet I learned about Chile, about growing up in the wake of the Pinochet dictatorship, about computers and the internet and relationships and literature and the literature that might be possible when humour combined with history and heartbreak – although perhaps it’s better to say that through McDowell’s translations I have travelled to worlds I never knew existed, that she has consistently, wonderfully and profoundly illuminated whole universes that I have fallen in love with, and have continued to return to time and time again.

Talking to Megan felt like conversing with an old school friend from long ago. She was humble, friendly and deeply informative, and while the iconic Australian writer Amanda Lohrey says that the role of the novelist is to bring news, I would also argue this applies wholeheartedly to McDowell’s work too. For years, she has been translating some of the most important Latin American writers currently working including Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enriquez and Lina Meruane. She has single-handedly, or almost single-handedly, or perhaps, for me, most impressively brought new Latin American stories to an English speaking audience. Her translations have won the English PEN award, the Premio Valle-Inclán, and she has been nominated four times for the International Booker Prize. Her labour is one of service, and though I tried to tell her several times how thankful I was for her work I would like to use this space, once again, to thank her – for those stories from the other side of the globe that help us to better understand our own.

I end this introduction by saying that, of course, McDowell is more than Zambra, and while I recently devoured Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, one of the things I loved most about this interview was learning how much of McDowell’s oeuvre I still had left to read. The possibilities of those fictional worlds, of all those covers bearing her name, thrills me, endlessly.

Portrait photograph of a white woman with pale skin and light blonde hair standing in a doorway wearing a bright blue dress
Megan McDowell, 2020. Photo: Camila Valdés.

Hello Megan!


I thought we would start with a broad question about literature and language. How did you learn Spanish? Where were you? And what was the first book you read in Spanish that made you fall in love with – and want to translate – Spanish written literature?

You know – I fell in love with Spanish literature in English translation. When I began my undergraduate studies, I was really interested in literature, but I wanted to get outside the English language canon that I was learning in school, and the classes that interested me the most were the ones where we read books in translation. I remember a Dystopian Novels course where we read Master and Margarita, and a Literature of Adolescence class where we read Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood. Those books left a huge impression on me, and I realised the books I was reading in my own time were also in translation. But the book that really stuck with me was Hopscotch (Rayuela) by Julio Cortázar and translated by Gregory Rabassa. That book blew my mind. I was probably twenty or twenty-one when I read it the first time – have you read Hopscotch?

Not yet!

Well, I recommend it. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had genuinely never heard of it before, though here in Latin America it’s a classic, they read it in high school the way we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the States. The first time, I read it straight through like a regular book, and then a few months later I went back and jumped around and followed the order he tells you to read it in, and that time it really hit me. I think I read it at the right time in my life, and it really sparked my curiosity. Hopscotch references a lot of other books, and I started reading those Latin American and European writers in translation, and getting to know more about Latin American culture. I was also working at a music venue in Chicago at the time that had a lot of salsa and Latin jazz, and I found myself getting really interested in the literature and culture and music of Latin America.

Then I got a yearlong fellowship at a publisher called Dalkey Archive Press, which is an independent press that does a lot of literature in translation. At the time I wanted to eventually work as an editor of translation, but after the fellowship they didn’t hire me because I didn’t know another language (well, I also bombed the interview, but that was the reason they gave). I thought that if I wanted to be an editor I had to learn another language, which is very much not true. I also really wanted to spend some time living in another country, so I saved up a little money and moved to Chile to learn Spanish. I kind of started teaching myself Spanish before I moved here, I bought a bunch of grammar and vocabulary books, but I never took a Spanish class or anything. I learned as an adult in my twenties, and because of that I never thought I could be a translator, because I wasn’t fully bilingual.

Wow – what was that process like?

You know, it’s funny – one of my closest friends who I met immediately after moving to Chile, he would joke that in Spanish I was like a little kid. And then every once in a while he would say that I had grown up a little, like my Spanish had gone from a six-year-old’s to an eight-year-old’s, and it really is kind of like that. You go back to being a child learning the words for things, but you make those connections with a brain of an adult. It’s like relearning the world, and I think it’s really beautiful. It’s definitely humbling, but it also keeps you curious. When I speak Spanish, even today, I feel like I’m simply trying to communicate. When I speak English there’s a lot of other thoughts going on, but when I speak Spanish and I manage to communicate what I want to say I still feel a sense of accomplishment.

The Australian translator Chris Andrews once said, There are always losses and shifts in translation, which seems intuitive, and in many ways seems to mirror the creative process of writing: that attempt to translate images from the mind to the page. How do you reconcile with those inevitable losses and shifts, and how do you prepare yourself for the monumental task of understanding and translating a work?

Gregory Rabassa says that every act of communication is an act of translation, and I think that’s true, every work of art is an act of translation. As you say: you have an idea in your head and you translate that into what’s on the page or in your photograph or in your painting or in your music, and it’s never what you start out with, it’s just not. Obviously that doesn’t invalidate it.

There’s this thing people do when they talk about translation that I find very frustrating – they focus on what is lost in the process, and I really think that is putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. Because just look at all that is gained. You get a whole new work. People in a new language are reading it a different way, and they’re not reading it in its original language, which some people believe automatically makes it inferior. But I don’t think that’s true. I think it adds a lot. I think it contributes to the literary culture of the language it’s translated into. This is something I have been thinking about a lot with Chilean Poet (by Alejandro Zambra), because that is a very Chilean book. People here always ask me, how can you translate a book like that into English? There are so many cultural references, so many Chilean words and concepts and phrasings. They seem to think the book will be completely illegible outside of Chile. And I guess that’s what people mean when they talk about what is lost – the experience of an English-speaker reading my translation will never be the same as the experience of a Chilean reading the book in Spanish. But I would argue that no two Chileans experience the book in the same way, and even when you have an Argentine or a Mexican reading it in Spanish, they read it a different way. I think all those experiences are valid and meaningful. Focusing on the losses in translation promotes a kind of insular tribalism that I think runs counter to the spirit of inclusivity and openness that underlies the enterprise of translation and literature in general. Does that make sense?


But in terms of process – it differs according to author. With Alejandro it’s pretty collaborative, because we’re good friends. I read drafts of his books as he’s working on them, before they’re published in Spanish. We talk about them and and I get to see how the work evolves, and then as I’m translating I ask him questions. With Chilean Poet in particular I would send him chapter by chapter and he would read it and respond to my questions. With other writers it’s a little more conventional, although I do tend to ask a lot of questions with everyone. It depends on the book. Some books, like Nervous System by Lina Meruane, for example, I had so many questions. It’s a dense book stylistically, and it’s punctuated with strings of words joined by poetic associations. As I was translating those, I had to do something similar in English and make my own associations, which had to do with the sound of the words, and Lina and I talked a lot about those in particular. I feel like I can do somewhat more creative translations because all my writers are alive, and a lot of my questions are: can I do this? and they can say yes or no. I have only translated one book by a dead writer.

Juan Emar’s Yesterday?

Exactly, and you do feel like it’s a little more etched in stone. With a living writer, I feel like a book is always in flux and changing, it’s an ongoing conversation, and the fact that I can consult with my writers gives me more freedom. I think that might be a little counterintuitive, people probably assume the opposite.

But returning to Zambra, Chilean Poet is supposedly a conventional novel, and you might think it doesn’t require that much creative licence. In reality, it had some of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced as a translator. Alejandro is very careful with language, and it takes both effort and flair to achieve that kind of breezy, conversational tone. He knows why every word is there, and as the translator, I need to know too, I can’t take anything for granted. If you look at a book like Multiple Choice, which is an experimental book that plays a lot with language, you can see that emphasis on each individual word, and you can see the need to take creative license, to play with English the same way he plays with Spanish. A straight or literal translation would be have been incomprehensible, and I would have had to put a bunch of footnotes to explain the text, and it would have just been so lame and boring to read. You have to look at what’s important, and with Multiple Choice it was the form and the subject matter: family, dictatorship, education, silence. The exercises themselves could vary, and you write new exercises that play with English in the same way Zambra does with Spanish.

Of course, then you ask where does translation end and adaptation begin, and I think that’s a very interesting question that I don’t have the answer to. To me, the important thing is the experience of the reader. I’m not translating for an academic audience; if I were I would be using footnotes all the time to sort of explain the joke, instead of recreating it. I am translating for a literary readership, and I want them to have an experience of the book that is similar to the reading experience in Spanish: similar, not identical. I want them to have that ineffable experience of reading a literary work that’s alive, not a literary artifact. So that is my justification for creative licence and play. When I was translating the poems in Chilean Poet, the things that were important were the forms and the subjects, but I had to play around with rhyme and rhythm. At the end of the book, the very last poem, which plays with the gender of words, was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever translated.

I think you did an unbelievable job.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. It was hard because obviously in English words aren’t gendered, so I had to think about how to talk about that. And my process had a lot to do with some of the main ideas of the book – we have to use the words that exist, even if they seem insufficient. And I didn’t do it until the very end. If you had looked at a galley of the book it’s a totally different version.

A lot of the time when I remember literature I don’t remember the specifics of what happened but I do remember the feeling, and for me that poem did that magic trick that any good novel or short story does where it shines a light back over the whole text and makes it new. I think I’m trying to say I felt that poem deeply. But the other thing I like about that poem in translation is that it seems to extend the tradition of experimental poetry. There was some writer who would take a poem, read it a few times in the morning, then attempt to recreate their own version at night – wait, am I just quoting Chilean Poet back to you?

You are! That’s in Chilean Poet! A lot of the poets in that book are invented, but that character is real. She would read a poem in the morning, go throughout her day, then recreate a new version from memory at night.

How meta though: because what you did with Zambra’s poem is kind of what the character did!

That’s a good point! That’s exactly what I did! Because you read the poem in Spanish and you have it in your head for so long and you’re thinking about it and the things it’s talking about and then finally – for me it wasn’t the end of the day but the end of a year – I just sat down and wrote it in English. I like that.

Speaking of Zambra, when I was twenty-two years old I was gifted Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, that iconic first Zambra novel translated into the English by Carolina De Robertis. To put it lightly, that book changed me, and I could not tell you how many times I have read that work by myself and to close friends. This month Penguin will publish your new translation, and while I loved Robertis’ version, I am tremendously excited to read yours – partly, obviously because I adore your work and because it will mean you have translated, in totality, Zambra’s books into English so far, but also because literature will be afforded an opportunity often reserved for music: that fashionable, enviable creative process known as the remix. Of course, your Bonsai will be translated from Zambra’s original Spanish Bonsai and not Robertis’ English Bonsai, but I am looking forward to observing the changes your influence brings, as if you were a parent raising, for a second time, a clone of that first, wonderful book. How did this happen, and what was it like translating a text that had already been translated?

Interesting question! Let’s see, a few years ago in Guadalajara I was talking to Jacques Testard, who is the editor of Fitzcarraldo in the UK, and he mentioned that Bonsai had never been published in the UK. So we decided that I would do a translation for him, and then the rights also reverted in the US. Now Penguin is reissuing all of Zambra’s backlist, and they decided they would publish my retranslation instead of republishing that first version. All of this is to say that the retranslation is not because there is anything wrong with Carolina’s translation.

I do have an urge towards completism, and now I can say I have translated all of Alejandro’s books. This is the first time I have done a retranslation, and I do have to say that I have not read Carolina’s version, I have only read Bonsai in Spanish. It was important to me to do my translation without hers in my head, so I translated the book as if it were any other. I didn’t compare it to hers. Actually, at the very end, as we were going through the edits, I did spot-check some things. I wanted to know what she had done, but for the most part I did it totally independently. This is the first retranslation I have done, and I’m not really sure how much it will be compared to the original, or if anyone will really care or notice.

I’m really excited to see it. That book – if someone tells you they find literature boring you can sit down for an hour and change their world. Also, I remember reading Bonsai and Ways of Going Home when I was younger and studying those books intensely, not for voice but for structure. I just wanted to know: how did that magic trick work? I’m not even sure I fully understand how those books work now.

They’re deceptively simple, but from one sentence to another they’re surprising. You never really know what’s coming, and he never loses you.

I know! Also Bonsai now exists in the author’s original work, in Carolina’s translation, your translation, not to mention the translations in other languages, and in a movie. There are so many versions of this same story. What makes the story endure?

With hindsight, I see the seeds in Bonsai of everything Alejandro has written since. But why does it endure – I mean, it’s a love story, more or less, but it’s also about regular middle class Chilean people living in recognizable settings, the settings that are so often left out of History with a capital H. Their experience of the world is colored by mediocrity and fear of mediocrity and a hazy dissatisfaction and desire that are both specific to a time and place in Chile, and also universal. Alejandro always talks about how when he was younger he didn’t think he even had a story to tell, and I think his early books, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, are his process of realizing that he did, that everyone does. I think a lot of people can relate to that, they can see themselves in those books and find a way to contextualize themselves and think about their own stories.

Your output, much like the authors you work with, is monumental. Sometimes, or in the two instances when I have finished writing a book, the creative fallout that follows feels – and though this sounds dramatic – like I may never write again. How do you protect yourself from burnout? Or rather, how are you able to switch, it seems, effortlessly, from project to project, from voice to voice? Perhaps what I’m asking is do believe that creativity is a spiritual practice? And if so, how do you nurture that?

I wouldn’t say that I am protected against burnout. I definitely get burnout, I’m fighting it all the time. It probably helps that I don’t have much of a social life. (Ha!) But also, this is my job. I make my living as a literary translator, and there aren’t all that many people who do that, it’s not very professionalized. So a lot of times you’re comparing my output to that of academics, or translators who have day jobs, and maybe they translate a book every year or every couple of years. I have become pretty disciplined – it’s not something that comes naturally for me – and I spend a good portion of my day working. In a lot of ways I feel very lucky because I work on something that I love. I came to this as a reader. All my life I’ve been a reader, and I would say that literature is spiritual. Since becoming an adult I haven’t been a religious person, but I think that literature can fill that role in a person’s life. The problem with what I do now is that I don’t have a lot of time for reading. I read the same books over and over, the books that I’m translating, and I really don’t read that much beyond that. That’s what I’m missing. Sometimes I think I need to slow down so I have time to read for my own spiritual wellbeing. On the other hand, giving these books a voice in English really does give me a huge sense of purpose, which is another thing a spiritual practice does. If you had told seventeen-year-old Megan that she was going to be working with some of the best Latin American writers in existence, she wouldn’t have believed you. It would have seemed so far from anything my life was back then. I guess, a lot of times the question is: what comes next? Can I keep doing this infinitely? I don’t think I can. I think I can keep doing it for maybe a few more years and then I’ll have to find something else to do. But then literature, for me, will return to that more spiritual realm. Because when I started I think it was more of a creative practice, and now it’s just what I do. It’s like brushing my teeth, something necessary that I don’t question. So it would be good to return to those roots.

When you imagine a Megan who isn’t the pre-eminent translator of Latin American literature does that scare you? Or make you excited?

Well, I wouldn’t classify myself that way, of course. But when I think about a change like that I feel both scared and excited. Equally, for sure. I live a lot of my life – and if my editors read this they will laugh because I never make a deadline – thinking about the next deadline, and that can be stressful. I always have something looming over me. And I would like to work on a creative project that doesn’t have that pressure. I know that sounds idealistic. A while ago I got into my head that I was going to write a screenplay, and I started on it and got excited about it and then I had too many deadlines and couldn’t continue. In my world now, if something does not have a deadline I will not do it. I have too many deadlines, and I can’t even make those. When I imagine a world without them, when I imagine where my mind would go if it was just set free: well, I’d like to find out where it would go. But who knows when that’s going to happen.

I like what you just said, that if your mind were set free you would like to know where it would go. Maybe you could just become one of those translators who translates one book a year?

I could! The problem is that I get offered so many good projects, and I know I shouldn’t complain about that, but there are just some things that are so hard to turn down. And I really don’t take that many new writers, I just stick with the writers I have: Mariana Enriquez, Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane, Carlos Fonseca, who keep writing books and I keep wanting to translate them. It’s hard to let that go. It’s a contradiction.

We touched on this before but I wanted to return to the differences between working with those authors who are living and dead, between say your brilliant translation of Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (who is alive) and Juan Emar’s Yesterday (who is dead). Or is that the magic of literature: that we have these texts that exist as portals, that these books tell us everything the author intended to say?

That’s a good question! As I’ve said, I do work closely with my writers. Also I’ve realised I like to hear their voices. Now when I start working with a new writer I like to meet with them over Zoom or in real life because once I hear them speak I feel more free or sure in the translation. I don’t really know why that is. With Juan Emar, he’s the first dead writer I’ve worked with, and he’s also one of the first writers I ever worked on. When I was in my master’s program I started translating two books: Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees, and Juan Emar’s Yesterday. I didn’t really know what I was getting into with Juan Emar. It is not an easy translation. You read him in Spanish and he’s funny and light hearted and then you get into it and you realise there’s some deep philosophical stuff going on there, and I would have asked him so many questions if I had him sitting next to me. But instead of doing that I asked questions to other people, and tried to imaginarily inhabit his head, his perspective. Alejandro is also a huge Juan Emar fan. I’ve worked on this book my whole career, but this time around I asked Alejandro a lot of questions, and I asked my friend Rodrigo Olavarría, who is a translator from English to Spanish, a lot of questions. But it is true: I have to kind of invent his voice to an extent that I normally don’t have to. Usually I can talk to my writers and hear their voices and get inside their heads that way. With Emar I had to invent him as a character in a different way.

But just because the translation of Juan Emar’s Yesterday is now published doesn’t mean that it’s finished. I feel like I could keep working on it forever. I can go back and look at all these different versions I’ve had over the course of my career, and I can see how I’ve changed my way of reading and of translating. I spent a lot of time on that voice – I wanted it to be a little overblown and pedantic, but also readable and warm and engaging. It’s a hard balance to strike, and I could keep working on it.

I was thinking recently that it was not Zambra’s voice I fell in love with so long ago, but your voice, or your interpretation of that voice. How important is tone to you, or mirroring the musicality of the language you are translating? Do you feel like you have to hit the same beats in English that your authors do in Spanish?

Beginning translators always start out sticking too close to the original text. That’s the thing everyone has to get over. You have this tendency to think that being faithful is important, sticking to the syntax, keeping the English as close to the Spanish. Of course, tone, is important. Voice, absolutely, is the most important thing. To make Chilean Poet as colloquial as possible means moving it away from the Spanish, moving it away from what might be read as a more formal syntax, playing with the language, thinking about how this particular character would speak in English. And I do spend a lot of time reading out loud. With Chilean Poet, at the end, I read the whole book out loud in both Spanish and English. That book is so conversational, and I needed it to sound like someone was just telling you a story.

Do you have to hit the same beats? Sometimes there’s a joke here that you can’t replicate, but there’s another place where you can put in a joke in English, and it might not be the same beats but it’s still the spirit of the text, and faithful to what that character says and does. On the other hand, with Lina – Lina’s partner is a linguist, and he told me that my translations of her books are rhythmically similar to the Spanish, which is interesting because that’s not something I consciously try to do. A lot of my sentences are iambic when I want them to hit home. I’ve realized that’s something that I do at the end of a paragraph or at the end of a sentence that I want to be forceful. It would be interesting to go back and look at Lina’s books, to look specifically at the rhythm and compare it with the Spanish.

Perhaps it is a dirty question, but did you ever want to be a writer yourself? Of course, you are a writer, and in some capacity it is a silly question because we are all translating the same seven archetypal stories from our experiences, inadvertently or explicitly, from the real world or our minds. Maybe the better question is what attracted you to this specific form of translation?

You know, as a kid I wanted to be a writer. I read all the time. I thought I would grow up to be a writer.

Which you did!

Well, I did in a way, with some big differences. The main ones being: I never have to confront the blank page. Translating scratches the creative itch, but I feel you don’t necessarily put yourself out there in the same way a writer does. But as a translator, I’m not only scratching that creative itch, I’m also scratching the readerly itch. The books that I translate, I have a love for them in the same way you have a love for Bonsai. Think of the books that you are really affected by, the ones you’ve incorporated into yourself and your body as a reader, and that’s how I feel, times 100, about the books I translate. And translating them is kind of the next step of being an engaged reader. When I was a kid and I wanted to be a writer, I thought that was the next step from being a reader. But translation is also a very good next step from being a reader. I think there is certainly that piece of me that wants to know, as a writer, where my brain would go. If I had the time it’s very possible I would try to write a book. It’s also very possible that I wouldn’t. I think there is project avoidance in me. And I’m also genuinely not sure if the world really needs my voice. I think that the voices I translate are important ones and I feel like I’m doing something valuable by bringing them into English. I’m not sure what I would add to the literary landscape, which sounds like a stupid and humble thing to say, but I’m really not sure.

Sometimes I imagine, at the end of our careers, that we should return to those early stories we were not skilled enough or mature enough to write, that we should create those books filled with those early struggles, that we should finally, perhaps, give those early ideas a home. Do you have any stories or projects that you had to abandon? I suppose I am talking about those stories that, no matter how hard you tried, you felt unable to translate from one language to another. And if not, do you have any projects that you are excited about for the future?

Oddly, the answer is no – and this is very unusual because the very first projects I ever started working on were Emar and Alejandro. It took a while for Emar to get published, but now that’s happened, and I’ll keep working on him; and with Alejandro I have kept working on his books all this time. So my very first projects are already out there. But I will say that now, with the reissues of Alejandro’s backlist and the publication of Yesterday, I am going back and rereading those early translations and making a whole lot of changes. It is really interesting to see what I maybe didn’t understand in the past. I am finding some mistakes, but more than mistakes I’m changing tone, injecting nuance, because my way of translating has changed. I am a different translator today. I stand by my early translations, don’t get me wrong, but given the chance, now, I am changing them.

It’s funny. People say a book needs to be retranslated every fifty years, and I’ve always wondered why that is, why the original stays and the translation needs to be updated. At the same time it’s impossible for me to read any of my translations without wanting to change things. I always feel like I can do it better.

Maybe it comes back to that idea of perfectionism. People say perfectionism is bad, but I kind of think you need perfectionism and anti-perfectionism in equal measure: the latter to get the project going and the former to turn it into something great.

It’s definitely a tricky balance. I’m reminded of something else here. We haven’t really talked about any of Samanta Schweblin’s work, but I’m reminded of a story of hers: there was a time when she was a kid, maybe eight years old, and she just stopped speaking. 100 per cent just stopped talking. And she says that was because she didn’t have the words to say what she wanted to say. And then she realised that through literature she could spend more time figuring out the right words to say a thing precisely. And if you read her stories thinking about that it makes sense, because she takes those little spaces inside a conversation and stretches them out and fits so much into a moment, it’s really amazing. She gets in there and talks about all the little micro emotions that happen in a given moment, and she takes something mundane and makes it strange and mysterious.

We think of writers as people who have a way with words, but I think just as often they’re people who never feel comfortable with words, people who are always trying to put them together in a different way to say what they truly want to say, and who chafe under received formulas. I share that discomfort with language, and I think that’s why I’m constantly questioning, changing, wanting to retranslate and revise. I do feel deeply that translation is a fundamental human activity, and that it’s always possible to get closer to saying exactly and finally what my authors – and I – are really trying to say.