Translation in Service of More Empathy, Less Fear: A Conversation with Megan McDowell

June 22, 2020
A photograph of translator Megan McDowell
Photo by Camila Valdés

Megan McDowell has translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain, including Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, and Lina Meruane. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, her translations have been published in the New Yorker, Tin House, the Paris Review, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s, among others.

Veronica Esposito: As a translator, you’ve primarily worked with writers from Chile and Argentina, a region with a very rich literary history, and you are the primary translator for two of the standout authors to recently emerge from the Southern Cone—Alejandro Zambra and Samanta Schweblin. What is special about this region and its literatures?

Megan McDowell: I’m not an academic or a critic, so I’m very reluctant to try to draw connecting lines through the literary histories of countries I live in but that aren’t mine. Every time I make a generalization, all the exceptions spring to mind. But, my assumptions or predispositions go something like this: Chilean writers tend to look inward, to play with autofiction, to write the domestic and the personal. Argentine writers tend toward the surreal, toward madness and fantasy and the uncanny. Both, I think, can get pretty experimental with form. Both have histories of dictatorship and state violence, which can rear its head in fictions in various ways.

If you look at the writers I’ve translated, these generalizations hold up: on the Chilean side, you’ve got Zambra, plus Diego Zúñiga, Lina Meruane, and Paulina Flores. On the Argentine side, there’s Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez, very different writers who share a fondness for supernatural elements and, at times, awareness or incorporation of social issues. Very general, I know! Both Alejandro and Samanta are great writers who draw on national and international influences, but it would take me more than a few hundred words to untangle those!

Esposito: Who are the individuals, institutions, et cetera that are advancing Latin American literature in translation?

McDowell: In the past few years I’ve started going to book fairs, and they’re really fun and informative. Guadalajara is the biggest fair for Spanish-language books, of course, but Buenos Aires and Bogotá are also great. Many of these events have fellowship programs that are open to translators, and they’re a great way to learn about local publishing scenes and writers. I’m lucky because Santiago has a wealth of independent book fairs (Primavera del Libro, La Furia del Libro, Festival de Autores), and those have been a great way to learn about writers and publishers that may not be visible from far away, in the States.

Esposito: What do translators need in order to keep exploring the edges of what literary fiction looks like to us?

McDowell: The trust of readers. People love to hate translators! I hope someday a translation won’t be considered an inferior, derivative text but rather a valid artwork in and of itself and an important contribution to the literary culture.

Esposito: Where do you see Latin American literature going in the next decade?

McDowell: That’s no small question! I’m really not sure there exists such a thing as Latin American literature. It would have to include so many different countries and cultures and histories and accents and groups that trying to define it would become meaningless. And the question of where Latin American lit is going presumes that we know where it’s been, but do we? In terms of translation to English, maybe part of the future means finding what we’ve missed in the past. I think there are a lot of examples of overlooked greats finding their way into translation in recent years, like Zama, by Antonio di Benedetti (translated by Esther Allen), or Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires (translated by Maureen Shaughnessy). I think it’s great that in addition to looking for the next big thing, publishers are looking for game changers from the past.

I think it’s becoming clear that the future is feminine. But I do want to be clear that I don’t see it as an either-or equation: this isn’t a call to stop reading and publishing male authors in order to prioritize women. I think publishers and readers are waking up to the fact that the idea of an author/artist that we’ve lived with forever has kept a lot of voices out, and we’re starting to become more open to the portrayal of other subjectivities in literature by writers who don’t fit the mold.

I think it’s becoming clear that the future is feminine. But I do want to be clear that I don’t see it as an either-or equation: this isn’t a call to stop reading and publishing male authors in order to prioritize women.

It’s not just about publishing more women or LGBT or nonwhite writers, however, but about changing sensibilities. I think the culture is changing fundamentally, and men (I know several) can feel left out or discriminated against. And maybe they are, but it’s not because they’re men but rather because their sensibilities are stuck in the past, they’re clinging to past privilege and protagonism. Everyone can engage with questions of gender; everyone can question their assumptions and write for changing times. I’m currently translating Alejandro Zambra’s newest novel, Poeta chileno, and it’s a book that (among many other things) engages with questions of gender and masculinity in genuine, dynamic ways.

So that’s what I mean by “the future is feminine”—it’s not just a matter of the gender of the person writing but rather of concerns and subjectivities that I think we all, in any culture, have to find a way to engage with. And yes, I’m speaking in general here, but I think this issue is playing a role in what gets translated from Latin America; there’s a growing urge toward inclusivity.

Esposito: What about on the publishing side of Latin American literature?

McDowell: Another, possibly related thing is that I think we’ll see more and more decentralization of publishing. Traditionally, Latin American literature has to go through publishers in Spain to reach a wider audience, both in Spanish and in translation to other languages. I think we’ll continue to see an upsurge in more local, independent publishers in Latin America—a lot of the most interesting books are published by independents, and I think we’ll see more books circumventing that traditional channel through Barcelona or Madrid.

You could easily imagine a book being published by Laguna Libros in Colombia or Laurel in Chile going on to be translated for Coffee House in the US or Fitzcarraldo in the UK. I think those kinds of relationships between similarly minded independent presses in different countries are ever more important, because that kind of exchange can make literary translation into a more immediate, vital exchange. I think we’ll also see more decentralization in Latin American countries themselves—hopefully we’ll learn of more and more Chilean and Argentine writers, for example, who don’t live in Santiago or Buenos Aires. The overall idea, in sum, is inclusion.

Esposito: What authors, translators, genres, movements, et cetera, come to mind when you think of the future of literary translation?

McDowell: I can name a few of my favorite translators, like Emma Ramadan, Daniel Hahn, or Sophie Hughes, who all do great work and, importantly, are translation “activists.” Again, I think the future of literary translation lies with independent presses like Transit, Open Letter, or Graywolf, but I also think larger houses are taking more of an interest in translation—Julia Ringo at FSG or Laura Perciasepe at Riverhead are both great editors interested in translation with whom I’ve worked recently. I’m also interested in the growing number of MFA and other educational programs for literary translation—I think they can do a whole lot to make translation into a more “respectable” creative practice.

In terms of genre, I pretty much only work with fiction, and I’m ever more interested in less “literary” forms, like the new Mariana Enriquez book I’m working on now, Nuestra parte de noche. It’s a very long fantasy/horror novel that is truly great literature, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it in English.

Esposito: As someone who has consistently pushed the boundaries of how Latin American literature exists in the US, what are your goals for the future?

McDowell: As I said before, I would like translation to be more of an immediate, ongoing conversation, and I think we’re moving in that direction. Translation as less of an academic afterthought, more of a lively, riotous coalescence. Personally, at this point, I just hope to keep doing what I’m doing—I work with writers I love whose work I believe in, and I feel really lucky. I also would like to develop a more educational side to my work. I’m mentoring a student in one MFA program in the US, and I’ve taught a couple of workshops here in Chile, and those are rewarding experiences that I’d like to do more of.

I would like translation to be more of an immediate, ongoing conversation . . . more of a lively, riotous coalescence.

Esposito: If translated literature were more widely read, understood, and appreciated in the US, how would our world look different than it does now?

McDowell: The US has a long history of xenophobia, and sometimes I’m amazed at how deeply rooted the idea of American exceptionalism is in the culture, even among the left. The assumption that Americans are somehow different or better, that the rest of the world looks to us and wants to be us, is ever more absurd, and yet it persists. In its most virulent versions it takes the form of hostility and violence, and in its more common, cultured iteration, it takes the form of apathy or lack of curiosity. So many people in the US don’t look beyond their borders; they think the US is the whole world.

I’ve had several people ask me, genuinely, “Why should I read in translation, when there are so many great books written in English?” I always find that question astonishing. I think the shrinking of people’s cultural worlds and perspectives is a real problem; it leads to the “us vs. them” mentality, which leads straight to violence, period. There is only “us.”

I know that reading books in translation isn’t going to fix all society’s ills, but we all know that fiction instills empathy, and it stands to reason that reading fiction from other cultures will expand your circles of empathy. In general, I guess I just wish everyone had more curiosity and less fear, and translation can work in service of that shift.

June 2020

Editorial note: This is the sixth in Veronica Esposito’s monthly series, En Face: Conversations on the Future of Translation, which will run throughout 2020. Her conversation with Antonia Lloyd-Jones is in the Spring 2020 issue.

Photo by Kristin Cofer

Veronica Esposito is an associate marriage and family therapist specializing in serving transgender individuals and a regular contributor to venues including The Guardian, Xtra Magazine, and San Francisco NPR affiliate KQED. She was a judge for the 2022 National Book Award in Translation.