Responsible for bringing a new generation of Latin American voices into English, Megan McDowell has translated some of the most renowned contemporary authors in Spanish, including Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enriquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. After the success of her translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (2017), in this interview, she shares her experience with her latest translation, Schweblin’s collection of short stories Mouthful of Birds, recently longlisted for the Man Booker International prize.
Denise Kripper: Do you remember what you thought the first time you read Samanta Schweblin? Did you immediately know you wanted to translate her work?
Megan McDowell: I did know immediately, yes. I remember the first time I read Distancia de rescate, and I had the same reaction I think most people do. I got the book from Riverhead when they asked me if I could translate it, and I started reading it thinking I’d just read a few pages and get an idea what it was like. Well, I read it all that night, I didn’t do anything else until I finished it. It’s an addictive book like that, a page-turner in the best possible way. It just drives you onward, there’s never a good place to stop until you get to the end. What did I think? I thought: “hell yes, I want to work on this book.”
DK: Mouthful of Birds (Riverhead Books) has been described as “canny, provocative, and profoundly unsettling” (Publishers Weekly), “dark and dreamy” (Kirkus Review), and a “dark magical nightmare” (ElectricLit). Probably my favorite though is a review from a reader on Amazon who said: “You awaken in a cold sweat with a fast-beating heart. Was that just a dream? It takes you several minutes to calm down. Still, the dream’s story continues to haunt you until the next feverish dream occurs. This is the feeling you will have after reading each story in the marvelous Mouthful of Birds.” How would you describe the book?
MM: I’m not going to try to compete with the Amazon reader. I can tell you that what I love about reading Samanta’s stories is her way of creating suspense, or more specifically the kind of suspense she creates. She puts a lot of trust in the reader, she doesn’t hand you anything on a platter and she lets you draw your own conclusions without ever losing you in the process. The amount of ambiguity in her stories is, in my opinion, perfect. And her prose on a line-by-line or even word-by-word level is elegant and terrifying. Everything is there for a reason, there are no throwaway words. That’s the challenge for the translator, to attain the same kind of pared-down elegance and create that kind of delicate terror.
DK: Translators, in turn, are seldom acknowledged in book reviews, their job usually reduced to an adverb, frequently “beautifully” or “seamlessly” if the translation is good. At the same time though, translators seem to nowadays have a growing platform to have their work showcased and celebrated. For example, since 2016 the Man Booker International Prize, for which your translation of Schweblin’s Fever Dream was nominated in 2017, is now awarded yearly to a book in translation and the prize divided between author and translator. How do you see the changing place of translation and translators, and of Latin American literature especially, in the English-speaking market?
MM: It’s true, we translators exist only in parentheses in reviews, and we get an adjective or adverb only if we’re lucky! (Sparklingly translated by Megan McDowell) could very well be (translated by Megan McDowell). Alternately, the translation isn’t mentioned at all. But every once in a while a reviewer puts in a few more words about the translation, and it’s gratifying. I also don’t take it personally if people don’t pay attention to the translation, I know it’s not something most people give much thought to, and why should they? It’s always been meant to be an invisible process, and if people are starting to pay more attention, it’s still more the exception than the rule.
But you’re right, there is indeed more of a platform for translation these days. I think there are a growing number of people and organizations working to raise the profile of translation. You’ve got the Center for the Art of Translation, ALTA, mentorship programs in both the US and the UK, there are prizes like the Booker (which is a huge boon to translation!) or the Best Translated Book Award. There are translation publishers that have been around for a while, your Open Letters and your Archipelagos, and new ones like Transit or Charco. I think there’s a community of translators that’s been in the making for a while, maybe two or three generations, and we’re seeing it bear more and more fruit. From inside, it feels like there are more resources and outlets, more visibility. From outside, I’m not sure, but hopefully it means that there are ever more people interested in and aware of translation as an art and craft.
When it comes to Latin American literature in English, it sure feels like it’s having its day. Again, I think my perspective is biased because I work specifically with contemporary Latin American writers, but it does feel like editors are more open than ever before, and that they’re actively looking for new writers and trying to rediscover older ones who never got their due in English, like Hebe Uhart or Antonio de Benedetto. It’s possible that some marketing or publicity initiatives have helped with this, like the Bogotá 39, or the Granta list in 2010. It’s hard to know how much influence those things have, but, flawed as any list inevitably is, I definitely think it helps to have curated selections to guide editors toward writers they might be interested in.
DK: What is your favorite story of the collection? Was it also your favorite to translate?
MM: It’s so hard to choose a favorite… I think I could say that I’m partial to “Irman,” “Headlights,” and “Preserves,” but then I think I can’t leave out “Mouthful of Birds,” “On the Steppe,” “Olingiris,” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides.” But if I keep thinking about this question I’ll end up listing all the stories in the collection (I love “Heads against Concrete,” as well).
I should note that several of these stories aren’t in the Spanish Pájaros en la boca, they come from earlier collections, so in that way this is kind of a selected stories more than a direct translation of the Spanish book. Just something for readers to be aware of.
In general I loved translating all the stories. It’s hard for me to talk about Samanta’s work in an objective way—I always end up just sounding like a fan. But it really is a joy to work on stories that are so well-crafted, that bear up after countless close readings.
DK: I love your translation “mouthful of birds” as opposed to a more literal translation of the Spanish title “birds in the mouth.” Can you say a bit more about this translation choice and the homonymous story that gives name to the collection?
MM: Sometimes titles can be hard. I have some that I’m really proud of, and others I didn’t have a say in at all. In this case, yes, I’d seen other people translate it as “birds in the mouth,” but I just didn’t think it sounded good, definitely not as good as in Spanish. I guess it’s literal, but in Spanish you can have those kinds of ambiguous constructions while in English they just sound weird sometimes. “The mouth?” Whose mouth? I thought “mouthful of birds” said more, was more evocative, and the questions it leaves you with are better. It’s still a weird phrase, but weird in the right way.
DK: You have been living in Chile for some time now and have translated a lot of Chilean literature (Alejandro Zambra most notably, for example). Do you feel your Spanish is at all contaminating your English? Do you think your translations now have a “Chilean accent”?
MM: Spanish is definitely contaminating my English. People have pointed out to me that I sometimes use weird constructions in English that don’t really exist, or that fall into the “false friend” trap. I’ll ask a store clerk to “attend” me (instead of help me), or ask someone to “serve” me a glass of wine (instead of pouring it). That kind of thing. Obviously I don’t do that in my translations (I don’t think), but sometimes those kinds of words are the first things that pop into my head. Also, I’ve noticed that my spelling in English has gotten a lot worse—it doesn’t seem to make sense to me anymore, and I confuse English and Spanish spellings of similar words.
I do think it’s possible that my translations of Chilean writers maintain a kind of Chilean accent. For one thing, I’ve never been averse to including Chilean words; for example, huevón appears in several of my books, often with another word to explain it. Same with food—in Chile it’s very important to distinguish between hallulla and marraqueta bread, and I’ve included those words even though no one will likely understand them.
Also—and this is less concrete—I try to keep a certain rhythm of the original. I think that comes more naturally with Chilean works because the Spanish in my head is Chilean. Lina Meruane’s partner José is a linguist, and when he read Seeing Red he said that the English really preserves the rhythm of the Spanish. It’s not anything I was doing consciously then, but now it’s definitely something I think about (thanks, José!). I might change word order around and manipulate the number of syllables in a phrase because it seems the rhythm calls for it.
DK: How do you think the “Bolaño Effect” has influenced what publishers and readers alike are expecting from Latin American literature?
MM: I think—and this is just my sense—that in recent years translation from Latin America has become more immediate. It used to be extremely rare for a writer’s books to be translated more or less simultaneous to when they come out in Spanish. I think editors used to be much more wary, they wanted a writer to be consecrated in their own language before they’d consider publishing the translation. These days I think editors are looking for younger, newer writers with long careers ahead of them. They don’t want to miss out on another Bolaño, they want to find the next Zambra.
The thing is that Latin American literature means so many things, there’s so much to read, both in terms of contemporary literature and the long and varied literary history of the continent. What I mean is that there are a lot of great books, and I think Bolaño proved that English readers are more open to works in translation than we’d previously thought, and that it’s the editors’ job to develop that readership. I would like to see translation become more of an open line of communication between languages, not limited to the hallowed writers of “world” literature, but more of an ongoing conversation. I think that’s the great benefit of the democratization of media, the fragmentation of the mainstream culture, the growth of independents specializing in translation. If you know where to look, you can find great work being done.
DK: You’re currently translating Schweblin’s new novel Kentukis. What are some of the aspects of Mouthful of Birds readers will be able to find in this new book?
MM: In many ways Kentukis is very different from what readers have seen from Samanta so far. It’s a novel of interlocking stories all centered around a technology—the kentukis—that doesn’t exist today but could (this is no distant future). It’s more grounded in the world than Fever Dream and many of Samanta’s short stories, which I feel are often in an isolated version of the world that’s everywhere and nowhere at once. But like Samanta’s other work, its taut and subtly creepy, there’s an impulse that pulls you forward. The book has a lot to do with the way technology both infantilizes us and lets us play out our most voyeuristic tendencies. I felt a kind of voyeurism at play as I read it the first time—I couldn’t look away from these people’s lives, I needed to find out what happened to them. It was a similar force as when I read Fever Dream the first time—there’s a morbid curiosity that won’t let you look away, even when what you’re looking at (reading) is uncomfortable and scary.
Samanta Schweblin’s Pájaros en la boca won the Casa de las Americas and Juan Rulfo Story Prizes in 2008. Megan McDowell was recently awarded the Society of Authors’ Valle Inclán Prize on for the best translation from the Spanish in 2018, for Atlantic Books’ UK edition of Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red. Megan’s new translation of Schweblin’s novel Kentukis is forthcoming in 2020.