Language by Osmosis
Megan McDowell first came to Chile in pursuit of an outlandish idea. This is no surprise, since this tail end of the American continent tends to take in castaways, lovers, dreamers. She had picked up a dream (learning Spanish, becoming an editor of books in translation), and she had found a land in which to make it come true. But she was sorely mistaken. Chile is not the place to learn the standard Spanish required in the publishing industry: here we speak a variety seldom broadcast and seldom accepted, a version that summarizes words and dodges endings to the point of transforming some syllables into mere noise—we go from sí pues to sipoh to sip’, to give one example. And when we conjugate verbs, we are overcome by the voceo (from the Spanish second person pronoun vos) that Andrés Bello discarded in his Gramática of 1847. As discarded as it may be, this voceo persists in conjugation, and we go from cómo estáis to cómo estai (instead of cómo estás) and from ¿entendéis? to ¿entendíh? (instead of ¿entiendes?), and Megan understood ni jota because she had taught herself the language with a handbook. And, while she scored at the advanced level, she found it didn’t do her much good. “I got nothing” of what the Chileans said, she would tell me one afternoon at a café near her house in Santiago. “Nada nada,” she told me, using that emphatic repetition that is so Chilean or so Mapuche. Nothing, she would say, and she would confess that she left her books behind, determined to learn to speak Spanish from the mouth itself.
The fact is that she chose Chile because she had let herself be enticed by a friend of hers; one who, after a season in Valparaíso, returned to the United States fascinated by the paradise-port. The year was 2004, Megan was just twenty-five, and what she had done up to that point was read insatiably alongside her twin sister: she told me the two of them would read at all hours (even in the car or while they ate at the dinner table) and they would read every genre: they even read thick novels like Anna Karenina, but at such an early age they got lost in the plot of that Russian book. Megan had never stopped reading this way, and she was already twenty-five, but she had only ever escaped her Kentucky home to the landscapes of her novels. But this is pure literature: in reality, she had moved to Chicago for a few years to study at DePaul (a Catholic decision of her mother’s), majoring in English literature rather than Spanish because nothing else came to mind. She didn’t know anyone who spoke a second language or was bilingual, and it had not yet dawned on her that her favorite courses were world literature electives in which she read German or African or Latin American authors in her own language. And even though she worked for a few months at Dalkey Press, one of the most sophisticated publishing houses for texts in translation, she had never thought of that role for herself. She had not yet come to understand that translating was one of the most thrilling journeys imaginable, and she wanted to travel and see the world. She was going to travel, she had decided on that, and when she thought about it, she also thought she didn’t want to travel just to lengthen the list of places she’d seen, like a tourist collecting postcards. What she longed for was to live in other places (passing through other languages), and I interpret this desire as an early manifestation of her life’s path. Moving, in the end, is a way of translating yourself to another space, to another mode of existence. And her three years living in Chile were her first translation: the translation of herself. After this long season in Chile, she went on to another in Dallas, doing her master’s in translation (she was still thinking of working in publishing), and then, briefly, in Salt Lake City and in Durham, comfortably settled back into her language but ready to set out for eight months in Portugal and then Switzerland, where she would spend four years submerged in a German she never managed to learn: her linguistic existence took place in English, everybody spoke to her in that language.
A Reclusive Language
She’s said many times that she did not know then she was going to end up dedicating herself to translation, rooted in the language of Chile. I once asked her why it had taken her so long to realize she was making her way toward that trade. She told me she was convinced that, in order to do it and do it well, she had to know her second language perfectly or be completely bilingual. She wasn’t. She wasn’t yet, not like she is now, six years after having returned and settled down (who knows if) definitively in Chile, and having fully grasped the local “oddities.” “I think I learned as if by osmosis,” Megan told me another afternoon in Santiago, at another café. As if the language had snuck into her body, as if it had possessed her with its peculiar accent. But it had been anything but easy, she told me that: nada nada fácil. She thought we Chileans shied away from making ourselves understood, that we were reclusive or mistrustful speakers, that we had developed a speech all our own with which to defend ourselves from foreigners.
The Native Language
I regretted not telling her that her predecessor, Edith Grossman, did not seem so concerned about her second language. She, once the translator of so many Latin American authors, the most recent translator of the Quixote into English, was asked more than once, not without animus, if she knew “enough Spanish” to translate that impossible text of the Golden Age, Góngora’s Soledades. But the question shouldn’t be if her Spanish was “good enough,” Grossman answered in her native language—the fundamental question was if her English was.
Put Into Language
Let me take a step back. Megan was still in Zurich when, girding her loins, she got the nerve up to write Alejandro Zambra to ask him if she could translate one of his novels. It would be Zambra himself (over dinner one night at a festival in Turin we’d been invited to attend) who recommended to me that I write Megan to ask her if she could translate my book Sangre en el ojo. Maybe she would see fit to read it and recommend it to a U.S. publisher. That’s exactly what Megan agreed to do. To translate a few pages of the novel and several reviews, to write a reader’s report, to send it to all the publishers she knew: something she had never done before and would never do again, because the other novels in her personal catalog already had publishers and were mostly commissioned translations. She would tell me, in our first electronic conversations, that she had thought my novel ought to make its way into English and she had decided to be its bridge, in the midst of a publishing world in which readers of Spanish-language literature were still few and far between; and she added that this time investment struck her as essential if she was going to incorporate women writers into her body of work. I would be “her first woman,” but soon Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez of Argentina would be added to the list—an addition which, along with excitement, would imply a new verbal challenge for Megan: from the Chilean qué queríh to the Argentine qué querés, from entendíh to entendés, and the discovery of a series of commonplace words that mean two different things on either side of the Andes. The three of us became her “repeat” authors, along with the most repeated of all, Zambra, and the twice-translated Costa Rican Carlos Fonseca (in the meantime she translated “standalone” works by Diego Zúñiga, Álvaro Bisama, Paulina Flores, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, among other Chileans, as well as Carlos Busqued of Argentina, Daniel Mella of Uruguay, and Sara Mesa of Spain. Her only dead author—but soon to be repeated, nonetheless—is Juan Emar of Chile).
But I’m digressing into my translator’s linguistic biography. When I wrote her, in 2013, she was still in Switzerland, weighing up her publishing ambitions and working as an editor of the online journal Asymptote, where she was already translating some of the texts they chose to publish. She did a version of the beginning of my novel Fruta podrida—as yet unpublished in English—for said journal, and right away, via email, she paid me the dubious compliment of considering me a challenging author, which perhaps implied difficult, but I never asked her that. I, in turn, declared her a daring woman when she told me, the next year, that she was leaving everything behind to come back and try her luck in Chile. And luck is what she had: she was immediately hired as a translator in a bank, got her residency, and bought a somewhat gone-to-seed little house in a middle-class neighborhood that made her my sometime neighbor, or something like it. She went about fixing up that ñuñoína little house (a Mapuche term meaning “place of yellow flowers”) until turning it into her only place in the world. In the United States, she no longer had so much as a room of her own.
The Rhythm of Languages
Chile is where we always get together, except for the time we met up at a New York bookstore for the presentation of the title I mentioned earlier, Sangre en el ojo, which Megan transformed with conviction and even pride into Seeing Red. It was the only idiomatic expression, she explained to me at the time, that worked in the double meaning of the Spanish title. Your titles, she told me just a few months ago, always have both an evident and a latent meaning, and you can’t give up on them, you’ve got to discover them while you translate. And it was true and, most of all, beautiful what she said about not forfeiting the right word, the apt expression, the precise and precious mode of moving the writing from one language into another without falling into simple literality. And I remembered Ronald Christ, her now-elderly colleague, telling me nobody reads a text more carefully than a translator and saying I should never trust translators who ask no questions, even about the most minimal things. It was as if he were describing Megan, who has asked and still asks countless questions, seeking the “why” behind the words; Megan, who sometimes even finds mistakes in the original that she then fixes in her translation. Sitting around successive texts of mine—around her screen and a Word document full of doubts and observations, strictly speaking—we’ve talked about expressions, meanings, and echoes, we’ve discussed the rhythm the words put in place, and we have paused over this last point above all, because that’s what I value most about her translation: not the accuracy but the cadence of the phrasing. And if in Seeing Red her translation of rhythm was an unconscious and intuitive process, the intricate wordplay and cursive noun series of Nervous System made her take note even of the syllable count. I had forgotten you were hard to translate, she told me, and she showed me her satisfied smile with my book, which was her book, in her hand.