The Uncanny Double: An Interview with Megan McDowell

Megan McDowell.

Horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, autofiction—whatever the genre, the Spanish translator Megan McDowell is drawn to work that takes her by surprise. This is, in part, what compelled her to translate Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. The compact, urgent novel is told through an intimate dialogue between Amanda, a young mother on her deathbed, perhaps poisoned, and David, a mysterious boy who sits beside her, urging her to remember what brought her to the brink of death. Through their exchange, we learn of Amanda’s brush with lethal pesticides, of a possible transmigration of souls, and, most importantly, of the disappearance of Nina, her daughter. Though it takes place in Argentina, where agro-industrial production technologies pose a variety of health risks, the novel is a cautionary tale for us all about the dangers that come with the use of agricultural chemicals.

McDowell has translated more than thirteen works of fiction from Spanish, including books by Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane, and Carlos Fonseca. By the end of this year alone, she will have translated Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Diego Zuñiga’s Camanchaca, fiction by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, an autobiography by Virginia Vallejo. McDowell is currently at work with Schweblin on a new book of short stories titled Pajaros en la boca, or Birds in the Mouth. McDowell does all this while working a job in finance.

Our conversation began in New York City in 2016 and continued over Skype and email. McDowell is a seamless combination of upbeat and no-nonsense: she tells it like it is, but always with a sense of humor. Throughout our conversation, she spoke about the ways gender and translation are in dialogue with one another and of life as a translator in Portugal, Switzerland, Norway, the United States, and now Chile. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you decide to translate Fever Dream?

MCDOWELL

When Riverhead offered me the book, I read it in one sitting and knew right away that it was unlike anything else. It’s a psychological horror novel, one that gives the reader a lot of credit—it leaves a lot for you to fill in, but it never loses your attention. Instead, the book creates a sense of dread and suspense you can’t turn away from. It reminds me a lot of Heart of Darkness in the way that it creates a world that feels isolated and suffocating, and then lets its characters play out their nightmares on that stage. But the real horror of it comes from this unseen, unknown danger, and the idea that we can’t protect the people we love from the world’s evil.

I was also drawn to the book’s female universe. Schweblin looks at the dark side of motherhood and femininity, and I appreciate that—there’s a lot of violence in the female experience that is often glossed over or ignored. Nearly all the main characters in Fever Dream are women, except for one, and I’m interested in what happens to a story when men aren’t a part of it—you almost never see that. These women aren’t defined in relation to anyone except each other, which is intriguing yet also disconcerting. You don’t entirely know how to think of them, since you can’t think of them according to their place in society or their family network. We don’t know much about where Amanda comes from, and that contributes to the feeling that we don’t know where the book is taking us—it only tells us what we need to know right now.

INTERVIEWER

The Spanish title is Distancia de rescate, which translates to Rescue Distance. Why the change to Fever Dream?

MCDOWELL

It was our publisher’s decision. Publishers in other languages have done the same thing. In French, for example, it’s called Toxique. Rescue distance is a phrase in Spanish but not in English, so our editors thought it wouldn’t resonate as much with readers. I would have been okay with Rescue Distance because I think it’s self-explanatory—you can guess what it might mean even if you’ve never heard the phrase before. Rescue distance is the key concept of the book, and it’s defined early on as the “variable distance” separating Amanda from her daughter. But I do like Fever Dream as a title, and it has seemed to click with readers. The only thing is that it makes people question the “reality” of what’s happening in the book, or whether it’s all a hallucination. When I read the book, I took it all as “real” within the book’s universe.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the challenges in translating a book that’s so dialogue driven?

MCDOWELL

People always ask me about the problems I encounter with certain translations. Sometimes that’s an easy question, but with this book, there aren’t many things I can point to—there was no wordplay, no idioms, no cultural references. The most interesting thing with Fever Dream is that it’s told in dialogue, so it has to read like a conversation. You can’t use language that’s going to catch somebody up or have the reader ask, Oh, what’s that? Or, That’s interesting phrasing. You have to make sure that it flows in a way that replicates the way somebody might speak. That’s probably the most important thing I had to keep in mind, and it meant that the translation process consisted of a lot of smoothing and polishing.

INTERVIEWER

Two of your more recent projects—Fever Dream and Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire—are by women, but most of the books you’ve translated up till now have been by men. Was it a conscious decision to seek out work by female authors?

MCDOWELL

I’m certainly pleased to be working with more women writers. A few years ago, I realized I was only working on books by male authors, which meant I was a tiny piece of a big problem. I decided to look for women writers but found I didn’t really have to—I was offered two books I adored, both by Argentine women, Schweblin and Enriquez. I worried that attaching myself to both projects could hurt the books, that two very different and exceptional authors would be unfairly lumped together—they’re women from the same generation, both Argentines, and on top of that they have the same translator. My hesitation might have been a bit sexist—neither I nor anyone else has ever questioned my translating multiple Chilean male writers from the same generation. But since the books were coming out within a couple months of each other, regardless of the translator, there’s a risk. All I can say is, there’s room for two great, contemporary Argentine women writers—more even—and I encourage people to read them!

INTERVIEWER

Is it the translator’s job to send a reader abroad and preserve the foreignness of the book, or to adhere more closely to the sensibilities and particularities of the language it’s being translated into?

MCDOWELL

When I read a translation, the experience is often similar to reading an Oulipan text—it follows unknown rules, held up by a hidden central axis. This is part of what originally drew me to translation in the first place. There are countless ways a text asserts its foreignness—the way the characters interact, references to unknown places and names, unfamiliar cultural references or unusual syntax. I don’t take it as part of my job to introduce or preserve those particularities, but I don’t try to hide them either. And I dislike the phrase lost in translation. The idea that something always goes missing or gets left behind does so much damage to the profession and perception of translation. Translation is a creative practice, it’s subjective. It can be done to varying degrees of success, sure, but I reject the idea that a translation is inherently inferior to its original. After all, any book is a translation of its writer’s thoughts—things are added or forgotten in the process of transfer from brain to page. But you have to take the final piece as it is rather than as a reflection of some kind of hallowed platonic ideal.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like translation is an ongoing, living process for you. Is that true?

MCDOWELL

Much like writers who are writers all the time, translation’s not something I can turn off. I have so many different voices in my head at any given time, and it’s important for those voices to talk to me—a lot of translation is answering questions like, What would X do? What would she say, and how? It’s more than just translating words on a page, it’s understanding the spirit behind them.

I live this life, in another country and another language, so that I can do this thing I want to do as well as I can. I spend so much of my time on it that sometimes it feels like a sacrifice. There’s a part in the book Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett that applies so much to me. She writes,

If you are not from a particular place the history of that particular place will dwell inside you differently to how it dwells within those people who are from that particular place … You have no stories to relate and compare, you have no narrative to inherit and run with, and all the names are strange ones that mean nothing to you at all … All the names mean nothing to you, and your name means nothing to them.

It’s how I feel living in Chile, a place where I’ve ended up and know a lot about but maybe don’t have the right to inhabit fully.

INTERVIEWER

And yet, you do seem to inhabit it fully.

MCDOWELL

I make myself at home in places I shouldn’t be.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always roamed around?

MCDOWELL

The first time I took a Spanish class was in middle school, in Richmond, Kentucky. I barely paid attention because I thought I’d never use it. I’d probably never met a person from outside the U.S., and the larger world felt very far away. But neither of my parents are from Kentucky, and I grew up with the idea that you don’t stay where your family is when you’re an adult. When it came time to go to college, I looked farther afield, and then I just kept looking farther.

I have a twin sister, and she’s a big part of why I can roam—I know there’s someone in the world who understands and loves me unconditionally, which is a kind of freedom. When I moved to Chile for the first time, in 2004, we decided to get hopscotch tattoos because we’re both big Cortázar fans. I was inspired to become a translator by Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Rayuela. I have a whole theory that twinhood made me more prone to become a translator because a translated text is like an uncanny double of the original. As a twin, you define yourself—and others define you—in relation to each other, not as a discrete entity. The result is that you struggle to find your individualism but also, perhaps, that you’re comfortable with duality. It’s applicable to translation, which we always see as a reflection of the original, but of course a translation has to stand on its own and function as a single, unified entity in the world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel responsible for the global success of your writers?

MCDOWELL

I try to keep a distance from the books I translate. They aren’t mine. Only Alejandro Zambra could have written his books, but I’m not the only one who could translate them. I feel a reader’s deep love for the books I translate, but not ownership. In the end, my job is to take care of the book as it’s born in another language, to understand it, champion it, and make decisions to its benefit. Much of a translator’s work overlaps with the editor’s.

INTERVIEWER

Translators tend to play an invisible role in publishing, and many of them are women. What do you make of this?

MCDOWELL

I’m not sure why that gender disparity is there, assuming it is. People always ask me if I write, and I usually say no. But I have often felt that I might have been a writer were I a man. There are so many factors, and one never really knows, but the fact that the literary tradition is masculine had an effect on me during my tender years as a reader. I didn’t consciously think, I can’t do this because I’m a woman, but I did feel a kind of alienation from this thing—literature—that I loved and that occupied so much of my time. I felt like an outsider looking in rather than a participant. Which is what a translator is, an outsider looking in.

Raad Rahman is a New York–based Bangladeshi writer, freedom-of-speech advocate, and child-rights specialist. She has worked with global humanitarian organizations like UNICEF and the International Center for Transitional Justice, across Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and South Asia.

Raluca Albu is a Romanian American writer and translator. She’s a senior nonfiction editor for Guernica and the online literature editor for BOMB

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