Terry Craven

An Interview with Megan McDowell 

This interview was held as part of the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction, open until April 14th. The aim of the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize is both to celebrate the best of new short fiction and to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. Prizes include cash offerings, writing retreats, the opportunity to be published in multiple print and online journals, having work put in front of literary agents and a manuscript assessment.
Over the past few years at the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction we have been including translators in the judging panel so it’s a real pleasure to have you with the prize this year. How are you doing?

I’m doing OK. I’m in Mexico and having a good mix of work and play. And also glad to be here talking with you and to judge on the panel.

It’s always interesting to see how translators come to the stories a bit differently than writers, and as a way of easing in I wanted to mention how we first met. You were here in 2023 for an event with Alejandro Zambra, who is also a judge for this year’s prize. We’d had a signing at the Feria del Libro and a reading at the shop but afterwards, I remember taking this picture of the two of you arm wrestling. Do you remember that?

I do!

I actually can’t remember who won. I want to say it was a stalemate. I think you won.

I’m sure Alejandro let me win.

Because I took this picture and I thought it’s perhaps a very particular visual representation of translation: a writer arm wrestling their translator. Do you ever feel like you’re arm wrestling the author or are you a bit more on the same side as writers?

I tend to think that I’m on the same side as the author. Especially with Alejandro. It’s much more collaborative, you know, like we work together on the translations. Just yesterday I turned in the copy edit of his new book, and it’s been really nice to be here in Mexico and be able to get together and talk about it in person.

People have this idea that writers will dig their heels in and say, you know, “Why did you do X? It really has to be Y.” But in my experience that’s not what happens, most writers understand the nuances of language and know there are many ways a translation can go. Alejandro always listens to what I have to say and doesn’t impose anything. I ask a lot of questions,  a lot of times they’re just trying to understand why things are the way they are, what he was thinking when he was writing. When he reads my translations, he’s never really questioning what I do. He’s asking the same questions as I am. “Why is this like this?” “Is this as funny as it is in Spanish?” Or, “This is what I was thinking. This is what I was trying to do. Does the English do that?” I get so much out of those conversations. It’s almost never like, “Oh, this is wrong.” It’s more like, “This could be…”

When I saw the two of you together, it felt like you two had a real camaraderie. And that seems like a really wonderful thing to exist between writer and translator.

It is. That’s kind of what I go for with my writers. With Alejandro, Samantha (Schweblin) and Mariana (Enríquez), I’ve been their English translator since the beginning, and I’ve done several books with them. I think that it’s a really special relationship. I spend a lot of my time and energy trying to understand how these people think and what they’re trying to accomplish in their art. I think there’s a real relationship of trust that grows out of that, and that’s why I like to stick with writers over time because that really does change how you relate and how you can talk about a text. It’s not so much just asking, “What does this word mean?” You end up talking about literature in general, how you communicate with readers and what your overall goal in writing is. And your whole philosophy about literature. So I feel like I’m a participant in their various approaches. I think I learn a lot from it and I like to think that the translations get better as that relationship grows.

So, a lot of the works that you’ve translated have gone on to win pretty prestigious awards. Do you think there is an increase in the English-speaking world—perhaps due to the awards—of literature in translation being recognized, being read, being sold? And, indeed, are translators getting more recognition themselves?

I think that overall, in culture in general, I think there’s a movement toward becoming more aware of our prejudices, to use a very weighted word, but seeing the places that we’re blind towards. To see that literature has traditionally been the purview of white males. And now we’re trying to think about how we can get beyond that, how we can include more voices.

In the English-speaking world, at least in the United States, people have asked me, “Why should I read books in translation when there are so many good books that are written in English?” And I do think it’s important to get other voices into the literary culture and people’s conception of the world. It’s inclusivity, right? The more inclusive we can be in terms of the voices that we’re listening to, the better. So there’s that belief, and I think that there is a current in art and literature towards inclusivity. And that includes translation, obviously. And I think that beyond that, when you talk about inclusivity, there’s a lot of shoulds, and I don’t really want to talk about should, like, “Oh, we should be reading this.” But I think those “shoulds” can have a negative effect, they can turn people off, when really what we’re talking about is just good literature, it’s not a chore to read it.

When you start talking to people about translation, they say, “Oh, well, I never really thought about that before.” But they’ll be interested. I think there’s something inherently evocative or mysterious about translation that, once you do put your mind on it, it engages you. So it’s just about opening those doors.

Anyway, to get back to your question, I think the prizes are kind of quantifiable. Since the Booker started splitting its prize between translator and writer and awarding it to one book, sales of translated literature have gone up in the UK. That is quantifiable.

I do think things are moving toward being more open to translation direction. You know, the National Book Award restarted its translated literature category and the O. Henry Prize now accepts stories in translation. That translated literature prize for the National Book Award is the only one, I think, that you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to apply for.

As a reader, opening up to translation is kind of like a gateway drug. If you’re not familiar with translation and you hear about, you know, Tomb of Sand because it won the Booker, then you have a context for reading books that are translated from Hindi, Bulgarian, or other languages. And I do think it’s good to open those doors.

You’re the translator of Alejandro Zambra and Samantha Schweblin, but also Mariana Enríquez, who was a judge last year. I’ve got just a couple of questions about having the unique position of translating three of our judges.

First of all, we could possibly say that you have a finger on the pulse of some of the most important literature coming out of Latin America. Is there anyone we should be reading? Is there anyone who’s coming soon? Is anyone you’re translating or have you got your eye on that you’re thinking, wow, this person needs to be translated?

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that I have my finger on the pulse because I also feel like I spend a lot of time in these books that I translate and sometimes I feel like my perspective is not as broad as it should be. You know, I wish I had a better answer to that question. I wish I could just start naming 25 or 50 names that we should all be reading. Again, you know, I try to avoid shoulds, but you know what I mean.

Let’s see, for example, there’s one writer from Chile that a former student of mine is working on. Her name is Daniela Catrileo, and Jacob Edelstein is translating her. Those books will be coming out with FSG in the next year or so. So that’s one that I can definitely say keep an eye out for. I think she’s certainly really one to watch.

I’m also interested in going back and rediscovering writers who have been overlooked or forgotten. I haven’t done this much, but the little that I have done I have really enjoyed. Right now I’m working on a book by Juan Emar, who was a Chilean writer from the 30s who has been kind of like a pet project for me for a long time. In 2022, New Directions published Yesterday, which is a translation that I’ve been working on for a really long time. And now I’m working on Díez, Emar’s book of short stories. And it’s a different thing because I know that if I wasn’t translating Alejandro, for example, someone else would be doing it. But I feel like with Juan Emar, if I didn’t do it, it could possibly not exist in English. That’s kind of a special thing. It’s a little more difficult because I can’t talk to Juan Emar and ask him questions. But Juan Emar has also been an influence on Alejandro, so a lot of times when I run into a problem or a question with Juan Emar, I use Alejandro as my stand in. I ask him questions.

I’m also working on José Donoso. He has been published in English, but there’s a new unabridged version of his masterpiece called The Obscene Bird of Night that’s coming out, and then I’m going to do another, smaller book of his that has never been translated.

So that’s another thing that I would like to do a little more of. And I think that there are a lot of writers out there that bear rediscovering.

Right, right. Because you get so buried in these texts, which makes complete sense. Because you’re translating both Alejandro and Samantha, could you talk about how you see the differences in their style, for people who haven’t read them or engaged with them before?

Sure. I think that they’re both writers who are very precise in the sense that they think a lot about individual words, language and craft and form. They know why each word is there, and this is something that I’ve learned from working with the writers I work with and by being a translator: I also have to know exactly what each word is there.

They both kind of question everything. I think there’s an awareness of what they’re doing, where they set up expectations for the reader and then they subvert those expectations, or they take them in a different direction.

Their actual subjects are very different. Samantha likes to play with the borders, the limits between reality and irreality. But they are both very interested in the intimate bonds of family, like parent-child relationships.

They both write stories that have a lot of depth and layers that hold up to a lot of readings, which I can tell you because I have read them very many times. Neither of them takes themselves too seriously, which to me as a reader is really important.

Alejandro is maybe a little more clearly comical, but they both have humor, and neither of them is a pretentious writer, which I appreciate.

I think Samantha is a master of tension. If you look at a story like “An Unlucky Man,” it’s a story that from the very first line has tension. “The day I turned eight…my sister drank a cup of bleach.” You’re put on alert immediately, and then she maintains that tension through the whole story, though its source changes, and she’s very aware of where you think the evil is coming from. And she plays with that. She keeps you in a state of suspense from beginning to end in a way that I think is really technically prodigious. If you want a master class on how to write a story, read that story.

Alejandro does something similar in terms of playing with what you expect, but his stories tend to focus more on what we would maybe call relatable characters, everyday families and people who are middle class, a lot of poets, writers, and people who are struggling with everyday problems. But he still makes it new. He’s not confirming your experience, he’s making you question your experience. He’s not afraid of tenderness, but he uses it in a very self-aware way, so it never feels like you’re being manipulated as a reader. It feels like a tenderness that’s genuine and not gimmicky.

This seems like an apt point to transition into talking about short fiction.

In terms of short fiction, is there something particularly that draws you to it or that you find attractive? Something the novel can’t do or isn’t aiming to do?

Yes. I personally am a fan of short fiction. I’m a reader of short fiction.

I find it interesting that readers often look for long novels and want these epic, involved stories when we’re also living in a world where no one has an attention span. It seems like short stories should have a better reputation. But I like that there’s a very quick world-building in short stories. And you have to have a very well-defined voice in a short story because it has to get you from the very beginning.

A lot of times you read a novel and you’re like, “Oh, well, for the first 20 pages or so, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna really get into it, but then I did.” With a short story, it has to be there from the beginning. And then, by the time you get to the end, you have to feel like something has changed. You have to feel like what you were and what you were expecting at the beginning of the story is different. And that’s how you know that it’s a good story.

With Alejandro, throughout all of his fiction, he comes back to the idea that the words that we use can change reality. He has one story about students learning to write letters, and it’s the first time they’ve thought about putting needs or wants onto a page to get something, to change something in the world, which seems like an obvious thing, but it’s really not.

And there’s a story that is in his new collection called “Garabatos”—in English, it will be called “The Kid Without a Dad”—and I love this story. It’s possibly one of my favourites by him. Garabatos means cuss words, and it starts out with just this string of expletives. It’s about these two boys and their friendship, and one of the games they play is that they write each other letters where they just curse each other out.

But it’s a very tender story. It’s really about this innocent moment of being 10 or 12 years old where their rebellion is to use these curse words, and they get this thrill out of it. And then at the end of the story, without going through the whole plot, it also ends with a string of curse words, but you understand them as something very tender and beautiful. And I love that because it’s such an illustration about how literature can change how you feel about words in particular, and how those words and the world can change.

Yeah, you live through a parallax shift where, suddenly, the same phrase that at the beginning is a string of curse words is suddenly a symbol of tenderness and connection by the end. This has a power here.

We were actually talking to Mariana about this in our interview with her last year. We specifically asked her about the different receptions of her books, her short fiction and her novel. Because the novel blew up in a way that I think the short fiction didn’t. I asked how it was received in France as opposed to in Spain and in the UK or the US and she had thoughts on the differences between how Argentina, for instance, was a very short story-driven culture and how that for her was very natural, whereas the French, she thought, didn’t receive her short fiction in the same way that, say, Argentinian readers might. Is that something you have experienced living in Chile and coming over to Spain or travelling around to read from and talk about the translations?

I mean, there is the idea that, in English, stories don’t sell, the idea that editors don’t want a story collection, and if they buy it, they buy it with the understanding that the next will be a novel. It’s kind of like this lesser art form.

I do think that that’s kind of changing. But I also know that my experience of this is subjective and it has a lot to do with the writers who I translate. I know that when My Documents came out 10 or 12 years ago, people didn’t want to publish it, and then McSweeney’s published it, and it did surprisingly well. And now it’s been republished by Viking. And then you to talk about Samantha, who writes stories—even Fever Dream, which is her was her first novel, started out as a story in A Mouthful of Birds, Palabras en la boca, and then they took it out and made it a stand-alone novel—but she’s very focused on the form of the short story.

Mariana as well started out, obviously, as a story writer, and I see something a lot with her work–and this is why I say it’s subjective–I see on social media or on Goodreads a lot of people start out saying, “I don’t normally read stories, but I read this and I loved it,” or, “I don’t normally read horror, but I read this and I loved it.”

And to go back to prizes, Samantha won the National Book Award with a book of short stories, and Mariana’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed was shortlisted for the Booker and the Kirkus, and these are prizes that don’t traditionally go to short fiction. They go to novels. The novel is seen as a more serious form.

Obviously, coming from Argentina, that’s not true. Some of the greatest writers in Argentina, Cortázar or Silvina Ocampo or Borges wrote stories and it’s seen as a very serious and valid form.

Alejandro’s first novel, Bonsai, took Borges’s advice to write a novel as if you were summarizing a novel that you wanted to write, and it spins that advice out to its conclusion.

To come back to your original question, I think there is a difference, but obviously, in English we do have great short story writers. We have Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, we have Flannery O’Connor. I mean, we have tons of great short story writers. I think the prejudice against short stories is maybe more editorial than literary, right?

One of my last questions is about translation. I was just chatting with someone the other day who is a German speaker, and I am not a German speaker but I learned a bit as a kid and I remember reading some poetry, you know, and grabbing a line and being like, “Okay, I’m gonna read the translation.” Then for some reason, this one particular thing really stuck with me, and I’ve now read a bunch of different translations of this one line. I’m always fascinated that people have a hard time translating this particular saying, this particular word. It always stuck with me and I find it beautiful and fascinating. And it charms me. I wonder if there was something like this, some wordplay, some book, some translation, that grabbed you and made you want to be a translator.

Well, first, can you tell me what the German phrase is? I’m curious.

I’m going to butcher it. But it’s in one of the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’.

“Aber wann, in welchem aller Leben, / sind wir endlich offen und Empfänger? “ And the word Empfänger, as far as I understand it, in my terrible German, is to be receiving. But I guess in the sense of a flower that means receiving the light of the sun and the world. And when are we as humans really ever as open as a flower is

Translations of it just aren’t the same. I’ve found lots of different ways of translating this. And I’ve always been really charmed by that line. I don’t know why. Empfänger is a word that we don’t really have. Maybe some German speaker would tell me I’m wrong, there is this word in English and it’s just receiving. But from having read three or four translations of it, clearly there isn’t an easy way of doing it because there wasn’t one defined or unifying way of translating it.

There are endless things that you come across as a translator. I keep a running list of words that are hard to translate and stuff like that. But I can say that probably the book that started my interest in translation was Hopscotch, Rayuela, by Cortázar. And when you read the books, not from start to finish, but when you follow his advised way, if you start on chapter 73, the first paragraph is amazing and I used to have it memorized. It goes something like this: “Who will cure us of the dull fire, the colourless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette…,” and then it gets to a part where it says, “How should we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes? How much better, then, to make a pact with cats and mosses, strike up friendships right away with hoarse-voiced concierges who wait in windows and toy with a dry branch, to burn like this without surcease, to bear the inner burning coming on like fruit’s quick ripening, to be the pulse of a bonfire in this thicket of endless stone, walking through the nights of our lives, obedient as our blood in its blind circuit.”

That paragraph kind of rocked my world.

Now when I translate a lot of times I read out loud, and I feel like when you can get something that sounds that good, like “to make a pact with cats and mosses,” it just sounds fun to say and it sounds good and it’s really moving. I just love that paragraph.

At the time that I was reading it and falling in love with it, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I want to be a translator.” But that book started my love affair with translated literature as a reader.

That’s a beautiful paragraph. Maybe it’s just you reading that, the fire, the joy of the sound of the language and how it captures you. Just like you were talking about with Alejandro, the language has the power to change lives, because you are now a translator!

There you go!

After having said all of that and talked about the different short fiction that you translated and some of the more dynamic elements of the writers that you translate, is there any particular bit of advice you would give to the folks who are going to be entering this competition, which is a short fiction competition for under 2000 words? Is there anything you would particularly want to pass on?

The advice that seems accurate or apt to me is to write about what scares you. Obviously I didn’t come up with that, but that has resonated with me.

The thing that I said before about knowing why each word is there, what I tell my students all the time is to trust yourself but question everything. Read and reread. I think you can trust your instincts, but you can also question why things are the way they are and what other ways they could be.

I think a lot of people, when they’re reading, want to read things that confirm their ideas or confirm their experiences. But I think then there are other people who want their ideas and experiences to be put in the spotlight and interrogated and questioned. And I tend toward the latter and I think probably a lot of the writers that I translate also tend toward the latter. That’s what I look for in a story.
Terry Craven is the co-owner of Desperate Literature, Madrid.
Megan McDowell has translated many of the most important Latin American writers working today. Her translations have won the National Book Award for Translated Literature, the English PEN award, the Premio Valle-Inclán, and two O. Henry Prizes, and have been nominated for the International Booker Prize (four times) and the Kirkus Prize. Her short story translations have been featured in The New YorkerThe Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Tin HouseMcSweeney’s, and Granta, among others. In 2020 she won an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is from Richmond, KY and lives in Santiago, Chile.

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