‘Genuine, intimate, provocative’ – a word from the translator with Megan McDowell

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Megan McDowell, whose translation of Alejandro Zambra’s novel Ways of Going Home won an award in 2013

 Ways of Going Home‘You’re leaving because you’re in love with someone else,’ I replied, as if it were a guessing game. I thought of her Argentine boyfriend and I also thought about Esteban, the blond boy who had been with her back then, in Maipú. I never asked if he was her boyfriend or not. I wanted to ask her now, too late, awkwardly, childishly. But before I could, she answered, emphatically: ‘I’m not in love with someone else.’ She took a long sip of coffee while she thought about what to say. ‘I’m not in love with anyone, really. If there’s anything I’m sure of,’ she said, ‘it’s that I’m not in love with anyone.’

‘But maybe it’s better for you to think of it that way,’ she added later, in an indefinable tone. ‘It’s easier to understand it that way. It’s better for you to think that all this has been a love story.’

Excerpt from Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Interview by Grace Hetherington

Did you know much about Chile’s recent history before deciding to translate this novel? What kind of research did you do to prepare yourself?

I’ve read a fair amount about Chile’s history over the years, and I also lived in Chile from 2004-2007. That experience was probably what best prepared me for translating Ways of Going Home. When you’re there, you come to realize that everyone has a story, that Chile’s recent past has affected everyone’s life in some way or another, though not necessarily in ways that you read about in books. I’m thinking of a story a friend told me recently – a relative of hers was taken prisoner during the dictatorship; this relative had cancer, and he couldn’t get the chemotherapy he needed. Eventually he was released, and later he died of cancer. His death wasn’t directly due to the dictatorship, but the tragedy is still there, even if it’s not the headline-making sort of tragedy. This is the particular sorrow in Ways of Going Home, in the telling of stories that are often overlooked – Claudia’s story is the sort of everyday tragedy that often goes unacknowledged.

I translated Ways of Going home during the same period that I translated another book set during the Pinochet dictatorship, and so I spent a full year immersed in that period. When I’m translating a book, I always try to acquaint myself with the references that appear in it. Meaning that if a writer or book is mentioned I try to read them, if a musician or a song shows up I often listen to them while I work. So while I was translating Ways, I watched La batalla de Chile for the first time, the documentary by Patricio Guzmán that’s mentioned in the second part of the book. I also read Promise at Dawn, (the book the epigram of Ways comes from), and I watched Ozu’s film, discovered Hebe Uhart, and listened to some Magnetic Fields. That’s one kind of ‘research’ I do, if you can call it that; it’s a way to get into the world of the book and the author. It’s fun.

Zambra’s prose is very sparing, sometimes to the extent to which it sounds unusual. One review writes of his writing: ‘never a wasted word… Never a false note’. Does this precise use of language put pressure on you as the translator?

Alejandro has a very particular, deceptively simple style. It’s true that every word is there for a reason. As I translate, I often try out different ways of wording something; play around with the word order. I inevitably write as if it were me writing, in a way that sounds natural to me. But in the final, necessary step of translating, I go back over what I’ve done and question everything, why each word is as it is. Inevitably also, this takes my text closer to Alejandro’s; my experimentation is often – not always – just for me, and the final step is like pulling tight the thread that connects the translation to the original. I’ve learned a lot about writing in this process.

A quotation from Ways of Going Home reads: ‘to read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it’. A translator is both a reader and a writer of the text they translate. Do you find you have to both ‘hide’ and ‘show’ yourself, when translating literature?

I really believe that translation is an engaged, creative or critical way of reading. My love of translation doesn’t stem from my urge to write, but rather my urge to read. You will hear many people say that translators must be writers too, and there is some truth to that. I think it’s very possible that a translator is a writer covering her face.

Cristina Peri Rossi said that writing is a process of seduction and translation a process of love, and that the translator in love with a text believes that the author’s voice is her own voice, that the written words are those she would have liked to have written. I have had the feeling that if I were a writer, or if I were me but different, I might have written the words I translate. One thing I am forever beguiled by is Alejandro’s faith in the redeeming power of literature. In the title story of his new book, Mis documentos, the narrator loses his faith in God, and at the same time, ‘begins to believe, naively, intensely, and absolutely, in literature.’ This utter belief in the power of literature is something I think I had once, but lost along the way. Probably that’s why I’m not a writer. But I enjoy living in the skin, or the head, or the words, of someone who feels that way, which is why it’s a joy to translate Alejandro’s work.

The novel has two distinct, parallel narratives. Did you find it easy to translate these voices one after the other? How did you approach this?

There are two family scenes in the book, where first the writer and then his protagonist return to the childhood home. I never get tired of reading these, the ‘real’ scene the writer experiences and the ‘written’ one that he fictionalises. To me those two scenes are the crux of the book, and what is and isn’t in each of them constitutes a subtle exposition of the writing process as well as of complicated family relationships. We have the writer pulling back the curtain, saying ‘this is what I do, this is real and this other thing is art,’ but really it’s all a trick, because the writer is a character too; it’s all part of the novel, and we as readers take on something of the voyeur as we peek behind the screen.

But I guess that doesn’t answer the question. There did come a point during the editing process when I specifically tried to differentiate the voices in the two narratives. I think part of my strategy involved using more phrasal verbs and shorter sentences in the first part, about the child, and more Latinate words in the writer’s sections, which are more meditative. But both voices are conversational and personal, two sides of a coin. I think the most difficult parts to translate were the poems, because I am not a poet and I didn’t have much confidence, but ultimately I was happy with how they turned out.

In Ways of Going Home, the protagonist pleads with someone he cares about a lot to read his work, and is then disappointed by her opinion of it. As a translator, are you protective of your work? Do you seek friends’ approval, or the author’s?

I definitely seek the author’s approval. How could I not? With Alejandro this is easy because we work together on the translations, he’s always willing to answer questions and talk about my uncertainties. He is great to work with because he both takes the work very seriously and also approaches it playfully. In other cases, when the author is already dead, for example, you have to invent an alter ego consisting of what you think he would have been like, and try to please that chimerical invention. Translational schizophrenia!

Aside from the author, though, I don’t seek anyone else’s approval. I would say that no one outside this little literary enclave really understands what a translator does. Once a translation exists, people think that’s THE translation, that it could be no other way. Obviously that’s not the case: a translation can go in so many directions.

I suppose I feel a little protective of my work, but more dominant is my curiosity. I very much enjoy the rewriting and editing; I always love the collaborative parts of the process working with the author or editor. When you translate you get so deep into the words and your own head that it’s refreshing and eye-opening when someone else finally reads what you’ve done.

Describe Ways of Going Home in three words.

Genuine, intimate, provocative.


Megan McDowell is a literary translator who lives and works in the United States.  Her first book translation was The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, published in Spring 2010 by Open Letter Press. In 2009 she received a fellowship to attend the annual Banff International Literary Translation Center residency, where she worked on her translation of Juan Emar’s novel Ayer (Yesterday).  She graduated in 2009 with a Master’s degree in Literary Translation from the University of Texas in Dallas, where she worked closely with the American Literary Translators Association.

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