The Literary Tourist Interviews Megan McDowell

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews Spanish translator Megan McDowell. Megan has translated novels by a number of South American and Spanish authors and has published shorter works in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, and Vice. Her translation of Fever Dream, an unsettling novel by Samanta Shweblin, is a new release from Riverhead Books.

Andrea Gregovich: What an intriguing book this is! The narrative plops the reader down right in the middle of a fever dream, which has a profoundly disorienting effect as you try to get your bearings in the story. How was it to translate something so necessarily confusing? I find context so important when I’m translating, but the context here is the entire mystery of the book. Did you need to confer with the author to help keep track of what’s going on?

Megan McDowell: It’s true that the book has a unique structure: it’s a conversation between two people: Amanda, who is in the hospital, and David, a mysterious boy who is not her son. David urges her to think back over her recent memories to find “the important thing,” the reason she is there, in a hospital bed on the verge of death. He wants her to understand something essential, but what is it? We don’t know, but David’s probing and Amanda’s tentative telling of the story take on urgency and suspense as we approach them. To me, this device is utterly compelling and very precise even as it emphasizes the mystery. You feel like you’re in a nightmare where you can only see certain images and hear certain voices. There is confusion, yes, but it’s pointed, guided, and deliberate. The insistence on that imperative of the essential thing gives the narrative force, and I think it’s very carefully done.

I guess all this is to say that I didn’t find the book confusing, exactly… the first time I read it I devoured it in one sitting, and I found it immediately engrossing. Once I understood the conceit of the dialog, I got right into the flow. Rather than confusion, I might talk about the book’s ambiguity—the idea that parents never really know their children, and the terror that can bring. Also, I’ve never decided whether Carla is a force for “good” or “evil” in the book, though I know that’s not the question to be asking. But there are all kinds of questions like that without simple answers; the answers seem just out of reach, and our search for them makes the book feel urgent and creepy and disorienting, as you say.

AG: I was completely baffled until around page 30, and then suddenly I realized there was a shocking ghost story (of sorts) mixed in with the fever dream, and from there I was hooked and compelled to keep going. But the ghost story realization wasn’t a big reveal, it came through subtle hints, and the fever dream was still strong, only now clinging to the ghost story thread. Was there any concern from the publisher that readers would bail early on the book because it starts out in such a fog? Did Riverhead make an effort to package and promote the book in a way that would prepare readers for the fever dream narrative?

MM: The title of the book in Spanish is “Distancia de rescate”, which in the book I’ve translated as “rescue distance.” It’s the variable distance between mother and daughter, the distance within which Amanda would be able to rescue Nina if something were to happen to her. This is the book’s driving concept. So the very title of Fever Dream is a change to the book’s packaging, and I get the sense from your questions that it affected how you read the book a great deal.

I don’t think the folks at Riverhead were concerned about readers bailing early, but they did do a pretty awesome thing to promote the book. When they mailed out galleys, they packaged them in a white box filled with dried oats and realistic rubber worms. You gotta hand it to them for presentation, and it’s also consistent with the care they took with the whole process of publishing the book.

AG: Wow, the novel would have felt entirely different to me if it had been called Rescue Distance. I was aware of the rescue distance theme as I read it, but I didn’t stop to consider it as a driving force, as you put it. Now I’m thinking about the sad irony of the concept, a mother with a ritual of calculating the distance she would need to rescue her child in an emergency in what turns out to be a poisoned environment, no distance close enough to rescue from an unseen threat. Where in the story do you see the theme of “rescue distance”?

MM: Everywhere, really. Amanda introduces the concept early on, and David questions her about it several times. The metaphor is that there is a rope tying Amanda to her daughter Nina, and she can feel the rope pull taut or go slack depending on the danger she senses around her. But we know from the very beginning that something has gone wrong with the rescue distance, her senses haven’t warned her of the danger. This is an intense psychological horror—that of a parent aware at every moment of the need to keep a child safe, but who isn’t always aware of the true danger around her. It’s the truth of every parent’s situation, but one that no one likes to think about.

AG: I also wanted to mention how cool it is that they sent the galleys out with such a lavish presentation. It’s a really beautiful and different little book: smaller than most novels, the size of a journal maybe, a page layout that is very easy on the eye, and a cover that really captures the feeling of menace in the book’s fever dream. Everything gives the impression that Riverhead goes above and beyond to make the book an aesthetic treat for the reader, which is so welcome for me, a reader with tired eyes and a rather jaded attention span. Do know if they follow a house style with their presentation? Or do they give each book a unique treatment?

MM: It’s true, the book is beautiful. I love the cover, the horse with his sad and terrified eyes. I can’t say much about the approach Riverhead takes with its books in general, except that my experience working with them and the editor Laura Perciasepe was excellent. It’s the ideal place for a new writer in translation, I think, because they have the resources of a large press, but a real interest in and passion for publishing great literature, often in translation, which you usually see in an independent. Laura in particular has a focus on translating writers from Spanish. She’s worked on books by Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Álvaro Enrigue, for example, and I think she’s become aware of the lack of female voices in translation. She’s definitely a force for good in publishing.

AG: The entire novel seems to be about the recall of important memories through this fever dream. But there are surreal and macabre images (poison that feels like worms in the body, disfigured children), and the narrative jumps from place to place like a dream. There are also occasional lines of confusion that feel like a dream, like when the narrator actually says, “It’s as if I were dreaming.” How much of the narrative are we supposed to take as non-dream reality? Do you think there are dream images mixed into the memories?

MM: We’re supposed to take all of the narrative as non-dream reality. That’s not to say that Amanda (or David) is entirely reliable, but we have to take Amanda’s narrative as her reality and consequently ours. She’s confused, but she’s searching for something through her memory of events, and we have to assume she’s remembering correctly. None of the surreal events are the product of her fever. The poison and the feeling of worms in the body are all too real. It’s true you can question whether certain things actually happened, but by the end of the novel I’m absolutely convinced. Whether Amanda is talking to David in real life or in a dream ultimately doesn’t matter.

AG: There are hardly any culturally identifying markers in this novel to tie it to its home country. The characters drink yerba mate, that’s about it. The character names—David, Nina, Carla, and Omar—aren’t culturally specific either. Was this book written to be intentionally universal? Samanta Schweblin is from Buenos Aires, but she lives in Berlin; is she in fact an international writer?

MM: I’ve noticed that about the names too, and I can only imagine that it’s intentional.

I took the book to be very much set in Argentina, though I suppose it’s true that it could also be many other places. But I did ask Samanta questions about the text in the process of translating, and often her answers included some version of the phrase “in Argentina it’s common…” This was true for small things—how Amanda and Carla drink their iced tea with lemon, or details around the houses (there was a back and forth about a plastic curtain at Carla’s house that you might find surprisingly detailed). I think the setting is Argentina, but we feel it to be nebulous because of the same claustrophobic feeling I mentioned before—there’s not much sense of an outside world beyond the corner the narrative inhabits. When the capital is mentioned it feels jarring, like an intrusion. All of that has more to do with the style and structure of the novel, I think, than the author’s biography.

But it’s also true that the biography of a writer and her way of engaging with questions of self and other must affect how she writes. I do think living in a country that’s not your own makes you see many things differently, whether you’re a writer or a translator or a doctor or a bum. It changes the ideas you want to engage with, and it shifts the way you address the familiar and the foreign. What I’m trying to say is that it changes your way of conceptualizing “other people,” and I imagine writers are always writing for some version of “other people.” I can’t say what audience Samanta had in mind when she was writing, if she had one. But I can only imagine that her experiences of her own country and others have an effect on her writing (conscious or not) in terms of whom she’s writing for. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without talking to her first.

AG: Her straightforward language also makes me wonder—is this a writer who consciously writes fiction that will translate easily, without the sort of cultural baggage that usually causes such headaches for a translator? 

MM: I think a lot of writers would bristle at this question, because it implies a canny market calculation (actually I know they would, because I’ve asked, and they bristled). But there are certainly writers, like Murakami, who I don’t think anyone would argue write for translation, and the market is certainly a thing that exists and plays a role in the complex process of writing and publishing. But in this case I think what your asking about has more to do with the specific exigencies of the book. The language is stripped-down and unadorned, it guides you deliberately through the experience of the narrative. I try to imagine this story with cultural references—Amanda listening to Roberto Goyeneche or referencing Lamborghini, Carla watching Videomatch on TV—and I can’t. It’s crucial for this story to feel like it’s taking place on an island—the island of Amanda and David in the hospital bed, conjuring up nearby outcroppings of the recent past. There’s a great deal of ambiguity in the story, so it’s vital that the language used to convey it be precise and direct. I don’t believe Samanta consciously stripped any cultural markers from the text; rather, it didn’t make sense to include them given the environment and tone she was working to evoke.

AG: Besides Samanta Schweblin, you have translated many other South American authors. Which ones have been your favorites?

MM: Oh, that’s like asking an aunt to choose her favorite niece or nephew (the authors being the parents in this metaphor). I have a different relationship with each book I’ve translated. I can say that I’ve translated several of Zambra’s books and that’s pretty special—other writers I’ve only done one book. I can trace his concerns over time, and I’m aware of what changes and what stays the same. I think about his oeuvre as a whole as I translate, in addition to the particular book I’m working on, and that sometimes influences the choices I make. Also, Alejandro is a friend and we’ve worked closely on some of the translations, which makes the process more creative and collaborative.

AG: As a Spanish translator, are you drawn to certain countries in particular?

MM: Well, I live in Chile and I learned Spanish here, so I often feel like Chilean writers are the most natural for me to translate. I learned as an adult and I’m not even close to a native speaker, but Chilean Spanish, weird as it is, has had the most influence on mine. Basically the closer to Chile, the more comfortable I am—I’m good with Argentina, but on much more unstable ground with Spain. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to translate from farther afield, or that I’ll do a worse job. It just means it takes more work, and I’ll learn more.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was published in November 2016 by Amazon Crossing.

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