The translator of the new Latino boom is from Kentucky and believes in spirits

Megan McDowell, who has translated Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin into English, compares her work to that of a medium

Megan Mcdowell
Megan McDowell at Kentucky bar in Barcelona.Vicens Gimenez

Sitting on a stool that was once bolted to the ground to prevent marines passing through town from starting the kind of fights that end badly, Megan McDowell has a task to perform. The waitress has just asked her to translate what the pair of tipsy New Zealand sailors at the back of the bar are saying. She’s at Bar Kentucky, an American-style, baroque bar in Barcelona, Spain, which appears frozen in the year 1951. Neither the waitress nor the sailors have the remotest idea that McDowell is a world star in the field. Her translation of Seven Empty Houses won Samanta Schweblin the prestigious National Book Award in 2022. It was her prize too. The fact that the only other Argentine writer to win the award was Julio Cortázar, for his popular book Hopscotch — and that Megan has a hopscotch tattooed on her arm — is the kind of detail that seems to suggest that her bright future was a foretold story.

McDowell, 44, grew up in Kentucky, in the American Midwest, alongside her twin sister. At first, she wanted to stand out from her sibling, but then she didn’t want to be apart from her. When her twin left for Chicago, she followed. Their parents — a former nun and ex-hippy — read aloud to them when they were little and then left “extremely weird things” within their reach, things such as Watership Down, by Richard Adams, a dystopian adventure novel featuring rabbits. But it was translated literature that made her realize that there was a bigger world out there. She went to Chile. “A musician friend thought it would be a good idea to buy an old hotel in Valparaíso and turn it into a cultural center. That didn’t work out, but I went anyway,” she says. By then, she had already worked for Dalkey Archive Press as a reader and was determined to learn another language, so that she could dedicate herself to translating the books she fell in love with. It was not easy. “America tends to believe that nothing matters but itself.” So why not try writing? “I wanted to give a voice to those who did not have it in my language. I didn’t think the world needed the voice of another privileged white woman,” she replies.

She says that translation — which she currently does from a Barcelona apartment overlooking the house where Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño used to live — has a mystical side: “I feel more and more that the book passes through me, that in some way, it relives in my head.” McDowell would like to believe in ghosts. In fact, she collects stories of writers who have seen spiritual apparitions. “I am convinced that good writers have some kind of contact with the afterlife,” she says. While McDowell began in the trenches, fighting for every book, today she is one of the most admired figures in literary translation. She has given voice to the stars of the new Latino boom, authors such as Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enriquez and Schweblin. McDowell says she had only seen Schweblin three times before the National Book Award ceremony. She arrived late, knowing that they would win. “Samanta’s mother is a seer,” she confesses. McDowell translates for between two and six hours a day — with the tiny wooden duck Schweblin gifted her nearby. “It reminds me that I must make a friend of time.” She tends to get overwhelmed, but she is learning, finally, to enjoy herself.

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