Work in Translation: A Conversation with Megan McDowell

Megan McDowell has translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain, including Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. Her translations have been published in The New YorkerTin HouseThe Paris ReviewHarper’s MagazineMcSweeney’sWords Without Borders, and Vice, among others. Her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s novel Ways of Going Home won the 2013 English PEN Award for writing in translation, and her English version of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.


Editor’s Note: This interview is transcribed from a Q&A between Megan McDowell and a group of students and faculty at SUNY Potsdam. 


Rick Henry: We have to begin with many thanks to the Dorf Yes Fund here at SUNY Potsdam. We have a series of translators coming in, and they are graciously funding the series. 

Tonight we are most happy to have Megan McDowell, translating from the Spanish, particularly fiction by writers from Chile and Argentine. 

Her reputation is huge within the translation community. I’ve spoken with a number of translators over the past six months as I put this series together, and to a person, they’ve all expressed their awe of Megan’s work. This line from Nathan Scott McNamara’s 2017 “The Making of a Tireless Literary Translator,” published in Literary Hub, pretty much sums up her life and work to date: “McDowell is the most selfless sort of artist there is. She is a brilliant writer who has dedicated her mind, time and creativity, her entire life to lifting up the work of other people.” 

She translates a wide range of authors having different aesthetic sensibilities: multiple award-winning Argentinian Samanta Schweblin, whose writing moves to the edge of consciousness, and can be dark and playful even at the same time; Alejandro Zambra, whose occasional dream-like writing contrasts with some of his more fragmented and, at times, more formal ‘exercises’ such as his novel Multiple Choice and his collection My Documents; Nicolas Giacobone, whose work includes credits as a co-writer of the movie Birdman. And so on and on and on. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Lina Meruane. Carlos Fonesca. Diego Zúñiga and a host of other writers. 

Each work has at its core its own set of issues, aesthetic, political, philosophical, and requires from a translator, its own attention, attention to language and expression, ideas, and perspectives on the world. Her successes are multiple. 

Her most recent translation is a collection of short stories by Paulina Flores entitled Humiliation (Catapult, 2019). For me, it was a lost weekend, as I burrowed in and read from beginning to end and back again. 

Please welcome Megan McDowell, who is visiting largely for questions and answers, but whom I will ask, for the sake of the visitors, to give the briefest of introductions to her own work. 

Megan McDowell: Thank you very much for having me. Thank you all for being here. Actually today is the publication day of Humiliation by Paulina Flores. So it’s kind of appropriate that we’re talking about that today. 

So, how I got started. There was really no reason for me to be a translator. I grew up in Kentucky in a monolingual environment. I remember when I was in the eighth grade and had to take a Spanish class. I thought, “When am I ever going to need this again?” When I went to college, I studied English literature, but I realized that the things that I was reading on my own tended to be translations. 

After I finished my degree, I worked for a year at Dalkey Archive. That was kind of my dream job. I really wanted to work with books. I really wanted to work in publishing. I really thought I wanted to be an editor. Dalkey Archive is where I learned a lot about translation and experimental literature. I really wanted to keep working there, but it was a fellowship position, which is basically a paid internship. 

They didn’t hire me because I didn’t speak another language. So I decided that speaking another language was going to really help me get a job in publishing, which is really not true. But I decided to move to a Latin American country and learn Spanish. I chose Chile kind of randomly. I had a friend who lived there, and he convinced me that it was a good idea to buy a hotel, start a cultural center, and have bands play there. 

I was here for three years and I learned the language and I did start working as a translator at a British shipping company. But, I always maintained my interest in literature. I decided to come back to the States and get my master’s degree. I went to the University of Texas at Dallas, got a master’s with a focus on literary translation. I spent the winter here, summer there, basically looking for a translation project. I talked to book sellers, and editors, and readers, and asked them who the interesting, younger, undiscovered writers were. Everyone talked to me about Alejandro Zambra. That’s how I came upon him, just by asking around. So I started translating him in my translation workshop. I think that I’ve been really blessed because of that. Eventually, I did a reading on this translation and an editor was there. Later on, when he was offered the book, he remembered that I had done it. He ended up publishing it. 

So I was very lucky when it came to my projects and my translations because I found Alejandro Zambra. I have been working with him ever since. I’ve done six of his books. Because of that, it snowballed. I started getting more offers of Chilean books, and then Argentine. So that’s my trajectory. 

But I’d like to know what you guys would like to know. 

Avery: How do you go about selecting works? With Fever Dream, you said that you went to skim it and ended up reading it until midnight, all the way through in one go. I’m aware that you were initially hesitant in translating Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez at the same time due to not wanting them to be lumped together on your account from your ethos as a translator. I am wondering what jumps out to you on both a human and a literary level with the works that you choose to translate? 

MM: That is a good question. And it’s a complicated answer. In the beginning, when I was first starting out as a translator, I could choose my projects because no one was really asking me for anything. Talking to a lot of people and getting an idea of the panorama and the language that you’re translating from is really important. That’s why I still live in Chile. I think it’s a really big advantage to me to just be here and to have regular contact with the literary scene. 

Then I went through a period where I really couldn’t choose my projects because I was a beginning translator. I just took everything they gave me, which is not to say that I don’t like my projects. I think that there was one project I took by a Spanish writer that I was probably not the right person for, just because Spanish-Spanish is not my Spanish. I think it was very difficult for me to get that voice right. I was on a much more slippery terrain. 

In terms of how I choose projects now, what should probably be obvious is that I choose books that I love. If you’re planning to become literary translators, you will probably come across this. It’s really important to love the books that you’re working on, because you will have to read them over and over and over again. So if it’s not a book you love, it can just become a very tedious process. 

I also really want to work with living contemporary writers. I also want it to be more of an ongoing conversation between languages and cultures. I don’t like the idea that a writer has to be consecrated, a great world figure, before they ever come to be translated. I like to think that translations are an ongoing conversation. So I look for contemporary voices. My tastes do run a little towards the dark. Mariana Enriquez plays a lot with genre. She’s been called a gothic. She tends to combine what you call magical realism with very contemporary problems of social inequality and feminism. I really love that combination. Samanta Schweblin also does that, to a certain extent. 

So I guess I’m looking for certain styles that seem vital and relevant, subjects that seem important, and voices that seem surprising. That’s what I’m looking for. Things that can surprise me. 

Morgan: I was reading one of your interviews about translating Fever Dream. You talk about conversation needing to have a “concept flow.” How did you find yourself keeping that concept flow? Did you have to change anything or did you try not to change anything?

MM: I don’t mean to sound flippant, but I change everything. I change it from Spanish into English. That may sound flippant, but it’s really not. People have this idea that a literal translation is possible, and it’s not. I found that even when I think that I’m being absolutely word for word literal and that I’m not “changing anything,” what I do is totally different from what a different translator would do. It’s always a negotiation between this idea of fidelity and this idea of creativity, or what some people call … what’s the word? Treachery? 

So Fever Dream, in particular, is interesting because it is all conversation. So it does have that flow. I really enjoy translating conversations because I feel like you can be a little more free. You have these base rules, this idea that it’s something that people would say. In that sense, I wouldn’t stick to a Spanish syntax. I would try and say something in a way that someone would actually say it. I don’t feel like I’m being very unfaithful to Samanta’s prose. Her prose is very clean. Fever Dream is very well thought-out to the extent that there’s a lot of ambiguity in the book itself and in the story. But in the text, reading word by word, there’s not that much ambiguity. For the most part, it was a pretty straightforward text to translate. 

Gabby: You mention creativity. In an interview, you have said that “Translation is like creative reading,” which I think implies interpretation and a certain kind of connection to the text. I was just wondering how much of your own interpretation do you have to use, or do you find yourself using when you translate literature? 

MM: I like that idea of creative reading. I guess it’s what Gregory Rabassa would call the “other path,” the “active reader,” right? You have to project yourself into the text, and you have to have a complete understanding or interpretation of the text. Because if you don’t, if you just go and write, do a literal translation of something you don’t really understand, that is always the part that will make a reader, a critic, or an editor stop and say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” 

It’s incredibly important to really understand what it is you’re trying to say and not stay along the surface of a translation. Another aspect of translating living writers, contemporary writers, is that I have an “out” in that I can always ask my writer. So if there’s something that I don’t understand, I can go to them and ask them to explain it to me. Sometimes they say, “Yeah. I don’t really know what I was trying to say there.” Then we have to come up with something together. 

There are other translation problems: plays on words, tongue twisters, things that you really just can’t translate literally, or words that need explaining. I can get creative with those. Then I can explain the problem to my writer and say, “Is it okay if I do this?” They will say yes or no. Or, we come up with a solution together. 

That’s the beautiful thing about working with living writers. I don’t really think of the text as this kind of sacred thing that can’t be changed. I think of the job of the translator as having a component that is editorial. I think that I would feel very differently if I were translating an ancient text, or if I was translating Cervantes or something like that, something I think of as a lot more set in stone. 

My way of working tends to be more collaborative and a little more playful. I don’t know how many of you are working with Spanish, and I don’t know how true this is of other languages, but the Spanish language literary world hasn’t much of a culture of editing in the sense that, a lot of the books that I’m translating have not really been edited very well in Spanish. So a lot of times the process of translation is also a process of editing. I’m not really giving away any secrets by telling you that. I may have gotten away from your question. 

Gabby: I just asked how you incorporate your own creativity into the translation. 

MM: Right. And so, to sum all of that up, it varies according to the book. Fever Dream was a relatively straightforward translation. Another book was called, in English, Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra. That’s a book that is based on a multiple choice test. It’s like a placement test students take before they start college. In that book, especially the first few sections, they’re almost poems, one word questions that are built around plays on words, and rhyming, and double meaning, and these kinds of things. 

If I were to try and translate it literally, the whole book would be a footnote because I’d have to be explaining the joke the whole time. So instead of doing that, we basically took the foundational idea of the book, which is that this is a multiple choice test and that there are certain themes that are important. It’s a critique of education, most importantly. Also the dictatorship was very important, and the idea of silence under a dictatorship. There are also themes involving parents and children. 

So we took those subjects and those themes and kind of wrote new exercises. That book is a really good example. When does it stop being a translation and start being an interpretation or a version? But to me, that was what that book called for, because otherwise a translation wouldn’t be possible. 

It’s a very playful book, it’s a very Chilean book, and has a lot of cultural references. Some of them we kept, others we replaced. The idea is that we want to appeal to English-speaking readers in the same way that the book appeals to Chilean readers. If we are throwing cultural references out of it that they just don’t understand, it’s not going to have the same kind of impact. Again, I did all of this with the collaboration of Alejandro. 

So, it’s kind of a “get out of jail free” card. I was really expecting people to read that book and ask “What kind of translation is this?” But no one ever did. No one ever did a comparison, and no one was ever like, “This isn’t the translation. What does she think she’s doing?” The short answer is that you just have to be aware of what the book is calling for. 

KM: In Spanish literature and culture, do literary devices, like, for example, flashbacks or foreshadowing or paradox, work the same as in English literature? For example, in “Humiliation.” 

MM: The thing that I remember with that story is not so much the flashbacks. The thing that I had trouble with within that story was there was a shift in perspective. The story, ostensibly, is told from the point of view of Simona, the daughter. But at a certain point, it switches to the father’s perspective. It did that several times in a way that may have worked in Spanish, but I didn’t think could really work in English. I remember that I kind of shifted the perspective in some parts in that story to keep it clear who was thinking what. 

Avery: You said in your Paris Review interview that, “People always ask me if I write and I usually say ‘no.'” You describe a translator as an outsider looking in. I just wanted to expand upon that a little bit in regards to the artistic license that you use, what kind of personal ownership do you feel over the text when it’s done? How does that relate to the responsibility you feel to the author that you have a personal relationship with, because they are living? 

You also said that you feel a reader’s deep love for the book. “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 to make decisions to its benefit.” I am curious as to how that works in regards to your own feeling of accomplishment when it’s all done? 

MM: That’s a really good question. The answer is complicated. I was being a little disingenuous maybe there, because I do feel a certain sense of ownership over the books that I translate. When I compare what a translator does to what a writer does, I think there is some overlap between the words of a translator and a writer. There’s definitely overlap between the work of a translator and an editor, work which is traditionally behind the scenes. 

I’m kind of an activist. I really want to contribute to the literary scene in English, to the literary offering in English. I think that the literary offerings in the States, and in English, tend to be a little xenophobic. This is changing, but readers often aren’t open to books from other countries. I can champion the books that I translate in a way that, ironically, the writer can’t, because it’s not mine. I think that the translator doesn’t make herself vulnerable in the same way a writer does. 

Moreover, a translator never has to sit in front of the blank page. Those are two things the writer’s really putting all out there. She does have to lay herself bare and to face the void of the blank page. I don’t have to do that. So because of those two things, I don’t think the translator bears as much responsibility for the text, shouldn’t get as much credit. But I do feel a responsibility towards the work. I do feel intense responsibility towards the writer, and also towards the reader. I really feel like my role is to facilitate the conversation between the reader and writer. I feel a little conflicted over the whole campaign to name the translator and put the translator’s name on the front of the book. 

I’ve noticed that when I do a translation for a large publishing company, they never put my name on the front cover. When I do it for a smaller, independent press, they generally do. I think that’s because the small independent presses tend to think more about translation. They want to foster this thing around translation. The larger publishing companies really want to sell books, and it’s not my name that’s going to sell books. 

So I really don’t have a problem with them not putting my name on the cover. But I will admit to feeling a little pain when I read reviews and the translator’s name is not mentioned. I have complicated emotions about my books. It’s not a totally selfless task, and I do suffer for my translations. I lose sleep over them. It is rewarding when someone recognizes that work. It’s like any work, you want to be recognized for it. I’m not sure exactly what form that recognition should take. I think recognizing the translator is a way of raising the profile of translation in general. Because of that, it’s important. How’s that for a complicated, meandering answer? 

Gabby: We’ve discussed perspective and how perspective and translation work together. During your translation process, how important is the perspective of the author that you’re translating or the audience that you’re writing for? 

MM: That’s a good question, and there’s not an easy answer. Again, I hate to fall back on this, but it really varies according to the text. With Multiple Choice, I definitely had to think a lot about how people were going to read that book, because a lot of it has to do with what people are going to understand what certain words to mean, and where their minds are going to go with certain cultural references. 

Obviously if I was translating a book that is set in the South of Chile and is all about Mapuche culture, I’m not going to change those cultural references. When I say cultural references, I’m talking about pop culture. A lot of that has to do with this idea that literature is universal. But, a lot of what’s interesting in reading a translation is that it’s not a shared world view or shared perspective. 

Mariana Enriquez’s book of short stories called Things We Lost in the Fire has a lot of supernatural elements. But a lot of the background of the story also has to do with very specific Argentine references, to dictatorship, to blackouts of electricity. There are some things that take place in the North of Argentina and a lot of Brazilian magic that people won’t necessarily get in the United States. 

So for that book, I thought it was important to write a translator’s note that gave that context for reading the book. I still managed to do that translation without ever putting in a footnote, which to me is very important. I try to avoid footnotes at all costs. But it was necessary to put that one in a little bit of context. In terms of the author’s perspective, several books that I’ve translated have been what’s called “auto fiction,” which is how a lot of writers in Chile are writing these days. So it has been important to me to talk to my writers and get their perspective. 

There was a book that I did that is probably not on your radar because it was only published in the U.K. It’s by Daniel Mella and called Younger Brother. It’s a fictionalization of the death of his younger brother. He was hit by lightning on the beach. So a lot of that book was true, and a lot of that book was really personal. While some of the details were changed and it was fiction, for me it was really important to talk to Daniel and hear him talk about what he was thinking when he wrote that character, and how he sees the characters and what was going on. 

Sometimes it’s important for me to know what the author knows. Even if I maintain an ambiguity that is in the text, I feel like I need to know as much about the book and what’s going on behind the story. So in that sense, it is really important to know what’s going on in the author’s head in order to translate. That’s something that I’ve only figured out over time. It’s important for me to hear the author speak, even to just hear the music of the voices they’re talking about. Sometimes I just feel more at ease when I’m translating after I’ve done that. 

Maria: Earlier you said “Spanish-Spanish.” What exactly do you consider to be Spanish-Spanish? Do you feel more comfortable with Argentinean and Chilean dialects in translating their slang, their modismos, and stuff like tongue twisters? 

MM: That’s a good question. I started learning Spanish in my twenties. I came to Chile and I studied it on my own. I was a real dork about it and bought a lot of grammar books, vocabulary books, and all that. When I came to Chile, I had an advanced level, in the sense that I could conjugate verbs. 

But, when people talked to me here, I could understand nothing of what they said. Nothing. Chilean Spanish is really weird. They have certain conjugations that are different. Instead of saying Como estas?, they’ll say Como estay? That’s a very basic example, but the “to” form is different a lot of times. So I learned my Spanish here in Chile, so the Spanish I have in my head is Chilean Spanish. I’m still learning. 

When I read a book by Diego Zúñiga or Lina Meruane or Paulina Flores or Alejandro Zambra, I feel like I read it with the music of this Chilean Spanish in my head. Spanish-Spanish is totally different. Spanish from Spain and the literature there has a very different history. The writing is different. It tends to be more flowery, more Baroque. 

They also use words that I think I know in different ways. So, that’s a little confusing. Obviously, the cultural references are different. Also the book that I translated was by a writer from Barcelona and would intersperse Catalan words because Catalan is very important in Barcelona. So that it made it much more difficult for me because when you translate a book, you look up a lot of words. 

I look up words all the time, even if I think I know them, because I want to see if there’s some other meaning to this word other than the one that I think I know. Sometimes you think you understand something, but you really don’t. And that can happen when you’re dealing with a different culture and a different history. 

There are things that you just don’t know that you don’t know. I just ended up quoting George Bush, and I don’t want to, but there are unknown unknowns. For me, the further I get from Chile, the more unknown unknowns there are. Now I’m getting more and more into Argentina. It’s right next to Chile, but they have very different Spanish. I am trying to spend more time in Argentina to understand, to get the music of the Argentine Spanish in my head. 

But it’s really interesting. For me it’s been really important to just immerse myself in the language. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it. But I think it’s useful for me because I started learning as an adult. But for me, it’s not an academic process, it’s a lifestyle. 

Oscar: Okay, so I’m Chileno, and I thank you for all the translations that you have done. I was wondering if you find ways to immerse yourself in cultural environments within Chile that allow you to produce your translations? I was thinking of the experiences of photographers that try not to be invasive of the locations where they will be taking the pictures. They spend many hours with people, like an anthropologist. You need to be sort of an insider to be able to take the pictures and for people to say maybe, “Yes,” to you. 

So I was wondering if you have found a way to be out there, to be with people, to be at celebrations, to be at political demonstrations? I’m kind of being hyperbolic, but involving oneself in the culture is complicated. It’s not necessarily easy if you feel yourself an outsider to a culture. 

MM: Well, one of the things that is really important to me living in Santiago is being part of the literary scene. A lot of people here hate going to book launches. I really love it. When I came here, it seemed like such a beautiful thing, that you could go and hear people talk about a new book, and get the book, and talk to all these writers and editors who are all here in one place. I feel pretty involved in the literary community here. My social life largely revolves around literary events, book launches, book fairs, and that sort of thing. 

I’m also really involved in music. I have a lot of friends who are musicians. My best friend is a manager. I go to a lot of concerts. I have also recently become kind of active in a collective called AUCh, or Autoras Chilenas, which is a group of feminist writers. It has become of growing importance that women make up possibly more of the literary scene than men and are still left out to a large extent. 

I bring that up because of you asking me if I felt like an outsider, and the answer is yes, I do. I feel like I don’t belong in that group because I’m neither a Chilean nor an author. But with all that’s been going on in Chile here recently, I started being more active, because we were trying to get the word out to the world about what’s going on here. So we wrote this letter, and I was trying to get translations to other languages. That’s the first time that I’ve been really active in this group, but as much as I do think it’s really important, I haven’t necessarily felt like I belonged there. 

I feel like I have an interesting place here. I’m a representative of Chile in the English-speaking world, but I am also a representative of the English-speaking world here in Chile. And yes, I do go to political demonstrations. 

I’ve been doing that a lot these past few weeks. I don’t know how much any of that helps my translations. I don’t know how my translations would change if I didn’t have my feet on the ground here. The last story in Humiliation, by Paulina Flores, had one of the characters who lives in this place that is never named, but is square party blocks surrounded by parks. It is very much a middle-class neighborhood. I recognized it immediately, because when I moved to Chile for the first time, I lived in one of those apartments. 

So it’s kind of weird, because of the setting of that story, I could picture it very clearly: “Okay. These aren’t indoor stairs, these are landings outside and there’s only four floors …” and blah, blah, blah. I don’t really know. I feel like that helps me translate better but obviously you can’t … I’m not going to go to the place where every story I translate is set, but it is interesting. I feel like the more I’m here, the more I know the different types of bread the Chileans eat, and the music that they listen to, and the history and what’s happening now. It all helps me, but in an unquantifiable way. 

Maria: What’s the most difficult translation you’ve done, and have you ever changed the title of a story completely differently from its own? 

MM: The most difficult? Again, I have to mention Multiple Choice. Another book that was very difficult was the Spanish book that we’ve already talked about. The whole book is told through the voice of the main character. I think I did a full draft of it before I finally realized that the main character was comic. I had done this whole translation not realizing that fact. 

Once I realized that, it changed the whole thing. I could write towards the comedy, towards making the character funny, to try to bring out the humor in the story by making sentences shorter to bring that out. But it took me a while to pick up on that. It was a difficult transition for me. I think the final result was ultimately good, but it took me a really long time to get there. 

There’s another book that hasn’t come out yet by an author named Carlos Fonseca. It has been difficult for me because of what I was talking about before, about the lack of editing in Spanish. Carlos is a very good writer, and he’s very ambitious. This book wants to be the great American novel. But it has some consistency issues. I spent a lot of time working on this translation, not even translating, but trying to question what’s happening in the book, and making it all fit together. A lot of my approach to translating that book was as an editor. This is not a secret. He will tell you that it’s better in English. So those are probably the three hardest books that I’ve done up to now. 

Titles are always a big issue. I will draw your attention to a few. One is called Camanchaca by Diego Zuñiga. That is a title that we left in Spanish, largely because I just really love the word ‘camanchaca.’ It’s only mentioned once in the book. The camanchaca is a type of fog that you get in the north where you have desert and ocean. So it’s very specific. It’s a very specific idea. I just left it, because I like the sound of the word, and I think it catches your attention enough without necessarily understanding it. 

Another example is Sangre en el Ojo, a book by Lina Meruane, which has the title that I’m pretty proud of. I translated it as Seeing Red. It Is a book about a woman who has diabetes and she goes blind. As she goes blind, she sees these blood vessels burst in her eye, and she sees herself go blind. But ‘sangre en el ojo’ in Spanish is also a way of saying that you’re angry, right? ‘Sangre en el ojo’ means he’s blood, or he’s really angry at someone. So I translated it as Seeing Red, because it also has that implication of being angry. 

The titles of Samanta Schweblin’s books have tended to be changed. Distancia de Rescate is literally ‘rescue distance.’ I thought that we could translate it literally as “Rescue Distance,” because even though it’s not a set phrase in English, I think it’s pretty clear what it means. But the marketing people didn’t really like it. They decided that that was impossible, we can’t call the book “Rescue Distance.” We went with Fever Dream, which I think is also a good title, but I really noticed how it colored how people read the book. I’ve done interviews for that book, a lot of people ask me about this idea of the ‘fever dream’ and how much of the story is supposed to be hallucination and how much of it is true. When I read the book, I read it all as this is true, it’s in the world of the book. So that’s interesting. 

I’m finishing up Samanta’s next novel, which in Spanish is called Kentukis. The Kentukis are these technology that she’s invented, these little creatures that people buy. They’re gadgets that look like these cuddly little animals. If you have one, you basically have some unknown person living with you in the house. The Spanish word is similar to the word ‘Kentucky’ in the States. The marketing people didn’t think that was a good idea. We needed something more evocative. So we went with Little Eyes

Liberty: I was looking at your Lit Hub interview, and one of the things that I found particularly interesting was the way you were talking about translating female authors as a way of starting to address that disproportionate balance of male authors and female authors. I hadn’t ever given that any thought, which I know maybe sounds a little funny, but I was wondering if you could speak to what that disproportion looks like, and what your thoughts are on the way you maybe look for female authors to address that? 

MM: It doesn’t sound strange that you never thought about it. When I first went looking for authors, I just went looking for authors that I liked. When I asked others for recommendations, the books and the authors were overwhelmingly male. At the time, I didn’t question that. If you ask “What about a woman writer?” someone will say something like: “Oh. I love Mariana Enriquez.” 

But, you almost have to ask. At a certain point, I said, “Well, this sucks. I’m going to specifically look for female writers.” I did not have to do anything. There’re so many good female writers out there that you can just turn your attention to them. We’re so used to seeing all men that when you start to see a few more women, it’s like, “Oh my God. Where did all these women come from?” I was offered Samanta Schweblin, and I said “Of course I want to do this.” 

I don’t want to give the impression that I only did the book because she was female. I truly do love her books. Obviously, I’m not only translating women. But, I am going for parity. I do think that editors in this space are looking for female writers. But, I don’t want to fall into this trap of saying, “They’re only getting published because they’re female.” 

Here in Chile, the writers are woke enough to understand that you can’t be angry about having women getting published. But, they will make comments. “Oh. It’s what people want these days. They want to publish women.” I feel pretty sure that if you sat down and compared the number of women and men who are getting published in Chile, it’s still going to be mostly men. 

There’s a prize that’s given out in Latin America that’s called the Bogotá 39. They do it every 10 years. In 2007, they named the 39 most important writers under 39 in Latin America. A lot of them turned out to be very important. Alejandro was on that list and a lot of other writers that you’ve probably heard of. They did it again in 2017. 

There was a lot of talk. It was overwhelmingly male. I didn’t understand how that happened. They named 39 writers. There were four from Chile. They were all male. There were, I think, four from Columbia. They were all male also. There are female writers. Everyone was 100% sure that Paulina was going to be on that list and she wasn’t. To me, that was an illustration that the machinery still tends to work in favor of men. It’s different with the Man Booker and the Man Booker International prizes. It used to be given every two years for a writer’s oeuvre. In 2016, they changed it. Now, they give it every year for one book and they split the prize between the writer and the translator evenly. Interestingly enough, with one exception when in 2017 David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar won, it was a male writer and Jessica Cohen, a female translator. Other than that, the writers and the translators have been female. I don’t know if that’s simply reverse bias. But, it’s interesting. You have the major literary journals and magazines: how many females versus males have bylines, how many female writers are being reviewed, how many female writers are doing the reviewing? Are the editors female or male? It’s really interesting. Even when you think these people are really woke, even in the left-wing journals, it’s overwhelmingly men.


Rick Henry

Rick Henry has lived across the United States but always returns to the sensibilities, landscapes, and histories of upstate New York. This is reflected in the novel 'Letters' (1855) and in 'Lucy's Eggs: Short Stories and a Novella,' winner of the 2006 Adirondack Literary Award for Best Work of Fiction. His other books include: 'Then' (54 text blocks), 'Chant: A Romance,' and 'Sidewalk Portrait: Fifty-fourth Floor and Falling,' a novella. He teaches at SUNY Potsdam. Find him at

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