WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Seven Empty Houses came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?
Samanta Schweblin (SS): Short story collections usually don’t get much attention, but this collection won the Spanish Prize Rivera del Duero, probably the biggest prize for unpublished short stories collection in the Spanish-speaking world, and that opened the door to many new readers. So far the book has had 25 reprints in the Spanish world and 17 translations, numbers that can be good for trending novels, but for the short story genre, this is a beautiful battle to win.
Megan McDowell (MMD): These stories didn’t reach me all at once—I translated some of them for publication in journals before I ever read the book as a whole. The first story I read and translated, way back in 2016, was “An Unlucky Man.” I think that story is nearly perfect— it starts out with a bang, tension from the very first sentence, and then sustains and shifts that tension continuously over the course of the story without ever letting up—it’s really remarkable. The second story was “My Parents and My Children,” another tour de force of dark familial anxiety—the children! What’s happening to the children?? Then, probably two years after I read the first story, I finally read the full book and could see Samanta’s vision as a whole, a very particular depiction of many facets of domestic alienation or displacement.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?
SS: Well, translators are always the most feared readers for writers. Megan takes a very careful look at what she translates and always finds some suspicious detail. Sometimes the keys of these stories rest on some very few strategic lines in the text, so the translation has a big impact here.
MMD: One translation challenge had to do with the story “Breath from the Depths.” There’s a lot of description of the sound of the main character’s breathing, and I was just never sure I was understanding exactly what was happening, what the sound was—a whistle? A rumble? So I asked Samanta, and she very kindly sent me audio messages with the exact sounds, so that I could describe them in English. I thought that was interesting—it’s the first time I’ve dealt with the translation of a guttural, non-verbal sound.
Otherwise, there is another translation challenge in this book that I was never able to solve. I thought about it and thought about it and I just couldn’t reach a solution. Because of that, I cannot tell you what it is. It will plague me to the grave. 🙂
WWB: Megan and Samanta, you have been collaborating through several books now, three of which have been finalists for the International Booker Prize. These have included the novels Fever Dream and Little Eyes, but also two short story collections, including Seven Empty Houses. It’s thrilling to see a story collection up for a major literary award.
Samanta, I wonder if you could speak to your relationship with the story form (as opposed to novel-length fiction), and also about the origin of this collection, which on its face appears—thematically, at least—as something of a departure from your previous work.
SS: Right! I remember almost ten years ago, when Alice Munro got the Nobel prize, it felt like if a close friend had finally won an impossible challenge. Imagine, a Nobel was given for the first time to a short story writer! But this is changing very fast. We have had many short stories collections on the short list for the International Booker Prize these last years, we also have some examples in the National Booker prize this 2022.
I come from a tradition where most of the greatest masters never wrote a novel—like Borges—or where they are mostly well know for their short works, like Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo or Bioy Casares. People who are not so used to reading short fiction tend to think of this genre as something that is maybe incomplete, or too experimental, or just some work by a potential writer trying to take their first steps toward the novel. But lot of the biggest masters of literature have been “just” short story writers: Poe, Chekov, Carver…
I started this book in Argentina many years ago, knowing I would move to Europe soon, and finished it during my first couple of years living in Berlin. So for me it works as a bridge between two very different worlds and lives. I couldn’t see that during the writing process, but these stories are full of moving boxes, abandoned clothes, lost objects, people feeling nostalgic and lost or out of place, even when the plots have little to do with that. How tricky fiction can be…I thought I had hidden my private life behind these stories, but it doesn’t matter what I am writing about, I’m always working with material taken from my own life and experience.
WWB: Megan, what about this translation of Samanta’s work did you find different from the previous three books? Given that this title is touted as literary horror, did your work with writers like Mariana Enriquez inform your work here in any significant way?
MM: Well, the short and easy answer is: everything is different! It’s a whole different book, full of different worlds. If I had to get more specific, I might say that the worlds in Seven Empty Houses tend to be more “realistic”, and their horror comes from looking up close at recognizable human experiences, without much of what you might call the fantastic. Take “Breath from the Depths,” which carries you into the mind of a woman sinking ever deeper into dementia—it’s disorienting and terrifying to go to those places, and we can really feel the slippage of reality that Lola experiences as she loses her grasp on the world. What Samanta does so well, in this book especially, is illuminate the spaces where words don’t usually go. Look at “It Happens all the Time in This House,” a seemingly simple story where the action, such as it is, happens in the spaces between the words, in the silences, in the gentle colliding and reacting of these two discrete characters who share parallel spaces. I’m always a little amazed at the subtlety of Samanta’s language, how much she can convey in so few words—that hasn’t changed over all the books of hers I’ve translated.
Samanta Schweblin and Megan McDowell’s Seven Empty Houses is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.