Last week, The Missing Slate published its first translation from Norwegian, an excerpt from ‘To the West Ice’ (Til Vestisen), by Tor Even Svanes. The translator of that excerpt, Rosie Hedger, recently received an English PEN Translates Award for her work on Agnes Ravatn’s ‘The Bird Tribunal’ (Fugletribunalet), and her translation of an article by Bernt Jakob Oksnes has been shortlisted for the 2017 European Press Prize.
In an email conversation with Jacob Silkstone, she discusses the “different but equal challenges” of translating from three Scandinavian languages, the reasons why “there has [n]ever been a better time for publishers to focus on translated literature”, and the incredible work being produced by a whole generation of Norwegian women — many of whom are yet to find an English publisher.
One of the major problems Norwegian translators have to face is the fact that ‘Norwegian’ doesn’t really exist. Instead, we have a language divided into bokmål (which nobody actually speaks) and nynorsk (which nobody actually speaks). Between that division, there are various dialects, each with their own distinctive shades of meaning to a Norwegian audience. Is there, in your opinion, any effective way of conveying those distinctive shades of meaning to English readers? Would you ever consider translating a Norwegian dialect into an English regional accent, for example?
A good question! Strong links are made between language and identity in Norway. Language and dialect can root someone in a very specific region, or reveal their particular class or political leanings. In this sense, there are so many opportunities for authors to add another layer of meaning to their work, but also a number of elements that could easily become lost in English.
Dialect comes up a lot in Norwegian texts, but I tend not to think that one dialect can be ‘replaced’ with another. I’m currently working on a sample of a novel that features dialect, and in this case I’m playing around with colloquial English and non-standard grammatical forms while trying to avoid tying this to any one specific English-speaking region (which I feel can be alienating for certain readers and therefore have the opposite effect from that which is intended). Norwegian readers are likely to gain an understanding of where this character comes from when reading the original, but his use of language also informs us about his nature – he’s a middle-aged man with a firm sense of pride, but there are also some wordly-wise overtones that can come off as a little smug. Replicating these aspects leads me when it comes to making choices in translation, rather than the notion of adhering strictly to a consistent existing dialect in English. I wouldn’t ever completely discount this approach, but I haven’t felt compelled to take that route with the texts that I’ve worked with so far.
Do you think Norwegian presents more challenges to a translator than Swedish or Danish?
The Norwegian language is perfectly positioned in between Danish and Swedish, but I wouldn’t say that Norwegian presents more challenges to a translator — I think each of the Scandinavian languages have different but equal challenges, but learning one gives access to the others, which is a particularly advantageous aspect of learning one of the three.
What drew you to the “different but equal challenges” (that strikes me as a very fair description!) of the Scandinavian languages first? And is there one language that you feel a stronger affinity with? If so, why?
I fell into studying the Scandinavian languages quite by chance — I started my university undergraduate studies as a student of English Literature and French, and was required to choose a third subject for additional credits. I opted for Norwegian primarily because it was new and different — it felt so liberating to have a choice beyond the standard French or German offered at school in the UK. I was swiftly converted! A small class, excellent teaching staff and an interesting mix of language, literature, linguistics, history, culture, etc. I later switched my entire degree to Scandinavian Studies. I took some Danish and Swedish as part of my studies but focused on Norwegian, and it’s definitely the language I’m most comfortable translating and the culture I’m most familiar with.
I’d also be interested to hear about the experience of being mentored by Don Bartlett. How did that come about, and what do you feel you gained from that mentoring scheme? Are there any other translators who’ve served as mentors or inspirations?
I worked with Don Bartlett as part of the British Centre for Literary Translation’s mentorship scheme in 2012, which is a fantastic opportunity for emerging translators from a whole range of languages (the languages on offer change each year) to be paired with an experienced translator for a period of around 6 months. Don is patient, matter-of-fact and full of good advice. He is, of course, also a very skilled translator, and we spent many hours poring over translations I had worked on — he would give me pointers on the kinds of things editors like or dislike, for instance, or how best to tackle the kind of linguistic conundrums common to Norwegian texts. He also shared a lot of practical advice about the publishing industry, which was all new to me. The world of Norwegian literary translation is relatively small and very supportive, and I’ve been lucky to get to know several experienced translators — Kari Dickson has been another fantastic source of support, and helped me to take my first steps into translation as a career. I’ve found literary translators in general to be an extremely friendly and supportive group, both online and in person, which is particularly nice when you are self-employed and working on a freelance basis, based in different parts of the UK or world. There is a sense of community among translators that really impresses me.
I don’t think there has ever been a better time for publishers to focus on translated literature
(Relatively!) recently, Don Bartlett was interviewed for a Guardian article which concluded that “it’s boom time for foreign fiction in the UK.” It seems fair to say that there’s also an increasing interest in Scandinavian culture, from Nordic noir to ‘Hygge’. Do you feel that British readers are more open to literature in translation now, or is “boom time for foreign fiction” something of an exaggeration?
There is a great deal of room for improvement in terms of the numbers of translations published in English, as well as the diversity of these titles, but there have been changes for the better in recent years. I see a greater number of publishers willing to simply acknowledge that a book is a translation when marketing, whilst for a long time this was often kept quiet, presumably to avoid scaring off readers (who are more than equal to the task of embracing foreign fiction, with many actively seeking these titles out, keen to explore what’s being written outside of the Anglophone literary bubble). There are so many sterling literary translators at work nowadays, too, producing beautiful translations — I don’t think there has ever been a better time for publishers to focus on translated literature.
Do you have a sense that readers or publishers come to Scandinavian literature in translation anticipating a particular type of story (either noir, or rugged stories of loneliness and survival in harsh but beautiful landscapes), and do you ever feel pressure to translate work that fits that mould?
There is an assumption in some circles that Scandinavian titles will or should fit a particular mould, but as a translator this actually spurs me on to find and push and pitch titles that don’t necessarily fit within these genres. For instance, beyond the genres people might expect to find, largely crime and noir, I notice that Norwegian male authors of a certain age are rather popular in English (think Karl Ove Knausgård, Per Petterson, Roy Jacobsen…). However, we haven’t yet seen a great deal of the exciting contemporary literature written by younger Norwegian women highly praised in Norway for their work, such as Helga Flatland, Hanne Ørstavik, Edy Poppy, Ingvild H. Rishøi or Eline Lund Fjæren, to name just a few. I’d like to see a broader diversity of work translated from Norwegian into English, and so if anything, I feel pressure (purely self-inflicted!) to find and pitch titles outside any anticipated moulds. There is so much good stuff out there, it’s impossible to ignore.
What would be the most effective way of ensuring that a broader diversity of work appears in English? Are independent publishers more likely to take a risk on writers who don’t necessarily fit the mould?
From a translator’s point of view, I think pitching titles to publishers has a large part to play in ensuring a broader diversity of work reaches readers. Pitching can be disheartening — it takes time, it has to fit around work, and it’s only ever going to be successful if you send it to a receptive publisher, which requires a good knowledge of that particular publisher’s catalogue in each case. In spite of these hurdles, it’s probably one of the best ways for translators to influence the diversity of translated literature available to readers, because it exposes publishers and agents to even just a little more of what is out there. It’s easy to complain that publishers are failing to see the diversity that exists in a country’s literary output, but often they are only exposed to what international agents choose to share with them, which is often based on what went down well in the past, so I can see how this can create an endless loop of the same kind of thing reaching readers. Journals like The Missing Slate are important, too, by allowing authors and translators to showcase a range of work that might not otherwise see the light of day.
I think readers can be extremely influential in increasing diversity of work appearing in English. Book bloggers do a great job of reviewing fiction that might not otherwise receive a great deal of attention, for instance, which encourages others to seek out those titles. Some publishers really seem to pay attention to what goes down well with readers, and I don’t doubt that this influences future publishing decisions for them. As a reader, I also like subscription models, such as those operated by And Other Stories and Tilted Axis Press — I love the thrill of not knowing which title is on its way, and more often than not it has exposed me to diverse work I would never otherwise have picked up. I feel like independent publishers are more willing to publish ‘risky’ work, which makes them the far more interesting option for lots of readers, but I’m under no illusion that it’s easy for them to find or fund these titles. All the same, there has been a surge of independents establishing themselves in recent years, with a variety of publishing models, and this kind of innovation will (hopefully!) continue to make it possible for publishers to set their sights on publishing more diverse work in translation.