“Overlapping Time Frames and Levels of Reality”: A Conversation with Damion Searls




AS DAMION SEARLS noted in The Paris Review, a number of prominent English-language writers and translator have made the effort to learn Norwegian so that they could read Norwegian literature in the original. This list includes James Joyce, who learned it to read Henrik Ibsen; Lydia Davis, who learned it through reading Dag Solstad; and Searls himself, who, already a translator from German, French, and Dutch, added Norwegian to his repertoire in order to read Jon Fosse.

Jon Fosse was born in 1959 on the west coast of Norway and is the recipient of many prestigious prizes both in his native country and abroad. Since his 1983 fiction debut, Raudt, svart (Red, Black), Fosse has written prose, poetry, essays, short stories, children’s books, and over 40 plays, with more than a thousand productions performed and translations into 50 languages. Septology, Fosse’s three-volume septet, published in the United States by Transit Books in Searls’s mesmerizing English translation, is, among other things, a sustained meditation on art and life. The story follows the lives of two men, both painters, and constitutes an existential exploration of selfhood. Composed in recursive, rhythmic prose, this mystical doppelgänger novel is set among the seas, fjords, and forests of the west coast of Norway.

Searls is a translator of Rilke, Proust, Nietzsche, Hesse, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, and Nescio, and is also the author of The Inkblots, a history of the Rorschach test and biography of its creator, which has been translated into 10 languages, and a forthcoming book called The Philosophy of Translation. He has received Guggenheim, Cullman Center, and NEA fellowships, the leading British and American German-to-English translation prizes, and the German Federal Order of Merit for his writing and translating. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Searls via video call and by email about his work on Septology.

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KATHLEEN MARIS PALTRINERI: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said that “translation is the most intimate act of reading.” You are the first translator to bring Jon Fosse’s prose into English, with Melancholy in 2006, which was co-translated with Grethe Kvernes. Your translation of The Other Name: Septology I–II was nominated for a 2020 International Booker Prize, and I is Another: Septology III–V is forthcoming in March. How has your experience reading and translating Fosse become more intimate, or changed in other ways, over time? What do you hear in his work now after over a decade of attuning yourself to it?

DAMION SEARLS: Fosse is a great writer to translate, partly because — maybe since he is also a translator — he really trusts me as a translator and is constantly encouraging me to do whatever I feel works best in English. He didn’t read through my whole drafts in earlier years, when he was busier, although he has for the Septology, but he always answered my questions with what I imagine are a good director’s moves: not telling the actor what to do, but saying something so that the actor can figure it out. 

I think my translations have gotten better over the years, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m more attuned to him or just that I’m a better writer; when I start each new book (or, in the case of Septology, three-book single project), I translate slower and more awkwardly, with more mistakes, than once I’m into it. It’s strange that a writer with a voice as singular and instantly recognizable as Fosse’s would feel different in each book, but it’s true — a lot of it is how simple the translation needs to be, for example, how much each narrator avoids over-intellectual “big words.” They all do, but some more than others.

How do differences between Nynorsk (the version of Norwegian Fosse writes in) and English — for example, the lack of present continuous verb tense in Nynorsk — shape your translations? How do Nynorsk and English enter into a dialogue in your versions?

That’s an interesting question, because I’ve never really thought about Nynorsk and English as being in dialogue. I might even go so far as to say that if the languages are in dialogue, that’s the sign of a bad translation. Isn’t that what “translatorese” is? When English is speaking a little bit in Norwegian (or whatever the language pair is)? Fosse is the writer who gets to use Norwegian — I have to use English, the whole English, and nothing but the English.

You mention the present continuous verb tense: “I am standing” instead of “I stand,” for example. This is crucial for Fosse, who writes a lot in the grammatical present tense but about overlapping time frames and levels of reality. You might be tempted to think that “I stand” is the correct translation of the Nynorsk eg står and “I am standing” is “looser,” but actually both are equally faithful and correct, because Nynorsk has only the one form; using the same English form every time would not be correct, even though the Nynorsk repeats, because English has two forms. The opening of Aliss at the Fire, for example, uses both forms this way: “I see Signe lying there on the bench in the room and she’s looking at all the usual things, the old table, the stove, the woodbox, the old paneling on the walls, the big window facing out onto the fjord, she looks at it all without seeing it…” (leaving aside the participles “facing” and “seeing,” which in Nynorsk correspond to “the window onto the fjord” and “without to see [anything]”). The original uses the same form every time, and it’s even more repetitive in Nynorsk because “to look” is the same verb as “to see” with a preposition added (basically “to see at,” so this short passage has the same verb ser for “see/sees/looks” three times). But I have to write clear and forceful English without clinging too closely to the Nynorsk, and that means availing myself of the subtle difference between whether she sees or is seeing.

Even if I put a foreign word into a translation, for a street name or holiday or kind of food, I’m still writing in English and putting “burrito” or “lutefisk” or an italicized less-common word into my English sentence. Even characters’ names! I changed Ales to Aliss in Aliss at the Fire, because “ales” is an English word; the literal book title, It’s Ales, would look like a beer guide. Another example is the dog character who totally steals the show and the reader’s heart in Septology: little Bragi. In Norwegian, his name is Brage, pronounced something like “BROG-uh” or “BRAH-geh,” and when drafting the book, I automatically put that name in the translation. Only very late in the process did I realize that English speakers might mentally pronounce it as “Brage,” rhymes with “rage” or “page,” and that would be all wrong. Plus, even if they knew enough to say it BROG-uh, that sounds adorable in Norwegian but isn’t very cute in English. There’s dialogue in the book where a friend says, “Oh, Brage, that’s a good dog’s name,” so it had to sound good. I asked Fosse about what the name meant to him, and he reminded me that “Brage” is the Norwegian spelling for Bragi, the Norse god of poetry; there’s a famous Brage Prize for Norwegian books, etc. Of course, I remembered Bragi from the Norse myths. And that makes it a great dog name, like naming your little lapdog “Apollo” or something. It’s funny and it just sounds better, and it even rhymes with “doggie.” I’m convinced that the readers who’ve told me how much they love Bragi would have loved him less if he were Brage-rhymes-with-page. That’s a translation decision where English and Nynorsk have to not be in dialogue. 

I was taken with the lyricism and rhythm of your translations. What stylistic elements of Fosse’s Septology are paramount for you as a translator? What are your strategies for carrying across those elements from Nynorsk to English?

After that long answer, I’ll give a short one. As you say, lyricism and rhythm, what Fosse calls “the music,” are the most important qualities of his writing. I don’t have conscious strategies here, besides just trying to make it sound good — revisions and ear are about all I’ve got.

In Septology, we encounter an artist and widower named Asle, who has a doppelgänger named Asle, also a painter. Asle, the narrator, thinks a great deal about God, about art and language, and about death. In thinking of the following passage, which appears in V, I was curious about the ways in which Fosse’s aesthetics mirror or work in combination with the mystical or ecstatic explorations of Asle, and about your approach for translating these aesthetics: 

I think that God has been staying hidden this whole time, yes, it’s like he shows himself by concealing himself, in life, in things, in what is, yes, in paintings too of course, and maybe it’s like the more God conceals himself the more he shows himself, and vice versa, yes, the more he shows himself, or is shown, you can say it either way, the more he conceals himself, I think, yes, God reveals himself by hiding, and it is in the hiddenness of God, God’s hiddenness, that I can forget myself and hide myself, and only there …

I just translate what he says — I don’t approach the religious passages or the aesthetic theory any differently from other passages. Since Fosse’s a good novelist, Asle’s explorations are never simply Fosse’s ideas dropped into Asle’s mouth — what Asle thinks and how he says it are always Asle’s mind at work, expressed in Asle’s voice.

Marilynne Robinson is currently teaching a seminar on the Old Testament here at the University of Iowa, and so I’ve been reading and thinking about Genesis as I’m reading the volumes of Septology. What is your interpretation of the form, a septology, in relationship to some of Asle’s musings in the work, such as his exploration of art as an occurrence, of light and dark, and of language in relationship to existence and creation?

I’m going to have to leave those questions for you to answer as a reader, and for every other reader to interpret on their own. I don’t have any special insight or knowledge about any of that as the translator. I think of the seven days of the week too — the six biblical days of creation plus the day of rest; the first few parts of Septology each take place on a single day immediately following the previous part, and of course the first epigraph to The Other Name is from the Bible, and contains the title of the third volume, A New Name. I also think of other famous septologies like Narnia and Harry Potter, though I haven’t asked Fosse if he had them in mind. What I know about Fosse is that he’s a very intuitive writer, which is not to say primitive or unthinking, obviously, but I doubt he’s planting codes in his books for us to crack. But maybe I’m wrong!

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Kathleen Maris Paltrineri is a poet and literary translator from Iowa. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. She is the recipient of a 2021–2022 Fulbright Fellowship to translate an anthology of contemporary Norwegian poetry.

 

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