On Translation and Being Translated
Many years ago, I read Czes?aw Mi?osz's The Issa Valley, which deals with the author's childhood experiences in Lithuania. In the landscape he describes of deep forests and bright running water, I identified with many things that had a Nordic feel. Other aspects of the work, however, were exotic and sometimes frightening. This is the story of a country with a long feudal history--something totally alien to us in Scandinavia. Moreover, Milosz's depiction of evil little Lithuanian gnomes, running around the woods and fields in their green tailcoats with shiny buttons, are shocking to a reader like myself, brought up on folk figures in homespun and woolen mittens.
I read the novel in translation, for I cannot read Polish; moreover, The Issa Valley was not even available in Swedish at the time, which was before Milosz received the Nobel Prize in 1980, so I had to read it in French. Afterward, I could visualize the cock of the wood and the black cock behind the French words coq du bois and coq de bruyère and could also associate these words with the French countryside, where they had a meaning of their own and where fowl still occasionally rise heavily out of forest groves on high hillsides.
This reading was a very powerful experience for me, for The Issa Valley is an enormously good book, and it also bespeaks what translation can be and what it can provide the reader. In this case, there were a large number of transpositions: linguistically, from the Lithuanian of Milosz's own childhood to the Polish language, from Polish to French, and from there to me and my thoughts and conceptions in Swedish--the pictures of it.
What remained? What would Milosz have recognized if he had been able to see his text after its long migration, as it was re-created in my very Swedish mentality? Would he so much as have recognized The Issa Valley as his own work, or would he just see a jumble, an experience devoid of all life and color and lacking the concretion and substance provided by real knowledge of an environment and a history?
Personally, I do not believe that an author should be all too surprised or suspicious when faced with these dizzying transpositions. In fact, they are the very foundation of our culture. When we look at the woodcuts on the walls of a Norwegian stave church portraying Sigurd Fafnesbane roasting the heart of a dragon on a spear, we know that although we call him a bard, what we are really dealing with here is a translator from Old High German. He may have elaborated in some places and left other things out--more than a translator today would do. He was more literally a participant in the act of co-creation.
Still, we do feel suspicious. A contemporary narrative in translation, in spite of the high ethical standards and excellent linguistic skills of translators today, cannot be any more than what it was originally meant to be--an interpretation. We are offered the translator's thorough, even conscientious and--we also hope--inspired experience of the narrative. Let me instantly mitigate our suspicions of the process by comparing it with a native Swedish speaker's experience of a novel in her own language.
A novel takes shape during a given period in the consciousness of an individual. It may take several days or several weeks for this process. It may develop at long intervals interspersed with forgetting. The book may never be more than half read, for such a fate is as real as any. It may be read sloppily and inattentively or intensely and ecstatically (mind you, ecstasy is not always the best point of departure for a good reading). It may be read with resistance. There are a huge number of readings, and in each and every one of them, and nowhere else, the story is re-created. The rest is nothing but the recumbent characters that are the alphabet.
Among all the sloppy, ecstatic, indifferent, forgetful, and enthusiastic readers, there are two people who really know what they are talking about when they speak of a certain novel--who know the text inside out. They are, of course, the author and the translator.
Each has read every word, sometimes letter by letter. Each has worked in a kind of deep fidelity to something. I am speaking of good authors and good translators, of course. The fidelity of the translator is to an original, a text to be understood and transformed. The fidelity of the author is to a vision, a nonlinguistic experience he or she wishes to transform into language. Both work under the constraint that the original must be neither fouled nor corrupted.
How a translator works is something I actually know very little about, in spite of the fact that I include several professional translators among my friends. Working alone with a text and an interpretation must be highly reminiscent of my own solitary work, though. Precisely as it is for the author, the experience of the whole text must be paramount to the translator, the cornerstone of his or her work. I do not know how this experience of the whole comes to the translator. Perhaps on a first reading? But I do know that, as an author, I often do not have the privilege of experiencing a holistic vision of my work. This makes those moments all the more miraculous when they do occur.
One November day I was walking my dog out at Bellevue, a park on a sort of spit of land at the far end of Sveavägen in Stockholm, down by the lake. A story came to me. Women with birds' names, men they had loved, a huge china monkey that turned into a man who could speak and move on Christmas night, a little girl in a suburb, two men meeting on the ice in central Stockholm, a dog, houses at rest, gardens hibernating for the winter, frozen waterways right in the middle of Stockholm, the corpse of a girl lying in a deep freeze surrounded by bright candles--all this flowed through my mind in a whole, coherent, and very detailed story. I was euphoric and, simultaneously, calculating. I walked on and on, all the way out to Albano so as not to disrupt the narrative flow. When I returned home, exhausted, and had a cup of tea (to which I am addicted), I began to write down everything that had been flowing through my mind. It took several days. I filled eleven little notepads with it. A few years later it would become the novel Bring Me Back to Life.
Those hours during which I had the privilege of the whole were, of course, an experience known in German as einmalig. The rest was hard labor. Day after day a job of work, which may appear from a distance to be a kind of monotonous slog, which it often is. The working life of a translator cannot be very different. A labor of language is not eruptions of inspiration; consciousness is not an ecstatic stream. You pound away. Changing. Trying things out. Redoing. And redoing again. And again. Trying to stay in tune with something. With that experience which, in turn, is eventually months and years in the past.
There may be new moments of vision and ecstasy. One autumn day I was sitting at the Kungliga Biblioteket, the Swedish Royal Library. I was researching accounts of childbirth from the turn of the century for the first volume of the Wolfskin trilogy, God's Mercy. I heard a voice. This was not a hallucination. (I am not susceptible to such things.) It was a voice from inside myself, but I could hear its intonation quite clearly:
That I am the daughter of a Scottish lord I do not believe anyone would deny today. But, in these tracts, people's memories have always preferred the fact that my maternal grandfather was a thief people called Michael the Meat Man. They credit Hillevi with having lifted me out of my straitened circumstances, and she deserves it. Still, the first time I was lifted out of my childhood home was by an eagle, and that's what people find difficult to forgive.
I had no choice but to write it down, literally, in the same notebook where I was recording the details of childbirths. What I had experienced was the appearance of one of my protagonists, my narrator. She stood there, at my ear, demanding to be central to my story. She had existed before this but had been living in the margins of my notes, a secondary character. With her, and her narration, the novel grew into an entirely new structure. To me this was astonishing--and miraculous. You know, just like when you pull a collapsed metal skeleton out of a cardboard roll, press a button and out jumps an artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and all.
I walked home through the little Humlegården park that surrounds the library. The park and its trees have been there for a long time. In the shady treetops the texts of old Swedish authors rustle. I walked among the drifts of fallen, decomposing autumn leaves feeling as if my boots had sprouted wings.
Without such visions--those experiences of the whole that arrive from above and cannot be forced into existence by willpower or elbow grease--my books would not exist. I have often wondered about the translator. Does the translator have nothing but the slog? Is the translator not allowed to do anything more than just try things and change them and try them again? I certainly hope, at any rate, that for the translator the reading of a new story may provide the experience of the whole, the impetus that provides the energy to endure all the way to the finish line. I also hope that there are places in the text, passages that may ignite a spark in the mind of the translator and make the entire artificial Christmas tree open up once again.
I am aware that the profession of translating is a way of earning one's bread and butter, and that translators are not always able to pick and choose, or to say "no" to books they might prefer not to do. But I can hardly bear the thought, although I know it is possible, that my stories might be nothing but a yoke of obligation under which the translator bends at the publisher's behest, and nothing more.
To put it simply, I hope there can be pleasure in your work.
As a reader, I can tell that John the Divine, in his cell and in all his tortured misery, took pleasure in writing the Book of Revelations. I can tell when I read Finnish poet Lars Huldén's translation of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, into Swedish that he took pleasure in his work. His language is like music. It is full of moments of inspiration--that last long into the future.
I have a good mind
take into my head
to start off singing
reeling off a tale of kin
and singing a tale of kind.
The words unfreeze in my mouth
and the phrases are tumbling
upon my tongue they scramble
along my teeth they scatter.1
Still, no one ever said that what is pleasurable also has lasting results. There is more to it than enjoying ourselves, for both authors and translators. We need to know facts, to learn. Contemporary authors live in the language of their times but also, concomitantly, in a strong tradition, a tradition that cannot but demand more of a well-educated translator than he or she could have learned from university language studies, or in almost any other way. It seems to me that it must be like turning over a stone. A text may look smooth and coherent in itself. But underneath, it's teeming with creepy-crawly life. Hideous words and mysterious ones all swarming together, and forgotten poems that once stuck in the mind of the author slithering around as well. The hushed chants of lines from songs and nursery rhymes are there, along with biblical language, living its own warped life in the company of Almqvist who writes lyrical roubbishe and Ekelöf, who turns the words inside out and balks tackward.
Moreover, there are other problems than those caused by the words and their meanings and backgrounds. In anticipation of this seminar, I have received questions about the philosophical basis of my novels as well as about their factual context. My translators wonder: How much do I have to know and understand to accomplish my task? Can we give our readers even a sporting chance of discovering a more or less covert theme if we ourselves are unable to decipher the code and see what is hidden inside it? This question came from Linda Schenck in a letter, and other translators have expressed similar concerns.
I am sure that, once our discussions get going, we will delve far more deeply into detail and be much more concrete, but there's one thing I'd like to say at the outset, because to me it is an overriding statement and very important. It is, quite simply: you needn't take it all too seriously!
If, as in Bring Me Back to Life, I allow the Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, to come to life through the personage of a big china monkey, if I allow this very Moses ben Menachem Mendel to be gradually transposed into the personage of Nathan der Weise from Lessing's drama on the theme of tolerance; if Sigge, my novel's female protagonist, interacts with this monkey cum philosopher later cum medieval Jew in the court of the Arabian count Saladin--then I beg you to recall that this is not a heavy pedagogical treatise, not a tract that obliges a translator to render it into another language with scholarly wisdom or intellectual acuity. Precisely as I have done myself, the translator should take the reader by the hand and participate in a game, a structure of allusions intended to provide a sense of joie and vivre. It's a game. First and foremost a game. I enjoy myself when I write. I want translation to give you enjoyment. If it does, your reader will also enjoy him- or herself.
There are no ideas, no facts, and no wisdom that do not profit from a light touch. That lightness lies in the way the language is handled. It must be the breath of the subtext. That breath is the air that allows the soufflé to rise. No one wants a mouthful of heavy pancake to chew, a bite of learned melancholy and intertextual references.
Let me give you an example that has nothing to do with my own writing. Imagine that you are sitting there, the very first translator to have the task of transferring the tales in the Gospel according to John from Greek into your own language. Imagine the wedding at Cana, Jesus walking on the water, and the resurrection of Lazarus, his rising from the grave. These are marvelous stories. How will you recount them for people who have never heard them before?
Let us imagine that you are living a very long time ago, in the times of the Goths, for example, when Wulfila wrote his translation into Swedish. Perhaps I should tell you that this translation, known as the Silver Bible--made by Wulfila, the Goth bishop--can still be found in Sweden, at Uppsala University's Carolina Library. You may know that, for some incomprehensible reason, the Swedes referred to themselves as the Goths in their period of great martial power. All right, then, there you sit, having been asked to translate the Greek stories about Jesus into your language. Any number of church fathers and biblical exegetes have already puzzled over the texts and provided deep, perceptive interpretations of them. Do you need to begin by studying Origen, Saint Augustine, and Palamas? Should you carry with you into your translation all their learning and intellect?
Are you supposed to be presenting a religious treatise? A text for examination by philosophers? A collection of examples for future divination? No, you are not. That wouldn't do justice to the Gospel according to John. You are going to tell a story about how, at a wedding in Cana, jugs of water were transformed into wine. And another story about a man who walked on water and waved to his friends in a boat, making them shout out in horror. And yet another about a dead man whose shroud already bore the stench of death when he rose up from the grave and came back to life.
That is what you're supposed to do. You must try to tell those stories to the best of your ability. You must not allow yourself to be weighted down by the interpreters, the intellectuals bursting with learning, and the earnest exegetes. On the other hand, it's a good idea for you to do some thinking of your own about John the Apostle's text. Maybe you will be taken with the feeling that the story of the water turned to wine is about the trivialities of life and how they can be transformed into that which makes life meaningful, into something sacred in the presence of the divine. Perhaps you will think that Lazarus stinks with the odor of spiritual death and stagnation, and that what he is asking of the miracle-maker is this and only this: bring me back to life!
If you are unable to regard these tales of wonder with a bit of love and a sense of humor, then you should not be translating them. What you don't need, on the other hand, in order to dare to grapple with them, is to be an expert on the religions of the Near East and in the conception of resurrection in the pre-Christian era.
Walking on water! Isn't it amazing? The exegete shrinks like Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch in the face of this shocking miracle. Walking on water! Is he a charlatan, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't man whose proper place is at a sideshow? Is he a sorcerer? Or is he actually doing something we cannot comprehend and which we therefore, in our language that lacks the words for it, call walking on water? Is he pulling our collective leg?
Love, humor, and a feel for the author's linguistic games are what the translator needs to have at hand for the job. These are the tools of a successful encounter. The ideas in the text, the themes and variations, can be discovered and considered by any good reader. It's called interpreting. That's all there is to it.
Of course, there are ideas that are the fundamental elements of books and that translators have passed along from one language to another over the course of time, sometimes even from one culture to another. Esaias Tegnér, our nineteenth-century national bard, says that all the words in the Swedish referring to anything but barbarianism are loan words ("Blott barbariet var en gång fosterländskt"). His poem "Det eviga" (Eternal) is still read on the radio at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve in Sweden. But on television, an actor or actress in a sheepskin coat roars and bellows a less than brilliant translation of Tennyson's "Ring Out, Wild Bells."
Barbarianism was the only true word of our foster land. Culture comes into being through the transfrontier interplay of languages and ideas. In this respect, many translators have made independent contributions as the introducers of foreign authors and ideas into their culture.
In my novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (Eng. The Forest of Hours), a man named Anders Kempe is mentioned. He was in charge of the artillery stores for the commander of the fort at Frösön in Jämtland. All the materials of war were his responsibility, particularly for the artillery. His deepest interests, however, lay elsewhere. He and his superior officer, Drakenstierna, carried out experiments in alchemy. The villagers gossiped of it as "boiling up gold" and believed Kempe and Drakenstierna had a pact with Satan. They referred to Drakenstierna as the Black Franck. He figures more centrally in The Forest of Hours than Kempe, who is only a name. But in reality Kempe may have been the more interesting of the two.
He was a pacifist. Can you imagine his being in charge of all the weapons and being the friend of Drakenstierna, who was one of the cruelest of the heroes and generals of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48)? In Sweden, the Thirty Years' War was considered a war of faith, waged against Catholicism. A justifiable war. Wars were just causes. The king and his generals were the envoys of God, His earthly vessels.
However, Anders Kempe had begun to think otherwise. He developed the idea that war was fundamentally unjustifiable, not in the least bit sanctioned by the Bible. The thought came to him from Germany, via a book entitled Perspillicum bellicum (The mirror of war). The book moved him so deeply that he decided to translate it. His Swedish rendition is available to readers at the Royal Library in Stockholm and the Carolina Library in Uppsala. Personally, I have only wound my way through it on microfilm, but it made extremely interesting reading.
His ideas were treasonable.
The book was revolutionary. It violated the true dogma of the Holy Gospels. It was treacherous. It was printed but then banned and withdrawn, and its translator fled the country. Later, he made his living in Norway and Germany as a pharmacist. A brother-in-law of Drakenstierna named Olof Rahm read the book, and spouted off about it at the tavern a little too often and too loudly. He was convicted of high treason and executed on the Rödö Peninsula near what is Östersund today. Nowadays, there is a bridge from Frösön to Rödön. Every time we drive across it, I look down at the site of Olof Rahm's execution.
Such was the fate of that particular idea, the idea of pacifism. It was banished. Eradicated. The event was so thoroughly eliminated from Swedish consciousness that not a single line about it remains in the history books. To find out about Anders Kempe, one must turn to considerably less accessible sources, such as local history.
To us Swedes, of course, Olaus Petri was the first great hero in terms of translators and cultural mediators. His translation of the New Testament and, later, of the entire Bible paved the way for a whole new culture in Sweden, the culture of a new era. Now impoverished ministers who had long ago forgotten the little Latin they once taught themselves could read the text of the Bible. Previously, they had rattled off the mass as if it were an incantation. Now they had a language for their sermons, a language they could pass down to their congregations. By necessity, Olaus Petri transformed his own medieval Swedish, which was inextricably muddled by Low German, into a new Swedish language.
Still, my heart remains with Anders Kempe. Overlooked and departed, but the bearer of an idea alien to our country. Later, during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, many works came into being that we can look back on with pride. This was the epoch during which witty bards bought French original works hot off the presses and rapidly provided readers with translations into Swedish of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot, along with their reactions. This was also the period during which a woman such as Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht could produce a book like Fruentimrets försvar (Eng. In Defense of Women) as a direct, indignant reaction to the male chauvinism of Rousseau. All this was able to happen thanks to a new way of thinking in Sweden, manifested in the Swedish Academy, founded by King Gustaf III with the motto "to cultivate, honor, and develop the Swedish language." Naturally, the educated elite were able to read French, which was also the everyday language of the nobility. Count Axel von Ferson wrote in a letter to his son that he advised him to learn Swedish as well. It's a good language to know for negotiating with craftsmen and tradesmen.
This, then, was also a time when the idea took root that Swedish was an instrument of its own for the mediation of ideas, entertainment, and commodities. This notion was only able to catch on thanks to the contributions of translators. Their role as the vehicle for passing along ideas en masse--as intercultural interpreters, as plotters of foreign maps--developed out of the idea that Swedish, our language, needed words and terms for everything that was already so self-evidently named in the languages of the great cultures and nations. The Swedish language grew and was renewed via the efforts of those who translated into it.
Translators in the other direction, mediating works written in Swedish into other languages, were not initially required. It was taken for granted that the great Swedish scientists would write their works in Latin. Parenthetically, we may note that today, when Latin is no longer a required subject for students of the humanities at Swedish universities, many incipient researchers are unable to read Swedish historical documents and scholarly literature in the original, since they were all written in Latin. There are many ways of ensuring that an Egyptian darkness descends over contemporary society. This is one of them.
The works of Emanuel Swedenborg were written in Latin. Thus it was easy for them to circulate all over Europe. The same is true of the works of Carl von Linné (Linnaeus). But the nineteenth century saw the rising and breaking of a tidal wave of translations in both directions. Some Swedes read Sir Walter Scott. There was a Scott epidemic, and soon translations were being made available. A similar epidemic took hold abroad. The source of that contagion was the works of Swedish author Fredrika Bremer. Translations of her women's novels, as well as her travelogues from the Near East, Cuba, and North America, reached distant corners of the world.
And now I shall tell you the truth, although it is, of course, an extremely well-kept secret you certainly cannot read in most textbooks. In fact, you won't find it in a single one. But this is it: the three most-often translated Swedish authors were ladies. That's right. Three little old ladies.
If you ask people in Sweden today who they think is the most translated Swedish author, or was before the crime-thriller wave broke over us, they will probably answer Strindberg. But there's no truth to such a claim. Strindberg battled like a lion to have his works translated, but he was nowhere near as successful as the three ladies: Fredrika Bremer, Selma Lagerlöf, and Astrid Lindgren. Unbeatable.
Selma Lagerlöf, too, invested a great deal of energy in getting her books launched in other countries. Her letters to her mother and her dear friend Sophie Elkan reveal that she was already in negotiations with a Danish publisher about a translation of her debut novel, Gösta Berling's Saga, shortly after its publication in Swedish.
So, is that the ultimate? Is that the deepest wish of every Swedish author?
We are a small people, a small language region of negligible significance in a large world dominated by English. Does that mean that we cannot become really great authors until we reach other countries, until our books have been translated into many languages--until they are available in the bookstands at airports?
Of course I can only speak for myself, and my answer may be somewhat disheartening to a translator. I am a Swedish author. I am pleased and grateful for the fact that good translations of my books into other languages are being made available. But I regard them as I suppose one does children who have flown the nest and are making their way in the world, living lives their mothers can hardly imagine.
I have tried to describe to you what is important to me. Inventiveness. The wondrous, virtually intoxicating visionary moments--and sometimes hours--when a narrative takes shape in my head. Writing, the everyday activity that may appear from the outside to be something of a drudge, a monotonous job, is one that I sit down to with pleasure, every single day. And that is an undertaking in my own language.
It is in my own language that I derive my pleasure.
I am infinitely grateful to you if you can mediate that pleasure to others.
Translation from the Swedish by Linda Schenck
1 From The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition, by Elias Lönnrot, tr. Keith Bosley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1.
Kerstin Ekman was born in 1933. She has written some twenty novels to date and has been awarded every conceivable Swedish literary prize. She is currently writing a trilogy known as The Wolfskin. The first volume, God’s Mercy, was published to great acclaim in 1999. The protagonist is a midwife, and the novel opens at the turn of the century and ends around 1940. Volume two, Sista rompan (The last string), was published in 2002. In 1978 Ekman was elected to the Swedish Academy, a position from which she resigned in 1989 after the Academy refused to give its support to Salman Rushdie.
Her first novel, a thriller, was published in 1959. Over the course of the 1960s the focus of her novels shifted from crime to society, seen mainly from the perspective of ordinary citizens, particularly women. The early 1970s saw the publication of the first volume of what was to be a significant tetralogy that has come to be known as Women and the City. It is currently being published in English by Norvik Press. The first two volumes have already appeared, and by 2003 the entire tetralogy will be available. It portrays the development of a city between the mid-1880s and the mid-1980s as Sweden became industrialized and the welfare state developed. In parallel, it outlines the world of women and children and the city as experienced by them.
Ekman became known through these books as a chronicler of women’s work, which she describes with a sense of humor, great expertise, and compassion. Her later novels have retained the broad social perspective even as they have turned both introspectively inward and returned to aspects of the crime-thriller genre. Translations into English include The Forest of Hours and Blackwater. Her writing successfully combines aspects of prosaic, everyday life with the rich fabric of deep social insight. Both these novels, as well as others--notably En stad av ljus (forthcoming in English as City of Light in 2003), Gör mig levande igen (Bring me back to life), and not least the trilogy now in progress--show deep intellectual commitment to striving to comprehend the philosophical undercurrents of our time and the underpinnings of political and societal developments. Both her themes and her imagery further develop the Scandinavian literary traditions in which the natural world and humankind’s interrelations with and (mis)management of it mirror the microcosm of the self and the macrocosm of history.
Linda Schenck writes, "I am American but have lived and worked for most of my adult life in Europe, primarily Sweden. I work as an interpreter and translator--in the former capacity, very often at conferences, for governments, and for the European Union institutions as well as in the courts. As a translator, I work on nonfiction for my bread and butter and translate Swedish fiction into English for my own pleasure and to share my favorite Swedish authors with English-speaking readers. I have translated three novels by Kerstin Ekman (Norvik Press). In May 2000 I helped organize a seminar where some fifteen of her translators spent a weekend working together and with her. This article is my translation of her introductory address to us at that seminar. There will be another in February 2003."
“From the April-June 2003 issue of World Literature Today (3:1), pages 34-39. Copyright 2003 World Literature Today.”