Sir and Squire – a Translator’s Tale
Translating Jon Fosse’s works into German has been the greatest stroke of luck and adventure in my life as a translator. Like everything else in life, chance and coincidence played a decisive role.
The first coincidence was that I happened to bring a copy of Fosse’s novellas To forteljingar (Two tales) to a translators’ seminar hosted by NORLA*. The seminar was held at Voksenkollen in Oslo. I believe it was in 1992 or thereabouts.
Admittedly, at the time, I wasn’t quite ‘mature’ enough for that type of text then. I’ve always been an impatient type, and Fosse’s non-events, spiralling narratives and reiterations put me on edge. But there was obviously some persistent fascination for me.
MEETING FOSSE THE PLAYWRIGHT
A few years later, in June 1995, I was in Bergen; again, pretty much by chance. But what was no chance event, was that I checked to see what was on at Den Nationale Scene when we passed Bergen’s playhouse. I was surprised to see the author name Jon Fosse on the theatre’s programme. A poster featured a shot from a scene: a family, where one of the characters stood out as being evidently an outsider; a striking guy in a leather jacket. “I have to see that. It looks interesting”, I said to my travelling companion. “This author’s writing is so strange, I’d like to know how it comes off when he’s writing for the stage”.
I obtained Jon Fosse’s contact details from the Writers’ Guild of Norway, and a few days later, he sent me the scripts for Namnet (The Name) and Nokon kjem til å komme (Someone is Going to Come).
My reaction upon reading these writings was fundamentally different from my rather vexed first encounter with Fosse’s prose a few years earlier. I was instantly compelled by them. Short lines, silences that speak volumes, voids where the main plotlines and character psychologies are conveyed – I was immediately struck by this as being both great linguistic and dramatic artistry: and would surely be appreciated by actors and directors alike, I mused.
I applied for translation funding from the Writers’ Guild of Norway, which was granted and I duly translated both plays. Next, I started looking for a German agent or theaterverlag, as it’s called there, meaning an agency that deals with the rights and sends scripts to likely dramaturges and directors.
CUTTING ACROSS TRENDS
A trend in theatre at the time when I was translating those two first plays by Fosse – this would be in 1995 and 1996 – was for so-called “blood and sperm plays”. Examples would be Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F**king, or plays by Sarah Kane, all of which came to be known as “in-yer-face theatre”. These plays filled theatre programmes in Germany, in Western Europe and the English-speaking countries. Meanwhile, Fosse’s plays were the diametrical opposite: terse and slow-moving with many pauses. I was instantly convinced that both audiences and theatre people would appreciate them, not just as novelties, but for their literary and psychological merits. But one thing was clear:
they called for the right timing and the right people. Nils Tabert of Rowohlt Theaterverlag proved to be the right man. He read my translations, secured the rights there and then – and then bided his time for the right moment and the right director to bring Fosse to the German stages.
The choice fell on Thomas Ostermeier who had staged Der Name (The Name) at Austria’s Salzburger Festival of music and drama in 2000. Other productions followed, with some 20 Fosse plays and more than a hundred presentations in the German-speaking countries.
FOSSE’S UNIQUE LANGUAGE
But then to the question of how to translate Fosse? Obviously, I was pondering this well before I embarked on the first translations. Literary translation requires analysis and formulation of a quasi-theory of how to translate a given author and a given work. In this case, the main question was the extent to which Fosse’s works for the stage were naturalistic and/or artistically alienated. The answer, inevitably was a resounding “neither one nor the other”.
The locals from Hardanger told Fosse that “this is exactly how we speak”. And of course they are right – and yet at the same time not. It might appear to be so, but the means, the method, for achieving that is not so. The naturalistic work has to be elaborated by artistic means, carefully dispensed and with knowing restraint. Not reflection, then, but a distanced imitation, a substitute so that it ultimately seems natural. And so it became a question of determining what German turns of phrase and modes of expression, what artistic flourishes of authentic spoken language would equate with Fosse’s.
How to assess Fosse’s use of one of the two official languages of Norway? I chose a straight and clear path. In public statements and a number of articles, Jon Fosse himself has stressed how cherished, how important and existential the language Nynorsk is to him.
The manner in which the language is used is closely linked to all his writings. Nynorsk is one of the official, standardised languages of Norway, and Fosse’s personal variant generally follows the official rules but intersperses archaisms. As translators, we translate from standard into standard. Fosse’s Nynorsk, which has its standard, is in my case translated into standard German. Without regional elements, but some local idiom (while archaisms have to be translated into their counterparts in the target language). Fosse is scarcely a localised writer – on the contrary, he is a universal writer. What makes him universal is not least his use of language, and this specific usage clearly has to be imitated, rendered in translation. What makes Fosse universal is not Nynorsk as opposed to Bokmål Norwegian, French or German, but the unique manner in which he employs language.
And so, in translating Fosse, one has to identify an equivalent for what Fosse does and achieves linguistically. But what then does he do? He writes in a style that I have referred to as multicoloured grey. The first impression might be that it is grey, all of it, indeterminate at first glance, yet delve deeper into the details of his writing, and the colour spectrum is immediately apparent. He offers no psychological explanations, his characters do not speak “posh” or poetically. In the translations, the focus was on avoiding anything that might seem explanatory, illustrative or out of the ordinary. Instead, it was about bringing out the puzzling effects of Jon’s writing – the charity towards the characters, a deep psychological insight into hope, sorrow, and the conflicts in the characters’ spiritual life and in the relationships between them.
After I started to translate Jon’s plays, I returned to his prose, and with the benefit of having studied and translated his plays, I was now finally ready, and perhaps sufficiently mature, and perhaps sufficiently slow and accustomed to reading and following that type of prose. I read and translated both volumes of Melancholia (Melancholy). And I discovered something odd and compelling: the reiterations are not reiterations, but the means that can be used – must be used – in prose to create the pauses where the main content is conveyed.
Because you can’t write a pause into prose by leaving a few lines or a page or two blank: the reader will skip that kind of device and carry on reading without interruption, with no pause. But the spirals in Fosse’s reiterations create an eventless space, a silent void. That void contains all that is not said – but that is said regardless.
The text lies there like a gleaming water surface, while the reiterations ripple beneath that smooth surface. And suddenly – a tiny change, a new word, a new phrase: and no more is needed to disturb the surface, to cause ripples, just as when a leaf is blown out onto a still pond. Concentric rings are formed, little waves, and if two leaves land, the waves will collide, reinforcing each other, impacting each other.
There’s something very straightforward about Fosse’s writing, and something very demanding. Fosse uses simple words about difficult topics; he writes about uncomplicated people who cannot find words for the great events that befall them. He uses simple sentences to bring out the complicated relationships between people or between life and death. He presents people who can be understood in Norway, Germany, Iran, Japan, Portugal and Poland, alike. It is all so straightforward that it becomes universal. Jon Fosse is a universal writer. It is all very simple.
I’ve been translating Fosse for nearly 25 years. Every time I start translating a new work, it is like returning home to both myself and a dear friend. And each time, I have to relearn the patience that is needed. Not least for what Jon started writing some years ago, and which he himself calls “slow prose”, although his earlier writings are not exactly fast-paced … Septologien (Septology) is a mountain of a text, but against that he is also utterly and totally plain and honest through and through.
I cannot conceive of a translator’s life without Jon’s works. The texts have become part of me. Science has demonstrated that the brain is malleable, and moulds to requirements. I am convinced that I have an area in my translator’s brain that evolved specifically to be able to translate Fosse; an area created during the process itself.
After Jon was made a chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite of France, Claude Régy, the great theatre director, had mounted a number of remarkable and magical productions of his plays translated by Terje Sinding, we took to calling each other “Sir Jon” and “Squire Hinrich”, and even “Don Quixote” and “Sancho Panza”. Jon rides in front on his Pegasus, or rather a winged Norwegian Fjord Horse, and I follow on what might resemble the translator’s pony or donkey. I gaze amazed and contentedly into the human and literary landscapes he leads us towards.
English translation of Knut Aastad Bråten’s & Aud Søyland’s Nynorsk translation from the German.
* Norwegian Literature Abroad