May-Brit Akerholt: “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated!”

May-Brit Akerholt
photo courtesy May-Brit Akerholt

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a reception at the Norwegian consulate, where I got to meet the novelist Edy Poppy, who was celebrating her American publishing debut with the Dalkey Archive Press’s English-language version of her first novel, Anatomy. Montony. which Siri Hustvedt—who was also there to engage Poppy in an informal public dialogue—calls “a devilish hybrid: part autofiction, part literary, cinematic, and musical dance of allusions, and part chronicle of the mute body’s aches and pains and lusts and needs.”

Poppy was in the city for a few days after the reception, so after reading the novel over the weekend I met up with her in a coffee shop in Brooklyn to chat for a bit. As a story, Anatomy. Monotony. reminds me of films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt or Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, stories about couples who poke at their marriage with a sharp stick with devastating consequences, so we talked about that for a bit, and about how, more than a decade after the book came out in Norway, she’s still called upon by the media to talk about unconventional relationships—which, she says, she doesn’t mind at all, and I totally get that. Who wouldn’t want to write a book that held people’s attention so strongly they were still asking you about it years later? I also reached out to Poppy’s translator, May-Brit Akerholt, who was glad to share some thoughts on how she rendered Poppy’s very interior (and allusive) Norwegian into English.

Bottom’s transformation into an ass in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no more remarkable than that of a play, a novel, a poem into another language. Both appear in a foreign dress, both look somewhat alien to their old friends, and both speak a language that seems both recognizable and unfamiliar. Snout, who initially flees in mortal fear, soon comes back and says: “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?” On thee? Snout realises that the spirit and heart of Bottom is unchanged, it’s only his appearance that is different.

The word ‘translation’ is a mis-nomer; each new version of a work in another language is a form of interpretation and adaptation. Methodologies and theories of translation are often impractical, even irrelevant, when writing new versions of a literary work. In terms of drama, a translator works with a play’s theatrical language: its unique music, rhythm, tone, dramatic enigma; when translating a novel, you work with the unique music, rhythm, tone, the enigma at the core of the work; when translating poetry, it’s the unique music …

A translator struggles with similar problems and questions and elements across the whole spectrum of literature, only in different degrees according to the genre, and of course, to the work itself. It’s the individual voice of each writer that must form the core of any translation or adaptation. The starting point of a translator’s work must be to explore the unique voice of its creator. Otherwise how can it be possible to bring forth the idiosyncrasies of a particular work in another language?

As a translator, my fear is to disturb the balancing act of transforming Bottom into another appearance, yet keep his true form—his soul and spirit and heart. I strive to recreate a work so it sounds as if the author wrote it in English. However, this gives rise to the question of setting. While creating a new new language for a work, one that is as familiar to the characters, and then to the audiences or readers in the new dress, a translator must never sacrifice the otherness that is the original, which must also be at the heart of the new version.

There are many question involved here. For instance, do you change names that have a significance in the original language but mean nothing in the new language? That is something I come across constantly. I usually stick with the original, as I did in Edy Poppy’s Anatomy. Monotony., so as to maintain the flavour of foreignness, which gives the new work a certain authenticity.

In a few words: Anatomy. Monotony. is mainly set in Montpellier, London, and a small place in Norway called Bø (‘ø’ as in ‘curd’). Its language is universal, yet firmly localized in the main character’s homeland. So the first challenge was to find a language for the novel that keeps its special nature, and the particular way its characters express themselves.

The opening of the novel leaves us in no doubt that the “I” of the novel, a woman called Vår (the Norwegian word for spring), craves sex, which turns out to become the main theme; or rather, the underlying cause of the novel’s actions. She meets a man on a bench in a London Park: “My tummy tingles, lust, that’s all it is, butterflies.” The theme of thirsting for sexual gratification is emphasized when she describes to her French husband Lou in intimate details how she made love with The Lover, thus bringing into the story Marguerite Duras’ famous novel of the same name.

Vår is writing a novel about a Norwegian girl called Ragnhild. Later we learn that they are the same character (Edy Poppy’s real name is Ragnhild Moe). Thus the novel is a literary biography. It is very interesting how eventually, seamlessly, the two stories intermingle and Vår and Ragnhild meld into one and the same character. The “I” of the main novel explores her contemporary self in light of her past self by writing a novel-within-a-novel.

As Poppy is writing about her own life—“P.S. Everything I’ve written is true apart from what I’ve made up”—we have access to her thoughts and feelings and imagination. As we are given this access, the language of this novel is simple, or quite straightforward in the sense that there is no enigmatic subtext, as in a play by Henrik Ibsen, for instance, or a novel by Jon Fosse. The challenge is to recreate the literary language that makes this particular novel the unique piece of work it is.

A great deal of interpretation work, or what I call ‘dramaturgy’ from my many years of working as dramaturg in the theatre, often of my own translations, is necessary to translate the novel Anatomy. Monotony. You have to understand that there are two distinct voices that are still created by the same writer, who are the same character in the end, and recreate that difference and sameness in a new language, for a different culture, different readers.

This is a novel whose story and characters captivate us and bring us into a new world.

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28 June 2018 | in translation |