Daniel Hahn and Briony Everroad opened this month’s issue of Words Without Borders by mentioning the “thick fog of casual snobbery” that surrounds literature for young adults. Thankfully, it would appear that this fog may be very slowly lifting, at least where Norwegian readers and critics are concerned. Inga Sætre’s graphic novel The Art of Falling was awarded the Brage Prize in 2011 and was longlisted in a recent poll of the nation’s top books for young adult readers. It tells the story of protagonist Rakel, who abruptly crosses the boundary between childhood and adulthood by unexpectedly falling pregnant.
Aside from the beauty of Sætre’s illustrations, which portray urban Norway and the concealed fragility of adolescent life, Sætre’s use of language is so skillful that I couldn’t tear myself away from the text upon first reading it, devouring every comic, tragic page. The dialogue was especially gripping; it excited and plagued me in equal measure. How could I most faithfully reproduce those conversations in English, retaining the hilarity, self-deprecation, and tender moments in the original Norwegian?
Rakel is not one to mince her words, and it was necessary to adopt the same forthright attitude myself, translating the first draft quickly and returning a few days later to examine the choices I had made. It was essential to the text that the dialogue didn’t sound contrived, that it retained its natural rhythm and untamed flow, but this was easier said than done. Discussions between Rakel and her friend Ingrid are occasionally vulgar, and peppered with swear words, as the young women regale one another with stories of zit-popping, aikido-teacher-snogging, and drunken nights out.
Throughout the translation process, I was painfully aware that over-analysis of dialogue choices would mean I ran the risk of turning exciting, angst-ridden teenage protagonists into frustrated Enid Blyton-esque caricatures. I found it surprisingly difficult to pin down certain sections, and the longer I mulled these over, the less “real” they felt. Ultimately, I knew that Rakel in English would be ballsy enough to loudly declare, I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do!, because her frequent lack of willingness to find more eloquent responses represented the essence of her predicament and her anger at herself for having allowed it all to have happened in the first place.
Throughout the text, Rakel uses language to distance herself from her pregnancy, opting to call her baby “the fetus” and “it” whenever possible. Later on in the book, several other characters employ medical terminology in various sections of the text, and that technical language forms a barrier that accurately conveys Rakel’s own confusion to the reader. Between these sections of dialogue are neatly typed encyclopedic references to abortion and caesarean sections, outlining Rakel’s options in almost insensitively objective medical detail. When Rakel goes into labor, and must be admitted to the hospital with sudden complications, doctors spout ever more scientific terminology that means little to Rakel. As the intense scene progresses, all sense is lost, and medical personnel are surrounded by speech bubbles written in no discernible language at all. Rakel is silenced, both by the overwhelming situation and the anaesthetic she is given, and she becomes briefly lost in a world she doesn’t understand, the reader lost alongside her as the visual elements take precedence over the verbal.
I worked on translating a large portion of The Art of Falling last year, and in addition to those sections included in the excerpt published in Words Without Borders are some beautiful examples of YA writing. As her life swings from comedy to tragedy, the poetic musings penned in Rakel’s diary seem a far cry from the persona she tries to project to those around her. In these moments, her vulnerability becomes evident to the reader:
But I'm bone dry.
I'm like a stick that has spent the winter months on the ground, staring upwards before drying up in the snow and now, now that the frosty layer no longer covers me, I stare into the awful expanse of sky above me.
Rakel ignores her pregnancy for as long as possible, but as the reality of her situation begins to sink in, her frank diary entries gives us access to her inner turmoil:
No matter which way I turn, it's there.
Why didn't I do anything?
Didn't I believe it was happening?
Is it possible to be so stupid?
But now I can see her.
Ruffled pigtails, raspberry jam on her cheek, welly boots and a woolly jumper.
The moment in which Rakel imagines her child is filled with poignant clarity. The original Norwegian describes “ruffled pigtails, raspberry jam on her cheek, large Cherrox and woollen leggings.” The leggings described are typical attire for Norwegian children, most often worn underneath all-in-one waterproof bodysuits, for keeping warm when playing outdoors. Cherrox is a well-established boot brand in the Nordic countries, producing sturdy, waterproof, warm shoes for stomping around in all manner of winter weather conditions. While I was loath to alter the image of a Norwegian toddler bundled up in such a sweet and very typically Scandinavian way, it was important to invoke the same sensation in the reader. I felt that I had to familiarize the more foreign elements in this image, limiting interference and allowing the reader to relate on an emotional level—in this case, dressing the child in welly boots and a woolly jumper.
Before Rakel’s child is born, she worries about her lack of maternal instinct. Her sister reassures her: That’s just how it is with kids; you fall in love with them. Rakel is arguably still a kid herself, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the reader falls in love with her as such. She remains one of the most interesting characters I have ever translated: complex, tenacious, intelligent, hilarious, and with a taste for punchy dialogue, lyrical monologues, and even the odd sullen shopping list. Her appeal reaches far beyond the traditional YA market, offering many of us a reminder of the complicated reality of life as a teenager.