Misha Hoekstra is shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?
Misha Hoekstra: I first met Dorthe Nors thanks to the American novelist Thomas E. Kennedy, who introduced us back in 2009, over a pitcher of beer at Rosengårdens Bodega in Copenhagen. But I didn’t know any of her work until years later, when she asked me to translate Minna Mangler et Øvelokale (Minna Needs Rehearsal Space), a novella in lines. I fell in love immediately—with Minna, with the form she inhabits—an incantatory concatenation of simple declarative clauses inspired by Facebook updates—and with the way the voice jumps from high-flown lyricism in one line to pithy vernacular in the next.
While Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is more conventional in form, the shaping sensibility—the wry observation, the existential longing, the eye for beauty and ear for language—is of a piece.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
Misha Hoekstra: There were two sources of meta-commentary in the novel that added an extra dimension to my work. The first was the struggles of Sonja, the protagonist, as a translator of misogynist Scandinavian crime fiction, providing an ironic counterpoint to what I was doing. The second was the way her masseuse overanalyzes her vertigo and the various tensions in her tissues, reading each as “an expression of a spiritual condition”—something that reminds Sonja of her college classes in textual analysis and serves as a warning to the reader. Both threads come together in this passage:
“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”
With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
Misha Hoekstra: It would be great to see someone take on Jens Blendstrup, especially the hilarious magical realistic pieces in Laterna Vagina. In terms of writers I’ve worked with, I’m looking forward to whatever big, tightly written novel of ideas Christian Jungersen comes up with next. Right now we’re looking for a publisher for Undergrowth, my translation of his lyrical first novel, which charts the intense relationship of two boyhood friends across seven decades. And among other translations I’ve read recently, I especially admire Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, as translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes—impressionistic, mysterious, compelling.