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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Jon Fosse & Damion Searls

“To me writing is an act of listening. And if I am writing well then what I write will necessarily be new to me as well. Writing is a journey into the unknown.”
Portraits of Jon Fosse and Damion Searls
Left: Jon Fosse, photo by Tom Kolstad Samlaget; Right: Damion Searls, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Septology came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Jon Fosse (JF): After writing mostly for the theater for about fifteen years, I felt I was done with it and decided to go back to where I came from: writing novels, or perhaps most often novellas, and poetry. In place of the short lines and strong intensity of a play, I wanted to write long sentences, to let each and every moment take its time, to write what I thought of as “slow prose.”

And then as always I just sat down and started writing. I prefer never to plan anything, but to just let the writing write itself, if I can put it that way. To me writing is an act of listening. And if I am writing well then what I write will necessarily be new to me as well. Writing is a journey into the unknown.

Each new text has to be its own universe. I didn’t plan to write a long novel, as Septology turned out to be. It ended up being written in seven parts, published in three books both in Norwegian and in English (and in several other languages). Still, I think and hope each book can be read alone, though of course reading all three books gives the spirit of the whole.

Damion Searls (DS): I’ve been translating Fosse’s fiction into English for about twenty years now, and so I heard about the Septology before it was quite finished and I translated the books before they were published in Norwegian so that the publications could be simultaneous. I was excited to hear about this new “slow prose” Jon told me about, even if I also had to laugh a little—as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not like his earlier books are exactly speed demons! It can take a character fifty pages to leave a room! But I’ve come to understand that “slow prose” is really about length more than speed: stretching out, having more room and so more time to inhabit the world of these books.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English?

JF: In the past Damion has translated my books without input from me, just sending me some questions that I answered as well as I could, but with A New Name, as well as the earlier books in Septology, I read through the whole translation and compared it to the Norwegian, making my own remarks here and there.

DS: I would say that his earlier, smaller amounts of input into the other translations were important too! Jon is excellent both at answering specific questions and at responding to bigger questions in an open-ended way, one that tells me what I need to know but lets me find my own solutions in English. Crucially, he is a translator himself and understands the creative process involved—he knows that what matters most is for the result to be a good and moving and musical book in its new language, and that the translators are the ones who have to make that happen however they can.

WWB: Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

JF: Each language has its own qualities, so things sound and seem a bit different in this or that language. But in my opinion Damion’s translation is very close to how I experience the Norwegian original, of course expressed in its own way.

DS: Jon is a real craftsman and by the time he has finished writing a book he is very sure about it, so we did not have the experience I’ve had with translating other living authors, where seeing the translation prompts them to change or rewrite the text for the English, or even rewrite the original. But when I say he is sure about the finished work, I don’t mean that he has his one and only interpretation: I think he sees the book as existing as its own thing, which every reader can relate to and respond to in their own way that’s as valid as his. I don’t think he is interested in providing, or even having, a preferred reading. This makes him very open to the transformations required in translation, and I have a feeling that what he sees in my translations tells him more about how the English language works than about his own books.

WWB: Jon and Damion, your work together has gained wide recognition to date, having been up for the Booker Prize (twice) and now for the National Book Award in 2022. (You’re no doubt tired of these nominations!)

JF: A New Name was nominated last year for both of the most important Norwegian prizes as well. In fact it won both of them!

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works. I wonder how the two of you view collaboration, its role in the success of a translation.

JF: Damion and I have actually been in contact over email for many many years, but we first met in person in London this May, when we were shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. He has translated most of my work on his own, perhaps just sending me a few questions. With Septology we worked in another way for the first time.

I feel that Damion has an unbelievable talent for understanding what I write and transforming it into an English that is different but still keeps, so to speak, the music of my language, in the way that’s possible in English. I must admit that it is sometimes a mystery to me how he does it!

A translation of my writing that doesn’t translate, however it can, the “music” or “rhythm” or whatever metaphor you prefer, isn’t of much value. Damion has the kind of ear for the music of literature that’s needed. I am very thankful to him for translating my writing.

DS: I’ve already described our collaborative process a bit; I also think that an extended partnership over many years and many books can help the reception of the books. The translator is often the author’s first champion in an English-language context, but once there’s a sizable body of work in English, that’s when readers and reviewers and award juries can start to appreciate the author’s accomplishments in the same way the translator and original-language readers do.

WWB: In a similar vein, much has been made at different points of the importance (or not) of keeping a writer-translator pair intact as a writer’s oeuvre is brought into English.

JF: My writing has its very distinct voice in Norwegian, and the best thing is for it to also get the same unity of voice in English. And I feel that Damion’s translations have their own voice. So I am really happy that he has translated several of my novels into English, and that the English voice of my novels is his voice, if I can put it like that.

DS: I think there are three things that matter: the quality or ability of the author, the quality or ability of the translator, and their fit. I don’t think it’s especially important to keep a consistent writer-translator pairing, as long as those three criteria are met. There are plenty of writers I’ve read translated by multiple people—Bolaño, Bernhard, Bachmann, Bai Juyi, Borges… A writer can be translated by more than one translator, just as a translator can translate more than one writer: different translators might give the author a different sound, but different authors give the translator a different sound too.

WWB: Of course, Damion, you’ve also translated writers—Walser and Mann, to name just two—whose work has recently been brought (again) into English by sometimes two or more translators. Does your approach vary if a writer has already had other works published in English? (This is not to suggest you would simply try to replicate a voice that had already been established, or that you wouldn’t bring your own interpretations to bear on the work.) Are there challenges that are distinct to each situation

DS: This is a big and interesting question, because it highlights that a translator is not just a copyist, trying to replicate the original as closely as possible. Translators produce a work for a new context, different from the original’s—in my case an English-language context. One of the key facts about that new context is whether or not the author is a known quantity there already. If they are known, you have to think about what you want your intervention to be: are you trying to just add more work to the author’s existing corpus in English, or to redefine the author, emphasizing aspects of their work you think have been underappreciated? Your goal will influence your approach in different ways—sometimes you’ll feel a need to translate more closely, if you feel something has been missing in English; sometimes more freely, if you feel the ground has been covered well and you can take the basics for granted.

Of course the context is wider than that: whatever the status of the specific author, translators are often trying to change more fundamentally the audience’s expectations of what’s possible. These aspirations will affect what you decide to translate, how you make the books sound, and how you publicize and talk about them.


Jon Fosse and Damion Searls’s
Septology: VI–VII is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Septology came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Jon Fosse (JF): After writing mostly for the theater for about fifteen years, I felt I was done with it and decided to go back to where I came from: writing novels, or perhaps most often novellas, and poetry. In place of the short lines and strong intensity of a play, I wanted to write long sentences, to let each and every moment take its time, to write what I thought of as “slow prose.”

And then as always I just sat down and started writing. I prefer never to plan anything, but to just let the writing write itself, if I can put it that way. To me writing is an act of listening. And if I am writing well then what I write will necessarily be new to me as well. Writing is a journey into the unknown.

Each new text has to be its own universe. I didn’t plan to write a long novel, as Septology turned out to be. It ended up being written in seven parts, published in three books both in Norwegian and in English (and in several other languages). Still, I think and hope each book can be read alone, though of course reading all three books gives the spirit of the whole.

Damion Searls (DS): I’ve been translating Fosse’s fiction into English for about twenty years now, and so I heard about the Septology before it was quite finished and I translated the books before they were published in Norwegian so that the publications could be simultaneous. I was excited to hear about this new “slow prose” Jon told me about, even if I also had to laugh a little—as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not like his earlier books are exactly speed demons! It can take a character fifty pages to leave a room! But I’ve come to understand that “slow prose” is really about length more than speed: stretching out, having more room and so more time to inhabit the world of these books.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English?

JF: In the past Damion has translated my books without input from me, just sending me some questions that I answered as well as I could, but with A New Name, as well as the earlier books in Septology, I read through the whole translation and compared it to the Norwegian, making my own remarks here and there.

DS: I would say that his earlier, smaller amounts of input into the other translations were important too! Jon is excellent both at answering specific questions and at responding to bigger questions in an open-ended way, one that tells me what I need to know but lets me find my own solutions in English. Crucially, he is a translator himself and understands the creative process involved—he knows that what matters most is for the result to be a good and moving and musical book in its new language, and that the translators are the ones who have to make that happen however they can.

WWB: Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

JF: Each language has its own qualities, so things sound and seem a bit different in this or that language. But in my opinion Damion’s translation is very close to how I experience the Norwegian original, of course expressed in its own way.

DS: Jon is a real craftsman and by the time he has finished writing a book he is very sure about it, so we did not have the experience I’ve had with translating other living authors, where seeing the translation prompts them to change or rewrite the text for the English, or even rewrite the original. But when I say he is sure about the finished work, I don’t mean that he has his one and only interpretation: I think he sees the book as existing as its own thing, which every reader can relate to and respond to in their own way that’s as valid as his. I don’t think he is interested in providing, or even having, a preferred reading. This makes him very open to the transformations required in translation, and I have a feeling that what he sees in my translations tells him more about how the English language works than about his own books.

WWB: Jon and Damion, your work together has gained wide recognition to date, having been up for the Booker Prize (twice) and now for the National Book Award in 2022. (You’re no doubt tired of these nominations!)

JF: A New Name was nominated last year for both of the most important Norwegian prizes as well. In fact it won both of them!

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works. I wonder how the two of you view collaboration, its role in the success of a translation.

JF: Damion and I have actually been in contact over email for many many years, but we first met in person in London this May, when we were shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. He has translated most of my work on his own, perhaps just sending me a few questions. With Septology we worked in another way for the first time.

I feel that Damion has an unbelievable talent for understanding what I write and transforming it into an English that is different but still keeps, so to speak, the music of my language, in the way that’s possible in English. I must admit that it is sometimes a mystery to me how he does it!

A translation of my writing that doesn’t translate, however it can, the “music” or “rhythm” or whatever metaphor you prefer, isn’t of much value. Damion has the kind of ear for the music of literature that’s needed. I am very thankful to him for translating my writing.

DS: I’ve already described our collaborative process a bit; I also think that an extended partnership over many years and many books can help the reception of the books. The translator is often the author’s first champion in an English-language context, but once there’s a sizable body of work in English, that’s when readers and reviewers and award juries can start to appreciate the author’s accomplishments in the same way the translator and original-language readers do.

WWB: In a similar vein, much has been made at different points of the importance (or not) of keeping a writer-translator pair intact as a writer’s oeuvre is brought into English.

JF: My writing has its very distinct voice in Norwegian, and the best thing is for it to also get the same unity of voice in English. And I feel that Damion’s translations have their own voice. So I am really happy that he has translated several of my novels into English, and that the English voice of my novels is his voice, if I can put it like that.

DS: I think there are three things that matter: the quality or ability of the author, the quality or ability of the translator, and their fit. I don’t think it’s especially important to keep a consistent writer-translator pairing, as long as those three criteria are met. There are plenty of writers I’ve read translated by multiple people—Bolaño, Bernhard, Bachmann, Bai Juyi, Borges… A writer can be translated by more than one translator, just as a translator can translate more than one writer: different translators might give the author a different sound, but different authors give the translator a different sound too.

WWB: Of course, Damion, you’ve also translated writers—Walser and Mann, to name just two—whose work has recently been brought (again) into English by sometimes two or more translators. Does your approach vary if a writer has already had other works published in English? (This is not to suggest you would simply try to replicate a voice that had already been established, or that you wouldn’t bring your own interpretations to bear on the work.) Are there challenges that are distinct to each situation

DS: This is a big and interesting question, because it highlights that a translator is not just a copyist, trying to replicate the original as closely as possible. Translators produce a work for a new context, different from the original’s—in my case an English-language context. One of the key facts about that new context is whether or not the author is a known quantity there already. If they are known, you have to think about what you want your intervention to be: are you trying to just add more work to the author’s existing corpus in English, or to redefine the author, emphasizing aspects of their work you think have been underappreciated? Your goal will influence your approach in different ways—sometimes you’ll feel a need to translate more closely, if you feel something has been missing in English; sometimes more freely, if you feel the ground has been covered well and you can take the basics for granted.

Of course the context is wider than that: whatever the status of the specific author, translators are often trying to change more fundamentally the audience’s expectations of what’s possible. These aspirations will affect what you decide to translate, how you make the books sound, and how you publicize and talk about them.


Jon Fosse and Damion Searls’s
Septology: VI–VII is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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