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Nonfiction

The Same River Twice: Notes on Reading, Time, and Translation

Saskia Vogel reflects on her years of rereading and translating Linnea Axelsson's Ædnan and considers how readers, texts, and translations shift and evolve over time.
A river winds through the hilly green countryside in northern Sweden
Photo by Fredrik Posse on Unsplash

“Yes, Translators Have Bodies, Too” is an alternate title for the eleven notes that follow. They were taken while translating Linnea Axelsson’s epic novel-in-verse Ædnan and were first delivered as a lecture as part of my time as Princeton University’s Translator in Residence.

1

Zadie Smith wrote about how the best time to edit your work is unfortunately “two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival.”

I completed my full Swedish-to-English translation of Linnea Axelsson’s Ædnan in May 2022, then let it rest over the summer. In September, a month before the final translation was due, Linnea and I opened up the document together and sat with each other for hours over the course of a week, fine-tuning the text. She’d read through my translation, look at my questions, make tweaks of her own. One visit with John Freeman, the translation’s editor, and then back and forth for a few days. The text transformed. And when Linnea left, my translation had transformed as well. For one, the manuscript itself was over two hundred pages shorter. Formatting tweaks accounted for about half of that, but also a night during which Linnea redrafted various sections of the text, an edit that left me breathless. Imagine reshaping your own book four years after it was published. Linnea said a thing like this was possible now, after all that time had passed.

Ædnan was first published in 2018. The title is an old Northern Sámi word that means “the land,” “the ground,” and “the earth” and echoes words for “river” and “mother,” words that all may come from the same root word meaning “great.” It tells the story of two Sámi families—traditionally reindeer keepers who live in the region known as Sápmi that spans the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and some of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. It begins in the early twentieth century, when hitherto open borders were closed to the Sámi and a familiar story of Indigenous fates unfolds: forced relocation; the silencing and erasure of people, culture, and language; the disruption of traditional life paths. It’s a story about the hubris of the settler state, extractive and energy industries for whom it made sense to reroute rivers and divert the migration paths of reindeer.

Long forest rivers
their mouths at the coast
rushing icy through the land

Iron-bearing regions
sparsely populated
wood- and moorland

Inexhaustibly the
currents flowed
from wellsprings
in the fells

and fell roaring
from escarpments

Farther down
the river channels quieted

Chains of lakes
muffled the water

and the stretches of
fishing waters
farmland
overtook

Then the yielding
moorland belt
met the currents

which strained

through the moss

The soft permeable
marshlands that let
the rivers swell into
wide gliding lakes

on their way
to the coast

Where they would scatter
with the waves

dissolve in the sea

But the Swede
was roving

he’d caught
the scent of game

Wild rivers
rushing untouched
in their deep grooves

And strong men
were sent up through
the forests

They were to tame
the river and yoke
the power of the rapids

Even though our kinsman
had long moved with
their herds across
this rolling river valley

Fine winter roads
the river gave them when
it froze to ice

Their songs and
memories could be
cast

from the knickpoint’s
foaming white
wild forms

But the Swede he dammed

And the river was left
muffled and silent
behind the dams’ dim
stony blind walls

Shrouded the currents slid
down among turbine halls
deep below the fells

and flowed up
in places unforeseen

Bit by bit the herds
had to give way

2

You can never step into the same river twice, and yet, each time I open a book, there it is. I meet the same words each time I open Ædnan, but as Ædnan’s reader, I am never the same. I started thinking of the book as a river. In this metaphor, I am the water, and the book the riverbed. But what does that make the translation?

3

I hope Linnea does not mind me talking about encountering her book in terms of wishing. Her story with Ædnan, as its author, is of course something else entirely. Stories from her family and community at large held by the vessel of her novel-in-verse, to make use of an image of vessels, containers, that repeats in the book. But back in 2018, five years after I started working as a translator, there I was keeping a patient eye on the flow of newly published titles in Swedish, as you do as a translator. You sit, waiting, ready to spring into action when something catches your eye. I got lucky early on and developed a reputation as a translator who was a good match for the kinds of books I also happened to like to read: feminist stories, dark tales, voices that don’t come from a majority perspective, formal experimentation. All the while, I was wishing for a novel about a history I’d heard too little about and that I too knew little of.

But you know how it goes with wishes. I expected prose. When the book arrived it was 760 pages of minimalist poetry with no punctuation bar a handful of colons, the stanzas stitched together with dashes as in Emily Dickinson’s work. A doorstopper, but more white space than text. The white space made me think of landscape, tundra and snow, the white space held space for silence of varying kinds, held space for new voices to ring out.

As a translator of Swedish, I find myself translating silence often. The Swedish language has a stunning capacity for silence. There seems to be a trust or an understanding between writer (plus the publisher) and reader about a certain freedom in the text. Pauses, inferences, and space left in between the lines for the reader to draw their own conclusion, to decide what something means for themselves. Moments that in my experience, will sometimes get flagged by English language editors asking for clarity or specificity. Sometimes I could have chosen better phrasing of course, other times, I make a case for ambiguity, silence, and openness, even if it is more ambiguous, silent, or open than an English-speaking reader might be used to, might tolerate. If I do my work well, it should hold.

Ædnan was similar but different. It had a different effect on me. I started reading. The brevity of the lines, the spare language, slowed my reading right down to the book’s pace, not mine. The line breaks and arrangement of the stanzas set the terms. This must be true of all literature to an extent, but I was aware that I was reading this book on its terms, not mine. Perhaps part of the magic of the book is in setting out these terms so explicitly through its form.

4

The reader who is a translator looking for a project is a kind of fisherman. This reader is an optimist who wants to fall in love . . . and likely a serial monogamist. This reader, when they begin to think of the book crossing into a new language, is an analyst and a strategist.

I have been opening this book since 2018 and over the years, I have become many different readers.

In this time one reader I became is a mother, newly sensitized to the idea of generation.

One reader I become, a reader I knew before, is mouth and lungs. Deep inside the text, I am at my desk puffing and grunting, tapping my tongue, trying out breath. I breathe the text, breathe the breath the author wrote when they made these words and punctuated them. I make wet sounds with my mouth, stutter and repeat to get their breath into English. One, two. Bubble out, breathe is how I learned to swim. Each time I say those words I’m a kid in the pool, my once-blond hair chlorine green. I say Linnea’s words again and again. I swim.

One reader I become is dead-eyed, they’ve hit their limit, they’re blind to the text. They need a nap, a snack, a glass of water. The body needs its breaks.

One of the most useful life lessons I’ve learned was from a horse-rider watching her horse charge around a corral. She needs a body break before we head back out on the trail, the rider said. Then I can get back into the saddle.

I have often written and translated as though I barely have a body. As if I were only eyes, brain, fingers and wrists, and wrists only when they ached. The only ache I couldn’t work through was wrist ache. A shoulder or hip ache could be ignored if I was deep enough inside the text. The reader has a body, the translator has a body. I try to remember that when I start to get dead-eyed.

“I take breaks now.”

Where have I read that before? Have I written that before, or translated that before?

I think it’s in one of Karolina Ramqvist’s books, the latest in English. The Bear Woman is an intimate exploration of the conditions of writing. On taking breaks. Forgetting. Getting things wrong. Time. Aging. Leaving things open.

I come to think of her essay which explores the difference between the writer at work (alone at her desk writing) and the writer who is called upon to make public appearances and talk about her work. Ramqvist writes: “An author appearance is a meeting between the author and the readers who share time and a space . . . and in this way it differs from our usual meeting, the one in which the reader sits alone with the text and completes it by reading.”

This thought resonates with me both as a writer and a translator. But what does completion mean? In writing and translation, there’s a stage I get to when I’m just pushing words around, rearranging the furniture. I’m working on the text in a way that seems to neither degrade nor improve it. When I get to this point, I declare my work to be done, and I let the text go. As a result, I don’t think of a piece as finished. Rather, I think of my work as ready to be read.

I’ll add to this something from Joan Didion I think about a lot, a sort of warning that what a writer puts down on the page, even if it’s later deleted, will stay a part of the book forever in the writer’s (and yes, I think translator’s) mind. So, a “complete text” moves backward in time to its generation and creation, and into an unspecified future when it is read and resonates in a reader. The riverbed holds, the water fills. The reading experience might spark further reflection, further reading, might inspire action IRL. Or the act of reading itself might be enough for the reader.

Reading has other conditions for a translator. The translator can simply read and then translate the words, but how to contend with what the text is hiding or holding—the mechanisms that give rise to certain sparks in the reader? When I read for such things, I’m calculating, but not mathematical. Metaphysical. This is a state of play, a scattering, a gathering. If I can, I will ask the author a question such as: if your book were a type of fabric, what fabric would it be? I asked this of Johanne Lykke Holm when translating her Strega, published in November 2022. Polyester, she said, and polyester helped me better understand how to skew my word choices and turns of phrase. That is to say, descriptions of sweets eaten at a banquet should turn to fur on the teeth, should make the reader burn with thirst. Polyester became a guiding light when other readers—the book’s editors—made their queries.

In the 2020 Sebald Lecture, David Bellos talks about, in summary, how it is not enough to know the source language to translate a book. You have to know what the text is about and bring that along in the translation.

I knew to translate Ædnan, I’d need more time to understand what the text was about and to root myself in another world view. As Axelsson writes in a section that takes place during the land rights trial:

They’ll have to
excuse us
if we disrupt their
dreams

they’ll have to
forgive us

But the era
of progress
and the world’s
conscience

does not contain
the full
history of their land

Our land

of course is one
they’ve never
even seen

Do they even know
how we have been
removed between
four nations

Even though our land

this ground right
here that we named
long ago

Has always stretched
right across northern
Scandinavia and into the
Kola Peninsula

So they’ll have to
forgive us

if we turn
their maps on them

Isn’t it about time
that their children
also learn to hear
the voices

of our shared
history

You Nordic children
who have gone forth
so lightly

As if you were
entirely without power
without a past

Those who have
gone before you
apparently
forgot

to pack your baggage

The first time I was asked a question about Sweden’s colonial history, in 2019, I’d stammered through an answer. I felt that I wasn’t the person to speak to this, but there I was: the translator on the stage, speaking about Linnea Axelsson’s work in front of an audience. Colonialism? I said like a question when talking about the content of the book. I knew, but I didn’t know. Most of all, I was unsure of which words to use. How is this subject discussed by the people who know best? Which turns of phrase communicate the dynamics best? The indigenous writer on stage with me, Taqralik Partridge, she said: Yes, we certainly call it colonialism. It was then that I understood that to translate Ædnan, I’d have to actively become a different kind of reader. I’d need time to read other things, to engage in certain kinds of conversations with myself and others, about reading and translation practices, I needed to spend time listening. I needed time. So I applied to the Princeton residency.

5

The reader completes the text, even the dead-eyed one who misses every joke because they forgot to eat and have been at it too long. That’s a reading too. Could it make for a good translation?

If the translator is among a book’s closest readers, perhaps its most experienced exegete, and a translation is a reading, could a translation be called a completed text? A book is then also a gesture caught in amber. A book is what the writer was able to do at the time of writing, shaped by every condition of the days in which they worked. And so too is a translation, one reading of a book caught in amber. To be set in motion again by another reader.

6

The longer I translate, the more I want to push the boundaries of English, the boundaries of the norms of “good writing,” a “good book,” and “a good story.” I want to offer up new ways of reading. I want for you, as I want for myself, to be increasingly aware of what I as a reader am bringing to a text, my expectations, and how those intuitions and expectations inform and color my reading.

A book as an object seems so absolute, so fixed, hallowed and concrete. I’ve come to think of this as a sort of intrusive thought. I acknowledge it, and hope the thought will leave me alone. I prefer to think of a text as a transmission and a book as something that pulps in water.

The idea of the hallowed book has its origin in my early education and perhaps in my early years as a reader, in awe of books and what they hold. Perhaps also in my writing ambitions: how does a person write a book good enough for it to be published? For a long time, these questions ran alongside ideas of “perfection.” But nothing is perfect. And the more I think about literature, the less I need it to meet any sort of ideal or expectation. I’m most interested in how a book will spring to life inside a reader, how they will carry it with them and pass it on. The life the book lives without me.

This seems like a fine line to walk, editorially speaking. In my writing and translation practice so far, I am concerned with holding the reader, creating conditions on the page that allow them to be immersed in the book, not drawn out of it (unless that is the intention). Because readers are also active users of language and storytellers themselves in their everyday lives—all day every day, all we do is tell each other stories, right?—readers can be finicky and nit-picky, easily lost. An unlikeable character can be a deal breaker. A word choice deemed poor by the reader can become the focus of a review. A reader might dismiss the book because a hometown detail is rendered in a way that feels inauthentic. A historical inaccuracy can call into question the very foundations of a story.

One writer I translate, Balsam Karam, refuses specificity because she doesn’t want to give the reader an excuse not to take her work seriously because they’ve been to that city or know people from a certain place and her rendering does not align with their personal body of knowledge.

I suppose I am also trying to find a way of expressing the complex of thoughts and emotions I have about the conditions of my writing and translation practice. I only have so much time. I am only human. A book is a human artifact. And then there is my relationship to language. I know how seriously I take language and grammar—this carefully calibrated interface. I also know how flawed my own language is, the looseness I cultivate as a result of my translation work: because I am constantly trying to figure out how far I can push it.

I imagine, perhaps foolishly, that a general audience is more forgiving of paint and painting than words and writing. Paint, we understand, is liquid before it dries.

7

A book will teach you how to read it, if you let it. I wonder what the literary landscape would look like if this were our starting point as readers.

One example of this might be the “decolonial fan-zine” called Sápmi 2.0: Subaltern No More that I found while reading around Ædnan. It’s part of a project launched by Johan Sandberg McGuinne, a Swedish South Sámi and Scottish Gaelic teacher, translator, and academic. It ran from 2014 to 2016 with the aim of encouraging more speaking and writing of Sámi, by and for the Sámi people written. The zine contains contributions in various Sámi languages, English, and Swedish. The editors of the zine note that they stayed away from “traditional proofreading in favor of love and respect for the people who have chosen to write down their thoughts, as a way to empower our communities. In opting to stay away from red pens and instead celebrate those who make sure that the number of writers of our languages grows, we have added our support to a belief in languages as a vehicle of communication, rather than as a rigid set of orthographic rules.”

This reminded me that some of the collaborative moments I loved most were when Linnea said No.

No to a query about adding in commas or italics to clarify lists and speech.

No as part of the call and response game we played in our effort to reduce the page count.

Can these two lines on their own page be moved to the page before so we can get from 552 to 551 pages?

No.

No. Do not crowd the page. No, do not remove that breath. No, in this moment the act of turning the page is essential to the text. The act of turning pages is so essential to Ædnan that, Linnea shared, even the e-book was designed in a way that gave the reader the sense of turning physical pages.

As Linnea and I negotiated space in her book, we found the edges of the practical demands of the translation. We had to make sure that in a text as spare as this, there was enough context. We operated on the assumption that to the English-speaking reader this culture and history will likely be new. Much of this work came down to finding the exact right nuance of single words, rather than adding words.

When you’re looking at two to four words on a line, words and their meanings are weighted differently. I tried not to introduce new tones of resonance to the lines, to which accidental word play and innuendo seemed to fasten. There I was, vigilant, polishing. We made decisions about when to pin a meaning down with a word that encloses or leave it open with a word that expands. I calibrated my sense of how open the text needed to be in translation. Some passages seemed to open outward and invite freer translation. They’d build to a crucial point, where the demands of translation shifted: lines, a line, a word that had to be translated in a particular way.

As we did the work of cutting the text down, I thought of the writer Helena Granström, whose work of eco-reportage and criticism Det som en gång var (What Once Was) argues that the key to saving the planet lies in a fundamental shift in how modern industrialized capitalist societies relate to nature. She writes that to them, nature is not a subject, not seen as alive. Nature is objectified and commodified. In this industrial world: “The forest’s value is not the forest itself, but its function as raw material, as a container of biodiversity or as a place for human recreation.” [my translation]

That’s one kind of reader, so to speak.

Granström then points to a different way of seeing, thinking, and reading: “I want to be clear: the argument for not driving the wolf to extinction is the wolf.”

A book will teach you how to read it, if you let it.

We heard
heartbeats in the ground

Faint
beneath the inherited
migration paths

our son Aslat and I

Aslat would follow
the future’s ground

It had not yet been
born into the world:

It would come
from the lives of our does

8

At one event hosted at Princeton in the week that Linnea was visiting, she responded to a question about writing Ædnan in Swedish. We had been talking about how language can be a home, in particular for those who have parted from a place called home. Linnea explained that language is not a home, per se, but you can make a home in language by how you use it. She explained how Sámi languages move along the rivers, those arteries along which also the people flow.

At a different event that week with Ol Johan Gaup, who alongside Kristina Utsi translated a stage adaptation of Ædnan into Northern Sámi (the Sámi Linnea speaks and sometimes writes in), Gaup talked to us about language. Yes, there may be hundreds of words for snow, but that’s not the angle to look at it from. He said: We have the words we have for the landscape because the conditions of our existence mean that we need to be able to specify where something is. Exactly where the stray reindeer is on the snowy tundra. He spoke of a mountain called something like Death Mountain in his Northern Sámi. But the name the Swedes gave it was different. It does not carry with it a warning. Death Mountain describes the mountain, its history in the community of people who engage with it. When we lose language, Gaup said, we lose a map of the landscape.

Later Professor Sarah Rivett, before a visit to her Native American Literature course, introduces me to the work of Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Maskoke language revitalizer, scholar, and musician. After working with language revitalization in various settings, he drew the conclusion that “In order to see a real reversal of language loss, we have to altogether change the way we live.” For him this translated into growing new fluent Maskoke speakers. How? “We would have to recreate the society in which our language once historically functioned best, which was, unsurprisingly, a society premised on intimate relations with the natural world.” That recreation is Ekvn-Yefolecv, a village covering over a thousand acres in what is commonly/colonially called Alabama. The village’s name is a double entendre meaning “returning to the earth” and “returning to our homelands.” There Indigenous Maskoke people, after having been forcibly removed, have returned for the first time in 180 years in order to practice linguistic, cultural, and ecological sustainability. In the village, Maskoke people could live every day as Indigenous people, not just on weekends or at ceremony. If one loses language, Briggs-Cloud reasoned, one loses traditional lifeways. And so in order to keep the language alive, the lifeways must also be lived.

I think about what my American English holds. Its metaphors from the war machine, from neoliberalism. What language makes of me, what I try and make of it.

9

I bring the text into the world, the world brings the text to me.

There is a point I get to in my translation practice when the world seems to speak the text, like when I am writing and everything around me conspires to feed into my work. The article I need to read appears, I overhear a snippet of conversation that answers a question.

I become this reader too: consumed, obsessive, receptive to signs, the reader sitting in the web of the text, feeling outside impulses quiver down the strands. I live with the text.

In Ædnan, I translate a dead reindeer on the road. Each day for a week, I see roadkill. A doe outside of Hopewell, a raccoon on Valley Road. A bird on the way to my toddler’s school, a squirrel on University Place.

I walk with my toddler to school. He likes to stop from time to time. Sit. Watch the world go by. I think of Ædnan:

I stretch out
on the grass with
my backpack on

to recover
a bit

It’s not far
to the creek now

The cold one by the
old reindeer herder cairn

where Papa and
I would get
into such long talks

My legs quake

when I lean
over to scoop
up water

And can’t I just
hear Papa saying:

If you stop
for a drink
at every stream

you’ll never get
to where you’re going

10

I get overexcited when I talk to a relative about a passage from Ædnan. We’re really connecting. She’s engaged and interested, curious. I’m flattered and excited to share this work that I do in silence (mostly) and mostly alone. We’re having fun going between my Swedish, our German, our English. Finding parallels and impossibilities. I’m working on this bit:

The sea rises

remixes worlds
weaves in souls

Oh how I had
burned

my arms in flames

that damn mop
was in our way in the closet

Oh how I had
hungered
for him

His name was Rolf

he came from a village
near Boden

Down there he said
I dammed over my
own childhood home

The mop in the Swedish is “sopen.” Sopen: in the word hides the word for trash, for the piece of bread you use to sop up the last of a bowl of soup, of a mop. Impossible, probably, I say, to find a word in English that holds all of those echoes. Sometimes you just have to let go, deal with what cannot be. But I see in my relative’s eyes a spark that I want to do justice. I come up with a solution. I feel: pleased?

I run it by Linnea, eager to discuss the echoes. No, she says. I simply mean mop. I feel silly. But this kind of thing happens all the time. I run away with my reading, and then I have to rein myself back in. This is the line between reading and translating. Grant me the sense to know when I am getting carried away. Grant me the discipline to rein myself in. Grant me the intuition and wisdom to know the difference between getting carried away and giving myself to the text.

At the Christmas party
the boss asks the women
to dance by saying:

May I have this dance
even though you’ve got
such ugly breasts

I just smiled
when he joked
with me

glided along in the dance
unable to act and
at a loss

But it did not roll
right off me

Is that really all there is to it, I ask Linnea, that awkward, half-baked, dim-witted insult masquerading as a joke? So casual, clumsy, and cruel.

Yes, Linnea says.

I think of Johanne Lykke Holm telling me while I was translating Strega: Let what’s ugly be ugly, so that what’s beautiful can shine.

11

Sometimes I translate so proud of what I do, so careful with each word, and . . . it doesn’t work. Sometimes I translate and I’m not sure if it’s working . . . and the reader response to my text exceeds expectations. I know it is my job to get the latter result, or at least to avoid the former, but let this be a space where I can tell you that I can’t tell you which way it will go. There are so many readings at play in the judgment of a translation’s quality, and so many expectations that are only sometimes articulated.

I also have a hard time telling how a translation will be received because, I think, I need time to become a different reader before I can be my own best judge, before my eyes are fresh again. I have tricks for shortcutting the process, but time, time is best. But so often we translators do not have time. I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly being asked to translate at speed.

Time is a tool of translation, but so is another reader. My best work comes when I have a chance to get a read of the author and then from working with an editor (a pair of outside eyes), because we decide together for whom the book is being translated and visions align. Even in an abstract sense, this is important. If I can talk to the editor about what I’m reading, what I’m finding in the text, their expectations of the text, of “an edit” and, yes, the kind of editorial work we may or may never do together, I understand more about what the best translation of the text we’re working on can be. I am learning that to ask for and so create the conditions for doing the best possible work.

The author’s eye, the editor’s eye, I keep them in mind as I sit down at my desk and open the book and follow it for the first time, the second time, the third, follow it word by word, thinking of the reader, and letting myself go.


© 2023 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

English

“Yes, Translators Have Bodies, Too” is an alternate title for the eleven notes that follow. They were taken while translating Linnea Axelsson’s epic novel-in-verse Ædnan and were first delivered as a lecture as part of my time as Princeton University’s Translator in Residence.

1

Zadie Smith wrote about how the best time to edit your work is unfortunately “two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival.”

I completed my full Swedish-to-English translation of Linnea Axelsson’s Ædnan in May 2022, then let it rest over the summer. In September, a month before the final translation was due, Linnea and I opened up the document together and sat with each other for hours over the course of a week, fine-tuning the text. She’d read through my translation, look at my questions, make tweaks of her own. One visit with John Freeman, the translation’s editor, and then back and forth for a few days. The text transformed. And when Linnea left, my translation had transformed as well. For one, the manuscript itself was over two hundred pages shorter. Formatting tweaks accounted for about half of that, but also a night during which Linnea redrafted various sections of the text, an edit that left me breathless. Imagine reshaping your own book four years after it was published. Linnea said a thing like this was possible now, after all that time had passed.

Ædnan was first published in 2018. The title is an old Northern Sámi word that means “the land,” “the ground,” and “the earth” and echoes words for “river” and “mother,” words that all may come from the same root word meaning “great.” It tells the story of two Sámi families—traditionally reindeer keepers who live in the region known as Sápmi that spans the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and some of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. It begins in the early twentieth century, when hitherto open borders were closed to the Sámi and a familiar story of Indigenous fates unfolds: forced relocation; the silencing and erasure of people, culture, and language; the disruption of traditional life paths. It’s a story about the hubris of the settler state, extractive and energy industries for whom it made sense to reroute rivers and divert the migration paths of reindeer.

Long forest rivers
their mouths at the coast
rushing icy through the land

Iron-bearing regions
sparsely populated
wood- and moorland

Inexhaustibly the
currents flowed
from wellsprings
in the fells

and fell roaring
from escarpments

Farther down
the river channels quieted

Chains of lakes
muffled the water

and the stretches of
fishing waters
farmland
overtook

Then the yielding
moorland belt
met the currents

which strained

through the moss

The soft permeable
marshlands that let
the rivers swell into
wide gliding lakes

on their way
to the coast

Where they would scatter
with the waves

dissolve in the sea

But the Swede
was roving

he’d caught
the scent of game

Wild rivers
rushing untouched
in their deep grooves

And strong men
were sent up through
the forests

They were to tame
the river and yoke
the power of the rapids

Even though our kinsman
had long moved with
their herds across
this rolling river valley

Fine winter roads
the river gave them when
it froze to ice

Their songs and
memories could be
cast

from the knickpoint’s
foaming white
wild forms

But the Swede he dammed

And the river was left
muffled and silent
behind the dams’ dim
stony blind walls

Shrouded the currents slid
down among turbine halls
deep below the fells

and flowed up
in places unforeseen

Bit by bit the herds
had to give way

2

You can never step into the same river twice, and yet, each time I open a book, there it is. I meet the same words each time I open Ædnan, but as Ædnan’s reader, I am never the same. I started thinking of the book as a river. In this metaphor, I am the water, and the book the riverbed. But what does that make the translation?

3

I hope Linnea does not mind me talking about encountering her book in terms of wishing. Her story with Ædnan, as its author, is of course something else entirely. Stories from her family and community at large held by the vessel of her novel-in-verse, to make use of an image of vessels, containers, that repeats in the book. But back in 2018, five years after I started working as a translator, there I was keeping a patient eye on the flow of newly published titles in Swedish, as you do as a translator. You sit, waiting, ready to spring into action when something catches your eye. I got lucky early on and developed a reputation as a translator who was a good match for the kinds of books I also happened to like to read: feminist stories, dark tales, voices that don’t come from a majority perspective, formal experimentation. All the while, I was wishing for a novel about a history I’d heard too little about and that I too knew little of.

But you know how it goes with wishes. I expected prose. When the book arrived it was 760 pages of minimalist poetry with no punctuation bar a handful of colons, the stanzas stitched together with dashes as in Emily Dickinson’s work. A doorstopper, but more white space than text. The white space made me think of landscape, tundra and snow, the white space held space for silence of varying kinds, held space for new voices to ring out.

As a translator of Swedish, I find myself translating silence often. The Swedish language has a stunning capacity for silence. There seems to be a trust or an understanding between writer (plus the publisher) and reader about a certain freedom in the text. Pauses, inferences, and space left in between the lines for the reader to draw their own conclusion, to decide what something means for themselves. Moments that in my experience, will sometimes get flagged by English language editors asking for clarity or specificity. Sometimes I could have chosen better phrasing of course, other times, I make a case for ambiguity, silence, and openness, even if it is more ambiguous, silent, or open than an English-speaking reader might be used to, might tolerate. If I do my work well, it should hold.

Ædnan was similar but different. It had a different effect on me. I started reading. The brevity of the lines, the spare language, slowed my reading right down to the book’s pace, not mine. The line breaks and arrangement of the stanzas set the terms. This must be true of all literature to an extent, but I was aware that I was reading this book on its terms, not mine. Perhaps part of the magic of the book is in setting out these terms so explicitly through its form.

4

The reader who is a translator looking for a project is a kind of fisherman. This reader is an optimist who wants to fall in love . . . and likely a serial monogamist. This reader, when they begin to think of the book crossing into a new language, is an analyst and a strategist.

I have been opening this book since 2018 and over the years, I have become many different readers.

In this time one reader I became is a mother, newly sensitized to the idea of generation.

One reader I become, a reader I knew before, is mouth and lungs. Deep inside the text, I am at my desk puffing and grunting, tapping my tongue, trying out breath. I breathe the text, breathe the breath the author wrote when they made these words and punctuated them. I make wet sounds with my mouth, stutter and repeat to get their breath into English. One, two. Bubble out, breathe is how I learned to swim. Each time I say those words I’m a kid in the pool, my once-blond hair chlorine green. I say Linnea’s words again and again. I swim.

One reader I become is dead-eyed, they’ve hit their limit, they’re blind to the text. They need a nap, a snack, a glass of water. The body needs its breaks.

One of the most useful life lessons I’ve learned was from a horse-rider watching her horse charge around a corral. She needs a body break before we head back out on the trail, the rider said. Then I can get back into the saddle.

I have often written and translated as though I barely have a body. As if I were only eyes, brain, fingers and wrists, and wrists only when they ached. The only ache I couldn’t work through was wrist ache. A shoulder or hip ache could be ignored if I was deep enough inside the text. The reader has a body, the translator has a body. I try to remember that when I start to get dead-eyed.

“I take breaks now.”

Where have I read that before? Have I written that before, or translated that before?

I think it’s in one of Karolina Ramqvist’s books, the latest in English. The Bear Woman is an intimate exploration of the conditions of writing. On taking breaks. Forgetting. Getting things wrong. Time. Aging. Leaving things open.

I come to think of her essay which explores the difference between the writer at work (alone at her desk writing) and the writer who is called upon to make public appearances and talk about her work. Ramqvist writes: “An author appearance is a meeting between the author and the readers who share time and a space . . . and in this way it differs from our usual meeting, the one in which the reader sits alone with the text and completes it by reading.”

This thought resonates with me both as a writer and a translator. But what does completion mean? In writing and translation, there’s a stage I get to when I’m just pushing words around, rearranging the furniture. I’m working on the text in a way that seems to neither degrade nor improve it. When I get to this point, I declare my work to be done, and I let the text go. As a result, I don’t think of a piece as finished. Rather, I think of my work as ready to be read.

I’ll add to this something from Joan Didion I think about a lot, a sort of warning that what a writer puts down on the page, even if it’s later deleted, will stay a part of the book forever in the writer’s (and yes, I think translator’s) mind. So, a “complete text” moves backward in time to its generation and creation, and into an unspecified future when it is read and resonates in a reader. The riverbed holds, the water fills. The reading experience might spark further reflection, further reading, might inspire action IRL. Or the act of reading itself might be enough for the reader.

Reading has other conditions for a translator. The translator can simply read and then translate the words, but how to contend with what the text is hiding or holding—the mechanisms that give rise to certain sparks in the reader? When I read for such things, I’m calculating, but not mathematical. Metaphysical. This is a state of play, a scattering, a gathering. If I can, I will ask the author a question such as: if your book were a type of fabric, what fabric would it be? I asked this of Johanne Lykke Holm when translating her Strega, published in November 2022. Polyester, she said, and polyester helped me better understand how to skew my word choices and turns of phrase. That is to say, descriptions of sweets eaten at a banquet should turn to fur on the teeth, should make the reader burn with thirst. Polyester became a guiding light when other readers—the book’s editors—made their queries.

In the 2020 Sebald Lecture, David Bellos talks about, in summary, how it is not enough to know the source language to translate a book. You have to know what the text is about and bring that along in the translation.

I knew to translate Ædnan, I’d need more time to understand what the text was about and to root myself in another world view. As Axelsson writes in a section that takes place during the land rights trial:

They’ll have to
excuse us
if we disrupt their
dreams

they’ll have to
forgive us

But the era
of progress
and the world’s
conscience

does not contain
the full
history of their land

Our land

of course is one
they’ve never
even seen

Do they even know
how we have been
removed between
four nations

Even though our land

this ground right
here that we named
long ago

Has always stretched
right across northern
Scandinavia and into the
Kola Peninsula

So they’ll have to
forgive us

if we turn
their maps on them

Isn’t it about time
that their children
also learn to hear
the voices

of our shared
history

You Nordic children
who have gone forth
so lightly

As if you were
entirely without power
without a past

Those who have
gone before you
apparently
forgot

to pack your baggage

The first time I was asked a question about Sweden’s colonial history, in 2019, I’d stammered through an answer. I felt that I wasn’t the person to speak to this, but there I was: the translator on the stage, speaking about Linnea Axelsson’s work in front of an audience. Colonialism? I said like a question when talking about the content of the book. I knew, but I didn’t know. Most of all, I was unsure of which words to use. How is this subject discussed by the people who know best? Which turns of phrase communicate the dynamics best? The indigenous writer on stage with me, Taqralik Partridge, she said: Yes, we certainly call it colonialism. It was then that I understood that to translate Ædnan, I’d have to actively become a different kind of reader. I’d need time to read other things, to engage in certain kinds of conversations with myself and others, about reading and translation practices, I needed to spend time listening. I needed time. So I applied to the Princeton residency.

5

The reader completes the text, even the dead-eyed one who misses every joke because they forgot to eat and have been at it too long. That’s a reading too. Could it make for a good translation?

If the translator is among a book’s closest readers, perhaps its most experienced exegete, and a translation is a reading, could a translation be called a completed text? A book is then also a gesture caught in amber. A book is what the writer was able to do at the time of writing, shaped by every condition of the days in which they worked. And so too is a translation, one reading of a book caught in amber. To be set in motion again by another reader.

6

The longer I translate, the more I want to push the boundaries of English, the boundaries of the norms of “good writing,” a “good book,” and “a good story.” I want to offer up new ways of reading. I want for you, as I want for myself, to be increasingly aware of what I as a reader am bringing to a text, my expectations, and how those intuitions and expectations inform and color my reading.

A book as an object seems so absolute, so fixed, hallowed and concrete. I’ve come to think of this as a sort of intrusive thought. I acknowledge it, and hope the thought will leave me alone. I prefer to think of a text as a transmission and a book as something that pulps in water.

The idea of the hallowed book has its origin in my early education and perhaps in my early years as a reader, in awe of books and what they hold. Perhaps also in my writing ambitions: how does a person write a book good enough for it to be published? For a long time, these questions ran alongside ideas of “perfection.” But nothing is perfect. And the more I think about literature, the less I need it to meet any sort of ideal or expectation. I’m most interested in how a book will spring to life inside a reader, how they will carry it with them and pass it on. The life the book lives without me.

This seems like a fine line to walk, editorially speaking. In my writing and translation practice so far, I am concerned with holding the reader, creating conditions on the page that allow them to be immersed in the book, not drawn out of it (unless that is the intention). Because readers are also active users of language and storytellers themselves in their everyday lives—all day every day, all we do is tell each other stories, right?—readers can be finicky and nit-picky, easily lost. An unlikeable character can be a deal breaker. A word choice deemed poor by the reader can become the focus of a review. A reader might dismiss the book because a hometown detail is rendered in a way that feels inauthentic. A historical inaccuracy can call into question the very foundations of a story.

One writer I translate, Balsam Karam, refuses specificity because she doesn’t want to give the reader an excuse not to take her work seriously because they’ve been to that city or know people from a certain place and her rendering does not align with their personal body of knowledge.

I suppose I am also trying to find a way of expressing the complex of thoughts and emotions I have about the conditions of my writing and translation practice. I only have so much time. I am only human. A book is a human artifact. And then there is my relationship to language. I know how seriously I take language and grammar—this carefully calibrated interface. I also know how flawed my own language is, the looseness I cultivate as a result of my translation work: because I am constantly trying to figure out how far I can push it.

I imagine, perhaps foolishly, that a general audience is more forgiving of paint and painting than words and writing. Paint, we understand, is liquid before it dries.

7

A book will teach you how to read it, if you let it. I wonder what the literary landscape would look like if this were our starting point as readers.

One example of this might be the “decolonial fan-zine” called Sápmi 2.0: Subaltern No More that I found while reading around Ædnan. It’s part of a project launched by Johan Sandberg McGuinne, a Swedish South Sámi and Scottish Gaelic teacher, translator, and academic. It ran from 2014 to 2016 with the aim of encouraging more speaking and writing of Sámi, by and for the Sámi people written. The zine contains contributions in various Sámi languages, English, and Swedish. The editors of the zine note that they stayed away from “traditional proofreading in favor of love and respect for the people who have chosen to write down their thoughts, as a way to empower our communities. In opting to stay away from red pens and instead celebrate those who make sure that the number of writers of our languages grows, we have added our support to a belief in languages as a vehicle of communication, rather than as a rigid set of orthographic rules.”

This reminded me that some of the collaborative moments I loved most were when Linnea said No.

No to a query about adding in commas or italics to clarify lists and speech.

No as part of the call and response game we played in our effort to reduce the page count.

Can these two lines on their own page be moved to the page before so we can get from 552 to 551 pages?

No.

No. Do not crowd the page. No, do not remove that breath. No, in this moment the act of turning the page is essential to the text. The act of turning pages is so essential to Ædnan that, Linnea shared, even the e-book was designed in a way that gave the reader the sense of turning physical pages.

As Linnea and I negotiated space in her book, we found the edges of the practical demands of the translation. We had to make sure that in a text as spare as this, there was enough context. We operated on the assumption that to the English-speaking reader this culture and history will likely be new. Much of this work came down to finding the exact right nuance of single words, rather than adding words.

When you’re looking at two to four words on a line, words and their meanings are weighted differently. I tried not to introduce new tones of resonance to the lines, to which accidental word play and innuendo seemed to fasten. There I was, vigilant, polishing. We made decisions about when to pin a meaning down with a word that encloses or leave it open with a word that expands. I calibrated my sense of how open the text needed to be in translation. Some passages seemed to open outward and invite freer translation. They’d build to a crucial point, where the demands of translation shifted: lines, a line, a word that had to be translated in a particular way.

As we did the work of cutting the text down, I thought of the writer Helena Granström, whose work of eco-reportage and criticism Det som en gång var (What Once Was) argues that the key to saving the planet lies in a fundamental shift in how modern industrialized capitalist societies relate to nature. She writes that to them, nature is not a subject, not seen as alive. Nature is objectified and commodified. In this industrial world: “The forest’s value is not the forest itself, but its function as raw material, as a container of biodiversity or as a place for human recreation.” [my translation]

That’s one kind of reader, so to speak.

Granström then points to a different way of seeing, thinking, and reading: “I want to be clear: the argument for not driving the wolf to extinction is the wolf.”

A book will teach you how to read it, if you let it.

We heard
heartbeats in the ground

Faint
beneath the inherited
migration paths

our son Aslat and I

Aslat would follow
the future’s ground

It had not yet been
born into the world:

It would come
from the lives of our does

8

At one event hosted at Princeton in the week that Linnea was visiting, she responded to a question about writing Ædnan in Swedish. We had been talking about how language can be a home, in particular for those who have parted from a place called home. Linnea explained that language is not a home, per se, but you can make a home in language by how you use it. She explained how Sámi languages move along the rivers, those arteries along which also the people flow.

At a different event that week with Ol Johan Gaup, who alongside Kristina Utsi translated a stage adaptation of Ædnan into Northern Sámi (the Sámi Linnea speaks and sometimes writes in), Gaup talked to us about language. Yes, there may be hundreds of words for snow, but that’s not the angle to look at it from. He said: We have the words we have for the landscape because the conditions of our existence mean that we need to be able to specify where something is. Exactly where the stray reindeer is on the snowy tundra. He spoke of a mountain called something like Death Mountain in his Northern Sámi. But the name the Swedes gave it was different. It does not carry with it a warning. Death Mountain describes the mountain, its history in the community of people who engage with it. When we lose language, Gaup said, we lose a map of the landscape.

Later Professor Sarah Rivett, before a visit to her Native American Literature course, introduces me to the work of Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Maskoke language revitalizer, scholar, and musician. After working with language revitalization in various settings, he drew the conclusion that “In order to see a real reversal of language loss, we have to altogether change the way we live.” For him this translated into growing new fluent Maskoke speakers. How? “We would have to recreate the society in which our language once historically functioned best, which was, unsurprisingly, a society premised on intimate relations with the natural world.” That recreation is Ekvn-Yefolecv, a village covering over a thousand acres in what is commonly/colonially called Alabama. The village’s name is a double entendre meaning “returning to the earth” and “returning to our homelands.” There Indigenous Maskoke people, after having been forcibly removed, have returned for the first time in 180 years in order to practice linguistic, cultural, and ecological sustainability. In the village, Maskoke people could live every day as Indigenous people, not just on weekends or at ceremony. If one loses language, Briggs-Cloud reasoned, one loses traditional lifeways. And so in order to keep the language alive, the lifeways must also be lived.

I think about what my American English holds. Its metaphors from the war machine, from neoliberalism. What language makes of me, what I try and make of it.

9

I bring the text into the world, the world brings the text to me.

There is a point I get to in my translation practice when the world seems to speak the text, like when I am writing and everything around me conspires to feed into my work. The article I need to read appears, I overhear a snippet of conversation that answers a question.

I become this reader too: consumed, obsessive, receptive to signs, the reader sitting in the web of the text, feeling outside impulses quiver down the strands. I live with the text.

In Ædnan, I translate a dead reindeer on the road. Each day for a week, I see roadkill. A doe outside of Hopewell, a raccoon on Valley Road. A bird on the way to my toddler’s school, a squirrel on University Place.

I walk with my toddler to school. He likes to stop from time to time. Sit. Watch the world go by. I think of Ædnan:

I stretch out
on the grass with
my backpack on

to recover
a bit

It’s not far
to the creek now

The cold one by the
old reindeer herder cairn

where Papa and
I would get
into such long talks

My legs quake

when I lean
over to scoop
up water

And can’t I just
hear Papa saying:

If you stop
for a drink
at every stream

you’ll never get
to where you’re going

10

I get overexcited when I talk to a relative about a passage from Ædnan. We’re really connecting. She’s engaged and interested, curious. I’m flattered and excited to share this work that I do in silence (mostly) and mostly alone. We’re having fun going between my Swedish, our German, our English. Finding parallels and impossibilities. I’m working on this bit:

The sea rises

remixes worlds
weaves in souls

Oh how I had
burned

my arms in flames

that damn mop
was in our way in the closet

Oh how I had
hungered
for him

His name was Rolf

he came from a village
near Boden

Down there he said
I dammed over my
own childhood home

The mop in the Swedish is “sopen.” Sopen: in the word hides the word for trash, for the piece of bread you use to sop up the last of a bowl of soup, of a mop. Impossible, probably, I say, to find a word in English that holds all of those echoes. Sometimes you just have to let go, deal with what cannot be. But I see in my relative’s eyes a spark that I want to do justice. I come up with a solution. I feel: pleased?

I run it by Linnea, eager to discuss the echoes. No, she says. I simply mean mop. I feel silly. But this kind of thing happens all the time. I run away with my reading, and then I have to rein myself back in. This is the line between reading and translating. Grant me the sense to know when I am getting carried away. Grant me the discipline to rein myself in. Grant me the intuition and wisdom to know the difference between getting carried away and giving myself to the text.

At the Christmas party
the boss asks the women
to dance by saying:

May I have this dance
even though you’ve got
such ugly breasts

I just smiled
when he joked
with me

glided along in the dance
unable to act and
at a loss

But it did not roll
right off me

Is that really all there is to it, I ask Linnea, that awkward, half-baked, dim-witted insult masquerading as a joke? So casual, clumsy, and cruel.

Yes, Linnea says.

I think of Johanne Lykke Holm telling me while I was translating Strega: Let what’s ugly be ugly, so that what’s beautiful can shine.

11

Sometimes I translate so proud of what I do, so careful with each word, and . . . it doesn’t work. Sometimes I translate and I’m not sure if it’s working . . . and the reader response to my text exceeds expectations. I know it is my job to get the latter result, or at least to avoid the former, but let this be a space where I can tell you that I can’t tell you which way it will go. There are so many readings at play in the judgment of a translation’s quality, and so many expectations that are only sometimes articulated.

I also have a hard time telling how a translation will be received because, I think, I need time to become a different reader before I can be my own best judge, before my eyes are fresh again. I have tricks for shortcutting the process, but time, time is best. But so often we translators do not have time. I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly being asked to translate at speed.

Time is a tool of translation, but so is another reader. My best work comes when I have a chance to get a read of the author and then from working with an editor (a pair of outside eyes), because we decide together for whom the book is being translated and visions align. Even in an abstract sense, this is important. If I can talk to the editor about what I’m reading, what I’m finding in the text, their expectations of the text, of “an edit” and, yes, the kind of editorial work we may or may never do together, I understand more about what the best translation of the text we’re working on can be. I am learning that to ask for and so create the conditions for doing the best possible work.

The author’s eye, the editor’s eye, I keep them in mind as I sit down at my desk and open the book and follow it for the first time, the second time, the third, follow it word by word, thinking of the reader, and letting myself go.


© 2023 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

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