Elodie Rose Barnes talks to translator Jennifer Russell about translating Amalie Smith’s masterful new novel, Marble, the hybridity and liminality of translation, the brilliance of Danish sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, new projects with writer Ursula Scavenius and more.
How did you come to translate Marble?
The story goes back quite a few years! I’d just finished a Masters and had been working with commercial translation alongside my studies. But I hadn’t considered translation as a career path – until it dawned on me that this could be a way of working with literature. I started to look into what and who I could translate. I’d read Marble in Danish back when it first came out in 2014 and loved it. It seemed to dwell in between genres and disciplines, but not simply as a combination of several different things; something new seemed to arise from it. My first degree was in art history and English, so this interdisciplinary quality really resonated with me. It hadn’t been translated into English, and Amalie was very generous and open to the idea of me giving it a go. I started working on the first couple of sections and an excerpt was published online, but then I put it aside for a while. It was only last year that Lolli Editions got in contact with me, having seen the sample translation, and it went from there.
It felt very much like a new genre, and I love that about works in translation – they often do explore indefinable spaces and push boundaries. I’m not sure how you would classify Marble!
Amalie is trained as both a visual artist and as a writer, and these practices are inextricably linked for her. Her work seems to reject classification – it’s more interested in what falls in between and outside categories and disciplines. She describes her works as hybrids, woven pieces made up of lots of different threads, in form as well as content. By gathering distinct materials, they’re brought into dialogue, allowing for linkages and unexpected connections. In Marble, for example, you have the fictional strand about Marble and the real-life correspondence between Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen and her husband, but also parts about sponge-divers, 3D programming, the history and politics of Athens and the Acropolis. It all speaks together; it’s all somehow connected. It doesn’t seek towards a total unity, though. It embraces difference and disjointedness, giving the work a patchwork quality.
It’s made me think of the ways in which translation can be seen as a kind of hybrid form as well. Translations dwell somewhere in between languages, imbuing the target language with qualities of the source language, for example. And like the hybrid, which doesn’t seek total unity or completeness, translations, too, remain incomplete in a way – forever imperfect, unfinished, and therefore open to retranslation.
Absolutely, the in-between has a certain kind of beauty all on its own. I also like the confidence in Marble, in that it remains in those unclassifiable spaces without feeling the need to apologise for it. It is quite fragmentary too – did that make it more of a challenge to translate?
It took me in a lot of different directions! In a way, the book is a record of Amalie’s research process. She seems to work without a predetermined plan, instead letting the material guide her and inform the work – it pulls her in various different directions, and she attentively follows along to see where it takes her. I in turn felt like I was retracing Amalie’s footsteps through this process – following the various strands of her research, learning about sponge-diving and Greek history and 3D printing – but also very literally, looking at the street view of Athens in Google Maps to follow Marble’s route through the Acropolis. Translation is always a kind of exploration or excavation work, but in this case it was especially so!
Anne-Marie Carl-Nielsen sounds like a fascinating character.
She is! I didn’t know much about her before researching her for Marble. She’s relatively well-known in Denmark as an artist in her own right, but outside of Denmark she seems to be better known as the wife of her husband [composer Carl Nielsen]. The writings and letters of hers included in the book are incredible historical records, and they were one of my favourite – and one of the most challenging – parts to translate. So much of the book is written in this rather subdued, observational tone – after all, it’s narrated by a marble sculpture – and in contrast, Anne Marie’s letters are so full of passion and verve. They really bring the woman we see in the black-and-white photos in the appendix to life.
The more I read, the more I found myself looking between text and images, between the book ‘proper’ and the appendix. Usually an appendix feels like exactly that, an addition, but in this case it felt like a vital part of the book.
Absolutely. The images are integral to the text – I imagine Amalie came across these pictures and was fascinated by them, and the book arose out of this fascination. Generally, I also find Amalie’s writing very image-like. She seems to write through a photographic lens: it zooms in on particular details, and while spare, it is immensely rich and evocative. The images permeate the text – in more and less obvious ways. Sometimes they are directly referenced and described, for example Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen’s frieze from 1909, which includes a diver that Marble is intrigued by. Marble’s interest also propels the text – it opens up a new thread in the book, prompting an exploration of historical sponge diving in Greece.
This appendix, which we see most commonly in works of nonfiction, also adds to the hybrid nature of the work, and it testifies to the importance of research in Amalie’s practice. It has this scientific rigour to it, and that also informs her writing, imbuing it with this forensic quality. And vice versa, you could also describe her research as being informed by a kind of poetics that makes it more concerned with forging connections than finding answers.
Do you find there are any particular challenges in translating Danish to English?
I’m bilingual, so the two languages have always co-existed for me, and it’s hard to look at either from an objective perspective. Sometimes I feel that my bilingualism is an impediment – I constantly find myself searching for words, recalling a word in one language but not in the other. But I am fascinated by these blanks: the differences between the two languages, and what one can do that the other can’t. For example, the vocabulary in English is richer, which allows a certain kind of precision, but Danish compensates by allowing for compound words (in a similar way to German). The nuance in Danish therefore arises in a different kind of way. There’s a kind of clarity and spareness to it, although obviously that depends on how you use it. It’s very possible to be florid and verbose in Danish too!
I suppose I appreciate both languages in different ways. For some reason, when I’m writing for myself, I’m drawn to Danish, whereas I work mostly in English. Different languages open up different things in the mind! They allow for different kinds of thinking, they connect things in different ways.
Have you got any translation projects coming up?
I’m currently translating The Dolls by Ursula Scavenius, which will be coming out with Lolli next year. It’s a collection of four short stories which are post-apocalyptic, dark, very surreal, and very different to Marble! Away from literary translation, I’ve been translating some exhibition texts – most recently for an exhibition on witch hunts in Scandinavia at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen – and I’ve also been doing some subtitling. I enjoy the contrast of working with visuals and audio together with text, and there are also the constraints of time and space on screen.
It seems like you’re still very much inhabiting the inter-disciplinary world of Marble and your degrees!
It wasn’t something I had planned at all, but it seems to make perfect sense – as things often do, in retrospect. I find working like that is a self-perpetuating circle. Delving into different disciplines, and inhabiting that hybrid space, encourages more connections and relationships – something leads very naturally into something else that initially may have appeared completely unrelated. It’s exciting to have a real variety of projects, and each one allows you to immerse yourself in a niche of sorts for a while.
Do you have a process that you go through with each translation, or is every piece different? (Obviously excluding subtitles, which I imagine demand their own special process!)
I’m still very much working out what feels best for me, but I think the process that comes most instinctively is to create a bare-bones structure first: a basic translation that comes very quickly, and is very inelegant and very messy. I do that partly to get over the fear of the blank page, but also because usually I’m working towards a deadline and I like to have a draft down, so that I know how much time I have for the more in-depth work. In theory, I could continue tinkering with a translation forever. I also find that I often have to read the whole thing in order to get a proper sense of the voice and style. Sometimes the end of the book can inform the beginning, and it’s often only having gone through the whole piece that I can find a fitting translation for something on the first page. I have met other translators whose process is much slower and more meticulous, and whose first draft is very close to their final draft, but that doesn’t come naturally to me.
I do think about how the text itself informs the process. Perhaps a text that is quicker in pace and more fluid demands a quicker initial translation, whereas a slower or very intricate text might work with a slower approach.
It’s interesting to think about how the text itself might inform the way that you work and the speed that you work. In my own writing, I naturally go straight to the laptop for things like book reviews and essays, especially if I have a deadline, whereas I almost always draft poetry and fiction in a notebook first. That necessarily slows the process down because I can’t write nearly as fast as I can type! It’s a very different way of working; it feels as if my thoughts have more room to breathe. In my latest project – a collection of hybrid essays – I deliberately started in a notebook to see what it would be like, and the process has been completely different.
It’s fascinating to think of the unformed thought, the words on paper, and that process of transmission from one to the other – whether it’s through the keyboard or through the hand. I think so much happens in that passage, and it’s hardly surprising really that the medium affects the outcome. Thought to paper is a whole form of translation on its own! There are so many layers. In a way, all thoughts are translations of impressions or information that we’ve absorbed earlier. Once you open up your understanding of what might constitute a process of translation, it’s practically endless, like looking through a series of mirrors.
This interview was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to thank Jennifer Russell, Denise Rose Hansen and Lolli Editions for allowing us to have this interview.