The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews translator Kerri A. Pierce. Kerri translates from many languages. Her translation of Justine, an unsettling Danish novel by Iben Mondrup, is a recent release from Open Letter Books.
Andrea Gregovich: I would call the style and flow of this novel impressionistic. The narrator Justine is an artist, and the narrative unfolds more like art than fiction, each chapter a pastiche of smaller sections that kind of throw paint at the story, one might say. Scenes, dialogue, imagery, and Justine’s internal voices all hit the page in this book, which is only somewhat chronological. What was it like to translate a book with such a patchwork narrative? Did you ever lose your bearings?
Kerri A. Pierce: Translating a book with, as you put it, a patchwork narrative certainly presents its challenges. I don’t know if any translation happens in a linear way, from beginning to end, but this one certainly didn’t! Some sections I returned to again and again, as I was progressing through the book, making significant changes to the language according to how I had translated later sections. I also had the luxury of being in touch with the author, who was wonderful to work with and very prompt with answering questions.
AG: The book is about the fragmentation of a woman’s life and art after a fire destroys her house and all the art she has prepared for an exhibit, and its unique structure plays a big role in depicting this fragmentation. It’s wild and sometimes disorienting, the experience of reading this book, and the effect is quite original. Can you shed any light on how or why Mondrup wrote the book this way? Do you have any sense of her creative process?
KP: Iben was trained as a visual artist first before she adopted language as her medium, and to me this work especially demonstrates that training. To Iben, language is texture, a material you sculpt. In some ways, Justine is a work of poetic sculpture, if that makes any sense, but one that moves in real time––and challenges our perception of real time. It is also, of course, a meditation on what it is to be a woman, a sexual being, an artist, etc., all themes Iben explores in her other writing. These threads come together in Justine’s wild and disoriented head.
AG: There are also what I can best describe as occasional artful glitches on the sentence level in this novel. Sometimes these glitches involve syntax and commas (“Mom screams the child screams for a mom.”), and at one point there are spaces left in the sentences where words should have been. But they are also these sudden E.E. Cummings-like phrases of words stuck together without spaces, like “we looked out over the green tree crowns becoming black against orangeturnedtoturquoise.” What was Mondrup doing with these artful glitches? Did this stuff translate easily or did it require some invention on your part?
KP: That’s a very good question. Actually, these artful glitches are one of the things that I best loved about translating the novel. I really enjoyed the puzzle of translating sentences that begin one place and end another. The second example you bring up illustrates another of the book’s central themes, which is also reflected stylistically, namely, the way colors run together and the deception that color can play upon our senses.
AG: I’m always interested in the specialized vocabulary we run into as literary translators—jargon and terminology from areas of expertise that push us into unfamiliar realms, where we have to get creative with our research in order to make these terms sound as authentic as they do in the original text. In this book I’m wondering about the art world vocabulary: it’s not exactly heavy with insider jargon, but there is plenty of discussion about both concepts and materials that reads as very true to the way the art world is depicted in English. Is this in fact the authenticity of the author’s art background coming through so clearly, or did you choose words in service of creating the art world style?
KP: As you mentioned, with any book there’s a bit of research involved. I also checked with Iben on several occasions to make sure I had selected the right word. I believe the authentic atmosphere you’re speaking of is definitely the author’s background coming through–-she was a female student in the very world she’s describing. Because the story has so much wildness and motion about it, however, I actually believe that one of Iben’s masterful touches was lending the whole story that air of authenticity without bogging the story down with too much “insider shop talk.”
AG: So, let’s talk about the sex in this novel. It’s certainly not a book for demure readers! Justine’s sex life is raw and daring, and the sex scenes catch you by surprise. Sometimes it even took me a minute to realize an artfully depicted sex scene was in fact a sex scene. These scenes are beautifully written, but they’re also a troubling glimpse into Justine’s private life. I’m wondering if you’ve got any wisdom to share about how to translate sex scenes that aren’t standard erotica. How do you get the tone right, how do you choose the right words, and how do you convey the norms (and the breaking of said norms) of sex in another culture?
KP: Sex is such a central part of Justine’s life and her sex drive seems to come from the same place as her creativity. As such, the poetry of the scenes seemed so much an expression of Justine’s personality, not to mention the general way in which the book was written, that it actually felt quite natural to translate these scenes poetically. (A salacious irony, don’t you think?) You’ve also hit upon something else interesting about this particular book. Iben was actually cast at one point as an erotica author, which seems to me a misreading of what this book is about. Sex certainly plays a large part in Justine’s life, but sex itself becomes a character of sorts, much as one could say nature is a character in other works of art.
AG: The sex in this novel actually becomes part of the larger set of themes in this book, which include the questions of what is art, what role do women play in the male-dominated art world, and how are art and artists perceived by the public. Despite the impressionistic narrative, it’s so full of ideas that I find it difficult to summarize. As an expert on this book (as I contend a translator becomes), how would you describe what this book is “about”?
KP: I would say––the book is about Justine, Justine the moment she makes a very big leap. And the whirlwind of things that happen to her and within her proceed from, and lend impetus to, that leap.
AG: I don’t know very much about Danish. What is poetic about it as a language? How difficult is the grammar? And does it present any unique challenges when translated into English?
KP: To me this is always a difficult question to answer: what makes a language special? Each language, of course, has its own inherent poetry. And yet, when it comes to poetry, I think much has to do with a particular author, her style and voice. Iben’s style in this book was bold and wild and the language was an expression of that. To me Danish does not have a particularly difficult grammar when compared with some of the other Scandinavian languages (Icelandic, Faroese). It might be safe to say the grammar is somewhere between English and German.
AG: You translate from seven (!) languages, which is remarkable range to me, a translator of one language (who could maybe in a pinch do a second language but not with any confidence). What sort of background do you have that has allowed you to become such a versatile translator? What are all these languages, and can you speak them all as well?
KP: My background is in comparative literature, so I have to suppose it felt somewhat natural to me to work in more than one language. When I started translating, though, I had no experience with translation––I’d never taken a class on the subject, not anything. I just jumped in feet first for a translation fellowship with Dalkey Archive Press and proceeded to translate books and short stories from a variety of languages because I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to do this. Indeed, strange as it sounds, I had not even meditated very much upon the role of the translator in a work of literature until I was actually getting my hands dirty, so to speak. I have translated from German, Danish, Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch, and I have a Faroese book coming out later this year (which is another story altogether). I speak German, Danish, and some Spanish.
Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was published in November 2016 by Amazon Crossing.