While the timing of its English publication is embarrassingly relevant, Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! offers welcomed relief: an existential crisis overcast by mundanity. The novel tells the story of Ellinor, a 35-year-old publicist, who is tasked with managing communications for Postkom, the Norwegian Post and Communications Union—a client she knows virtually nothing about. As she learns about the implications of an EU directive that threatens the postal service and its workers, Ellinor searches for meaning in her own life—why doesn’t she feel more? Enough? Happy? Why does she start writing in diaries, only to abandon them so quickly?
The translation itself is clean, crisp; Charlotte Barslund delivers each sentence with a cosmic closeness, looping the reader’s own thoughts back to them with deeper precision. After setting Long Live the Post Horn! back on my shelf, I felt I had unfinished business with the text. I immediately sought out Will and Testament (Verso Books, 2019) and A House in Norway (Norvik Press, 2017), the only other English translations available from the author. I began to investigate the person who championed Hjorth’s work and brought these novels to light in English.
Below, I speak with award-winning translator Charlotte Barslund about her process, beginnings, and publishing journey with Vigdis Hjorth.
Hi Charlotte, thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Hello Gauraa, and I’m delighted that you got in touch. Translating novels and plays as I do means spending most of your time working on your own, and I’m always grateful for the chance to talk about my work. I live in Winchester, Hampshire, UK. Winchester is small town one hour by train, south-west of London. It’s a lovely old city with a cathedral and many other interesting and beautiful buildings, and yet you’re never far from the countryside.
How have you been spending your time in quarantine?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have some translation work, but I’ve also had the chance to read some of the books I’ve promised myself to read for ages, and discover what was really hiding on my bookshelves. I’m guilty of buying many more books than I have time to read, and I always promise myself that some day … well, that some day has come. I have been going for more walks and started taking some of the exercise I always promised myself I would. A translator’s life is a very sedentary one. Also, when the London 2020 book fair was cancelled at very short notice, the publishing industry needed time to regroup and review how it would work from now on. Sample translations have become even more important now that foreign rights agents don’t have the chance to meet in person and promote their authors, so I’ve been working on some of those.
You’ve translated a number of works into English including Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Son by Jo Nesbø, The Girl Without Skin and Cold Fear by Mads Peder Nordbo, Resin by Ane Riel. I’m curious about your beginnings: what drew you to Scandinavian literature in the first place?
I was actually born in Denmark, but I’ve lived all of my adult life in the UK. My first degree was in English and Drama, after which I worked in theatre, mainly in London. One day I was asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce a literal of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which made me realize how much I enjoyed translation and how much I missed delving into a piece of text and spending a long time alone with it. I started translating more literals, which was a wonderful opportunity to hone my translation skills, but it also allowed me to look into the engine room of how a play is constructed. I moved on to translating plays for production alongside with all types of translation and some interpreting. As I began working with prose translation, I did an MA in Scandinavian Translation to have my skills assessed by more experienced translators as I had developed mostly on my own. I was also lucky enough to be invited to events organized by Norla (Norwegian Literature Abroad), through which I met British publishers, and that’s how I was commissioned to translate my first novel.
Long Live the Post Horn! is the third book you’ve translated from Vigdis Hjorth, preceded by Will and Testament, and House of Norway. What has your publishing journey been like with Vigdis? What initially pulled you to her work?
Vigdis’ Norwegian publishers asked me to translate one of her short stories some years ago, and I immediately took to her style and themes. Her characters are articulate and educated and a live in a well-run, affluent part of the world, but they are never blind to inequality and injustice, and they are torn between the people they want to be and the people they are. They experience the constant pull and push of working out what exactly you can take responsibility for and what is outside your control. I was attracted to Vigdis’ outward looking perspective at a time when many Norwegian writers were focusing on identity and auto-fiction. I wanted to see her novels published in English and worked with the UK publisher Norvik to see how that could be achieved. We considered several of Vigdis’ novels before deciding on A House in Norway as being the best of her books to introduce her to an English readership. Once I started work on A House in Norway and made contact with Vigdis, I found her very supportive. Often by the time a novel gets to be translated, the author is busy working on another book, and as the translator you have to drag them back to something they might mentally already have shelved. I always feel a little guilty for distracting authors when they are trying to focus on their latest book, and I make sure that I know the book I’m translating inside out before I approach an author with queries. In my experience, authors are always willing to help – as long as you don’t waste their time. So do your homework. Once A House in Norway was published, Vigdis came to London and we spent a week together promoting it. It was an opportunity for me to get to know Vigdis better and build on the trust we had established by email. We had conversations about the book, of course, but also many other areas of our lives. We discovered that we work in similar ways, spending much time alone with our work and our thoughts. To some people how we live and work can seem indulgent with oceans of free time, but the reality is that in order to live a life of apparent freedom, you need to be organized and take complete responsibility for yourself. I’m guessing in 2020 where many people have been forced to work from home, they have discovered just that. If it suits your character, then that’s great, but if it doesn’t, I imagine it must be a struggle.
Long Live the Post Horn! has this nearly circular rhythm; the focus on sound and tempo is almost palpable, though it still reads seamlessly in English. As a translator, there’s an expectation to make the work sound like the original—how do you go about preserving the author’s voice, her speed, while bringing your own perspective to it?
By the time I came to do Long Live the Post Horn!, I had translated quite a few of Vigdis’ books and felt I knew her thinking and her techniques well. Vigdis usually has a Norwegian everywoman as her central character, and some readers see this person as a thinly disguised version of the author herself. I see it as a vehicle through which Vigdis explores a variety of themes, and while she might explore one person’s microcosm, it’s always the gateway to a bigger debate. I’m lucky that I’m translating Vigdis into a language and culture with many similarities to Norway, where people have privileges and choices and agonize over their responsibility towards themselves and to others. I think that Vigdis is a writer with universal appeal because of her ability to articulate the dilemmas faced by many people all over the world today.
In terms of the process itself, do you approach the work line by line? Or, do you find yourself working on fragments—like the emails in Long Live the Post Horn! or the different timelines in Will and Testament?
I do a first draft of the whole novel, which I then start to edit. During the first draft, I start to get a sense of how I need to line up my domino pieces so the whole story falls neatly into place at the end. It’s a little bit like an archaeologist unearthing a site. Gradually the central themes of the book become clear and I develop a sense of the direction of travel and of the characters’ emotional state at various points in the novel. It’s a very intuitive process. Once I have clarified that in my mind, many of the word choices become obvious and I know that I’ve succeeded in conveying Vigdis’ voice.
Do you often fall down rabbit holes in search of the right translation of a reference? What does that task look like in real-time?
I make a list of all references and set aside a day or two for research. References are actually a welcome break, there is usually an answer, and all I have to do is find it. The things that take me the longest are ambiguities, and I will always check with the writer if an ambiguity is intentional. On occasions I’ve discovered the writer had no idea the ambiguity was there!
Could you give us an example of such an ambiguity?
Two working parents are discussing care options for their young son. The boy has recently been in hospital for surgery to repair a cleft palate. The mother wants to quit work and look after him at home until he is old enough to go to school:
[mother]: ‘I don’t want to let him go ever again, Finn. I don’t think he should go to nursery at all.’
[father]: ‘But we’re talking three or four years, Jyt, I really don’t think we can do that.’
I wondered what the father meant. Was he concerned that the boy would miss out on nursery education and making friends? In Denmark most children go to nursery where they learn social skills and how to be a part of a group; nursery education is subsidised and thus affordable and it’s a way of preparing children for life in a social democracy. Or did he think the family couldn’t manage without his wife’s income, or was it something completely different.
When I checked with the author, he said that the father’s concerns were purely financial and had never thought the remark could mean anything else. That the boy’s best interests never crossed the father’s mind and this incident was just of many in the book demonstrating the father’s selfishness. I had a hunch that this was the case, but I needed to be sure. So the translated line became:
[father]: ‘But we’re talking three or four years, Jyt, I really don’t think we can afford that.’
How do you know when a line is working, or not working?
I often read out the translation to myself. I think it’s a habit I acquired from translating plays. I imagine how an actor might say it. When I’m editing my own work, I have a sense of “bumps” in the text, places where the text doesn’t flow even though the translation is technically correct. It tells me that I haven’t nailed the translation yet and further editing and thinking is needed. The translation is ready when I can read my own work and have no sense of any “bumps” being left in the text.
In addition to translating literary fiction, you also translate Scandinavian plays and Arctic crime novels. Do you find yourself having to switch modes between these works? How do these processes differ for you?
Drama is my first love and creating characters through dialogue and the translation of dialogue in general has always been something I’ve enjoyed enormously. Once I started translating prose, it seemed quite a luxury to have so much more text to work with. And from crime novels I have learned the value of checking facts, timelines and plotlines. So I’m a compulsive checker of everything that can be checked.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to translating—a specific time, or day, or perhaps, a particular space where you prefer to sit down and write?
My brain works best during the day. I can work well in the evening – or so I think until it’s time to go to bed only to discover that my brain is still busy solving translation issues and has no intention of going to sleep. I’ve learned that I get deeply immersed in my work and I actually need a few hours of downtime afterwards for my brain to relax.
When I start a book, I work out how many pages I need to translate per day in order to complete a first draft and still have plenty of time to edit my own work. I do this firstly to create structure as the deadline is often six months away, and secondly to give myself enough time to set the translation aside for two or three weeks after every draft. It can be hard to critique your own work and a brain break helps me do that. I also change the margins on the displayed document so my eyes see the words in different places. It might sound odd, but I find it really helps trick my brain into thinking it’s reading something new. If I don’t have breaks in between drafts, I end up seeing what I want to see and I don’t give myself time to wait for the right solutions to pop into my mind, something they often do once I stop chasing them.
What are you working on at the moment?
19th-century short stories by the Danish writer and journalist Herman Bang. Bang had an acute eye for spotting and describing the stifled lives of marginalized people. He writes with insight and compassion about individuals who are up against a world that doesn’t seem to have any space for them. And I would love to translate Vigdis’ next novel, of course!
Lastly, what are some of your favorite works in translation?
They are often plays or operas because I love seeing how the combined efforts of the translator, director, designer, cast etc. have interpreted a translated play or libretto. When it comes to novels, I really enjoyed Edith Grossman’s translation of Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo and Anne Born’s translation of Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.
Long Live the Post Horn! is published by Verso Books, and available wherever books are sold.