On Translating Silence: A Conversation with Kari Dickson

Kari Dickson is a literary translator from Norwegian. Her work includes crime fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, theatre and non-fiction. She is also an occasional tutor in Norwegian language, literature and translation at the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with BCLT and the Writers’ Centre Norwich.


Joelle Millman: Structurally, the book skips along in separate, shorter chapters, bits that keep the prose flowing and the reader reading. In moments of high intensity, the prose turns to ellipses, leaving the reader space to come up with her own understanding and depths.  How do these structural in-between spaces contribute to the narrative—and do you think they accomplish the same goal in translation as they do in the source language?

Kari Dickson: Gosh, I certainly hope so, as that is one of the extraordinary things about the book, that as the reader, you are allowed to explore Fanny’s universe and to feel its resonance in your own life.

Personally, I think ellipses work really well with the experience of grief—that daily life carries on relentlessly, and you dip in and out of the flow. And, of course, it works perfectly when Fanny slides in and out of consciousness in the church. The ellipses that is perhaps more startling is the “chapter” But One of the Calendar Windows was Empty, where we are left entirely to our devices and imagination.

I’m not sure that I can describe the mechanics, but Fanny really got under my skin, and her experience and my experience of the book lives on in me. It’s as if the timelessness and her outsideness opened a new space. I remember once hearing a fascinating talk about translating silence. It’s about finding words that prepare, suggest and shape, if that makes sense—something I grapple with all the time, as pauses and spaces are often as important as words, if not more so. 

JM: The book has a lot of fairy and folk influence, from the fantasy forest to the actual inclusion of folk tales in the book. How did these folk tales translate in English? Did you find the fairy-tale element local or universal? How did they guide the translation process? What imaginary space did they set up for you as translator?

KD: I remember my surprise, when I first read the book, at the image of the deer coming sailing out of the upstairs window—and yet it is a very real event. The landscape of Fanny’s mind at the start, while she is still very much in the grieving process, is dreamlike. Quite understandably she seems to move through her life in a kind of trance, she observes her surroundings in apparent silence, and reality and dream bleed into each other. There is a timelessness about her experience. Then as her relationship with Karen and Alm develops, she becomes more grounded.

Critical to a folktale is the journey and trials that the protagonist has to go through to redress a lack of something, often with the help of magical aids. As the reader, we travel with Fanny through her experience of grief, which is of course local, but grief is something we all share, regardless of how it manifests, and so it is universal, and we can access it because of the timelessness (and the space given for that experience—see above).

The actual folktale that is retold, The Honest Penny, is included in Asbjørnsen & Moe’s collection of classic Norwegian folktales, but it also appears in Russian and East Slavic collections. It reminded me, too, of the Chinese version of hell where the chopsticks are too long for anyone to feed themselves, so the solution is to feed each other. “I do not believe it’s every man for himself.” And the fact that here, Christiansen has replaced the usual young lad with a young girl, relates it directly back to Fanny.

An English translation of the folktale exists, but I chose to use my own translation, in the same way that I believe the author adapted the story to his needs. 

JM: A “notes” section at the end of the book lists the writer’s influences. Did you, as translator, dive into those references? If not, why not? If so, why—and how did they influence your translation?

KD: No, I admit I didn’t—with the exception of the folktales of Asbjørnsen & Moe, which I have known since childhood. To be honest, it was largely a matter of time, and I felt that the context was clear enough in the book, so there was no need. It would have been more out of interest, and I may well still follow them up. I would particularly like to read the book about Mouchette, but for my own pleasure more than anything else. 

JM: All of Fanny’s relationships in this book feature an ever-present loneliness and a reliability in flux, with Fanny holding the worlds of life and death together. How did this flux state influence your understanding and translation of the book—particularly as the person that held the two languages together?

KD: This is quite difficult to answer, as I have always lived with two languages, and don’t know anything else. When people ask where I feel I belong, I often answer in transit, somewhere between one and the other over the North Sea. So I guess the state of flux, and never entirely fitting in anywhere, is something I recognize. There is a degree of loneliness to that, but it also makes you self-reliant in a way, and a survivor. And Fanny is a survivor. She’s lost the two people who grounded her, and is re-finding her feet. Which reminds me of a saying by Kirkegaard, which I try to live by: “To dare is to lose your footing for a short while, not to dare is to lose yourself.”

Death and grief are also very personal experiences, and different every time, so no matter how prepared you might be, you still lose your footing. There is a loneliness to that, especially when you don’t fulfill other people’s expectations.

Karen, on the other hand, is in a process of creating and very much alive, and so able to ground Fanny again. Practical, hands-on, because life is about sharing, really. And though Alm tries to do this, he is caught up with death as well.

Not sure that I really answered the question, but it’s a response.

JM: The forest, as a purgatorial imaginary space, is a large image and escape for Fanny and readers of this book. Describe the forest as you understood it, and what it was like to write from that space. How did the forest feel to you? 

KD: There are two forests really and they are very different. The first I can visualize very clearly, but I see it as a reflection in the train window: small gnarled birch trees, scrub, juniper, bracken, the sort of woods or forest you might see alongside a Norwegian trainline. Whether it’s real or not is unclear, which is perhaps why I always visualize it as a reflection. It could be something that has always been there, but because of Fanny’s heightened sensitivity, she sees it (differently) for the first time. But the discovery of that forest foreshadows the second, darker forest. This second forest feels very much like the decisive test in a folktale—will she live or won’t she? She is so far into death that it almost feels comforting, and the interruption of the hospital is an irritation. But then she makes her choice, and realizes what she has to do. I really enjoyed working with the transition and tension between dream and reality here, the forest and the hospital. Looking back, I think I was outside the space when I was translating the text, but I can slip in and out of it now.

JM: What is your translation process? Do you collaborate with the writer of the source text? How does your understanding and encounter with the language/story for you, as a translator, change throughout the process? 

KD: I read the book at least once, sometimes a couple of times or more, before I start translating, and then do a quick first draft. The second draft is always the hardest and most painful/painstaking, when I go through word for word to make sure nothing has dropped out, and resolving any issue I’ve had with the source text on the initial draft. And I always manage to underestimate how long the second draft will take! Then I read through the translation as a text in its own right, to feel the rhythm, flow and get a sense of the readability, overall style, coherence—and to pick up on inconsistencies, typos, and the like. Sometimes, I may even read through it four or five times, if necessary.

Contact with the author varies enormously. I always ask the publisher and agent if I can contact the author directly. A couple have very graciously declined to have any contact whatsoever; they are pleased and grateful that the book is being translated, but would rather not be involved, for different reasons. But generally, the authors are happy to be in contact and answer questions. And whenever possible, it is great to meet them in person. Clearly, the working relationship develops when there is the opportunity to work together on more than one book, and some authors have become good friends. There is something peculiarly intimate about inhabiting another person’s words. 

JM: Was there anything—diction, topoi, resonance, syntax—that you felt was specifically lost in translation?

KD: Blimey—I hope not!

JM: The chapter titles are one of the reading pleasures of this book. How did the title headings guide your translation process? 

KD: I love the chapter titles too; personal favourites are Fanny Daydreams at Night and Fortunate Circumstance with Death as a Consequence. The short story is one of my favourite genres, and I tended to think of each chapter as a short (mini, in some cases) story. 

JM: In the story, Fanny’s fantasy figures of salvation are exalted, crucified, killed, and imaginary. Her loneliness is accompanied by physical objects, feel-good comforts, and, too, her self. How was it to enter this character’s space and translate her expression?

KD: Because Fanny’s experience is relayed to us by a narrator, in the third person, my experience was that I inhabited the space alongside her—I could empathize and understand, but I have no idea of her actual voice or form of expression, as there is no direct speech in the book. Fanny remains strangely mute. And I think that is what makes reading the book such a deeply personal experience.

JM: This book, among other things, thinks deeply about death. To encounter death and write about it can be deeply personal: what was the experience of encountering an other’s ideas on the subject, and holding the responsibility for sending it through to the other side?

KD: Having experienced a few deaths, I realize it is impossible to know how you or others might react, and so you have to be completely open. And to be honest, I recognized a lot of Fanny’s response. That being said, because it is not the author’s direct personal experience, the responsibility of translation did not feel any more onerous than usual, but there was a very real emotional resonance to draw on.

JM: Stylistically, does the English translation match the source-text? How do you choose your words? For example, on page 160, Fanny asks her mother what her name means and is “told: Ardent, Ardent.” How was this adjective chosen—or was it the same? Why is it capitalized, and is that a function on the translation? On a textual level, what does the idea of faithfulness mean to you as a translator- and how much did you follow those ideas for this project?

KD: Oops, this is actually a misreading, which perhaps means that the translation was not so successful here! It is Ardant, not ardent, and capitalized because she is named after the actress Fanny Ardant. To be fair, it took me a while and a Google search to discover that too.

I generally try to keep as close as possible to the original, unless it obstructs comprehension or seriously interferes with the flow and readability (some of my favourite challenges are compound nouns and long, often run-on, sentences). And I hope that the English translation matches the source text in both meaning and as far as possible style—that is always my intention.


Joelle Milman

Joelle Milman is a writer, translator, and editor currently based in Jerusalem.

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