The Daily

On Translation

Pure Prose

June 9, 2015 | by

Translating Jon Fosse from Norwegian.


From the cover of Aliss at the Fire.

Norwegian is a language that English-language writers and translators seem willing to pick up: James Joyce learned it to read Ibsen; Lydia Davis is learning it to read, and solely by reading, Dag Solstad; and I learned it to read Jon Fosse. It helps that grammar is simple, with few tenses and word endings; the vocabulary is small; the language is one of the deep cores of English, so reading it feels eerily familiar, like a song you half know. After being asked to read Fosse’s novel Melancholy in German, I decided to cotranslate it with a native Norwegian-speaker friend, and I have since translated, on my own, two more of Fosse’s novels—Aliss at the Fire and Morning and Evening—two stories, and a libretto.

Jon Fosse is less well-known in America than some other Norwegian novelists, but revered in Norway—winner of every prize, a leading Nobel contender. I think of the four elder statesmen of Norwegian letters as a bit like the Beatles: Per Petterson is the solid, always dependable Ringo; Dag Solstad is John, the experimentalist, the ideas man; Karl Ove Knausgaard is Paul, the cute one; and Fosse is George, the quiet one, mystical, spiritual, probably the best craftsman of them all. Harrison’s titles—Something (aka Something in the Way She Moves), Here Comes the Sun, While My Guitar Gently Weeps—could even be Fosse’s: Someone Is Going To Come, Closed Guitar, The Name, Night Sings Its Songs, Angel with Tears in Its Eyes. But it’s harder to show what makes his music work. Prose doesn’t have hooks, and Fosse’s incantations are as unexcerptable as Philip Glass symphonies or Béla Tarr tracking shots. Here is an opening, a fraction of the first sentence of Aliss at the Fire:

I see Signe lying there on the bench in the room and she’s looking at all the usual things, the old table, the stove, the woodbox, the old paneling on the walls, the big window facing out onto the fjord, she looks at it all without seeing it and everything is as it was before, nothing has changed, but still, everything’s different, she thinks, because since he disappeared and stayed gone nothing is the same anymore, she is just there without being there, the days come, the days go, nights come, nights go, and she goes along with them, moving slowly, without letting anything leave much of a trace or make much of a difference, and does she know what day it is today? she thinks, yes well it must be Thursday, and it’s March, and the year is 2002, yes, she knows that much, but what the date is and so on, no, she doesn’t get that far, and anyway why should she bother? what does it matter anyway? she thinks, no matter what she can still be safe and solid in herself, the way she was before he disappeared, but then it comes back to her, how he disappeared, that Tuesday, in late November, in 1979, and all at once she is back in the emptiness, she thinks, and she looks at the hall door and then it opens and then she sees herself come in and shut the door behind her and then she sees herself walk into the room, stop and stand there and look at the window and then she sees herself see him standing in front of the window and she sees, standing there in the room, that he is standing and looking out into the darkness, with his long black hair, and in his black sweater, the sweater she knit herself and that he almost always wears when it’s cold, he is standing there, she thinks, and he is almost at one with the darkness outside, she thinks, yes

On it goes, building layer upon layer of past and present, ancestors and loved ones, until you are immersed in that world and the prose conjures luminous glory flashing past like Blakean angels. Maybe it is convincing to say that Fosse is the only writer whose book has made me weep with emotion as I translated it. It did it to me in every single draft, from first to galleys, at one particular passage I would prefer to keep private, and then it happened to me again at a particular passage in the next book.

In any case, I bring up Fosse not to convince but to contrast. When I first read Fosse, his tagline was “the new Ibsen”; now it’s that he is “the most produced living playwright,” with close to a thousand productions of his plays in dozens of languages. When I started, I was impressed that the Norwegian government had given him a lifetime full stipend for his literary efforts; now it’s that the Norwegian government has given him lifetime use of the Grotto, a side building to the Royal Palace in Oslo which the King of Norway bestows on a Norwegian cultural figure. (Don’t think Buckingham Palace or the Kimye Mansion: the Norwegians do their palaces egalitarian-style, too. The palace is a modest yellow, three-story job in the middle of a park at the end of Oslo’s main street; people walk by it on their way to work.) I have a feeling that when My Struggle Book Five comes out in English, Fosse’s tagline will be “Karl Ove Knausgaard’s creative writing teacher: the one who told him he was not a poet.”

K. O. K. has told the story at least twice at New York events: when he showed Jon Fosse a poem he’d written, Fosse said that one adjective in it wasn’t bad and the rest wasn’t poetry at all; Knausgaard decided Fosse was right. Translating an essay by Knausgaard into English made me decide Fosse was right, too, but not in a bad way. It taught me what I know about the nature of poetry and the nature of prose.

Fosse writes pure, repetitive, musical phrases in a stripped-down vocabulary; Knausgaard doesn’t. But while Knausgaard’s essay moved between several different large topics, with personal reflections and autobiographical anecdote and philosophy and criticism mixed in, it never felt like there was a writer somewhere organizing and orchestrating his material to present it to me as a reader. The experience was more like mainlining the subject matter itself, whatever the topic was and however the writing moved from one topic to another. This time the reason why you can’t see for yourself is because the essay was withdrawn before English-language publication, but this intimacy, this directness of contact, is what readers of My Struggle love. Somehow his writing, the total opposite of Fosse’s, was just as pure. Fosse’s is pure poetry, Knausgaard’s is pure prose.

The difference between lines and sentences, between poetry and prose in a technical sense, is simple enough, but that’s not the interesting distinction. Poetry, I came to see, is visionary world-creation, an eruption of transcendence; prose is communication, interpersonal, horizontal. (In Norwegian, fittingly, fosse means “waterfall” and knausgård means “hillside farm”; it’s the same name as “Hillyard.” Kierkegaard, also fittingly, is “churchyard.”) Prose shares, poetry transports. Prose connects, poetry creates. Only pure prose could have taught me the difference.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.