On translating Karolina Ramqvist’s novel The White City.
It started with an editorial query about a bag.
In Karolina Ramqvist’s novel The White City, a woman, Karin, has been left without resources after living a luxe life with her gangster husband, John, who is dead. Karin’s Swedish, middle-class family never approved of her decision to become a criminal’s housewife, so she can’t go to them for help. The “gangster family” that was supposed to have her back has turned on her. She has no one but her nursing infant, and she’s reluctant about motherhood. In the middle of a frozen Stockholm winter, Karin is being left out in the cold, figuratively and literally: the authorities are about to seize her grand suburban home. The reader meets her there, where signs of filth and decay abound. There’s no heating, no Internet. Desperate for cash, she’s selling off her luxury handbags. The doorbell rings; a prospective buyer who has seen Karin’s ad has come to have a look:
The woman nodded and said she was going on vacation and this model was so practical for travel, smiled when Dream [the baby] waved in her direction, and asked if she [Karin] was on maternity leave.
She managed another smile and held out the tote. Even the lining was in good condition, the subtle pattern brought to mind the patios of expensive restaurants and white sand.
“So, are you selling any others?”
“Yeah, I’ve taken a few out. One lovely 2.55 … Chanel.”
The woman nodded. She scrutinized the bag, complimenting her on how well it had been cared for.
Though Ramqvist never tells the reader the bag’s brand or style—she rarely mentions brands at all—I was sure, when I was translating White City, that she had a specific one in mind. Perhaps knowing which bag it was would unlock something elusive about Karin’s character.
When our editor sent me notes on this draft of the translated manuscript, she flagged “tote.” She, too, wondered what kind. “Tote” doesn’t quite communicate luxury, does it? The kind that Karin would know so well? Her query made me think of the thick cotton totes printed with images of Joan Didion or publishing-house logos. Maybe it’s a duffel bag? she wondered. Something else? Check with the author.
There were a number of these kinds of editorial queries, ranging from the landscape surrounding Karin’s mansion in a wealthy suburb and the style of tracksuit worn by her ex–best friend to the types of garbage cans found around Stockholm—all of them serving as cultural guideposts.
I’d created a document and filled it with reference images so the author would have a sense of the pictures in my mind when I was translating. Many of my photos were spot on. The frozen lake rimmed with reeds? Ramqvist said that’s exactly how she pictured the lake outside Karin’s house. The tracksuit? Indeed, it was a pink Juicy Couture. These reference images bridged the gap between imagination and language, helped make sure we were all on the same page, helped us both visualize the culture, social structures, and landscape in which the novel was forged.
Henry James recommended that a novelist should “try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost,” and I wondered, working through this puzzle, where that leaves the translator. The phrase lost in translation came to mind, and I shuddered. Translators are exegetes, but with a special responsibility to the author in that the art of literary translation turns us into writers as well. As part of my attempt to be a person on whom nothing is lost, I was focusing on the details.
I looked back at what Karin said to the buyer. So spiky. I read the mention of Chanel as a barb; our protagonist adjusting her usual mode of speech, making it intelligible to another woman who might not speak in the same high-fashion codes. If the buyer is among those who refer to the iconic flap bag as a “2.55,” Karin is subtly undermining her by clarifying that it’s “Chanel,” as though she assumes the woman wouldn’t know what she means.
But what was the bag that had caught the buyer’s eye—the kind of bag that was practical for travel, that made her think of alfresco dining and white sand? A bag big enough, as we find out later, to hold a CZ and bags of ammunition, a baby bottle and formula, pacifiers and some cash. I was picturing a tote bag. But what kind? Though there is an inevitable gap that exists between a novel in its original language and its translation, the texture of the culture, its cryptograms, its cool, all had to transcend this. I pressed my ear to the padlock, turned the dial slowly; I listened for the soft clicks that would give it away.
I cycled through brands and considered their tote bags—their exclusivity, who carried them and when. Longchamp, Michael Kors, House of Dagmar. No. Too common. Not yet proven to be timeless. Certainly not expensive enough to resell for a meaningful amount of cash.
I remembered a roommate I had once in a Los Angeles neighborhood that was then still at an early stage of gentrification. Policemen keeping an eye on the nearby park used to stop me outside my house to make sure I knew where I was, pointing out the codes of dress of the gang members who lived a few doors down, asserting a boundary between “us” and “them.” My roommate possessed a toughness, cool, and affection for luxury that reminds me of Karin’s. I thought of this roommate often while translating The White City: how she related to her things, the particular joy she displayed when showing me her most prized possessions. It was not only about the brand but particular pieces bought at a particular time in a brand’s history, something that communicated an authentic relationship to luxury goods, ergo impeccable style and savvy. My roommate had two Goyard Saint Louis bags, one with their chevron pattern in yellow, one in blue. One fake, one real. She spoke of these waxed canvas-and-leather tote bags with reverence. This was at a time when Louis Vuitton had been everywhere forever and was still going strong, and by carrying a Goyard, she felt ahead of the curve. I imagined Karin would want the same for herself.
I found a photo of a Saint Louis casually placed atop of stack of books, Instagram-perfect, added it to my document of author queries. “I assume it’s this one,” I wrote.
“It’s a Louis Vuitton Neverfull,” the author replied.
Same-same but different, the Neverfull is similar to the Saint Louis in form and function. Also a canvas-and-leather bag that is practical for travel; upon reselling, it would retain something close to its four-figure retail value if well cared for. But only one has a patterned lining, which I had somehow failed to notice while browsing bags on the Internet. Had I stumbled on the sentence structure? Had I gotten carried away? Drafts-deep in a translation, it can be difficult to trace my steps back to my first impulses, my initial reading. My mistake shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. But misidentifying the brand hit me harder than it should.
I thought back on what it felt like when I was an American new to Sweden, a country where I went to high school and where I have immediate family. Despite the Swedishness my mother transmitted to me, I, moving from the Los Angeles of the midnineties, was glaringly out of place. For instance, everyone at school seemed to have Levi’s 501s, but they’ve never looked good on me and were expensive in Sweden. Instead, I wore Calvin Klein mom jeans, bought with my allowance for around fifteen dollars at a discount store back home. The other kids at my school in Gothenburg would point at my Calvins and call me a capitalist. Bullying was a new phenomenon. It terrified me. I went to the local army surplus store guided by vague ideas of antiauthoritarianism and the Haight in the sixties and bought a cheap, tattered shoulder bag to tone down my “look” (whatever that was), but promptly found myself being kicked by a punk whose jacket was covered in Sex Pistols and anarchist patches. He shouted things at me that I did not understand because Swedish was still a foreign language then.
I’d never listened to much rap growing up in LA—I was into the Doors—but in crafts class some of my classmates warmed to me when I said I was from somewhere near Long Beach. They wanted to know if I had met Snoop Dogg. No, I hadn’t, but having been in Long Beach was good enough. For the rest of the term, we crocheted together, sewed, and knit to sounds of NWA and Snoop. When they grilled me about Long Beach, neither the harbor, the historic cruise liner nor Hamburger Mary’s—that things that defined Long Beach for me and my family—ever came up. As we listened to the music, it was entirely itself but also a part of them, of us, and Sweden, too.
When thinking about Karin’s tote bag, I’d forgotten to consider these layers of code, how art and objects move across borders, how they become part of the cultures in which they are consumed. I should have remembered the way Louis Vuitton rolled through Sweden in the early 2000s, after the brand ignited an international sensation when Marc Jacobs asked Takashi Murakami to redesign Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2003 accessories collection. A friend in Stockholm remembers how it seemed that suddenly every neighborhood in the city had someone selling fake Vuittons on the corner. She says it was the first time she noticed such consumerist fervor in the country. Even now, the Neverfull remains a classic, a “great luxury starter handbag” according to the resale site Portero.com. Of course, Karin would have a Neverfull. She may well also have had a Goyard hiding in her lavish closets, but it makes sense that she would sell the Neverfull: the bag’s value would be self-evident to buyers.
Though I don’t know that I would have translated the scene with the tote bag differently had I thought of it as a Louis Vuitton Neverfull from the start, my perception of Karin’s character evolved. I understood more of what was at stake for her and all that she had lost: not just money and her true love but her connection to the world in which a Louis Vuitton Neverfull meant something—at the very least that she was being taken care of. I felt a new sense of sensitivity for Karin and her world that I hope resonates between the lines. No one really needs to know the specifics of the bag.
As far as translation goes, this misimagining touched on an insecurity that is perhaps common to all translators and that runs parallel to impostor syndrome: Is my connection to the source strong enough to receive and transmit the codes? Perhaps anyone who connects with a book feels how the story works on you from the inside, what it unlocks, the specifics of place and culture it conveys alongside the universal.
Perhaps my feeling of failure after identifying the wrong bag also came from something inherent to the art of translation: though we do our best to carry the text into a new language in its entirety, something will always be lost. The question then becomes how we handle this loss. If the loss is particularly great, it can become the reader’s, too.
I don’t aim for forensic fidelity in translation. I translate so that the reader will, above all, feel the book. Focusing on feeling is how I compensate for what will inevitably be lost; perhaps such coping mechanisms are the locus of a translator’s style. But perhaps I have focused too much on the word loss. The word try is also key. Try assumes a gap—between imagination and language, writer and text, text and translator, text and reader.
In an essay called “It’s the Night,” Ramqvist described how she feels like her writing moves through her body and materializes with the reader, emerging inside them. It is in this subjective place that a book is fully realized. But unlike a translator, the reader is not obligated to relay what the book is saying to anyone else, and they only have to think about what the book is saying to them. As with a reader’s reading, a translation is channeled through the translator’s experience of the world and language. As The White City emerged inside me, it found its resonance. The hard surfaces of my own experience helped me address the gap between the Swedish novel and my English translation. They were tools. In this way, perhaps the space between the text and its translation is a tool, too. A space for loss, a space for trying. An elusiveness that shouldn’t be feared but embraced, and that in its most refined form might inspire desire, as luxury or cool can, because of the room it leaves for interpretation. Because it makes us want to crack the code.
Saskia Vogel (@saskiavogel) is a writer and translator of Swedish. A native of Los Angeles, she now lives in Berlin. Her work has appeared in The Offing, The White Review, and Granta Sweden.