The Faroe Islands.
Jóanes Nielsen’s novel, The Brahmadells, is one of the first books to be translated into English from Faroese, the native language of the Faroe Islands, an archipelago of eighteen islands situated in the North Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and Norway. Its capital, Tórshavn, which figures prominently in the novel, has around twenty thousand inhabitants, making it one of the smallest capitals in the world—and the Islands’ native language, Faroese, only has around sixty thousand native speakers. Nielsen’s novel was translated by Kerri Pierce and published last month by Open Letter. This roving tale of the history of those small and remote islands tells a story both intimate, tracing the complex familial legacy of the Brahmadells and other families over several generations, and general, weaving historical documents and characters into its narrative thread. It is a captivating and enlightening immersion into a place most readers will find unfamiliar.
Kerri Pierce and I spoke by phone earlier this month. Pierce’s translation marks the eighth language from which she has translated, though talking with her, one would never know. She was humble and unassuming, and she spoke of her voracious appetite for translating new languages as one might speak of learning to cook a new dish, or adding half a mile to one’s jogging routine. We discussed how she stumbled into translating, and the value of translated literature.
To begin, can you talk about how you came across this book?
It was actually in Denmark. The Danish Arts Council sometimes invites translators to Denmark, and in this case, I was invited to participate in a bookfair in which agents and publishers were pitching to translators. Because, of course, translators are regarded as cultural ambassadors, and often times, it’s through the interest of a translator that something comes into English translation. That was the case with this book. I talked with Nielsen’s agent and told her that I liked minority languages, and books that are experimental, unusual—and she said, Well, I represent a Faroese author whose books are widely regarded and have that experimental stylistic edge, and his works also exists in Danish translation. The original plan was for me to translate the book from the Danish rather than the Faroese. But, being a language nerd, I became determined to translate it from Faroese. So I started with the Faroese book open, and the Danish book open, and just dove into it from there. And eventually I was translating from the Faroese, with the Danish as a help, if I needed it. The book was a two-year project.
How much of that time was you becoming comfortable enough with Faroese to be able to embark on the project?
Probably a good year. The first draft was largely with the Danish translation as a crutch, and then when I went back, I basically shut the Danish translation and worked with the Faroese directly. That’s typically my process, anyway—to create a rough draft that gives it a shape and feel in English, but is a very literal translation. And then I go back and do a line-by-line comparison, and then work solely with the English. It was just longer this time around.
Did you get the chance to visit the Faroe Islands as you were working on your translation?
No, I didn’t—I would love to visit the Faroe Islands. Actually, that’s a really interesting question because in doing something like this, suddenly, because it’s such a novel of place, you’re translating an entire landscape you’ve never seen. I just had to go online and look at what was there image-wise, but Nielsen’s writing is so stark and so vivid, that it does create a picture in your mind. His writing created a concrete picture that I could work with. But no, I’ve never actually seen or experienced the Faroes.
In some sense it strikes me as right that you’d be just working from the images Nielsen creates, because the Faroe Islands, as he depicts them in this story, have this sort of mythos, this sort of mythical power.
I know exactly what you mean. And actually, the title of the book is quite unwieldy, if you go with the whole title—The Brahmadells: A North Atlantic Chronicle. So in English it was shortened, in the Danish translation it was shortened, and in the German translation it was changed entirely, to The Memories, I think. When I was thinking about what to do with the title in English, one idea I had was something like The Seal People, or The Seal Folk, a reference to a Faroese folktale that occurs a couple of times in the novel. Nielsen immediately dismissed that, because he didn’t like the mythical connotations. It would kind of override the Brahmadell theme that you get throughout the book—and I completely agree with him. But there is that mythical flavor.
Am I right in saying Faroese is the eighth language you’ve translated from?
All of us are wondering how you do that.
Well, I pretty much did it because no one told me not to. In the midst of my Ph.D. program in comparative literature, I was not certain what I wanted to do after graduation. I did not think that I wanted to go the tenure-track route, so I applied to be an editor at Dalkey Archive Press. I wasn’t great at editing, but they gave me a translation sample from German to English, and I ended up getting a year-long translation fellowship. At that time, I had never had any classes on translation, no translation theory. So I had the naive view of translation, I guess—that if you could read it, you could translate it. And I was already interested in languages—my comparative-literature program at Penn State required good reading knowledge of four languages. So I just didn’t say no. I started out translating whatever I could—some with more success than others. By the end of it, I was pretty shell-shocked, I had worked in all these different languages, and maybe I had a better idea of what translation was—or maybe not. But that’s how I came to have translated from eight languages.
It struck me as I was reading this novel that if you were trying to write a book that would serve as sort of a fictionalized introduction to a place like the Faroe Islands, this book is exactly how you would do that. It includes a broad historical survey and generalized statements about the Faroese, and what Faroese people are like, and what the Faroese culture is like. Do you think Nielsen’s intention in writing this novel may have been to reach a broader audience as an introduction of sorts to the islands, or is that simply a by-product of the story he wanted to tell?
I think it would be difficult to say, having never asked him what his intention was. My reading, I can tell you, is that there are almost two different novels in one. The first is the chronicle aspect that you get when you begin the book—when the story really starts, with the measles epidemic, and you’re dealing with the historical documents and things like that. And there’s the omniscient narrator whom you come to trust as a neutral chronicler. Then this twist happens with the protagonist, who’s also, you find, the storyteller, the writer—and really kind of a villain, in some respects. And so I think that there’s actually a lot of satire—and it’s a very contemporary form of satire—to this chronicle element.
But I also think that the novel speaks to the character of the Faroe Islands, which it seems may have been what Nielsen set out to do—he provided a picture of the Faroe Islands as it was, or as he might have imagined it was, and then as it is now. It’s a self-identity that is tied up with Denmark, with Norway, and with the struggle to achieve Faroese nationalism.
I found one of the strengths of the novel to be its feeling of hauntedness. There’s a big spiritual, underworld power component to the narrative, but also the characters are each haunted by their historical legacies, their familial legacies, and familial traits that are in some ways determinative of everything that they do. Did you make a conscious effort to maintain that sense in your translation?
I think that’s one of the aspects of the art of translation that really keeps me doing it. You’re given a medium in its original form, and then you’ve got to reshape that medium into something that is familiar to readers of the original, but that will also make sense in an entirely new language, a new culture, a new format. And it was precisely that sense of hauntedness that, every time I sat down to work on this novel, I was working toward. That’s really what compelled me to work on this novel in the first place.
Some of my favorite moments in the novel were when the narrator depicts the perspective of children. There was one instance that I found particularly compelling. This passage is about Henrietta as a child, before she becomes a more prominent character in the novel. The only image she has of her absent father is a drawing, and she’s puzzled by his absence in light of that drawing. “She could not understand why her father did not just step out of the drawing. Other fathers talked to their children, and some told them stories or sung to them. One time she had cut a ladder from paper and glued it to the frame’s rim, and with a child’s hope, she thought her father could use the ladder to climb down. But it did not help. She repeatedly tempted the drawing with something sweet, but the same thing always happened. Her father remained enclosed in the frame, and every time she looked at him, she saw the same indulgent smile.” I think that passage is brilliant. Did you make a concerted effort to maintain both the ingenuity and the simplicity of passages like that, where Nielsen is narrating the child’s perspective?
It wasn’t a conscious effort. I mean, certainly it’s conscious in that I wanted to keep sentences that are short, short, and long, long. I want, as closely as possible, to mirror the original syntax. And when translating a European language, you have that luxury. But those parts in the novel are so well written that though there are challenges, it’s not such a challenge to keep them close to the original. Those passages have a simplicity of language and a poignancy of image, and when those two things come together, it’s almost instinctual to mimic that as a translator.
In a piece that you wrote for World Literature Today, you described translation this way—“a sleight of hand, a handwork, true, but also a deception, an illusion, a playful stab at possibility, as if, as if the text had been written in another language, at another point in time, in the context of another culture.” How much do you see this particular translation as that sort of “playful stab”?
For me, there’s always a playfulness, an as-if, a what-if, lurking in every act of translation, simply because it wasn’t written in English, it wasn’t written in this culture. The readers that are going to approach it aren’t going to understand the book—I don’t understand the book—as someone might who has grown up in the Faroes, or grown up in Denmark. English readers are coming to it blind, in a sense. But I think that is one of the wonderful things about translation—it just is capturing, making concrete, that playful what-if, as-if. And, if you do it well, that’s translating “in the spirit of translation,” as people say, almost as if it were written in the original language. So that’s what I meant by “sleight of hand”—because there’s nothing worse than reading a translation that feels or reads like it’s translated. I think that if you’ve done a successful job as a translator, you keep that strangeness, that sense of foreignness—this is not something that you’ve encountered before, it was written in another place. In my translations, I would never want to elide or try to erase that. But at the same time, you have to lull the reader into believing that this looks like it should look, it feels like it should feel. And there’s a great deal of playfulness there.
How do you hope that foreignness affects the reader?
Well, first of all, I just hope that it’s a good read, and people enjoy the book. But through that enjoyment, one of the wonderful aspects of translated literature is that it introduces you to an entirely new place—I hope people become curious about the Faroes. I hope they look at the people and the situation and recognize where there’s familiarity and where there’s difference. I think that consciousness is why we read in the first place—and why translated literature is so important.
Joel Pinckney is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
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