Translating Jon Fosse from Norwegian.
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: Read More