Discover the shortlist: Damion Searls, ‘Septology has one of the great dogs in literature’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Damion Searls is translator of A New Name: Septology VI-VII.

He discusses the unique body of work that is Fosse’s Septology and the challenges its distinct vocabulary and syntax brought to his translation.

Damion Searls

Written by Damion Searls

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?

Translating is an exciting way of being a writer: you get to write books by Proust, by Jon Fosse, by Elfriede Jelinek, even though you’re just you! Fiction tends to be more literary than nonfiction so it seems to have a wider range of voices to work on — perhaps because nonfiction books can rely at least partly on truth for their interest and purpose, whereas voice and story are all that fiction books have.   

What’s your earliest reading memory?

I remember being sick and home from school, lying on the couch, doing two things: listening to an AM station that cycled through a short program of news and weather (“1010 W-I-N-S News Radio: You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world!”), and reading. I don’t remember what book; I would read anything.

What did you enjoy most about translating A New Name: Septology VI-VII?  What did you find most challenging?

This is the third volume in Fosse’s Septology (seven parts, but in three books), so by that point I had more or less got the hang of it. It is always slower and harder at the start of a book, you have to learn and find your way into each writer’s or book’s voice, but I didn’t have that problem this time. The main challenge, as in the other volumes, was to keep both the vocabulary and the syntax very stripped down and superficially simple, no matter how complicated the ideas are that Fosse’s character is ruminating about. English has a rich, polysyllabic, often Latinate intellectual vocabulary, but even words like “superficially” or “syntax” or “intellectual” don’t fit this character’s voice. 

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?

Fosse’s writing style is so unique that I don’t have English-language models that directly inspire the voice. There are ways in which he’s like other writers, but those comparisons are made with a critic’s part of my mind, so to speak; I wouldn’t say I’m drawing inspiration from those other writers. 

Damion Searls

Translating is an exciting way of being a writer: you get to write books by Proust, by Jon Fosse, by Elfriede Jelinek, even though you’re just you!

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

I’m afraid all three parts of that question seem misleading to me. There’s not ‘literal’ translation which is close, and freer translations that are somehow farther away—any good translation will passionately track the original words but be entirely different, because it’s in a different language. There are no additional ‘steps’ a translator takes to as it were spruce up a first-step literal translation, and the end result isn’t a ‘marriage’ of the translator’s work with the author’s—there’s not a partnership between our distinct works, the same English words are the work of us both.

Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.

I used to be pretty good at chess and had a winning tournament chess game published in the newspaper my freshman year in college. 

And an interesting fact about the book.

Fosse’s Septology has one of the great dogs in literature: more than one reader has told me that little Bragi is their favourite character in the books. In Norwegian, the dog’s name is Brage (pronounced BROG-eh), and that is how I kept it through all the drafts of the first book until I realised, in proofs, that English-speakers would likely hear this in their heads as rhyming with rage and page. Brage-rhymes-with-rage is not a good dog name, and now that I was thinking about it, even Brogguh is less cute in English than it is in Norwegian. I asked Fosse if the name meant anything special to him and he reminded me that Brage is the Norse god of poetry—I hadn’t recognised it because the spelling I had always seen in books of Norse myths was “Bragi,” the Old Norse and Icelandic spelling. This made the name even better, like if you named your silly little shih-tzu ‘Apollo’ or ‘Orpheus’, and naming the dog ‘Bragi’ would make English readers more likely to pick up on that. Plus it sounds cute, and even subliminally rhymes with “doggie.” I will never know for sure, but I am convinced that English-language readers would not have loved Brage as much as they love Bragi.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, translated by Philip Boehm, was a huge awakening for me—as a novel, as a woman’s reflection on German and Austrian history and culture, and as a brilliant translation. The first two books I ended up translating were an early work by Bachmann and a memorial homage to her by Uwe Johnson, author of the great novel Anniversaries I was able to translate decades later.

What book haven’t you finished?

The bad ones are beneath mention, and the others are just books I haven’t finished yet.