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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal interview

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal interview

Dorthe Nors compares being longlisted to a UFO encounter and translator Misha Hoekstra likens his process of translation to working up a cover song.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.

Dorthe Nors, author of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal  

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

I was doing some gardening when my British publicist texted me to let me know that I was longlisted. From that moment on it took about 2 hours for the news to spread to all media platforms in little old Denmark. So, it was like being transported out of my real life to a completely different world. Sort of like a UFO encounter, I imagine. Now I wake up in the morning thinking: Did that really happen, The Man Booker International Prize longlisting? It did, but I imagine people who’ve had UFO encounters go: Did that really happen? in the morning too. It’s unreal, and I’m so incredibly honoured. It’s such a generous gesture towards my work. I’ll be grateful forever.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal?

The protagonist is called Sonja, she’s forty and stuck in her life: stuck in urbanism, stuck in her relationships, stuck in her awkwardness and stuck in her work life (she’s the translator of a quite perverted and heavily mansplaining Swedish crime fiction writer). To force herself into action she’s trying to get her driver’s licence. The idea is that then she’ll be able to drive out of Copenhagen back into the landscape she came from. Learning how to drive, i.e. to be the captain of your soul, is not easy. It might be hilarious one moment and heart breaking the next. My literature is focussed on existential structures. I love to investigate human behaviour in transition, on thresholds, and in this book the investigation circles around the invisible urban existence of a lonely woman: a modern misfit. Giving this character a voice felt important to me. It’s a portrait of a life that has reached a dead end and it’s an investigation of the struggle you go through, when you want to take yourself from being paralyzed to being emancipated.

Sonja, the main character, is a non-conformist. Do you think there are enough non-conformist women in contemporary fiction?

I don’t know enough about contemporary international literature to be an expert on that, but it felt very important to me to give this character a voice. Most women I know are non-conformist, i.e. we’re much more colourful and less typecast than women come off in the media or in mainstream literature. Women are also quite often expected to be ‘likeable’ characters and I prefer to portray real human beings in my writing. The women I portray are full blown existences: complicated, manipulative, lost, angry, lonely and searching for the so-called ‘true life’ that, since ‘true life’ is a myth that’s imposed upon us from early childhood till we scream: STEP AWAY FROM ME OR I’LL KILL YOU! will never be theirs. It was very interesting to portray a woman who’s breaking away from the mythology of modern, urbanised womanhood and who instead is trying to emancipate herself.


Misha Hoekstra, translator of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal  

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I was in Minsk, rapporteuring a WHO workshop on sanitation and water quality in the old Soviet building that houses the Scientific Practical Centre of Hygiene, a high dais at the end of the meeting hall and one wall filled with the past glories of Belarusian public health, with faded photos of beribboned notables shaking hands and displaying certificates – when a breathless message from Dorthe popped up on my phone. But the internet was terrible and I couldn't find confirmation, and then it was another three hours of taking notes on risk assessment for latrines and septic tanks followed by a long social evening on the top floor of the tallest building in the republic, where the 80-year-old éminence grise of Russian drinking-water analysis kept plying me with vodka – I don’t think he trusted the water – and everyone ended up dancing to a terrible aging rock duo, dancing and laughing, while I wondered if she was pulling my leg and the broad unpeopled avenues of Minsk spread out below us like a jeweled anemone. I still don’t quite believe it.

What did you like most about translating Mirror, Shoulder, Signal?

It’s always a joy to work with Dorthe’s prose and the way it switches registers. And to work with Dorthe – she takes a keen interest in translation, and we have a lot of playful back-and-forth on the niceties of expression and the best way to render specific twists of phrase into American English.

With this book, I took special delight in the passages about the protagonist’s travails as a translator of bad Scandinavian crime fiction – both the things I found familiar (using book comps as social currency) and those that lay fortunately far from my own experience (enduring an author’s self-important seminars on his rules for translators and the source of his vision).

You’ve said that, ‘translation means taking the armature of an existing work of art and fashioning a new work of art upon it’. How much do you feel you express yourself through translation?

Translation for me is like working up a cover song. It’s important first to select something that speaks to you, that you can identify with. You strip the flesh from the song’s bones, leaving you with the lyrics and chord structure. Then comes the work of making it your own. You stop listening to the original and let your version take on a life of its own, rephrasing it as if it were your song – varying the melody, trying the song in waltz time, fitting it to your voice and learning it by heart.

What I love about covers is the way they stretch me as a songwriter. I find myself inhabiting songs I would never have come up with myself. They have subjects and rhymes I would never think of using; a new way to move from line to line, a fresh perspective from the middle eight.

Living inside someone else’s book for a season or a year does the same thing for me, though on a much larger scale. The long hard process of translation transforms a work of art that is not me into something that is; it enlarges who I am.