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The Unseen interview

The Unseen interview

Roy Jacobsen tells us The Unseen was written in a house that he built himself on an island off the northern Norwegian coast, and translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw discuss the challenge of translating the book.

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


Roy Jacobsen, author of The Unseen

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

I am thrilled and humble, and extremely happy.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The Unseen?

The book is a modern portrait of a lifestyle that is long gone, a family living on a small island in the northern part of Norway, living on what they can catch and hunt and find in the sea. A gargantuesque drama – Man vs Nature – as seen through the eyes of a little girl coming of age who eventually – as her parents die – is obliged to take charge, become the master of the island, on whom everyone else depends.

Where did you write The Unseen?

The novel was written on an island similar to Banøy off the northern Norwegian coast, where my family comes from, and where I partly grew up. I still spend three to four months a year in a house that I have built myself on this island, the best place for me to work, ever.


Don Bartlett, translator of The Unseen

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

Very satisfying because Roy is a much underrated writer in the English-speaking world.

What did you like most about translating The Unseen?

The challenge – as Roy is a very demanding writer, even in his own language, and leaves a lot for the reader to do. Among translators he is well-known for the difficulty of his texts. But The Unseen in particular was a challenge, not least because of the frequent dialect, which would have been a great loss if it had been ignored in the English translation. However, giving the characters a Scottish brogue, for example, would have been inappropriate. Consequently we had to invent our own, which should sound like Scandinavian while being comprehensible. In the Norwegian novel, the dialect is at times not straightforward for some Norwegian readers.

How does reading in Norwegian differ to English?

Hopefully very little. We have tried as far as possible to recreate the same reading experience.


Don Shaw, translator of The Unseen 

How was your experience working with fellow translator Don Bartlett on the novel?

Translation partnerships can sometimes be a problem because of conflicting language use, style and general approach. However, as Don B and I have had very close contact for 50 years or so, in the course of which we have also collaborated on translation projects on multiple occasions, both our language and policies are finely attuned to one another. In our case at least, two heads are certainly better than one. Working closely together on this basis allows us for example to toss suggestions back and forth, whereby we can build on each other's ideas. This method has proved to be extremely fruitful, especially in the case of authors like Roy Jacobsen, who is notoriously difficult to translate. It is time-consuming, though. Having two translators does not make the translation process any quicker.




The Unseen