Interview

Discover the longlist: Sherilyn Hellberg, ‘My translations percolate with whatever else I’m reading’

Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Sherilyn Hellberg is translator of After the Sun.

She details her journey into the world of translation, beginning at the United Nations and continuing with a wealth of contemporary Danish fiction that captivated her. 

 

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

I had some experience translating before I learned Danish – for a few summers I volunteered at the United Nations doing French-English translation, and I really loved the buzz of the room and being surrounded by so many different languages and cultures.

After my first year of graduate school, I went to Denmark to take Danish classes – originally so that I could read Kierkegaard in the original. But that plan got somewhat derailed when a friend gave me a copy of Bjørn Rasmussen’s The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body (which hadn’t yet been translated by Martin Aitken), and I discovered this incredible world of contemporary Danish fiction, so much of which hadn’t been translated. It was like finding a little treasure trove. Translating became a way both to become really immersed in that world – and to learn a lot of Danish very quicky – and also to share some of the incredible writing I was encountering with my friends and colleagues. 

Translating fiction can be very rewarding, especially in those moments when something just clicks into place, but it can also be so challenging, because those clicking-into-place moments are so far and few between – so much of the work is about making tricky decisions and sacrificing things you love about the original and squishing things around. 

What’s your earliest reading memory?

Cereal boxes, the backs of shampoo bottles, instruction manuals – when I was younger, I was always hunting for words. I also remember reading in my parents’ backyard in the summertime and getting cheese ball dust stuck all over the pages. 

What did you enjoy most about translating After the Sun? What did you find most challenging?

I loved getting to work so closely with the author, Jonas Eika. We went through pretty much every sentence, if not every word, together, testing things out, saying things back and forth. It gave me such a deep understanding of the book and its intricacies and Jonas’s way of thinking. And we also laughed a lot, about our quirks and preferences and totally arbitrary disdain for certain words or sounds. 

A challenge that may seem small but was actually quite frustrating was the punctuation. Danish is much more liberal with its commas, which can be used to divide independent clauses, like in German. This can lend a piece of writing a totally different rhythm or feel than is possible in English. The story called ‘Me, Rory and Aurora’, for example, uses tons of commas in the original, but in English, we were really forced to be selective. I think we managed to get the rhythm across in different ways, but I still wish it were more possible to use commas in English like you can in Danish!

Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg

I discovered this incredible world of contemporary Danish fiction, so much of which hadn’t been translated. It was like finding a little treasure trove

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

After the Sun alludes to a number of other writers, including Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, and Roberto Bolaño, so I looked at many of their books.

I also find that my translations always end up percolating with whatever else I’m reading and translating – while working on After the Sun, that included writing by Olga Ravn, Ida Marie Hede, Asta Olivia Nordenhof, Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, Violette Leduc, Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, Franz Fanon, Fernanda Melchor, Ingeborg Bachmann, Nella Larsen, and Jacques Lacan – to give a very messy list.

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

I usually try to work closely with the author, if possible. My first step is to produce a sort of mushy version of a translation, which I’ll share with the author with lots of caveats and questions and alternatives. I think there’s something about seeing a translation that brings out all kinds of opinions that the author might not realise they had, and usually also reminds them of where there might have been a reference to another work, or something specific they had in mind. And in turn, seeing how the author reacts to this version usually helps me clarify what I think are the most important aspects of the translation. I’ll then take this back, make revisions and adjustments, and then share the translation with the author at least more one time. It’s a very iterative process.

If the author is no longer living, I’ll solicit this kind of feedback from friends, and I also try to immerse myself in as much of their other work and biography as I can.

Tell us a lesser-known fact about you.

By day, I work for a consultancy called ReD Associates.

And an interesting fact about the book.

A sort of transposed allusion to Chris Marker’s La Jetée (a film I highly recommend!) is embedded in the first pages of the “Alvin” story. 

Tell us about a book that changed your life

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I loved the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by language, and how the book is just so complex that you actually can’t attempt to understand everything happening (not that many haven’t tried anyway). You kind of have to tread your own path through it, and you can do that in so many ways. It also draws from something like 60 languages, and is full of portmanteaus and jumbled up words, so it’s a translator’s dream (or nightmare) of a book – it’s just so beautiful and strange.

What book haven’t you finished?

I always try to finish anything I start, and if I don’t, it’s usually because I’m not ready for it yet. Most recently, I had to forfeit Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, but I’m hoping to return to it soon.