Charlotte Barslund

Charlotte Barslund interview: 'It’s a paradox that the better I translate, the more I erase myself'

With Is Mother Dead longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, its translator talks about working out what each character is feeling – and overhearing useful conversations on the train

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win - and what would winning the prize mean to you?    

Weird and wonderful! Translating literary fiction is all about the book, about telling its story and, if I do my job well, then you shouldn’t notice me at all. It’s a paradox that the better I translate, the more I erase myself, and yet there is so much of me in every book I translate. To win would be an acknowledgment of the translator’s skill and art, a message that says: we see you. I’m thrilled to be nominated, but I have to admit that I would also love for Is Mother Dead to win!

How long did it take to translate Is Mother Dead, and what does your working process look like? Do you read the book multiple times first? Do you translate it in the order it’s written?  

It took me six months, but I had read Is Mother Dead before it was published in Norway and I had already starting thinking about translating it and how it related to Vigdis Hjorth’s other books which I have translated. I do a first draft of the whole novel and then line up my linguistic dominoes so they all fall in the right order and hopefully lead the reader seamlessly through the book. I also work out what each character is feeling at every stage of the book, once I know that, the language follows quite easily. Vigdis’s writing is also rich in references to others authors and philosophy, so part of my work is spotting and reflecting those in the translation. I go over my translation many times, ideally I will leave it for a few weeks between each edit for a brain break. There is definitely a point when I have given it my all and am ready to submit it.  

What was the experience of working with the author Vigdis Hjorth like? How closely did you work together? Was it a very collaborative process? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?  

I love working with Vigdis! When I first read her, I could hear her books in English immediately and I felt a kinship with how she thinks before we had even met. As a result when I started translating her, my questions to her often included a proposed solution because I felt pretty sure I knew what she would want. This in turn assured her that she could trust me, so I have quite a long leash, but still feel that I can always check in with her if I need to. I’m astonished by how much we have in common and I can’t imagine that a more harmonious fit between writer and translator is possible, but we are very clear about who is responsible for what.  

Charlotte Barslund

When I first read [Vigdis], I could hear her books in English immediately and I felt a kinship with how she thinks before we had even met

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

Anything I read can fire my imagination: novels, poetry, newspapers, TV programmes, social media posts. I get quite obsessed with a novel that I’m translating and I start to pick up words or phrases that capture ideas in the translation. Language is constantly evolving and I am always finding fresh stimulus in what I read, but also in conversations with others or anything I might overhear, say, on a train.

What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves? 

I read voraciously as a child and always hoped that I could find a way to make a career out of reading and translating books. It seemed unlikely for a while as I am the first person in my family to go to university, but after working in theatre and translating plays as well as many other types of text, I felt ready for novels. My advice to budding translators would be read widely, become obsessed with their chosen language and live in that country so they understand and absorb its culture. Much of my translation work is knowing what an author means rather than what they write, so you need enough life experience to make that call.  

Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?   

Translated fiction can show us that we are ultimately all connected. A Norwegian writer writing about parent-child relationships can reach across divides and remind us of shared experiences of the human condition. Is Mother Dead has been widely read in Norway, but Norwegian is spoken by only five million people. Celebrating translated fiction gives this book, and others like it, a springboard to a much wider readership.  

If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?

Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. A brilliant lesson in what to include and what to leave out when you are translating and adapting a text. Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, translated by Felicity David. I read it in Danish and it made me realise just how good a translator needs to be. I have no opinion on whether the Bible is a work of fiction, but I would like to include the King James Bible for its influence on the English language and the beauty and power of the translation itself. Other Bible translations are available, but this is, and always will be, the only one for me.  

Vigdis Hjorth