Charlotte Barslund interview: 'It’s a paradox that the better I translate, the more I erase myself'
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Charlotte Borslund talk about her translation of Is Mother Dead in an exclusive interview
With Is Mother Dead longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, its author talks about searching for the voice of the novel and why reading fiction in translation is a win-win experience
Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning mean to you?
It is such an honour. I feel very grateful! And very lucky! Being longlisted is wonderful in itself - I don’t want to hope for more than that.
What were the inspirations behind the book? What made you want to tell this particular story?
Is Mother Dead is the title of the novel, but the question could just as well be: Can a mother die? I believe that a child’s mother or a child’s primary carer will, in one way or another, always live within the child, even when that child is an adult. Children are so dependent on their primary carers, and most people have conflicting emotions towards those on whom they depend. The novel is my attempt to investigate this complicated, ambivalent dynamic between a mother and an adult daughter who have been estranged for 30 years. Phew!
I have written a lot about mothers. Once I was asked: What are you writing about at the moment? And I said: I´m writing about a mother who drinks too much. Oh! they said and asked: Did your mother drink? No, I said, I drink!
My point is that the relationship between mother and child is a never-ending story. It changes during both their lives, and when you come to experience motherhood yourself, the perspective you have on your own mother naturally changes. Now I’m a grandmother as well! Life is a very interesting journey.
How long did it take to write the book, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is the plot and structure intricately mapped out in advance?
I spent a year or maybe a year and a half writing this book. I never know the plot or the structure when I start a novel, my writing is a kind of investigation. I investigate a moral or ethical dilemma that troubles me, and I never know in advance what I will find out.
I spend quite a lot of time trying to discover what I call the voice of the novel. Once I have it, I can start working much more intensely. At the beginning of the process when I strive to express my ideas by messing around and writing perhaps just one sentence a day, I often become discouraged and frustrated. But when I find the right voice, I can write day and night for weeks. It is the best part of the writing process! I love it.
Where do you write? What does your working space look like?
Usually I write at home, but I can write everywhere, in cafés and bars, on planes and trains, or when I sit on my jetty by the sea. I normally write on my Mac, but I can also write by hand no matter where I am. I always carry a pen and paper just in case I have an idea or hear or read a sentence I can use in my work.
At the beginning of the process, when I am looking for the right voice, it helps to walk in the woods with my dog, look for mushrooms to pick, go for a swim with my dog. Or sit on the jetty with my dog, with books and pen and paper.
When you come to experience motherhood yourself, the perspective you have on your own mother naturally changes
What was the experience of working with the book’s translator, Charlotte Barslund, like? How closely did you work together on the English edition? Did you offer any specific guidance or advice? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?
I have been working with Charlotte for several years and I have come to trust her fully. I am sure she will always find the right voice for the English editions of my books. I respect her independence and her choices, but of course it’s important to be available to discuss and answer questions.
We have met up several times, and we always have much to talk about. Literature, life, relationships. Charlotte is so wise and mature, and very fluent in Danish and Norwegian. I can’t rate her English myself, but everyone says it is excellent. I believe them, of course! I want to reiterate that I trust her completely and I am so happy to have her as my translator.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
Because reading fiction from abroad, but in your own language, is a meeting with experiences, environments and cultures that are different from your own, but still you met them in a way that is familiar, in your own language. It’s a win-win-experience.
I have not read Thomas Bernhard in German, but when I read his furious novels about his childhood in Salzburg as an illegitimate child, I feel very close to him. It must be because the Norwegian translation by Sverre Dahl is so good. I have not read Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu in French either, even though I have lived I France for more than two years. I’m not terribly interested in the life of Parisian bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 19th century, nevertheless I get lost in this novel – in a good way – and it must be because the Norwegian translation by the eminent Anne-Lisa Amadou is so fantastic and deserving of praise.
I mention these two male authors because, although I have had many and long love affairs with men, I have never come as close to a real man as I think I have with these two foreign authors.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
The Danish author Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy about her childhood in working-class Copenhagen during the 1920s recession. It has been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. Ditlevsen’s entire authorship has been a source of great inspiration to me: Brave, cheeky, unpredictable, brash as she takes a merciless look at herself and others.
Also the works of the Norwegian writer Dag Solstad. He explores challenging existential questions with deep seriousness, but also with irony, humour, wit and levity. I especially recommend Shyness and Dignity from 1994, which has been translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad. I recently re-read all of Solstad’s books before I was due to give a talk on him. Although his topics and themes are quite dark, he writes in a way that puts a spring in my step!