Searls on Translating Fosse.

Kathleen Maris Paltrineri has a very illuminating LARB interview with Damion Searls, the translator of new Nobel laureate Jon Fosse [ˈjʊn ˈfɔssɛ] — in fact, he learned Norwegian in order to read Fosse. I like his responses very much, both the ones where he expands on a topic and the ones where he sensibly ducks the question. Some excerpts:

How do differences between Nynorsk (the version of Norwegian Fosse writes in) and English — for example, the lack of present continuous verb tense in Nynorsk — shape your translations? How do Nynorsk and English enter into a dialogue in your versions?

That’s an interesting question, because I’ve never really thought about Nynorsk and English as being in dialogue. I might even go so far as to say that if the languages are in dialogue, that’s the sign of a bad translation. Isn’t that what “translatorese” is? When English is speaking a little bit in Norwegian (or whatever the language pair is)? Fosse is the writer who gets to use Norwegian — I have to use English, the whole English, and nothing but the English.

You mention the present continuous verb tense: “I am standing” instead of “I stand,” for example. This is crucial for Fosse, who writes a lot in the grammatical present tense but about overlapping time frames and levels of reality. You might be tempted to think that “I stand” is the correct translation of the Nynorsk eg står and “I am standing” is “looser,” but actually both are equally faithful and correct, because Nynorsk has only the one form; using the same English form every time would not be correct, even though the Nynorsk repeats, because English has two forms. The opening of Aliss at the Fire, for example, uses both forms this way: “I see Signe lying there on the bench in the room and she’s looking at all the usual things, the old table, the stove, the woodbox, the old paneling on the walls, the big window facing out onto the fjord, she looks at it all without seeing it…” (leaving aside the participles “facing” and “seeing,” which in Nynorsk correspond to “the window onto the fjord” and “without to see [anything]”). The original uses the same form every time, and it’s even more repetitive in Nynorsk because “to look” is the same verb as “to see” with a preposition added (basically “to see at,” so this short passage has the same verb ser for “see/sees/looks” three times). But I have to write clear and forceful English without clinging too closely to the Nynorsk, and that means availing myself of the subtle difference between whether she sees or is seeing.

Even if I put a foreign word into a translation, for a street name or holiday or kind of food, I’m still writing in English and putting “burrito” or “lutefisk” or an italicized less-common word into my English sentence. Even characters’ names! I changed Ales to Aliss in Aliss at the Fire, because “ales” is an English word; the literal book title, It’s Ales, would look like a beer guide. Another example is the dog character who totally steals the show and the reader’s heart in Septology: little Bragi. In Norwegian, his name is Brage, pronounced something like “BROG-uh” or “BRAH-geh,” and when drafting the book, I automatically put that name in the translation. Only very late in the process did I realize that English speakers might mentally pronounce it as “Brage,” rhymes with “rage” or “page,” and that would be all wrong. Plus, even if they knew enough to say it BROG-uh, that sounds adorable in Norwegian but isn’t very cute in English. There’s dialogue in the book where a friend says, “Oh, Brage, that’s a good dog’s name,” so it had to sound good. I asked Fosse about what the name meant to him, and he reminded me that “Brage” is the Norwegian spelling for Bragi, the Norse god of poetry; there’s a famous Brage Prize for Norwegian books, etc. Of course, I remembered Bragi from the Norse myths. And that makes it a great dog name, like naming your little lapdog “Apollo” or something. It’s funny and it just sounds better, and it even rhymes with “doggie.” I’m convinced that the readers who’ve told me how much they love Bragi would have loved him less if he were Brage-rhymes-with-page. That’s a translation decision where English and Nynorsk have to not be in dialogue.

I was taken with the lyricism and rhythm of your translations. What stylistic elements of Fosse’s Septology are paramount for you as a translator? What are your strategies for carrying across those elements from Nynorsk to English?

After that long answer, I’ll give a short one. As you say, lyricism and rhythm, what Fosse calls “the music,” are the most important qualities of his writing. I don’t have conscious strategies here, besides just trying to make it sound good — revisions and ear are about all I’ve got.

In Septology, we encounter an artist and widower named Asle, who has a doppelgänger named Asle, also a painter. Asle, the narrator, thinks a great deal about God, about art and language, and about death. In thinking of the following passage, which appears in V, I was curious about the ways in which Fosse’s aesthetics mirror or work in combination with the mystical or ecstatic explorations of Asle, and about your approach for translating these aesthetics […]

I just translate what he says — I don’t approach the religious passages or the aesthetic theory any differently from other passages. Since Fosse’s a good novelist, Asle’s explorations are never simply Fosse’s ideas dropped into Asle’s mouth — what Asle thinks and how he says it are always Asle’s mind at work, expressed in Asle’s voice.

Marilynne Robinson is currently teaching a seminar on the Old Testament here at the University of Iowa, and so I’ve been reading and thinking about Genesis as I’m reading the volumes of Septology. What is your interpretation of the form, a septology, in relationship to some of Asle’s musings in the work, such as his exploration of art as an occurrence, of light and dark, and of language in relationship to existence and creation?

I’m going to have to leave those questions for you to answer as a reader, and for every other reader to interpret on their own. I don’t have any special insight or knowledge about any of that as the translator.

I wanted to stand up and cheer at his “I just translate what he says”: the man’s a translator, not a preacher!


  1. Trond Engen says

    I have nothing to say, and I’m eager to say it! After all, I read his (short!) Andvake trilogy just this summer. I also thought I owned a Norwegian translation of Quelqu’un va venir, the French B.D. version of his play Nokon kjem til å komme, but I can’t find it..

    I can say that he builds small, close universes for personal drama. The historical settings are historical in the way that they’re definitely not contemporary, but he doesn’t care for historical accuracy. It’s just there to provide the necessary setting or set the reader in the right mood, like a sparsely decorated stage set. It’s the same thing with geography. The scene may be set in Dylgja or Bjørgvin. The former is a rural community by a fjord, the latter is a city, but there’s not much description of either of them. Even the characters are vaguely drawn. They’re defined by actions and (rare) words and what the reader fills in between them.

    I read in the international press that his Nynorsk is conservative. I guess it is, in the sense that it’s not (longer) deliberately close to Bokmål, but it’s also colloquial and easily readable. Instead close to the western rural dialects, it adds to the vague geographical descriptions. Simple and straightforward, it takes us into the mind of the characters during their sparsely described actions (much like another Norwegian Nobel candidate, Per Petterson, does with his “radical” colloquial Bokmål.)

    It does sound like the translator has the right approach. A translator of Jon Fosse must be very careful not to add anything that isn’t there, to allow the unspoken to be read without intrusion, but also be ready to do minor alterations — paint a piece in the stage set in a slightly different nuance to get the right reflections of light in another theater..

  2. I was hoping you’d weigh in — thanks for those illuminations!

  3. Trond Engen says

    Oh, on the extremely detailed level:

    Jon Fosse [ˈjʊn ˈfɔssɛ]

    No issues with that, but for added precision: [ˈjʊn ²fɔssɛ] — with the bisyllabic surname in the second tone.

    (The actual realization of the second tone varies between dialects, but the shared characteristic is that the accent is more equal between the syllables. The historical equivalent in Danish is no stød, i.e. no glottal emphasis on the first syllable.)

  4. Thanks, you know how I love precision about matters linguistic!

  5. Trond Engen says

    Oh, one issue. You can see the ingrained Norwegian habit of using the consonant to show vowel length. The vowel of the first name is long, and the first vowel of the last name is short. The s of the last name is not that long but probably ambisyllabic. Introspectively, the onset is in the first syllable and the release in the second, but I’ve never bothered to find out exactly what that means phonetically. The final unstressed vowel is short by default.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Is Nynorsk either easier or harder than Bokmål for a literate Swede who has never had formal instruction in either (let’s say for example a member of the relevant Nobel committee) to get the gist of when reading, or pretty much the same? I guess one factor might be the extent to which literate Swedes will have over their lives-to-date been exposed to written texts in Norwegian (presumably mostly Bokmål) without deliberately seeking them out, and I don’t know the answer to that.

    I assume Nynorsk isn’t any harder to learn, if deliberately pursued, for an L1 Anglophone who already has reading knowledge of Dutch and German … But is Fosse’s poetry old-fashioned enough in terms of meter and/or rhyme that if you don’t know how to pronounce what you’re reading you’ll be unable to get it? Although people claim on the internet that neither written-norm version of Norwegian corresponds to a single pronunciation norm …

  7. Trond Engen says

    For a Swede, Nynorsk would probably be harder initially, since the orthography reflects West Scandinavian sound changes, but become simpler fast, since Swedish and undanified Norwegian have much in common grammatically. Standard Swedish even upholds some morphological elements that only the most deliberately conservative Nynorsk does.

    For an anglophone reader, the distance is about the same. It shouldn’t be difficult to find listening material either. The national broadcasters do news, sports commentary, documentaries and fiction in both forms. The Nynorsk will most often be normalized on a Western substrate, so sound similar to Fosse’s own language.

    I don’t think you need to hear the sounds to appreciate Fosse. It’s more about listening to the unsaid. That goes for his novels as well as his dramas, and I would imagine it to be even more so for his poetry — but I haven’t read anything by Fosse except the Andvake trilogy, so I build my resident expertise on shaky ground.

  8. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I don’t think there’s any close equivalent to Fosse in Danish, whether as a surname or not. Does it have en etymology?

    @JWB, David M has repeatedly observed that written Danish has so many lenitions and so on that it’s hard for a person literate in German to recognize cognate words and that probably goes for Bokmål as well. (The other way is easier, working by analogy, except for weirdnesses like /tʷ/ > /kʷ/ in MHG. tvær(s) ~ quer).

    A quick glance at the Declaration of Human RIghts in Nynorsk didn’t yield anything that looked to be closer to NHG than the corresponding forms in Bokmål (or Danish, for all that). though there are a fair number of lexical differences. The way inflexions in Nynorsk have developed (or been retained) is often very different from Danish/Bokmål: Brüder ~ brødre ~ brør (de/da=nb/nn) or kommt ~ kommer ~ kjem.

    A literate Swede is probably better off with Bokmål, which is after all East Norse too, unlike Nynorsk which is based on West Norse dialects and seems to have had a program of avoiding/replacing Low German words with native material that may have been shared with East Norse once but is utterly unknown now.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Could this be one of those toponymic names (compare Bach in German or Brook in English)?

  10. Trond Engen says

    Fosse is a run-of-the-mill toponymic surname and could be from any one of a number of farms of the same name. The etymology is foss m. “waterfall” (so you’re right that you don’t have anything like it in Denmark) + an e that derives from a feminine plural ending. The is very common in old settlement names and is thought (by Bjorvand) to be a vestige of the Indo-European collective.

  11. David Marjanović says

    /tʷ/ > /kʷ/ in MHG. tvær(s) ~ quer).

    German actually has the other form too: the anatomical diaphragm that separates chest and abdomen transversely is Zwerchfell.

    It looks like this started as the exceedingly rare cluster *θw. That regularly became tv in North Germanic and dw words in OHG. Because /dw/ was so rare, the words that had it all joined the /tw/ set (from *dw). Words with /tw/ were still so rare, despite the occasional loan like Polish twaróg “cottage cheese”, that all of them ended up joining zw or qu at random, sometimes both.

    Compare the one-by-one disappearance of CURE words in different Englishes.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Me: Fosse is a run-of-the-mill toponymic surname and could be from any one of a number of farms of the same name.

    … though in his case, the name likely hails from one of the Fosse farms in the parish of Strandebarm, where he grew up.

  13. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish actually (re)borrowed fos, pl. fosse/fosser for Norwegian waterfalls, probably around 1750. (There was an ODa fors id. that didn’t survive that long). So yes, with a short vowel it doesn’t have stødbasis and necessarily no stød: The distribution of stød is not always the same as that of word tones in Norwegian and/or Swedish, there has been some innovation and dialectal levelling on the Danish side at least. (IIRC, word tones/stød were phonologized/lexicalized when syncope threatened to conflate a lot of two-syllable words with monosyllables, back in the 10th or so, so there’s been lots of time to muddle up the correspondences).

  14. Keith Ivey says

    I could have sworn the English word force meaning waterfall was discussed in the comments here within the past year or so, but I can’t find it. I must have run across it in some other context.

  15. despite the occasional loan like Polish twaróg “cottage cheese”

    That looks like the same word as Hungarian túró, as in the chocolate-covered Túró Rudi, or túrós csusza with pasta and bacon. Wikipedia’s page on Quark says it’s the same word; on the other hand Wiktionary says túró is from “a Turkic language”, whereas Polish twaróg and various Slavic cognates are traced to a proto-Slavic word that is “Unlikely to be from a Turkic language”. Considering that the Slavic words are well known in several languages near Hungary, I’m puzzled as to why Wiktionary would consider a Turkic source more likely.

  16. Michael Vnuk says

    ‘Of course, I remembered Bragi from the Norse myths. And that makes it a great dog name, like naming your little lapdog “Apollo” or something. It’s funny and it just sounds better, and it even rhymes with “doggie.”’
    Hmm, only for some versions of English pronunciation will the A of ‘Bragi’ sound like the O of ‘doggie’. And it also assumes that the G of ‘Bragi’ is pronounced as a hard G.

  17. David Marjanović says


    FWTW*, I find that convincing. Hungarian doesn’t do initial consonant clusters, and a final [k] would easily be interpreted as the Hungarian plural ending…

    * I am the very model of a modern-day Uralicist…

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    So the Grand Turk was a Big Cheese?

  19. John Cowan says

    the exceedingly rare cluster *θw

    What’s with the asterisk? English doesn’t have a lot of thw, I grant you, but it is hardly hypothetical. Anyway, see here, there, and yonder.

  20. Did you miss that that was preceded by “this started as…” and followed by “regularly became tv in North Germanic and dw words in OHG”? David is referring to *θw in Proto-Germanic, not English.

    English thwart has the North Germanic form because it was borrowed from Norse, not inherited directly.

  21. John Cowan says

    David is referring to *θw in Proto-Germanic, not English.

    I did indeed miss that, because of the polysemy of asterisks: hypothetical forms or hypothetical languages.

    English thwart has the North Germanic form because it was borrowed from Norse, not inherited directly.

    Well, so say Etymonline and the OED, but why? The ON þver ‘transverse, cross’ (-t is the neuter ending) is < *þverh, which is exactly the same as OE þverh (without an asterisk). Is there some reason to think that þverh was lost from OE and then borrowed back from ON a century or so later, particularly when the OED specifically notes that the ME evidence is sparse? Evidence of absence (from the OE record) is not absence of evidence. I grant that this could be etymological nativization, but what’s the reason to assume it?

    We also have thwaite ‘forest clearing, assart’ (now in proper names), which is said to be < ON þveit, but appears in OE in the guise of þwítan ‘cut (off)’. This is lost from the standard language, but survived (as of 1912) dialectally as thwite. The OED gives us the delightful phrase to thwite a mill-post (etc.) to a pudding-prick, where the last word means ‘skewer used to close a pudding bag’.

    While I am at it, whittle ‘carve, especially aimlessly’ is < whittle ‘carving knife’, which is a variant of thwittle ‘id.’, clearly part of the same story.

  22. The reasons etymologists give for thinking Middle English thwert wasn’t inherited from Old English þweorh/þwerh are (1) it doesn’t have the -h (representing /x/) on the end, which had already been lost from Norse by the time of contact, and more importantly (2) the -t ending has an obvious explanation in Norse morphology but no explanation in English morphology. Philip Durkin (OED chief etymologist) discusses this briefly in Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, giving scant and want as other examples of this -t.

  23. Trond Engen says

    … and for thwaite, I think the regular OE cognate would have been *þwāt, Modern Eng. *thwoat, *thwote or similar. (The w looks odd there, and I think it would have been lost in speech if not in spelling.)

  24. David Marjanović says

    On top of all that, if beorht > bright is regular, *þweorht would have…

    Well. Maybe it would not have ended up as the only case of thwr- in the language. :-S

  25. John Cowan says

    giving scant and want as other examples of this -t.

    Ah. So when you are in want for long enough, you become wan. Thanks.

  26. @Keith Ivey: Both foss and force are recorded as English words for cataracts. They seem to be most common in northern British dialects, where they are prone to appear in the proper names of water features. (Foss, in particular, seems to be mostly limited to fossilized names.) All the dictionaries I have looked at state that the synonyms (and, in some accents, homophones) foss and force are a doublet, but some of them contradict themselves with their etymologies, saying the former is from Old Norse and the latter from Old French. Both of those etymologies are quite transparent, so what is the real history? (My wild guess would be that Old English got foss from Norse as a word for waterfalls and rapids; then, in Norman times, it was eggcorn-conflated with the Latinate force.)

  27. when you are in want for long enough, you become wan

    If you are in want, you’ll wane, then waste away, become vain, vacant, and void, and finally vanish — but wan is the odd one out, not etymologically related according to current dictionaries. (Or was that the joke?)

  28. John Cowan says

    Both of those etymologies are quite transparent, so what is the real history?

    I thought about that, but the Latin fossa is ‘ditch’, < fossa (terra) ‘dug (earth)’ < fodio ‘dig’, and anyway I don’t see how it can be f- on both sides of Grimm’s Wall if the words are actually cognate. So I think we have one of those have/habere coincidences here.

    (Or was that the joke?)

    I’ll never tell!

  29. Trond Engen says

    Bjorvand & Lindeman + Wiktionary: Norw. foss, dial. fors < ON foss/fors < PGmc *fúrsaz m. < PIE *pŕ̥s-os, stressed zero grade of *per-s- “sprinkle”. The root is also found in Anatolian, Tocharian, Indo-Iranian and Slavic

  30. David Marjanović says

    stressed zero grade

    That makes sense for a nominalized adjective.

  31. Brett: What dictionary says that the “waterfall” force is from French? Every dictionary that I can find that has it says it’s from Norse: OED, NOAD, Chambers, Collins, MW Unabridged, Encarta. I suspect you accidentally looked at the etymology for the other force, but if a dictionary has the waterfall one at all it’s going to be a separate headword.

  32. @ktschwarz: It looks like that was indeed what happened, at least with respect to the OED: I misread what it was saying, largely thanks to the terrible new Web site structure. Wiktionary, however, does have the error, saying foss is a doublet of force but only having the Latinate-origin word force. I looked at another online dictionary also, but I don’t recall which one (I searched several, and many of them had no entry at all for foss, at least not in the “cataract” sense), and either I made the same kind of error I did with the OED site or the site had the same kind of error as Wiktionary.

  33. Keith Ivey says

    Brett, you’re not having much luck using dictionaries today. Wiktionary has the waterfall meaning listed as etymology 3 for force (not Latinate), where it says it’s a doublet of foss.

  34. Apparently not.

  35. Brett, looks to me like foss is West Norse and force is East Norse. Does their distribution match a map of Norwegian vs. Danish occupation?

  36. @Rodger C: I have no idea, and no idea how well such tenth-century distinctions are even documented. (In any case, my evident ineptitude looking things up these days would leave me hesitant to answer even if I thought I knew something useful about the subject.)

  37. Hungarian túró (…) I’m puzzled as to why Wiktionary would consider a Turkic source more likely.

    Works better vowel-wise at least: Turkic does have forms with /u/ like Middle Turkic /turaq/, Chuvash /turăχ/ (wide range of meanings from ‘yoghurt’ to ‘cheese’), while Slavic ⁽*⁾-wa- would probably be expected to give in Hungarian **tárog (Cw → C as in szabad ‘free’) or maybe **tavárog (CR > CVR as in e.g. kereszt ‘cross’). Still not clear to me why it has long ú and not short u though, Hungarian usually reflects Proto-Turkic vowel length or lack thereof.

    It seems to be also unclear if this might still be an older IE loan in Turkic itself; besides Slavic there’s also the yet distinct Greek τῡρός to consider in the mix.

  38. J Pystynen, thanks for the explanation.

Speak Your Mind