Character As Translation

Translation enables English-speaking readers to read each of the Booker International shortlist novels, but only one of these actually treats translation, albeit obliquely. Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors is told from the point of view of a translator of a Swedish mystery writer.  Nors who writes essays in English and fiction in Danish is an accomplished multi-linguist. In fact, a reader of her essays or a listener to her BBC commentary might wonder why she needs someone else to translate her fiction into English, or what her judgment might be of the work of Misha Hoefstra who translated her shortlisted novel.

Further, the reader might wonder what Nor is up to in making her protagonist Sonja a translator by trade. Certainly, there is no commentary in the novel that would clarify this choice. Sonja frequently mentions her vocation but she never discloses the actual process. The reader never sees the translator at work. So, what can the reader infer? Is this tidbit of information window dressing? Is it simply a nod to the author’s undergraduate studies, her saturation in Swedish literature? Or is it a useful way to construct character? It does define Sonja in a number of ways. Sonja handles life in the same way a translator handles text. She prefers the distanced involvement of working with what others create. She prefers to reflect rather than participate.

Take Sonja’s regular massages, for example. One who avoids human touch in its emotional forms, Sonja yields her body to the professional’s teasing of the knots in her shoulder, the tightness in her body. After all, the work of a translator curries stiff shoulders, tenseness in the neck muscles. And while Ellen works on her body, Sonja deconstructs the professional’s quirky notions of the supernatural. It’s when Ellen invites her to a group hike/meditation that Sonja really stiffens. Everything in her experience resists the merging of worlds. It’s as though the Swedish page pulls her into its text, makes her a character in the novel she is translating. Sonja lacks the direct response of no, fumbles for the right words to translate the passage to her own intent. She starts the hike, but the call of nature gives her reason to turn back. Then, the dictates of a storm cause her to take a train back to Copenhagen. Ever the translator, she follows the lines of another plot, carefully merging her own point of view into the larger twists and turns of a novel she believes she is interpreting.

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