Welcome back to my beloved Greatest Women in Translation interview series!
The interviewee featured this month is Kari Dickson, nominated by Sophie Hughes.
1. You have taken an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Surrey. What a pleasant coincidence! I have also taken an MA in Translation Studies (with Intercultural Communication) there, in 2009/2010. So how about you start telling us a bit about it?
Back in the day, the MA at Surrey was the only one where you could specialize in Scandinavian languages. I thought it was an excellent programme; it combined theory with practice, and we also had classes in technology, international law and economics, as well as weekly talks by professionals. Translation theory is perhaps not everyone’s bag, and is an academic discipline in its own right. Personally, I enjoyed learning about different schools of thought on what the translation process is, and it supported my practice, but did not necessarily make me a better translator. In my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher, I have come to see it as a shortcut – it kick-starts the brain into thinking like a translator. However, I have also learnt over the years that it’s not necessary to have an MA in order to become an excellent translator, it’s the practice that really matters. I know many people who have come to translation via other routes. These days, however, more and more agencies are asking for higher qualifications and experience with CAT tools. And I’m showing my age by saying that when I did the MA, we discussed the CAT tools that were being introduced to the market, but they were still not a requirement to get work! I am also showing my age when I tell you that it was here that I learned to use a word processor; it was age of WordPerfect for DOS and daisywheel printers, but gave me an invaluable tool to start my career. My guess is that anyone thinking of being a translator today will know how to use a computer, so won’t need to do an MA for that!
The MA was geared towards commercial and technical translation, but the head of department knew that I wanted eventually to translate literature and encouraged me to pursue this. She was the one who put me in touch with NORLA, an organization that promotes Norwegian literature abroad and provides translation subsidies, as well as invaluable support for translators at all stages of the profession. And I am forever indebted to her for that. That meeting with NORLA was the greatest springboard to my development as a literary translator – the second being the BCLT summer school and what is now the National Centre for Writing.
I think that in terms of literary translation, these organizations and opportunities are of more importance than the MA, to be honest, as they have provide contact network of colleagues and publishers that support my life as a translator.
2. You worked for four years as staff translator at a Norwegian bank. How was this experience? What did you learn that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
The job at the central bank of Norway was my first job after doing the MA in Translation, and they definitely employed me because I had an MA. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work inhouse at the outset – I felt like a newly hatched chick, and was able to develop in a stable and secure environment, certainly in terms of finances and confidence. I worked as part of a team of three; the two other translators had been working there for many years and basically mentored me. One of the first things they suggested I do was learn to touch type, as it would increase my productivity. I had no background in economics, so obviously, I learned an enormous amount about economics in general, but also the national economy of Norway, as it was the central bank. But I also learned that I wasn’t necessarily suited to an office job. When I then set up as a freelancer, my experience from the central bank gave a kind of stamp of quality that helped to build my portfolio of clients.
This, in turn, provided me with a relatively good financial base from which to take the plunge into literary translation, through my contact with NORLA.
3. You have an impressively long list of translation works. Which of them did you like translating the most and why? And which of them was the most challenging and why?
Ohohoh, that is so hard to answer. Each book has its merits and challenges. But I do particularly like translating short stories, and at the moment am thoroughly enjoying working with Gunnhild Øyehaug. I first translated one of her short stories (Two by Two) in 2005, and have championed her ever since. Her first collection of short stories and first novel were then picked up by Farrar Strauss & Giroux in 2016, so I’ve been able to indulge in my love of her writing, and in the past few months I have translated a further five-six pieces by her. She is at once realistic and wildly fantastic, with a lot of humour, and she works on several levels, as she likes to use a meta-device or two. Her style involves a lot of comma splices, run-on sentences, and innovative use of compound nouns, etc., so there are plenty of challenges when rendering it in English. Interestingly, I seem to get away more with the US editors than I would with UK editors (having said that, I have never worked with a UK editor on Gunnhild’s work). We also have a very good working relationship – Gunnhild is one of the authors I have had most contact with. An obvious advantage of short stories is that they are fast to read, so we can have a couple of edits together and discuss them fully, whereas with longer works (some of the books I have done have been 600 pages plus) that is a lot harder, unless both author and translator take the time to sit together for a week or two!
The other book that I would like to mention is Beyond the Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjørnsen (aka Elling). This was a co-translation with Don Bartlett, and was my first published translation. I love working collaboratively. It has its challenges, especially in terms of ego, when the word you are so pleased with, is dropped – but I was constantly learning and honing my skills, and I do believe it makes for a better product (and possibly a better person too, as you’re having to work with and accommodate other people’s ideas and language). It was a great experience, as we played to each other strengths, and I would definitely like to do more co-translations.
4. In the 2017 edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you were part of a panel for Daniel Hahn: The Power of Translation. I’m not asking you to tell us about it because if you are like me, chances are you don’t remember it at all. So my question is: What is the power of translation, in your opinion?
Well, the way things stand today, certainly here in the UK, I think the power of translation is abundantly clear. I have spent much time over the past months and years thinking about what I can do personally to fight against the tide of xenophobia that has been unleashed since the Brexit referendum, and the answer is always translate, translate, translate. Miguel Unamuno famously said: Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by travelling. And translated literature allows us to do both, even from our armchair – it expands our understanding of other cultures and places, helps us to see our own situation in a new light, makes us curious, and broadens our capacity to embrace the unknown. Just a couple of days ago, I did a very Edinburgh Fringe thing for the first time in years: I took a punt on the one show that wasn’t sold out in the venue I was called Before the Revolution by the Temple Independent Theatre Company from Egypt and was in Arabic with surtitles. The two actors, dressed in white, stood facing us without moving, on a bed of nails for the entire forty minutes or so. At first I expected something more to happen, to be entertained more in some way, and then I thought “these people must really want to tell me their story” and I listened more carefully and learned so much. I left with a grain of understanding of what people in Egypt had been through, which I would never have had, had they hadn’t bothered to have their play translated and come to the Edinburgh Fringe.
I’m sure there are plenty of other things to be said about the power of translation, but for me, at the moment, this is the most important.
5. In ten years of experience giving seminars and talks, you have talked about different topics, such as translating (crime) fiction, translating cultural peculiarities, translation theory and practice, the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor, etc. What do you like talking about the most and why?
I always feel terrified when I’m asked to do something like this, but have learned to say yes, no matter. I tend to think of myself as quite an organic translator; I grew up bilingually, more or less, and even though I’ve studied translation theory and the like, I rarely think in any detail about what I’m doing or my strategy while I’m working. So being forced to sit down and think more clearly about the translation process from whichever angle is a good thing. I think it’s not so much what I’m talking about, but rather who I’m talking with that makes it fun. And I never tire of talking with other translators (I think generally, translators never tire of talking translation) – there are very few others who find the minutiae of what we do interesting for more than a short while, so it’s always a treat to be allowed to indulge. The last panel that I chaired on the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor was a great one as the topic is a rich vein to plow: the direct relationship between translator and editor, the translator as copy editor/proofer, the translator as editor of an anthology, for example. Everyone on the panels works with and wears both hats, so it was a very insightful, engaging and lively discussion.
6. What book translated from Norwegian into English do you highly recommend us?
Again, such a hard question to answer, I could recommend so many, for so many different reasons. But given what I said above about the power of translation, and given the swing to the right in so many countries today, I’m going to say The Seed by Tarjei Vesaas, published in English by Peter Owen in 1966. And since the terrorist attack in Norway by a far right extremist in 2011, I have been bending people’s ear about this book, and trying to get the publisher to retranslate it. I think perhaps I just need to do it, if nothing else to ease my own itch. Vesaas wrote the book in 1939-40. It is a highly symbolic story about how violence comes to an idyllic island with the arrival of a disturbed young man who had experienced a fatal explosion in the factory where he worked. It is about mob mentality, violence, blame, guilt and atonement, and the message could not be clearer: violence must not be tolerated.
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
There are so many great women in translation I would love to nominate, though you have interviewed a number of them already. I am going to nominate Marilyn Booth, who translates from Arabic, and her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Beings recently won the Booker International. I know her as a former colleague from Edinburgh University, a neighbour, a fellow translator, and most essentially of all, good company!