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The Translator Relay: Kira Josefsson

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. 

For June’s installment, María José Giménez passed the baton to Kira Josefsson .


What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

Many translators work in languages they have chosen because they have an interest in a particular literature or culture. I translate between Swedish and English, and it’s a practice I resisted for years. I grew up in Sweden, but in a multilingual environment, and as a child and teenager I was always more interested in the languages that were not my mother tongue. Swedish seemed to me a small and unlovely language, a feeling that probably had a lot to do with the desire many people have to get away from their roots. Still, I do think it’s true that it’s not always a very expansive language, something that might have to do with the lack of broad, serious attention to humanities scholarship in the country, and perhaps, ironically, also the fact that a lot of Swedish speakers read and write English quite well, and that it’s a language often used in the universities, for example. I think this means that a lot of the more specialized and unusual words are given less legwork, hence shrinking the boundaries of how one can express oneself without sounding strange or archaic.

I largely left Sweden when I was eighteen and spent a lot of time refusing to think about what it means to be from a place. Though I was working as an editor and writer in both English and Swedish, regularly translating prose, I didn’t consider that task as something I would ever consciously choose to do. I simply wasn’t interested enough in one of my most active working languages. Then, a few years ago, I befriended some translators and realized that the questions of literary translation—ones that circle themes of power, meaning, communication, and beauty—are conundrums I puzzle over constantly. It felt like coming home. Around the same time, I had started to think more deeply about what it means to turn your back on the language that birthed and fed you, and these questions were also ones that could be explored in translation work. What responsibilities and allegiances do you have to your home? In choosing work that lifts voices that might not usually be thought of as “Swedish,” I have not only discovered both an aesthetic and intellectual interest in Swedish, but also, on a personal level, a space where I can interrogate my own relationship to the country that shaped me.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I guess nothing and everything is untranslatable, right? But to give one example that was difficult to render seamlessly: Pooneh Rohi’s Araben contains a conversation between an Iranian immigrant mother and her daughter, where the mother asks about the Swedish expression “darra på manschetten.” It nearly literally means “your shirt cuff trembles,” and signifies that you’re hesitating, that you’re getting afraid. Not only is there no directly corresponding image in English, but Yasaman, the daughter, explains the expression by pointing to her own shirt cuff, an image that was necessary to retain. I ended up translating the expression as it is in Swedish, while adding a gloss explaining that it’s an idiomatic expression. Letting the seams be visible in this way felt appropriate, since the novel to a great extent is about foreignization and language. Karen Emmerich’s workshop at Bread Loaf last year was very helpful for thinking through this puzzle (among others!).


Do you have any translating rituals?

I’ve been trying to reduce my reliance on rituals for any sort of writing work, because going too deep with the mystical quality of it can make the work itself seem overwhelming and impossible. How does anything come into being on the page, if you really think about it? That question is inevitably there, whether you think about it or not. On a more practical level, since I translate into both Swedish and English, I try to read in the language I’m translating into when I’m working on something, and I try to listen to music with lyrics in the same language.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Following the above, I really do think of translation as magic. Making something appear in a language in which it was previously inaccessible is mind-blowing, something that is probably most tangible at readings. Words first thought in some room and context very far away suddenly hang in the air around listeners who might not even be able to have a conversation with the person who first wrote them. It proves that borders and demarcations are always porous. The connection created in that moment is pretty incredible, and in this way, translation, like magic, can be a caring, communal, and highly political practice. This doesn’t mean it happens without a lot of effort, of course. Magic isn’t spontaneous but requires a lot of skill and finessing. Witches are hard workers. 


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

In addition to my ongoing work on Araben, and a short radio monologue also by Pooneh Rohi, I am working on translations of excerpts from an interview book by Cecilia Hansson about the political and cultural situation in Central Europe. I translated some of those interviews into Swedish from English, so it’s a weird and fun task to now go the other way. The book itself has a lot to say about art and resistance, among other things.

A very recent project is a fantastic reportage book by Annah Björk and Mattias Beijmo about a refugee boat that sank in the Mediterranean in January 2015 after both the Turkish and the Greek coast guard refused to come to their rescue. Out of fifty-three people, only twelve survived. Their stories, as well as Annah’s and Mattias’s terrifying investigation into the case, make a harrowing book that’s unlike anything I’ve read about the refugee crisis, which, of course, is still very much ongoing even though it’s not on newspaper front pages anymore.


You’ve just been awarded a PEN/Heim for your translation of Pooneh Rohi’s Araben (congratulations, again!). What does it mean for you to receive this grant at this stage in your career? What’s next?

This prize, so generously instituted by Michael Heim, is wonderful and I’m deeply grateful to be one of its recipients. Heim’s own life was instrumental in bringing greater interest in translation and translations to the English-speaking world over the last few decades. A devotee to literature in general, who knew that translations have immense power to broaden and enliven a country’s literary tradition, Heim said he believed in literature’s “power to enrich our lives (however clichéd that might sound), in its power to give us, not new answers to difficult questions, but resources to give them life.”

I don’t know what the PEN/Heim prize means for me personally, but I know that Araben gives life to questions I understand as crucial in the current moment. Having both the financial support and the visibility that the prize offers will, I hope, help bring the novel to an English-speaking audience. That’s really my main interest—it’s a novel that has so much to say about a world characterized by migration and the flawed responses by the countries that receive those who are forced to leave their homes. It also speaks to the failures and pitfalls of the Scandinavian welfare state, something we would do well to be aware of when we imagine alternative futures in this country.


Kira Josefsson, a writer and translator working between English and Swedish, has translated poetry by Anne Boyer, Caitie Moore, and Lina Ekdahl. Her in-progress translation of Pooneh Rohi’s novel Araben won a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Based in New York City, she’s part of the translation editorial team at Anomaly (F.K.A. Drunken Boat) and on the editorial board for the Swedish journal Glänta

Published Jun 23, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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