On translating Vigdis Hjorth

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Four middle-aged siblings squabbling over two old holiday cabins isn’t exactly a plot of epic proportions. And yet this modest quarrel sparks an explosion which will reverberate for generations. 

Although WILL AND TESTAMENT by the Norwegian writer, Vigdis Hjorth, can be read as a family saga on one level, Hjorth extracts universal themes such as conflict and reconciliation, forgiveness and responsibility from the personal. 

Hjorth’s novels are often centred around a female narrator, a western everywoman, whose interactions with family and the wider world allow the author to explore issues faced by people who live in a progressive and affluent country. The characters live examined lives and while grateful for their comfort and security, they are also conscious of the responsibility their privilege entails. Being happy almost becomes a duty as does the obligation to help the less fortunate. And yet the characters’ liberal values are tested to destruction when their ideals clash with the reality of human behaviour.

Identity has become a central theme in Norwegian literature in recent years, most notably in the novels of Karl Ove Knausgård, which blur the line between fact and fiction creating the concept of auto fiction. Hjorth, however, is ultimately an author of ideas, despite the personal and domestic setting of her novels where the microcosm is deployed to reflect the macrocosm. WILL AND TESTAMENT, set in modern day Norway, follows the implosion of a family when it becomes clear that the parents have favoured two of their four children in their will for no apparent reason. Although everyone in the novel is well off and no one needs the money, the unfairness of this decision pushes the siblings over the edge and they are soon embroiled in a bitter conflict. Again this might sound like an unpromising plot: Why would we care about them and their first world problems? However, it’s the characters’ self-awareness that draws us in, especially that of Bergljot, the oldest of the four siblings. They are painfully aware of how they fall short of the people they aspire to be as their thoughts and actions reveal the people they are. They may be civilised, privileged and educated citizens of one of the happiest countries in the world, but feelings of hurt, neglect and entitlement, revenge and rectitude destroy their veneer of concern and inclusion.

Hjorth uses the family conflict as a mechanism to explore the nature of irreconcilable differences, situations where you have to pick a side. Where it is impossible for both parties to get the outcome they want, an unpopular truth in Scandinavia, used as people there are to coalition governments and comprise. No one gets their own way all of the time, but most get some of what they want much of the time, which strengthens unity and tolerance. A friend of Bergljot’s studies conflicts, past as well as present, and comments on her family’s feud by highlighting the similarities and patterns into which many conflicts fall when no solution can provide a fair outcome for both sides. Bergljot’s sister, Astrid, is a human rights lawyer and uses strategies from work in an attempt to solve the family conflict. She advocates forgiveness and tolerance, but Bergljot feels that the solutions promoted by her sister require her (Bergljot) to aside her pain and hurt for the greater good. “When you meet victims of human rights abuses, is that what you tell them? Everybody makes mistakes?” an incredulous Bergljot wonders when Astrid claims to occupy the moral high ground. And yet she agonises over whether she can indeed allow herself to inflict such hurt on so many people, including her own children. But she has tried denying her truth and it hasn’t worked. Deep down she is driven by a sense of justice and fairness that can’t be defeated by logic or calls to the greater good. 

The book is a forensic analysis of combustible conversations, those moments when it could go either way, where you have choices, where you sense the danger, but don’t back down. Those emails and text messages you know you shouldn’t write, or having written them, you definitely shouldn’t send. And yet the characters do just that, as we ourselves probably would, being hurt and desperate to make their case and to be believed, although they know that doing so will probably just add fuel to the fire. A seemingly throwaway comment “I just thought you ought to know”, triggers an avalanche of acrimonious email exchanges. And the more we get to know the characters, the less confident we are that anything is throwaway but in fact is a strategic move in a war of words where truth is the prize and the loser is branded a liar. We become suspicious of the language of reconciliation – isn’t it just another form of manipulation, even bullying? There seems to be no respite for Bergljot, even nature is against her. As she hides under her duvet, pretending not to be at home, Bergljot remembers that her footprints in the snow will betray her, and prays for more snow to fall.

Hjorth has repeatedly stressed that she is a writer of fiction whenever her readers have asked if the characters in this book are thinly veiled versions of the author and her family. On the first page of the novel where the father dies, Bergljot observes: “It [His death] was too much like a plot twist in a novel for it to be just an accident”. Hjorth, or is it Bergljot, teases the reader by reminding us that truth may be stranger than fiction, but the flippant tone at the beginning also helps create a false sense of security. What starts as a humorous study of a middle-class family imploding through its own greed, vanity and entitlement, soon takes a much darker turn. And as it does, the question of who we believe becomes much more critical.

When reading WILL AND TESTAMENT, it is tempting to take the story at face value and look for parallels in real life, but this may attest more to Hjorth’s skill as a writer than to prove that this novel is an example of auto fiction. The fact, fiction or deception aspect is another cornerstone of the novel, the issue of credibility. As more family revelations surface, our sympathy for and our trust in the characters shifts, mirroring precisely why some conflicts are impossible to arbitrate. We can never know enough to make sure our decision is based on a solid foundation, but then again sitting on the fence indefinitely also causes hurt and grief to victims because it stops them from being believed. Those not directly involved in a conflict end up taking sides by default – even if they have spent decades trying not to – because by staying neutral, they find they have inadvertently sided with the one party who benefits from the conflict remaining unresolved. But Hjorth also has some sympathy for those family members who, like the readers, are forced to live in ignorance, how uncomfortable and unwanted that position is, she appreciates that the need for certainty is only human, while showing us how the discomfort of others piles even more pressure on the victim. Bergljot’s family insists on stand-up-in-court proof, and then reconciliation. But, as Bergljot argues, if she had that kind of proof, she wouldn’t need anyone to believe her. The facts would speak for themselves.

The initial bone of contention, the cabin, is iconic in Norwegian culture. Outdoor pursuits are popular and many families have a cabin where they spend the summer fishing and foraging. These cabins are often very primitive and have been passed down the generations. This can lead to complicated arithmetic to share the use of the cabin when the units of occupancy awarded to each family member ultimately become so small that the arrangement becomes unworkable. Which gives rise to the delicate question of who inherits the family cabin and who has to go off and start their own tradition. If you are interested in a light-hearted take on Norwegians and their cabins, I recommend Ylvis, the Norwegian comedian of “What does the fox say” fame and his song “The Cabin” which can be found on YouTube. 

WILL AND TESTAMENT is Hjorth’s second novel to be translated into English, the first being A HOUSE IN NORWAY, which I translated a few years ago. In A HOUSE IN NORWAY, a Norwegian woman rents out part of her house to a Polish family, but soon the inequality and differences between landlord and tenant create conflict; the book is a study in tolerance and an exploration of the merits and motivation for helping others. I worked closely with its UK publishers, Norvik Press, to find the most suitable Hjorth novel to introduce her to English-language readers and read several before recommending A HOUSE IN NORWAY. Reading her work so widely showed me the ideas and writers that influence her writing overall, especially Kierkegaard and Freud, so that when I came to translate her, I felt I had a good grasp of the thinking that underpins her novels. I was also better equipped to translate her long sentences, a feature of her writing which I might initially have suggested breaking up, especially since Hjorth doesn’t divide her books into chapters. Now I know that the long sentences reflect the characters’ stream of consciousness thinking, that they allow for a process of discovery and are a crucial feature of her writing. As part of my work I would read the translation out loud to myself to get the rhythm, repetition and emotions in the sentences to ring true. I was in contact, mostly by email, with the author to resolve potential translation problems. Her supportive and positive attitude meant I would never hesitate to contact her, but neither did I bombard her with emails, only if I was sure the answer couldn’t be found in the text, which I now know almost by heart. We also had the opportunity to meet for a week in London to promote A HOUSE IN NORWAY. We discovered that writing and translating share many similarities in practical terms: we are both self-employed, spend much time alone and in front of our computers, and live lives which are much more organised than a bohemian dream of the creative life may suggest, but also that we both find this essential to have the freedom to do the work we do.

I have recently finished translating a third Hjorth novel for Verso, LONG LIVE THE POST HORN! Here a PR consultant discovers a sense of purpose and community when she is tasked with helping a trade union fight the introduction in Norway of the EU’s third postal directive. Again, not an easy-sell premise for a novel, but Hjorth transforms it into a joyful story of social justice. There is also a darker side to this novel: Outrage at the notion that one of the richest countries in the world would ever think that putting profit before people is an acceptable aim.  

In her native Norway Hjorth is an award-winning author with more than twenty novels under her belt, and she has been translated into many languages. Her relatively late arrival in English has baffled me as I believe her to be a writer of truly universal appeal and importance. She is outward-looking, despite the seemingly domestic setting of her books, and challenges her characters to consider their place in the world and their responsibility to each other. She writes about our human responsibility. How we make the most of our lives, how we demonstrate personal and social responsibility, how we are connected, and what we owe to one another. 

As Bergljot observes towards the end of WILL AND TESTAMENT when she has entered a church and lit a candle for her loved ones: “The candle started to flicker… I turned to see where the draught was coming from... then I realised it was my breathing that caused it to flicker. Every time I exhaled, it would flicker simply because I breathed, because I was alive, I existed, I set things in motion, it was a great responsibility, to breathe, to live, too big for me.”

Will and Testament: A Novel by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund, is out now! The first in our new Verso Fiction series, publishing uncompromisingly intelligent and beautiful books with an international focus. 

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