We’ve returned to Europe on our continual trek around the globe interviewing translators. This time we have a translator who works in a wide number of European languages, Kerri Pierce. Kerri Pierce is a writer, translator, and mother living in Rochester, NY. She has translated works from seven different languages spanning several genres. Her short translations have appeared in places such as Fiction and The New Yorker, and her longer translations include novels and works of philosophy. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Penn State.
K.E. Semmel: You’ve now published translations from a number of languages. As a translator primarily focused on a single language, I’m in awe. Tell us what it’s like to translate from so many different languages. What are some challenges you face?
Kerri Pierce: To date I’ve actually published translations from seven different languages. I suppose, given my comparative literature background, it feels natural to me to work in a variety of languages at once. However, I have to say that I fell into translation rather by chance when I applied for a position at a small press and ended up doing a year-long translation fellowship. I really knew nothing about translation at that point. And to say that I fell through the rabbit hole would be putting it mildly. I remember that at one point I was trying to translate short stories from five different languages at once. A wild time, and if you were to ask me about a maniacal red queen, I wouldn’t deny it. (Deadlines, among other things, can be a bitch.) Since then, I’ve primarily worked in the Scandinavian languages. At the moment I’m translating a Faroese novel, The Brahmadelles, by Jóanes Nielsen. A significant challenge there is not having actually traveled to the Faroe Islands and so having to imagine the novel’s unfamiliar landscape as I’m translating.
KES: Let’s talk about that Faorese book. Many people may not even realize that the Faroe Islands has its own language and that they publish books there. First, tell us about the Faroese language, and then tell us a little bit about the novel.
KP: The Faroese language is amazing. It’s a minority language, which means that are not a lot of people that speak it. I believe there are only around 60,000 Faroese native speakers. Like Greenland, the Faroe Islands used to be a Danish colony. However, due to the Faroes’ geographic (North Sea) location, the language, despite being considered Scandinavian, also has had a Celtic influence. Like its closest living relative, Icelandic, Faroese is also an ancient language. Both Faroese and Icelandic can be directly traced back to Old Norse.
Another thing I find fascinating about the language, which is also reflected in the novel that I’m translating, is that it is very much a language of place, if that makes any sense. Sheep rearing, for example, forms an integral part of Faroese culture, and so in my Faroese dictionary there are pages of sheep-related words, not to mention an extremely nuanced vocabulary for the sea, whaling, the Faroese landscape, traveling conditions (not always the easiest) between the Faroes––seriously, I could lose myself in that dictionary for days!
The novel I’m translating, The Brahmadelles, is very interesting. Although it is subtitled, A North Atlantic Chronicle, with the sweeping scope that implies (the novel covers over a hundred years of Faroese history), it is also is very much a local story. Similarly, the book features a host of protagonists, but, akin to a short story, it leaves the bulk of each person’s history unwritten. As a result, when it comes to the Faroes, and when it comes to the people who populate them, the reader receives several intense, intimate looks, and together these glimpses form a more epic history, which emphasizes the Danish colonial period and its aftermath. (The novel actually gets its title from a family, nicknamed “the Brahmadelles,” whose members frequently reoccur in the story.)
The Brahmadelles, as one might guess from the subtitle, is also quite satirical. After all, it is a “North Atlantic Chronicle” about a group of islands many people have never even heard of. One of my favorite things about the book, too, is its dark humor and also its poetry. Both are the kind that makes you want to laugh and cry at once and that sticks in your head at night. In many respects, this book is perhaps the most challenging project I have taken on.
KES: In October, Open Letter publishes your translation of Iben Mondrup’s Justine. I’ve not read that particular Mondrup book. What’s it about? What can readers expect with Mondrup?
KP: Justine, which is the third book in Open Letter’s Danish Women Author series, focuses on the adventures, amorous and otherwise, of a rather eccentric artist, Justine. The book opens with Justine’s house on fire and the fact that Vita, Justine’s girlfriend, has just ended their relationship. Throughout the novel, Justine attempts to piece her life back together, and this includes finding her way back to artistic creativity as well as reconstructing what happened the night of the fire. (There is a tragedy there, but I won’t spill the secret.) What can readers expect from Mondrup? A gloves off, feminist look at the place of women in the Danish art world, not to mention the nature of unbridled female sexuality. (Wolf!) Because Mondrup grew up in Greenland, Greenlandic culture also plays a significant role.
KES: What’s up next?
KP: Right now I’m finishing up the Faroese book and am trying to actively concentrate on my own creative writing. I’m actually revisiting a novel I wrote about a decade ago about a guy whose wife leaves him for a pair of headlights on the wall.
K.E. Semmel is a writer, translator, and curator of the Translator’s Cut. His forthcoming translation is Thomas Rydahl’s The Hermit. He’s the executive director of Writers & Books in Rochester, NY. Find him on Twitter @kesemmel.