Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 6: Don Bartlett on Bringing Us Karl Ove Knausgaard

"You are originating when you translate; [...] you’re co-writing, you’re creating something in English from another language, it’s a creative act."

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 6: Don Bartlett on Bringing Us Karl Ove Knausgaard

FIVE YEARS AGO, the translator Don Bartlett read the first volume of an emotionally wrenching, preternaturally detailed Norwegian autobiographical novel that had caused a stir in Norway, and indeed, across Scandinavia. Called Min Kamp (My Struggle), it ran to 3,600 pages — divided into six books — and was written by an author little-known (then) outside of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, named Karl Ove Knausgaard. The London editor Geoff Mulligan had asked Bartlett to take a look at the book to see if Knausgaard might have crossover potential for English readers; and when he finished volume one, Bartlett recalls, “I told him — it sounds a bit silly now — I told him I thought he was worth the risk.” He certainly was: in 2012, the release of the first volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle in English, in Bartlett’s translation, set off a literary frenzy in the English-reading world that continues to this day. While continuing to translate other Scandinavian novelists (notably Jo Nesbø and Per Petterson), Bartlett has produced one new installment in the series every year since then, each one hungrily awaited by Knausgaard’s devoted readership. The sixth and final volume of My Struggle comes out in 2017. In our conversation, Bartlett described the journey that led him from teaching to translating, and discussed the stamina and creativity required by this exacting, expressive art. To translate is not simply to transfer, he told me; it is to retell.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: It is an honor to speak with you. I admire your work so much — I devoured volumes one through five of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle; I think one and five are my favorites. 

DON BARTLETT: I think the second one is still my favorite.

I think the fourth volume — Dancing in the Dark, about Karl Ove’s year after high school, teaching school up by the Arctic Circle — is the most accessible.

I know a lot of British readers who said they tried to read volume one and didn’t finish, and I said, “You should go the other way round.” For me two and five are the ones I love best.

How many years have you been working on My Struggle?

We have done one a year, since 2011, but we are taking two years for volume six. As far as I’m concerned, that has been perfect timing. [Note: Harvill Secker published the first volume of Bartlett’s English translation of My Struggle, subtitled A Death in the Family, in 2012; the second, A Man in Love, in 2013; the third, Boyhood Island, in 2014; the fourth, Dancing in the Dark, in 2015; and the fifth, Some Rain Must Fall, in 2016. The sixth volume will be published in 2017. In the United States, Archipelago Books published the series nearly simultaneously.] So, originally I did number one in one year and number two in the second year, then the agent was keen to have all six to be done one after the other, without any space between them, but I said that I wouldn’t have had the stamina to do that, so it’s been one a year.

How is your work on volume six going? 

We are going to split volume six — Martin Aitken is doing the first half — because, as you know, it’s a major thing, 1,100 pages long in Norwegian, and it’ll be around 1,200 or 1,215 pages in English. So we have decided to split it, and I’ll do the last part.

How will it feel for you to come to the end of it?

It will feel strange. At the moment, I am still in the middle of it. All of them have been arduous, I would say. Whenever I have finished one, for all sorts of reasons it’s taken me a month, or two months after, to get over doing it. Then I get back to what I felt when I finished the book. But all of them have required a lot of stamina. When I have had a couple of months to recover from the effort of it all, I can get back to feeling what I felt about it.

What are you translating now, apart from volume six?

At the moment, I’m doing Karl Ove’s football book, which is called Home and Away, a correspondence with the Swedish entrepreneur and novelist Fredrik Ekelund about the 2014 World Cup. It is not only a football book, it is also a lot like My Struggle … volume seven. But it is lighter, and very enjoyable to translate.

How and when did you learn Norwegian?

I learned Danish before Norwegian, actually. I had gone to live in Denmark as a teacher, I went there on a teaching job and stayed there for one year. I liked it so much that I stayed another four or five years, and I learned Danish. And once you learn Danish, you can also learn Norwegian.

When did you live in Denmark?

Let me think back, it was a long time ago, the late 1970s and ’80s; and while I was there, I was teaching and studying Danish at the same time. I lived in North Jutland, in Aalborg.

Do you speak other languages, too?

My first degree was in German, and I had spent four years in German-speaking countries, teaching, so my German was pretty good. I lived all over the place when I was growing up. My family moved a lot: north, south, east, west.

As a kid, did you read a lot of novels in translation?

I did read a lot in translation, but unconsciously. I read Jules Verne, I read all the classics, I read lots and lots of books in translation in primary and secondary school, and I was never aware that they were in fact translations. It was only in university that I ever looked to see who was translating, and it’s only been slowly with the years that I’ve checked who it is was and how they do it, how they feel.

What are the differences you mark between translators? 

I could always hear differences between the translators, and I could always hear who it was translating. When I started out as a translator, I used to read Henning Mankell. I think it’s very hard to hide your own voice, you’ve got your own preferences, and you feel something when you read the translation that allows you to identify that voice.

What was the first book you translated?

The first complete one was nonfiction. That was in 2000, from Danish, a book about children’s literature. For years and years, I have been a teacher of foreign language, and I have also done teacher training for English-speaking people learning to teach English.

What was the first novel you translated?

That would have been 2003, it was a Danish novel I translated to be used as a script to make a film based on the book. I did that so everybody could work from the scripts I translated. There were lots of bits from German, Spanish, and Norwegian — Jens Jensen was the name of the author, I can’t remember the name of it. Then, the first novel that I translated that was published was Norwegian — a crime book — and it came out with Harvill [before Harvill and Secker merged]. It was a long time ago now, 2003 [it was The Golden Section, by Pernille Rygg]. Then, I have done quite a few of the Jo Nesbø novels.

How did that collaboration come about?

I used to go to book fairs and look around, and I was always interested to see which crime novels were coming out. Once, when I went to Copenhagen, Denmark, there was this big talk by one Swede and one Norwegian, and the Norwegian was Jo Nesbø. I liked what he said, so I went and read all his novels, then the Norwegian publishing company Aschehoug asked me to translate one book on spec for them, and they could try to sell it. That started it, that was the first one I did, the first Nesbø: The Devil’s Star.

What moved you to translate novels?

The reason I started translating at all is that, one day, I was in Switzerland, and I picked up a book by a Swiss writer — he was Austrian-Swiss. I loved it, and I thought: I wonder if this is in English. It wasn’t. He’d written five novels in all, and I read all of them. Then I started thinking about other authors I loved reading in German, and they weren’t in English either. Then I realized there were loads of novels that were good that weren’t in English, and I realized there was something I could do. That was 1992 or 1993, so it has been a slow process. It’s a slow process, changing from one career to another. I think it was in 1993; I took this exam, a diploma in translation in German. It’s a very practical exam, with a very high failure rate. I took it and I passed, and then I did an MA at the University of East Anglia in Norwich that I finished in 1999 or 2000. Once I had finished it, I put teaching on hold and thought: Let’s see. I was in my 40s, this was slow-steeping. I have always been interested in translation, but I think interest in translation was very slow to grow, not just for me but also for the industry. I think interest started growing in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s; not much was happening in translation for a long time, it’s only really started happening since 2005.

What do you think explains the surge in interest? 

When I used to go around book fairs, I talked to publishers in London, and what they told us all the time is, “Nah, nah, you can’t do translations, people don’t like translations, just like they don’t like subtitles.” But then there was a Danish novel by Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, that was one of the first to become really popular, which was good for the editor, Christopher MacLehose, who was at Harvill then. Of course, after that, it was still more or less the same. Translation was still regarded as a very risky venture, because of the extra money you have to pay translators, when there’s still no guarantee the book will succeed. Then with Stieg Larsson [NB: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy crime series, featuring Lisbeth Salander, was published posthumously in Sweden between 2005 and 2007. Its third volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, translated by Reg Keeland (a pseudonym of Steven T. Murray) was the most sold book in the United States in 2010], everything changed. Suddenly, people that worked in translation could make money. Also, if you remember, there was a Danish television series called The Killing that came out before Stieg Larsson, so suddenly we found ourselves in Britain watching a Danish crime fiction series on television with subtitles, and everyone found out that people weren’t put off by the subtitles at all, so the attitude started changing.

But South American novels had thrived in translation before then, why do you think the Scandinavian translation trend made translations cross over more broadly?

I think literary fiction — García Márquez and lots of other authors, lots of South American writers — has always been there, but once Scandinavian crime fiction authors found a place, they brought a lot of more serious authors with them — so a literary writer like Per Petterson, for example, was doing well at the same time Stieg Larsson was doing so well in crime fiction.

How did you come to be the translator of Knausgaard’s My Struggle?

That came out of the blue, because of Geoff Mulligan, the editor at the publishing house where I had translated Jo Nesbø, Harvill Secker. I’d done 11 books by Jo, and Geoff was interested in translating Knausgaard, so he contacted me and asked me to read the first one and tell him what I thought. I told him — it sounds a bit silly now — I told him I thought he was worth the risk. I said he would be divisive, and he definitely was. Harvill Secker bought the first two novels and I agreed I would translate them and we would just see how it went. It went well, and very soon we saw it went very well, it must have been 2012 when the first book came out in English.

What did you make of the world’s astonishingly receptive reaction to My Struggle?

I think it has outperformed everything we imagined. I think it has been a bit of a surprise; we all felt it was good, but we thought because of the style in which it was written, we could find people who would not like it and would say so. We did see that, but there were also quite a few positive reviews, we weren’t sure at that point how we would go on. Karl Ove responded to the reviews very well, and was very good in interviews.

What is your rapport with Karl Ove, as his translator? Do you contact him a lot? 

I talked to him at the very beginning; I said, “How to do you want to do this, what do you think?” He said he didn’t want to be involved in the process, so our arrangement was that I sent him the first 50 pages, and I said, “Have I got the tone and voice right?” He said yes, and after that I haven’t bothered him at all. I think I’ve probably asked him three questions over the five volumes I have translated. I know he fields questions from a lot of translators and other people all the time, and I know he would prefer to let me get on with it.

What is your process?

I don’t like starting blind; I like reading the book and getting an idea of what the problems are, getting an idea of what the characters are, getting an idea of what to do with it. I put down one draft and that kind of takes away my nerves, then I feel more comfortable taking risks with what I am doing, and then I improve it and improve it. I do three or four drafts until I’m happy with what I have. Well, I am never happy with what I have, but happier. Some people do one draft, but with me, it’s got to be a bit more level by level.

What do you like about translating? 

In all of the books on which I’ve worked, I like the creativity: creating the character. That has been the most fun with the My Struggle series, creating the characters in the book, and then creating the dialogue to match the character, defining the voice. That’s what I like best. Finding the voice, the tone, the dialogue.

What do you dislike about translating?

I have recently had tendinitis, and I have had to go for massage as well. I changed the level of the desk. I think the fact I don’t like is — you sit there for so long. I’ve always liked running and getting around doing things, especially pre–Knausgaard. Once I started translating Knausgaard, I would get in a run in the middle of the day. I live in the country, so I’d start in the morning, finish working on Karl Ove say at 12 o’clock or something, run from home into the fields, run for about three quarters of an hour, and come back to him in the second half of the day. Still, in all the years of translating, I’ve never had any problem with tendinitis until this last year. And of course, your eyesight deteriorates, sitting in front of the computer so long. You go to some physicians, and they tell you you’ve got to move your eyes up and down and around all the time; then I’ve been to others who say it doesn’t matter — if you’re sitting six, seven, eight hours in front of the screen, it’ll get to you.

How many books have you translated?

I’m not sure, but I’m told it’s somewhere between 50 and 60. I do the occasional workshop, but I stopped teaching around 2005, so I’ve been translating for 10 years pretty much full on.

What makes a translation good?

When you can believe it, believe that the story works, you can feel the characters, you can feel the voice, you can feel the language used is right, and you’re swallowed up by it.

What makes a translation bad?

When you’re reading a translation, and there are little bits that don’t sound quite right, then you’ve lost your belief in the story. I would never call it bad, but I don’t like it when I read a story and become aware of awkward wording. I’ve got to be sucked in, I’ve got to believe the plot, I’ve got to be taken in; and sometimes you read a translation and the words don’t feel right, you think, “No, that person wouldn’t say that.” Or sometimes you think, “Not only does that not fit the character, it’s not what we say.” I never feel there’s such a thing as a bad translation, but I don’t think there’s a perfect translation, either. You make a translation as good as you possibly can, but nothing is perfect. You’re bound to get a note off here and there. When you compare it with music or orchestra, it’s like when someone hits a bum note in a symphony. It doesn’t upset you, it doesn’t keep you from continuing to listen.

Do you have a favorite translator?

No. I like a lot of translators.

Have you translated both living and dead authors?

They have all been living. There are two dead authors I would have liked to translate, one is Friedrich Glauser [a German-speaking Swiss novelist, who died in 1938]. I would have loved to translate him, but I didn’t get to. Then there is a Danish writer, Dan Turèll, who wrote crime stories, kind of poorly plotted but they’ve got a charm and wit that wins you over.

Do you get to choose what you translate now?

In translation, you can never say for sure which books you’ll get. You might have a preference, but as you get into the profession, you don’t take on books you don’t like, because you can’t translate a book you don’t like.

Do you think translating is creative, do you ever feel guilty for not writing your own fiction?

You are originating when you translate; you’re creating, you’re co-writing, you’re creating something in English from another language, it’s a creative act. I don’t feel guilty.

Why should people read works in translation?

Because we live in a kind of Anglo-bubble; it doesn’t matter whether it’s American or British. And reading translated fiction allows you to see the world through other eyes. Even if it’s crime fiction, it’s still a form of traveling, opening your mind, seeing other systems, seeing that the world isn’t uniform.

Do translators get short shrift? Or do you think awareness of translators is increasing?

I think it’s improving, but it’s sometimes very odd when a book is translated, is quoted widely, and you realize — it’s your words, but nobody’s mentioned that you were involved in the process. To me that’s always bizarre. It would be as if someone were to play Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony in an orchestra in the local concert hall, and they don’t mention the conductor or the orchestra. That’s what not mentioning the translator is like.

Who should be translated (or better known) who isn’t?

I am always stumped by that. New books are coming out all the time, and I find I’m just so busy I’m not keeping up with what’s going on. There’s lots of good writing going around. Friedrich Glauser: I always felt that about him, he was the one that really started it for me, and what I understood was, he married crime fiction with saying something important about society. That’s always the thing I like about Germans: when they write, they’re telling a story, perhaps not as strong a story, but it creates a kind of message. Glauser was fantastic at creating a detective, but mostly he tells a story about the society in which he was living. He finally was translated around 2000. Before he was translated, very few people knew about him.

Which languages have you translated from most? Do you prefer any of them?

Norwegian and Danish. I did one novel from Swedish, it’s one I liked, but obviously it didn’t catch on. I definitely like translating Norwegian literature because of the quality; and I’ve enjoyed the Danish books I translated as well. As for German literature — I have just translated an excerpt from a German novel, but at some point I would like to do a German novel, though it will be different from Norwegian or Danish. When you translate from Norwegian and Danish, they’re similar, I just know things in those languages that are similar, and I’ve translated them in a similar way. If I go to German, it would be a learning process then, so it would be slower.

What traits do you think translators have in common, if any?

I suppose we all like our own company. You’re alone, but words do something for you; words have a special value for you, so if you spend a whole day in a room away from anybody else, the words themselves have a magic that gives you a feeling the day is still worthwhile. When I meet other translators at book fairs and so on, we’re all over each other, keen to talk; and that night when you go back to wherever you’re sleeping, your brain is flooded with impressions, because suddenly so many things from the real world have impinged on yours.

How would you fill this in: a translation is to the original as X is to Y?

I don’t think there is a formula for translation. We all create metaphors for what we do, and I suppose we do that because it’s difficult to describe. If you create a metaphor to try to explain to people what it’s like for me, the closest is actually music. You’ve got a composer, then you’ve got a conductor and orchestra, and what the conductor and orchestra do is to interpret the composer, and that kind of interpretation and replaying is very similar to what we’re doing and that is closest to what we do. I always feel that, when you’re trying to demystify it, that’s what you do. I say to people, I would like it if they would write at the beginning of a translated book, “Retold in English by John Smith,” instead of “Translated by John Smith.”

Why don’t you write novels yourself?

Probably a bit out of fear, you have to provide the structure that writers already have for you; and it’s hard work writing a book, it’s hard work getting it all together finding the structure, finding the characters, making it all work, drawing in the reader. It’s hard work for me at least. I know I wouldn’t find it easy.


 Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic and translator.

LARB Contributor

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. She translates fiction and nonfiction from German, French, and Italian; recent novels translated include Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (Viking), and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils (Penguin Classics). She is the author of the book Wordbirds, an illustrated lexicon of necessary neologisms for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster).


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!