28 January 2021
Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen, tr. By Rosie Hedger, (2018) Nordisk.
Another Thursday evening, another cosy Borderless Book Club. A regular highlight in my bookworm diary since it launched last March, this book club for translated fiction from indie presses has helped lift my lockdown blues and broadened my literary horizons.
Last week’s pick was a whirlwind read I finished in a single afternoon. Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger, swept me up in an emotional rollercoaster as I was drawn into the world of the young female narrator living with the highs and lows of severe mental illness. After the emotions had settled, I was left with plenty of questions and couldn’t wait to hear more about the short novel and find out what other readers thought too.
The evening was hosted as warmly as ever by Peirene publishing assistant Maddie Rogers. The conversation started with a brief introduction to Nordisk Books, an independent publisher founded five years ago by one-man maestro Duncan Lewis who was keen to introduce English speakers to a wider variety of writing from Scandinavian countries. There’s much more than Nordic noir Duncan assured us. Publishing three to four books a year, Nordisk showcases a range of experimental formats and styles. Constantly scouting new talent from Norwegian publishers, Duncan was already a fan of other books by the original publisher Oktober. He had been grabbed by the visceral feel of Zero, described in the Norwegian press as a “bomb blast,” and “punk rock single.”
Translator Rosie Hedger shared what it was like to translate a book like this. “Very challenging!” Much of the text is ambiguous on purpose, and a lot of work was required to recreate the fragmented, disorderly, unstable narrative. She needed to change her usual approach, standing back from the text much further than she normally would with other styles. It was important to avoid the temptation to produce standard, clean copy. Thankfully the author encouraged her to be creative in her choices and do what she felt was right. Pedersen had written the novel on autopilot herself, getting it all out quicky, and felt that the translation shouldn’t be too good or correct either.
Maddie, Duncan, and Rosie drew further on musical metaphors to describe the style of text, saying it felt a bit like jazz. Language breaks down as the narrator suffers ever more serious crises. Rosie explained how she read the translation aloud to be sure she recreated the rhythm of the very short sentences – a staccato effect reflecting the immediacy of the narrative. Not an easy task when working from Norwegian which often uses fewer words than English. The changing flow of the text – the rollercoaster I experienced too – mirrors the narrator's story. Whilst the novel may be short, Rosie found it very demanding, adding that experimental texts place much more responsibility on her as a translator. Duncan noted that short books require a different amount of energy from both the author and the reader.The experience is often more consuming in terms of energy required. When asked if it had been emotionally taxing to translate Zero, Rosie said that the detached style used to narrate horrific events, such as a sexual assault in the psychiatric hospital, made her experience less harrowing than it might otherwise have been with a more traditional style. There are also glimmers of hope throughout the story, hope that things could be okay, she said.
To round off the conversation before the breakout rooms, Maddie was keen to ask more about the Norwegian publishing scene in general. Norway has a particularly good system for funding the arts and writers in general, Rosie explained. The government, for example, buys 1,000 copies of each book published and deemed to be of sufficiently good literary quality. The copies are then distributed around schools and libraries across the country, guaranteeing income for both publishers and writers, allowing them to survive and flourish. Generous funding is also available for translations into other languages.
It was then time to ‘head off’ to the breakout rooms, a great opportunity to hear what others thought about the book and make some new friends all over the world. Maddie always does an excellent job of sharing a few links with interviews and articles in the invitation, along with questions to help guide the conversation. Zero had left a lasting impact on everyone in my room. Whilst we felt it had been an emotional read, the book was generally a hit. There were different interpretations and questions about the ending, which made for a lively discussion. Had the narrator actually travelled to Peru? Was she on drugs she’d taken out there? Or was she hallucinating whilst back on the psychiatric ward? We were also lucky enough to have a couple of people in the group who read Norwegian, an added bonus when discussing the style and images used. After about 20 minutes, we were zoomed back into the main room to hear how the other groups had responded to the book, and have the chance to ask Rosie and Duncan one last question.
Ninety minutes had flown by yet again. Plenty of food for thought about the approach required when translating more experimental texts. Zero is definitely a rollercoaster of events and emotions. I look forward to discovering more contemporary Nordic fiction with Nordisk.
Curious about the backstories to books translated into English? Fancy meeting fellow bookworms from across the world. Then join us! Borderless Book Club meets every other Thursday, 8pm on Zoom. No charge. And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book - I admit that I don't always finish in time! Sign up for the Borderless Book Club mailing list here to receive the invitation every fortnight.
And if you feel like supporting Maddie and the team now that the arts funding has ended, why not buy them a crowdfund Ko-fi here. The good news is that they have reached almost 60% of their target!
Johanna McCalmont is a bookworm and literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch, and Italian and also works as an interpreter.