Seconds after I meet Swedish novelist Lena Andersson, an older man with a small dog interrupts us. We’re on the cobbles outside the building where I’ve rented an attic room in Stockholm. It is a bright, cold February day in 2017. Between the 18th-century buildings is Riddarfjärden, a frozen bay where the ice is just beginning to break. Up in my attic room, I’ve prepared decaf coffee and snacks for our work session on my English translation of her novel Acts of Infidelity, published in Swedish in 2014 as Utan Personlig Ansvar. I’m nervous. The mechanics of her text are so finely calibrated, I fear one flawed word choice will the send the whole project crashing.
Acts of Infidelity is the follow-up to her August Prize-winning novel Willful Disregard: A Novel About Love (tr. Sarah Death, 2015), a searing, philosophical analysis of a love affair between of Ester Nilsson, a fictional Stockholm intellectual, and an artist named Hugo Rask, who is only able, it seems, to love his own art. It left no reader untouched and caused a sensation before it won Swedish literature’s biggest prize.
Months before my visit to Stockholm, I sat with high school friends in Göteborg under a gnarled apple tree, the fallen fruit of which was beginning to ferment. We were eating cake and soaking up the last of the Swedish summer. When I mentioned my next project was translating Acts of Infidelity, the friend who’d made the cake raged against Ester Nilsson, expressing a sentiment that would later be echoed by another friend back home in Berlin: “Ester Nilsson knows nothing of love.” This is one camp. The other camp feels that Ester’s story is their story. And that Acts of Infidelity is the story of every person (in this case, our protagonist Ester Nilsson) who has had their emotions batted around by someone (here, the married actor Olof Sten) who refuses to commit to either being in a relationship or a break-up, someone who makes just enough effort to keep you hanging on and hoping for a happy ending. There seems to be no middle ground for reader reactions to this book. To be more precise: there seems to be no middle ground to readers’ reactions to Ester Nilsson.
In this latter camp, Andersson’s literary diptych is a clear-eyed insight into the ecstasy, obsession and devastation of a certain kind of romance. They are on board for Ester’s journey through a drawn-out, ambiguous affair that is characterized by interactions and analysis like this one, in which Ester has asked Olof “if they couldn’t go for a coffee sometime during a break in [his play] rehearsal schedule.” He doesn’t accept or refuse her offer; instead he asks her if she’s been to a cafe he’s just noticed on Skånegatan. Then Andersson writes:
When [Ester] didn’t immediately reply, he added that he wasn’t wild about coffee or about sitting in cafes, but of course one could make an exception when a new spot opened up in the area. Perhaps.
It was too early in their entanglement for Ester to know that this was Olof ’s way of saying he’d very much like to go for a coffee with her. It was subtle, and that was the point. Ester would eventually get used to Olof Sten’s negative affirmations and would become their most experienced exegete.
Like Ester Nilsson interpreting Olof Sten’s actions, his verbal and written communication, the translator too assumes the role of the exegete. Even when we are not at our desks translating, we wander the world, attuned to it, consumed with the question of what a text is saying, what does it mean, and how do I transpose and transmit the text? How often have I been stopped in my tracks bythe sudden arrival of the right word, the word I believe will make all the difference between a dud translation and one that sings? For instance: “inducement.” It was used in a news item about Melania and Donald Trump that popped up one morning while I was going through edits on the translation with an editor at Picador in the UK. It arrived in the right context, after months of shaking my fist at Olof Sten for being a man who seems to have no center, no solid core, and the particular flavor of cruelty the resulting ambiguity and vacillation gives rise to. Up until quite a late stage in the edits of Acts of Infidelity, the word I had been using was “allure.” I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t come up with a more satisfying solution. The word I was looking for needed to encapsulate the particular flavor of Olof’s game—the game that casts Ester in the role of exegete.There seems to be no middle ground for reader reactions to this book.
“Inducement” features in the following passage. Ester has told Olof she doesn’t want to see him again, but he has since sent her a message that suggests he does, perhaps, want to have the kind of relationship with her that she wants: she wants him to leave his wife and for them to be a couple. So Ester devises a plan. She assigns herself the task of seeing Olof’s latest play in as part of the research for an essay she wants to write. This means traveling to another city to see it. She creates an opportunity for a rendezvous that can be played off as nothing more than a work trip, should romance not in fact be on the cards. One camp understand this lovesick devotion, the willingness to wait and see. The other camp wonders why Ester allows herself to be led on and why she hasn’t hit her limit with this man who only seems more interested in keeping his options open than in her. When Ester messages Olof that she is coming to see his play, Andersson writes:
[Olof’s] reply was immediate, and this in itself was answer enough.
‘Didn’t Miss Nilsson request that I go to hell?’
After having conducted a textual analysis of him for a year and a half, [Ester] knew howpropitious this reply was. Olof Sten was in possession of a set number of mental states.They found their expression in a set number of verbal representations that movedbetween rejection, neutrality and inducement. Ester was well acquainted with thecombinations, which feelings they reflected and which actions usually followed whichturn of phrase. One of the variables was the number of minutes that passed between hertext and his reply. Another was stressing her gender and civil status, in implicit contrastto his.
Heart swelling, she read and reread what he’d written. He was playing hurt but not somuch so that she’d be scared off. And she played along. This was their game […]
The task of exegesis is a sort of game; the text in translation is a riddle to be solved. Language and meaning can be slippery even in the clearest of texts. I might suggest that language and meaning become especially slippery in translation. The text is the text and the world is the world. However, to deliver a resonant translation, I consider how the two relate, while respecting the integrity of the text and the world as distinct entities. And yet.
Let’s return to frozen Stockholm, February 2017. The man with the small dog addresses Lena Andersson.
You’re, uh, that, um, writer aren’t you?
The man waits for her to reply.
The writer. Who wrote that book.
There’s something challenging about his tone.
Lena replies that yes, she is a writer, perhaps the one he’s thinking of.
Then it becomes clear that he knows full well who she is. It seems he hasn’t stopped her to be a fan, but to go fishing.
You know I, uh, I’ve done some work with, ah, Roy Andersson.
And there it is. The tidbit of information that sent the Swedish cultural world reeling in 2014.
You see, people were convinced that Willful Disregard was in fact a veiled account of the relationship between Lena Andersson, one of Sweden’s leading public intellectuals, and Roy Andersson, the film director who in 2014 won the Golden Lion for A Pigeon Sits on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. (Their shared last name is a coincidence.) “Everybody” “knew” this gossip to be true, and eventually, Roy Andersson publicly acknowledged the gossip was about him.
In an interview with the magazine Fokus dated October 24, 2014, Roy Andersson says, “I’d never have imagined she’d write about it [their relationship]. I didn’t think our relationship was that serious.”The headline announcing the next episode of Swedish television’s Babel, the biggest literary talk show in the Nordic countries, read “Lena Andersson: Roy is not Hugo.” Lena Andersson said: “I’ve written fiction and that’s what I’ve said from the start and I’ve stood by it. So he is not Hugo Rask; Hugo Rask is Hugo Rask.” The text is the text. The world is the world. Or to use Andersson’s own words, taken from a 2018 column in Dagens Nyheter where she criticizes today’s socialists for aligning themselves with the “magical” thought that language creates both the world and our perspectives: “The world is what it is, then we name it.” Why can we as readers be so invested in the idea of the facts that inform a fiction? I couldn’t help but wonder what was the man with the dog was really asking?
Was he after a confession? Did he want Lena to confirm that Willful Disregard was in fact a roman à clef, and Ester was Lena? After confirming that she was the author of that book, was he looking for the thrill of a shared secret, of privileged knowledge? He may have wanted the novel to be a carbon copy of the world: it was not enough for him that Andersson’s world-building was a simulacrum, he needed the plot to be a simulacrum, too.
Perhaps he preferred his texts to be doctrines. Was he hoping to draw a lesson from the text, as people draw moral lessons from the Bible? His questions suggested that he was the type of reader who could only do so if he believed the text was fact, not fiction. Whatever the case, his question refused the fictionness of Andersson’s fiction. It refused the power of Andersson as an author and the power of the fiction itself. Or might he have been seeking communion and comfort?
Perhaps he wanted to know that Ester’s love for Hugo and Olof was not just fiction, but that living breathing people can love with such intensity, too. This would mean that this type of love might be available to him, too. Or it was the other way around. He too wanted to know the highs of Ester’s romances have been experienced by a real-life person. For if such elation has been experienced by someone else, he could experience it, too. In Acts of Infidelity, when Ester is in anguish over a development in her ambiguous relationship with Olof, she and her friend Elin have the following exchange:
‘It’s going to be a frightful winter and spring,’ Ester said.
‘Time is your friend. Whatever the outcome, time is your friend.’
‘I’m so tired of time. So tired of waiting.’
‘But you’ve also been in the upper stratosphere of emotion, you’ve had moments of unsurpassed joy and intensity. How many of us have ever had that kind of experience, do you think?’
‘No, no way […].’
Elin may be speaking matter-of-factly, but I read a touch of longing in her statement. Like the man with the dog, Elin would like to visit the upper stratosphere of emotion. When reading a novel, the first person we might look to to confirm that this stratosphere is available to us is the author. Of course, to want this from an author is a testament to the power of the fiction. It suggests the extent to which a text has brought the reader in touch with said highs. Perhaps the man who stopped Lena on the street to ask, just to see, wasn’t interested in gossip, really, but was a reader looking for a key to unlock something that the highs and lows of the novel had revealed to him about the world or himself.
I was in Stockholm that February to investigate the facts behind the fiction: chiefly, the feel and geography of a city I didn’t know at all. Stockholm is the setting for so many of Ester and Olof’s trysts. I wanted to get a sense of Stockholm and be able to read the text knowing what people familiar with Stockholm would just know. I had applied for a travel grant from the Swedish Arts Council because I felt that even though the novel is rich and precise, there was something that I was missing because I didn’t know Stockholm.
I believed that seeing this setting for myself would deepen my understanding of the text and and I’d be able to deliver a more nuanced translation. Having a taste of Stockholm and spending time with Lena would unlock the text and influence my translation: the cadence of a sentence, the tone of the text. And in discussing the text with the author, I’d imagined I’d feel more rooted in the work, closer to its core. That’s usually how it goes for me. A sense of the author as a person, at the very least, roots me in the text especially after that point of the translation where, having been faithful to the original, I begin to stray and make the translation my own. A sense of the author keeps me tethered to the text.
Until this visit, I had no real experience of those 14 islands connected by more than 50 bridges in a Baltic archipelago where salt and sweet water meet, and I could only take Andersson’s word for it when she described the implications Olof asking Ester to meet him at the ferry, rather than taking the bridge.
Olof called a few days after the run had ended and suggested lunch at Blå Porten on Djurgården Island. The choice of location implied time for togetherness and immersion, the start of a new phase and a reorientation from old to new; it implied that Ester had been correct in her calculations, particularly because he wanted them to take the ferry instead of reaching Djurgården by bridge.
The translation’s editor and I did something that I rarely do. We added “island” and “instead of reaching Djurgården by bridge,” to clarify the terrain and better illustrate the implication of the ferry ride to a reader who might not know Stockholm. Normally I leave place names as they are, and do not want to insert anything into the text. In part, not introducing anything to the text usually part of the translation contract with the publisher. But it is also part of the contract with the reader.
To reach the verdant island of Djugården by bridge is quicker. The ferry runs on a less-frequent schedule than other forms of public transport. You can be stuck waiting on a dock with an incredible view of open water and land, the lights of the city and an amusement part. When Lena and I took the ferry the winter sun cut through the dirty windows. It cast hazy, golden streaks across the wooden floor. With a view of the islands, the romance of a grand city’s skyline, the rocking boat, the romantic potential of the trip was clear. In subsequent visits to Stockholm, I have scanned the ferry for lovers, and tend to find at least one pair. In that moment of sun, I felt another layer of Ester’s desire and could better see why she held out hope for Olof for so long.
Lena was kind enough to walk with me through the city, following some of Ester’s paths. It gave me a sense of the spatial relationship of the city and what Ester and Olof’s movements meant, what kind of compromises they were making by meeting in Södermalm, where Olof lived with his wife. The inner city is grand, but compact. It’s easy to run into people you know. One day I tried to follow Ester’s route, when she is filled with vigor after coming to a decision about Olof. Andersson writes:
Then she went on a long walk, leaving her phone behind, and felt Riddarfjärden’s winds of liberation nip as she walked over the Västerbron Bridge. She continued down to Tantolunden Park, along Årstaviken Bay over to the Eriksdal swimming centre, up the hill to Skanstull, took Götgatan all the way to Slussen, through Old Town along Stora Nygatan, the Strömbron Bridge to Tegelbacken and Hantverkargatan all the way to Fridhemsplan. The walk took almost two hours.
Perhaps it was because I took this walk in winter, perhaps it was the intensity of the trip, but three-quarters of the way along this route, I felt fatigued. But I knew the kind of elation that would have carried me effortlessly all the way in two hours’s time.
I visited the bakeries and eateries Ester and Olof frequent and got a sense of the mood: old, traditional restaurants like Pelikan and Zum Franziskaner, the Danish steakhouse chain Jensen’s Bøfhus, the self-service cafe Blå Porten, which wraps around a lush patio garden next door to Liljevalch’s art gallery. I drank in the neighborhoods they drank. This is not the Stockholm of minimalist Scandinavian design. It was a Stockholm of wood-paneled walls, red wine, old-school waiters with a wry sense of humor. It wasn’t cheap. Sweden is more expensive on the whole than Berlin, where I live, but even so, I wondered how all this eating out and drinking felt for Ester and Olof, two people working in the arts. The reader gets a sense of what it may have felt like when Ester invites Olof to lunch at the Opera Bar, an ornate, upscale establishment edged with gold and full of dark wood that serves Swedish cuisine: “She’d received an award the week before to write a book about the intellectual history of subjectivism and its political roots, but it could stretch to buying Olof lunch, too.” Ester tells Olof that there will be no need to hold back: ‘“We can order appetizers, mains and dessert, and have wine and beer. My treat,’ said Ester, who had pictured an extravagant reunion meal.” Her willingness to splash out, along with a general culture of paying your own way, makes the deeper rejection implicit in Olof’s response doubly cutting: “No, I don’t want to.”
At one point, I found palt on a menu and let the dumpling stick to the roof of my mouth, as it did in Ester’s, just so I could feel how she must have felt—mouth full, sitting across from Olof soon after they had sex for the first time:
Ester helped herself to a passionless mix of blood dumplings and vegetables au gratin. Her portion was large, for she sensed a vacuum had formed between them and she wanted to fill it with food. Or perhaps she had become aware of a vacuum that had been there all along but that she’d thought their corporeal meeting would oxygenate. […]
In the middle of the meal, with half of the blood dumpling stuck to the roof of Ester’s mouth, Olof gave her a look that flickered between mischief and fear.
The dumpling was thick and claggy, like too much peanut butter in a dry mouth, making the tongue work hard. It was stifling. Incongruously, the next thing Olof does is comment on their sex: “‘I couldn’t believe how hot we were for each other up there.’”
The man with the dog lingered in my mind.As much as I want to condemn the man and the relationship he had with the world and the text, something similar was nagging me. I wondered to what extent Ester was Lena and Lena Ester? This wondering made me nervous and often left me tongue-tied around the author. It was uncomfortable to imagine the world and the text intersecting. I returned to the text, to Lena’s precise language. Of Ester and Olof, Andersson writes:
Ester Nilsson with her precise relationship to language had fallen in love with a man for whom words were only variations of sounds; whereas she strove for the precise verbal representation of each event, Olof used sound pictures and compound words that he’d learned fit together. In spite of all this, she still had that feeling about cogs.
One feature of Andersson’s language in Acts of Infidelity is descriptive word pairings that create a precise effect. To draw on a snippet cited earlier (emphasis my own throughout this paragraph): “togetherness and immersion.” Two words that are close but different and when read together, as part of the same sentence, offer us a sharper edge of the state of things in the text. There are “thorough and detailed instructions” given to a florist. In matters of love we find out at the start of the novel that Ester has been in “full and continuous operation” and that she thinks the lessons of love “must always be weighed against the risk of tedium and tristesse, of a passive life ruled by the fear of rejection and failure.” It is “pointless to question or ponder” Ester’s immediate attraction to Olof, or love at first sight. I wondered how these pairs would read to an English reader. In some cases, I wanted to pick one word that summed up the feeling in order to transmit said feeling more directly to the English-language reader. This kind of choice falls into the category of “making the translation my own.” However, Lena made it clear that each of these words was essential to the text.This was a part of her style that I should remain faithful to. As for tone and voice, she offered me a hint that led me to a sensibility that I came to think of as “modern Jane Austen” to transmit the feel of the Swedish. This voice is in and of the Swedish, of course, but to create a similar reading experience for the English reader, I crafted the voice in this interpretation.
Even with the author’s input grounding me, the longer I sat with the text thinking about “precise verbal representations,” the more Andersson’s precise prose seemed to rupture. I was unable to make decisions about individual words, forever searching for an elusive nuance, feeling that I needed the author to tell me exactly what she was thinking when she wrote the word inhalning, the word for which “allure” was a place-holder, and which became “inducement” in the printed book.
Inhalning is used in a section where Andersson is describing the technique Olof uses to keep Ester hanging on. I had first thought of inhalning in terms of “reeling someone or something in,” “pull” or “lure.” Inhalning: related to hala, like “to haul” and a verb you’d use to describe lowering a flag on a flagpole.“Entice” was my translation at one point, but neither the editor of the translation nor I was quite happy with it. “Inducement” arrived in the right package, carrying exactly the meaning I was looking for, connected to another man for whom words, it seems, are but sounds. It might sound like I was able to resolve this translation problem with an expected amount of thought, but at one point, it felt like every word in the text was inhalning and I lost all sense of myself as an English and Swedish speaker. Words were only variations of sounds that I’d learned to fit together.
Text and world began to merge. The deeper I got into the text and its minute accounting of the subtle gestures, silences, and words that create the buzzing expectation of love, the more the lines between reality and fiction, author and text, blurred. Stockholm was not Stockholm, it was a stage. Ester was Ester at first, for a time I was Ester, but then Ester was Lena. The stage production of Willful Disregard I had seen that week had the actress playing Ester Nilsson costumed in a way that echoed Lena’s own distinctive style. But perhaps I was interpreting even then. I couldn’t stop interpreting, and in doing so, I lost all sense of meaning, and in this dizzy state, I yielded to ambiguity and became that bastard Olof Sten.
What feeling was it that Ester had about cogs?
Olof and Ester were like two cogs. Cogs don’t merge or intertwine. They don’t lose their sense of where one begins and the other ends; they presuppose each other, propel each other forward, are in perfect calibration. That’s how it seemed to Ester. On its own, a cog is but a toothed unmoving artefact without function or direction. Which is fine, but it takes two to create movement and to realize a cog’s intrinsic potential and purpose.Unfortunately this is also true with three cogs; mechanically speaking, three can be downright excellent.
A translator without a text to translate is like Andersson’s solitary cog. Together text and translator create movement: a translation. But how are we meant to handle the third? We have not yet spoke about the third in the novel: Olof’s wife. We cannot ignore her role. She is a fact and a factor in Olof and Ester’s relationship. She is what makes Ester a mistress and what turns Olof and Ester’s actions into acts of infidelity. Is the world like the wife? Whatever the case, the world is the third cog. It is that which a text relates to, but from which it is distinct. Text and translator can propel each other forward in perfect calibration, and perhaps that is one approach: to ignore the world and translate as if it weren’t there. News from the literary scene in Sweden is usually no more than information to be drawn on should anyone ask me about the context of an author in their home country and so that I can offer context around the reception of a book. It’s information I associate with the business of translation (world), rather than the art (text). The man with the dog is be part of the world, but he became part of the translation of the text. He became a point at which text and world met.
The man was looking for a copy of the world in the text and for the text to be a copy of the world. A reader might look for a copy of the Swedish novel in my English translation, but in translation a third reality is born. There is the text, the world, and the translation, which at its roots implies that I am carrying the text to a different place. Nothing is added to the text, but the translation is sufficiently different from the original book so as to be able to influence the reader’s sympathies. The reader may not relate to my “modern Jane Austen” approach to the narrator’s voice and tone. They might feel differently if they read the original. Though I want the text and the world to remain distinct and separate entities, I learned to be comfortable where the lines blur and the two meet. There is a reciprocal relationship between the text in all its iterations and the world.
I think of one of the walks Lena and I took. We stopped on a square, where she described a scene between Ester and Olof. I was gripped with panic. I had completed at least one full draft of the translation by that time, and had no memory of that scene. Heart racing, I key-word-searched the PDF of the novel I had brought with me. The scene wasn’t there. No. It didn’t exist in the printed book. The passage to which she was referring had been cut.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.