Kira Josefsson – “Working to bring Ia’s words into English was an unalloyed joy” - Hindustan Times
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Kira Josefsson – “Working to bring Ia’s words into English was an unalloyed joy”

BySharmistha Jha
May 21, 2024 05:39 PM IST

The translator of The Details, which was shortlisted for the International Booker, talks about working with the author, Ia Genberg, and about the role that translations play in promoting understanding

What was your path to becoming a translator?

Translator Kira Josefsson (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)
Translator Kira Josefsson (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)

I was always interested in languages. My mom is Finnish, and though I haven’t been fluent in that language since I was a child, growing up in a multilingual environment certainly shaped me. I was born in Sweden and moved abroad after high school, ultimately ending up in Canada, where I did my undergraduate degree. In parallel, I worked as an editor at a magazine published bilingually out of Stockholm and London, and I started doing some translations in that role. Still, I never thought of translation as a career in and of itself, not until I came across Pooneh Rohi’s Araben (The Arab), a book that told a story about racism and belonging in Sweden I wished more people were aware of. I wanted to translate it, but had no idea how to go about getting permissions and finding a publisher. A series of lucky encounters helped my find my way into a few different translation spaces, including the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Spending time with all these people who constantly moved between languages immediately felt like home, and it also gave me the tools I needed to slowly start navigating the translation industry. It took four years until I published my first full-length translation: Johanna Hedman’s The Trio.

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How and why did you choose to translate The Details?

Like many Swedish translators of fiction into English I often work with foreign rights agencies, who will contract a translator to produce a sample translation which they then use to sell the book to publishers worldwide. The Details was one such project. I signed on more or less sight unseen, but as soon as I sat down to work I knew I had something very special on my hands. Working to bring Ia’s words and world into English was an unalloyed joy from beginning to end.

144pp, ₹1536; HarperVia (Amazon)
144pp, ₹1536; HarperVia (Amazon)

What are some of your favourite things about The Details?

I love the grace that suffuses the novel — it’s a rare kind of generosity that’s not nostalgic or cloying, but manages to hold love alongside sharpness and humour. And then there’s the fact that Ia’s writing is perfect. As a translator you’re so close to the text, and it quickly becomes apparent when something could have benefited from another edit. An imprecise word, sloppy sentence structure — the process of recreating the work in English is much harder when you have to guess at what the author means or is trying to do. That also means that it’s a true pleasure to translate something that is thoughtfully and precisely crafted. Not easy, but deeply gratifying; the prose withstands the pressure of being moved into a new grammar and you can focus on polishing the shape instead of patching up holes that appear in something less exquisitely crafted when you start pushing on it.

READ MORE: Review: The Details by Ia Genberg

What was the experience of working with the book’s author like? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration?

Most of the time I work without input from the author until the last few rounds of edits, when I share the translation along with any questions to make sure the tone makes sense to the author, and to make sure I haven’t misunderstood any passages. It is often a collaboration across time and space with the text as the mediator rather than a direct exchange, and it’s the biggest compliment when the author is happy with my work. In 2022, I was a fellow at the big Swedish book fair in Gothenburg, and found that three of the other translation fellows were also translating The Details. Ia was there too, doing a bunch of public events (at this point the novel was already a runaway success in Sweden) and we decided to go find her to introduce ourselves. She was just as gracious as you might expect from her writing, taking the time to stop and chat even though she was surely needed elsewhere.

Is there a particular book that made you want to become a translator? If yes, why?

Pooneh Rohi’s Araben was published in 2014. I came across it in a Stockholm bookstore a few years later, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — Rohi’s incisive portrait of alienation in a country that’s bad at accepting hybrid identities, and her rich prose. The novel tells a story that’s different from the one most people imagine when I tell them where I’m from, and I’d been eager to complicate that rosy idea of a social democratic paradise for a while. I started to pitch it soon after reading it, and now, many years later, it’s under contract with British MTO Press. MTO will also publish Rohi’s second novel, Husk, a gutting story of post-partum psychosis that continues to explore belonging and alienation.

Tell us about your favourite translations. Which books would you recommend to readers who are trying to diversify their reading habits?

Where to begin! Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette, is a striking attempt to record and remember colonial violence in the present and early years of the Israeli occupation, a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in how history is made and what gets left out. In a different register, Alla Gorbunova’s It’s the End of the World, My Love, translated from Russian by Elina Alter, is a madcap “novel in stories” that’s irreverent, dark, and at times jaw-droppingly funny. I also love Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz. Translated from Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury, it takes the 1938 Dersim massacre as its starting point, weaving the personal and the world-historical in lush, allusive prose.

What role does translation play in creating a literary world without borders? Do you think it promotes inclusivity?

Anyone who isn’t reading literature in translation is missing out on a wealth of stories and ideas. The English-speaking world already rubs up against so many other languages, has so many other languages in it; limiting yourself to work originally written in English must be terribly boring. I want there to be a wide variety of stories written by a wide range of people, and perhaps that helps people to see that there are many different ways of living and experiencing the world. I don’t tend to think of reading as a political goal in and of itself, however — I don’t read in translation because of some kind of ethical imperative, but because it makes my life more fun and interesting. Stories in and of themselves don’t change dynamics of exclusion and oppression — they might act as a catalyst or impetus for people to do something, but to actually move things we must organize to take power.

Tell us about your translation process.

It’s pretty straightforward: I sit at my desk in my home office and do a first, very rough draft which doubles as the first time reading the novel, and then I go over it again and again, from start to finish. After three drafts I’ve usually found the tone I want the work to have in English, and what follows is tinkering, finessing, a process that could probably go on forever but at some point (deadlines!) I am forced to close my document and send it out into the world.

Sharmistha Jha is an independent writer and editor.

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