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‘It’s all I ever wanted to do, sit with language’: Q&A with Translator in Residence Saskia Vogel

<h6>Courtesy of Fette Sans</h6>
Courtesy of Fette Sans

Saskia Vogel, a translator in residence at Princeton for the fall of 2022, is a writer, screenwriter, and translator from Swedish and German into English. In 2021, she received an English PEN Translates Award and her novel “Girls Lost” was a PEN America Literary Award Finalist. Her debut novel, “Permission,” was published in five languages and longlisted for the Believer Award. She’s currently translating Linnea Axelsson’s epic poem “Ædnan,” which explores Sámi history as experienced by two Sámi families. The Sámi are an indigenous group recognized as one of Sweden’s official national minorities.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

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The Daily Princetonian: Since you’re currently teaching in Professor Sandra Bermann’s “Translation, Migration, and Culture” class, what are your goals in teaching translation?

Saskia Vogel: I love engaging with students. It’s necessary to hear other people thinking out loud, and Sandie is so good at creating that open environment. My goal here was to make my translation process visible to students. Making your decision processes visible to yourself and getting to know your own mind is important. It's also acknowledging your internal biases, you know?

DP: Does having the perspectives of both a writer and translator help you think about translation in a unique way?

SV: For sure. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how fluid a text is. The project that I'm working on right now is 760 pages.

DP: “Ædnan” by Linnea Axelsson, a novel in verse?

SV: Yeah, let me see if I can show you what it looks like on the page, it’s so much space. I feel like all that whitespace is a mirror of the northern tundra landscape, but I also interpret all that space as the author saying, this is not the definitive Sámi story. It’s more searching, and there’s so much more to be said.

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We're cutting [the book] down. What's interesting to me is thinking of how malleable a text still is. When you go through school, books are so concrete. That form is really deceptive. Other mediums, like visual arts, show a sense of their motion and how they were formed. But I feel like there's something that feels so finite, or final, about the printed word.

Knowing what that feels like as both a writer and a translator, there’s always this point where you get to a certain place where you’re just rearranging the furniture. All the furniture is here, and it all works in the room, but the sofas can face this or that way. Parts [or pieces] of a book can always be changed.

When you translate, you're taking care of somebody else's text. You can translate it a certain way and miss an intangible essence. I always try to find audio-visual media that will help me tune into a certain kind of writing and spoken English before I start, just to build a world of language in my head.

DP: So it's not just a concrete text on the page for you. As someone who works in that “world of language” as you say, is your approach as a translator always fluid?

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SV: I'm not the same translator every time I sit down, just like I'm not the same writer every time I sit down. It’s a beautiful thing because it makes me feel more playful about my work, but it also comes with a loss. Accepting that flow is thrilling.

“Ædnan” teaches you how to read it. You can try to plow through it, but you're physically slowed down by having to turn so many pages. When they designed the ebook, they retained the sense of turning pages because that act was really important. What happens when you turn the page, and what is the effect of this sensation? Every time I read it, there's a trance-like quality that comes up. The pace is so arresting. 

DP: What has it been like to work with these different forces? And have you been able to work with Linnea Axelsson (the author of the current work Vogel is translating) face-to-face?

SV: She stayed with me in Princeton, and we had a week together. There’s a lot I’ve had to read to get a better sense of the history we're dealing with and what the particular tensions are. In this book, Linnea is tending towards stances that are more open than concrete — more suggestions than statements.

Linnea was saying that you can't even assume a lot of knowledge from the Swedish majority population. There are things in the book that are not actively taught as part of their history courses, very parallel to Indigenous questions here.

There was a lot of refinement work so that the text is anchored enough to be as free as possible. Linnea and I sat next to each other, editing line by line as far as we could. We managed to cut 60 or 70 pages.

DP: Before you published your first novel “Permission,” you already had experience publishing your translations, but what did the process feel like with your own novel?

SV: I published a number of translations before my novel came out, and I'd worked as a publicist, so I was not the most chill author. Everything feels personal, and the stakes feel so high. But it was really nice to have these other perspectives of having already been through a copy-editing process and a proofreading process. And having an understanding of when a book stops being yours, you know?

Especially with edits, letting a text rest is one of the most important parts. Linnea echoed the sentiment when she was here. She didn’t know if she would have been able to do these edits a number of years ago. But now she's written another novel, and she's already been on tour with it. This first book has lived its whole life already. It’s been really exciting to see when she’s like, “Oh, the book doesn't need this anymore.”

DP: I was wondering about your thoughts on the position of the translator and how people sometimes try to minimize a translator’s work. For example, there have been conversations about having translators’ names on the cover of books or considering other ways of increasing translator visibility.

SV: There is a lot of room for advocating now because sometimes you will get a less-than-ideal offer from a publisher, not because they think little of translators, but because they haven't necessarily worked with a translator before.

How does a writer in translation break through? Usually, because there's been a ton of labor and passion put into this breakthrough by the translator. There’s all this pre-work, and it’s tricky to figure out how that should get remunerated. The more that translator communities can talk to each other, the better things will be. Watching this past decade go by, I feel really positive about what's been happening, and I see the ways that I'd like to contribute.

DP: So it seems like there are two layers of activism. Thinking of your current project, one layer is translating important voices or stories that haven’t received the most attention in the past and the second is advocating for translators’ livelihoods so they can support themselves.

SV: Yeah, access is another question. My career isn't possible without the low-cost living conditions. That’s why these questions of advocacy are really important because not everybody is translating from within a full-time job. I basically only translate and publish books.

I live a very comfortable life, and it is a really privileged life. Every decision I've made has been because I just really want to do the work that I want to do, and that means things for my life. When I go home to California, and everybody's a lawyer, then that's when I really feel it. I think that there's also this other life where I drive a Lexus and work for Sony. But I just really want to sit with my texts.

Especially here at Princeton, I feel so lucky that I have the time to work on books that I love. I'm grateful I get to live this life that feels meaningful to me. What I love is sharing these books that I love with other people. “Ædnan” was a story that I really wanted to read. The stakes were higher, and the journey with this book has been really exciting.

It’s nice to feel like this, to have a sense of purpose. I think storytelling has always been my through-line. Linnea was talking about how language itself isn’t a home. It's what you make of language that makes language a home.

DP: Do you have some advice for people who want to make a career in the arts or humanities for themselves?

SV: You just make it happen. I tried to keep myself as close to the thing that I wanted to do as I could. Right before I worked at Granta, I was selling shoes. I was ghostwriting a blog for a real estate agent. I was doing social media for this education-driven, high-end sex shop in London. I managed to save up enough money or move my shifts around so that I could do a month-long internship at the Literary Review. Then, I remember applying to Granta. That job interview was a really transformative moment in my life where they saw something in me that I was hoping they would see.

It’s those periods of transition where there's so much possibility. They’re exciting, but they're also nerve-racking. I grew up with the idea that art couldn't be your primary thing. I wonder what my decision-making process would look like had I felt that literature, in a commercial sense, was for me.

Someone I really admire is Rachel Allen. She was Granta’s poetry reader for a decade, and nobody in her family is in literature. She just came to London and started doing all this stuff like running her own lit journal. It's really useful to see other people's careers sometimes. She's someone I think a lot about, just to see what she was able to achieve with just her own passion for poetry and her conviction that this is the life she wanted to live.

Hana Widerman is a Features contributor. She can be reached at widerman@princeton.edu.

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