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Behind the Book: Misha Hoekstra

Posted 14th May 2017

On this week’s Behind the Book, we caught up with brilliant translator Misha Hoekstra. Misha is behind our wonderful new translations of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans and The Snow Queen, and also Dorthe Nors’ incredible Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, out this week.

Do you have a particular translating routine?

Before beginning, I try not to read more than a few passages from the book I’m about to translate. That lets me share the first-time reader’s sense of discovery as I work, though of course everything unfolds at a glacial pace with You Disappear, the neurological thriller by Christian Jungersen, I was in suspense for a good year and a half. I generally make three passes with each chapter before moving on. The first pass is quite quick, focused on getting a workable rendering. Working at speed means relying on intuition a good deal, and a natural rhythm tends to emerge of its own accord.

Once I’ve gone back and ironed out the kinks and the chapter’s singing to my satisfaction, I send it to the author for queries and feedback. I’ve been fortunate in that the two writers I work with most – Christian and Dorthe Nors – have an excellent command of English and are eager to delve into the niceties of expression and make sure the voice is right from the get-go. (For Hans Christian Andersen, alas, I’ve had to settle for the company of critics.)

Finally, I read the entire thing aloud to weed out anything that still sounds false, tighten up the rhythms and add a few last grace notes here and there.

Where are you at your happiest?

Writing and performing songs. I used to write poetry and fiction, but I found it a lonely pursuit. In 2010 I joined the Aarhus Songwriter Workshop, which I now lead. Besides workshops, this group of 75 local musicians also arranges open mikes, concerts and songwriting camps. It’s a remarkably supportive and convivial community that has transformed my life.

Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

Leonard Cohen, alive. I know he’s been mentioned here before, but I can’t improve on that choice. He had a matchless gift for metaphor, yes, but what seals it for me isn’t his musical and literary talent but his attitude toward the hard work of writing, his humility and dogged devotion. “It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun,” he once said once about the source of creativity. “You’re married to a mystery.”

That said, I usually take the stairs.

What does being a translator mean to you?

For me, translation means taking the intricate armature of an existing work of art – the arrangement and sense of its sentences, its twists in tone – and fashioning a new work of art upon it with the materials I have to hand: the English language.

What is your favourite word and why?

There are hundreds. I collect and leaf through old dictionaries, pursue etymologies, revel in how odd words provide insight into human experience. So let me give you a favorite definition, by Samuel Johnson, for the word ink: “the black liquor with which men write.”

If you could only recommend one book from Danish literature, which would it be?

I’m afraid that my familiarity with Danish literature is very limited, and the books I’m most passionate about are the ones I’ve worked with myself. So I’m going to recommend a thin volume that I translated myself: Dorthe Nors’s Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, which you’ve published tête-bêche with the short-shorts of her Karate Chop (in Martin Aitken’s excellent translation). Minna is heartbreaking and hilarious by turns, compelling and vivid, Barthelmean yet quintessentially Danish. Check it out!

Get hold of a copy of Dorthe Nors’ brilliant Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated by Misha, on the Pushkin shop here.