A Conversation with Norwegian-to-Azerbaijani Translator Anar Rahimov

There was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

As a translator of Norwegian, I travelled to the Gothenburg Book Fair in September to meet with Scandinavian authors, publishers, and fellow translators. One of the translators I met there was Anar Rahimov, a translator of contemporary Norwegian prose into Azerbaijani.

I was intrigued by Anar’s story as one of only two translators of Norwegian in Azerbaijan. I translate into English, probably the world’s most dominant language, and I was curious about the exchange between two relatively small languages, Norwegian and Azerbaijani. I wanted to ask Anar a little more about his work as a translator and how it fits into the literary culture of Azerbaijan. 

David Smith (DS): How did you come to learn Norwegian and what inspired you to translate literature?

Anar Rahimov (AR): Well . . . it was quite accidental, I have to admit. I was working at the University of Languages in Baku as an English language teacher. Then an event took place that changed my whole career, priorities, and future standing in life. In 2010, I heard about an interview that included financing two and half years’ study in Oslo. Ever since childhood, Norway has appealed to me as a northern, far away, and very cold land. Besides, studying in the prestigious universities of Europe was tempting in itself. After a little hesitation, I applied and was selected.

The program included a contemporary Norwegian literature course at the University of Oslo. There was one novel, Dag Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity (1994), which made me fall in love with Norwegian literature. Not least, our unforgettable literature teacher, Erik Juriks, was a source of inspiration in this.

After my studies in Oslo, I returned to Baku and began to work as a Norwegian teacher. True, I was mainly focused on Norwegian grammar with my students, but my great zest for Norwegian literature never stopped. After some time, I understood that there is a lack of Norwegian books in Azerbaijani translation. Only a few books have been translated, and not from the original, but via English or Russian.

I noticed that contemporary Norwegian literature is not widely known or popular in Azerbaijan, and this seemed unfair to me. At the same time I was burning to deliver my favorite book Shyness and Dignity to Azerbaijani book lovers. But I never brought myself to begin: I was unsure, I was hesitant, didn’t believe I would enjoy this process, sitting long hours before my laptop finding the proper words and phrases.

A decisive event took place in 2016. I was at a seminar in Oslo for Norwegian teachers, and we were brought in as guests to the offices of NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad). There I met two brilliant, helpful ladies, Dina Roll-Hansen and Toril Johansen. They were a source of great inspiration for me to start my translation activities. I returned to Baku and told myself: Anar, begin and enjoy! This is going to be your future dedication.

DS: I think that is something a lot of beginning translators can relate to. You read a book that you absolutely feel must be translated, and yet it does seem like a daunting task to capture that book in your target language. What was it about Dag Solstad that so captivated you, and what was the process of translating Shyness and Dignity like?

AR: As I mentioned, I fell in love with this book and its characters, and started to imagine this book in Azerbaijani. For me, the most captivating point was the description of my fictional fellow schoolteacher, Elias Rukla. As we get insight to Elias Rukla’s world, we realize that it is in some ways not very different than our own. Shy, dignified, restrained Elias Rukla has not expected much from life. Solstad’s description of Elias’s confrontation with ideas, his double identity, and self-understanding is marvelous.

Another reason I chose it as my debut translation was that Dag Solstad reveals the state of affairs in contemporary Norwegian society. One can find a lot of important and relevant questions for Norway in the 1960’s in this book: the hard lives of schoolteachers, their bank loan problems, ideals that are important for average Norwegians, isolation in society, love, adultery. On top of that, Solstad clearly sees Norway as far from an ideal and spotless place to live, but as a shallow and self-satisfied country.

With Solstad, as it was my debut work, I was aware that I was in the process of forming my own style as a translator. The first experience is always crucial in terms of further development and method. For example, in Solstad’s book there were plenty of extra-linguistic situations that could affect Azerbaijani readers’ interpretation of the text.

I agree with those who say that the translator should be creative and interfere when necessary for the benefit of the reader; I am not merely changing the words from one language into another. For example, in Scandinavia and in other parts of the world, Solstad might be much-read and famous, so for those readers, it is not difficult to perceive his messages, to enter his immense world, to enter into the spiritual condition of his characters. My intention was to deliver Solstad’s peculiar style to Azerbaijani readers.

All in all I can say that it was both challenging and enjoyable. It was a lot of work, with sleepless nights, dictionaries, books of theory. But to be quite frank, there was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

DS: I think you are definitely on to something that inspires all of us as translators: the idea that translation can be a bridge between different cultures. But, at least in America, there is far too little of this work being done: a much-cited statistic is that only three percent of books published in English are translated from other languages. Do people read a lot of translated literature in Azerbaijan? 

AR: You are undoubtedly right. Translation, particularly literary translation, plays an important role in creating a bridge between diverse countries. Translations of famous world literature have been widespread in Azerbaijan throughout the last century, particularly in the Soviet era, with figures such as Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, and Tolstoy. There was no doubt the influence of the Stalinist Soviet government on literary translation and political implications—but, you know, David, that is another big topic in itself.

With independence in 1991 came a stagnation in literary translation, as in every field of socio-economic life. But recently, I can say that much has been done to render both classic and modern world literature into Azerbaijani. Publishing houses are actively working on the issue. In recent years, there have been well-known world writers such as Murakami, Hosseini, Kafka, Bradbury, Hamsun, and Hesse. One of the biggest publishing houses in Azerbaijan, Qanun, is mainly focused on translation, not only of Western but also Eastern writers such as Osho, Murakami, and Parinoush Saniee. Azerbaijani readers are very keen on reading world literature in translation.

Another issue that is no less important is the quality of translation. Very often translations happen as retranslations from a second language, not directly. This is apparently due to the lack of translators in this particular language area.

DS: I was thinking about the book fair in Gothenburg and the fact that (as you probably heard) there was a neo-Nazi protest in the city at the same time. I thought it might be good to tie that in to my earlier question, about how translation can create dialogue between different nations and peoples. What were your thoughts and impressions from your time in Gothenburg?

AR: Yes, I was aware of that protest. There were also posters from counter-protesters on the walls all over the city. In a globalizing environment, these kinds of clashes are something we unfortunately witness often in some cities of the world. I think people should draw a lesson from what happened and engage in dialogue.

If we state that translation is an intercultural activity, the next logical step would be to consider the translator’s role within this approach. With every book we translate from one language into another, we convey also that country’s diverse standpoints in the target language. I agree with those who don’t see translation only as linguistic, contrastive, pragmatic. Translators are not limited by these phenomena, but serve as international cultural mediators. I will mention one of my translations as an example. By reading Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, Azerbaijani readers will get more information on Norway’s dramatic landscape, amazing scenery, inhabitants’ hard lives, their struggle with nature. Life in a small Norwegian island settlement will no longer be an unfamiliar place for them.

When it comes to the Gothenburg Book Fair, though it was not my first time in this brilliant Swedish city, I had never been to a book fair. I thought of them as dull places solely for rightsholders to sell their book rights. However, I was encouraged to attend, and while I saw that it was indeed mostly for rights sellers, there were also plenty of opportunities for me to learn as a translator. I had conversations with Norwegian and Danish literary agents, attended some wonderful panels, and met book enthusiasts from all over Scandinavia.

Whenever I had time in the evenings, I explored the city, learned a lot about history and culture, and tasted Swedish beer. One of the most memorable events was when our Norwegian friends at NORLA organized a dinner for translators, authors, and diplomats. It was, all in all, a fantastic four days.

DS: What other Norwegian writers would you like to translate? And are there any Azerbaijani writers whom English and Norwegian readers should know about?

AR: I won’t be modest. I don’t think that translators can be modest. We translate because we want people to read us. Otherwise, what’s the sense in doing it? I enjoy the process of translating, finding suitable words and phrases, struggling with Norwegian words such as samboer, matpakke, kose seg, and glad i deg, and I consider myself a happy man in that respect. You earn a living and you do what you enjoy. I don’t think everyone can say that.

My goal is to reach one hundred books by the end of my career as a translator. In one and a half years, I have finished six books, from Vigdis Hjorth, Roy Jakobsen, and Dag Solstad.

In the future, I want to translate Knut Hamsun’s works, some of which have already been translated into Azerbaijani, but there are still numerous others that should be translated, like the August trilogy. Finally, there is one author I cannot help mentioning: Kjell Askildsen, whose Thomas F.’s Last Notes for the General Public and The Dogs in Thessaloniki are also part of my future plans.

Azerbaijan belongs to those countries whose culture and literature are little known to the rest of Europe. But Azerbaijan has a very rich literary and cultural history. First, I would like to mention our classical writers: Nizami Ganjavi, Fuzuli, and Imadaddin Nesimi are only some examples. Gancavi is no doubt one of the greatest authors in the Azerbaijani literary heritage and has been translated to English. When it comes to modern writers, I would mention Anar Rzayev, Elchin Afandiyev, Chingiz Abdullayev, Bextiyar Vahabzade, and Kamal Abdulla. The latter has done research on the Ancient Epic literature of the Turkic people. I would very much like to translate his Incomplete Manuscript into Norwegian.

Anar Rahimov has worked as a teacher, interpreter, and freelance journalist, in addition to his work as a translator from Norwegian and Danish into Azerbaijani. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Languages in Baku, Azerbaijan, in addition to his studies of Norwegian language and literature at the University of Oslo. He currently teaches Norwegian and English at the University of Languages in Baku. He occasionally works as a columnist in sport newspapers. His translations include Vigdis Hjorth’s Wills and Testaments, Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, Dag Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity and Novel 11, Book 18, Anne-Catherina Vestly’s Eight Children and a Truck, and Kirsti Mac Donald’s Norwegian Grammar.

David Smith is an Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote. A Norwegian-to-English translator, his work has appeared in Drunken Boat and Cappelen Damm’s Into the Woods magazine. He was a 2017 Travel Fellow at the American Literary Translators’ Association Conference in Minneapolis.


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