Maria Gerhardt died of breast cancer soon after writing Transfer Window, a dark and futuristic novel informed by her own experience with terminal illness. In today’s interview, Asymptote‘s Jacob Silkstone talks with Lindy Falk van Rooyen about the experience of translating Maria Gerhardt’s Transfer Window, chosen as this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, from Danish into English. Read on to learn how Falk van Rooyen discovered Transfer Window and how she navigated the challenges of translating a semi-autobiographical novel that defies categorization.
Jacob Silkstone (JS): When did you first read Transfer Window, and what initially drew you to the book? How aware were you of Maria Gerhardt’s previous work?
Lindy Falk van Rooyen (LFvR): I wasn’t aware of Maria Gerhardt or her previous work until Transfervindue was published in March 2017. I remember quite vividly that I was sitting on the top level of a red London bus on my way to a translator’s dinner during the London Book Fair when a colleague working for The Danish Arts Council told me how much the book had moved him, and shortly after my return from London, I requested a copy of the original from the Danish publisher. I think what drew me in during the first reading was Maria Gerhardt’s unadulterated honesty.
JS: Did any scenes in particular stand out to you on first reading as examples of unadulterated honesty? The one that hit me hardest was perhaps the conversation with the narrator’s child that ends with these lines: “I said to myself, again and again, that it was okay; it was okay that he didn’t want me as a parent, now that I would soon be dead.” That’s about as harrowing a scene as I’ve read in any book this year . . .
LFvR: Yes, I particularly respect her courage in the scenes where she allows her own bitterness to come to the surface; the scene in the waiting room that you picked out, for instance. Her expression of anger in that scene is probably the harshest in the book, but what struck me most was the vulnerability and sensitivity with which she attempts to express the contemplation of having to leave her partner: “The only thing I find frustrating about the next dimension is that you are not coming along,” (my favourite for its sheer simplicity and its slight clunkiness towards the end, as if she tries—and fails—to hit a light tone), or “The beauty of the fact that you can never find anyone to replace me. The beauty of the fact that you do.” As a reader, I know she’s addressing the person she loves, not me, but I felt as if this immense love for someone else had glanced off my shoulder. And despite the intimacy, it’s not in-your-face, it’s just there, like a breeze.
And her son:
I didn’t want him to come home from
school, a football tucked under his arm, only to be greeted
by a large party from the palliative team. I didn’t want you to
see me constantly hunched over, limping, with crutches, with
a walker. I didn’t want you to push me around in the wheelchair
I would need one day. That constant shame of being
the mum on the sofa, the girlfriend from hell.
And yes, of course, the scene you also picked out with the narrator’s child definitely hits hard (especially if one knows that Maria Gerhardt and her partner also have a son of about that age). It’s a very, very hard fact for any parent to contemplate: leaving your child behind. And how does one accommodate or contain—I’m struggling to verbalize it—your own grief, anger, sense of responsibility, guilt, and abandonment along with that of a small child who has even less of a chance to understand and/or verbalize these things? There is also a scene where she picks up her son from kindergarten and has to suffer pleasantries with one of the other parents; I think this an instance of those well-intentioned “mistakes of the healthy” that Gerhardt refers to in the subtitle.
JS: In addition to those “mistakes of the healthy” and the narrator’s reflections on her illness, Transfer Window is an attempt at imagining a futuristic Copenhagen. The “Virtual Reality Store” is one of the characters’ main distractions, and of course the northern suburbs of the city have been transformed into a hospice “unparalleled anywhere in the world.” Do you agree with the jacket copy that Gerhardt’s vision of the future is utopian, and what extra dimensions do you think that shift forward in time adds to the book?
LFvR: I don’t see the book as a vision of the future so much as an alternative perspective of the present, because all the facilities at the disposal of the patients or denizens of Gerhardt’s Hospice—the cannabis oil, the rehab centres, the doctors-on-call, and the saunas by the sea, for instance—are either things that exist in our society already, or conceivably could exist with some investment and/or technological advances, like the Virtual Reality Store. The main difference is that, in Gerhardt’s vision, the Danish government has allocated a large sum of state money to make these things available to the terminally ill on a grand scale, and in systematic way; the priority of the state is to care for those in need. So, to this extent, I guess her vision is some kind of “utopian” social democratic state. But, through the narrator, I think the book asks us to see the world from the perspective of the people living in the Hospice village in particular, and considering the amount of pain they are in on a daily basis, I doubt they would describe their own situation as utopian. The Virtual Reality Store is probably the most “futuristic” facility available. I don’t think it’s a distraction; more than anything else, I think it’s their principal survival tactic.
JS: Could you say anything about the parallels between the narrator’s life and the author’s? Do you see Transfer Window as fiction—is it a novella, a novel, or does genre not really matter in a narrative this powerful?
LFvR: I touched on this in a recent interview with Inpress Books. The short answer is no, I don’t think that Maria Gerhardt was interested in the niceties of genre (I don’t think it’s particularly interesting or important, either) and I chose to read the book as I think she would have intended it to be read: as a work of literary fiction, rather than as some kind of (autofictive) diary.
After some tormented deliberation on whether to reach out to Maria Gerhardt’s editor, who worked very closely with the author in the last weeks of her life, I made a conscious decision not to look for or research any parallels between the author’s own life and this particular book. Instead, I read Gerhardt’s two previous works, Der bor Hollywoodstjerner på vejen (People’s Press, 2014) and a collection of poetry, Amagermesteren (People’s Press, 2015) in order to get a sense of the tone of her work in general. The poetry proved to be a particularly useful read, because we (Duncan Lewis and I) decided to translate one of the poems as a substitute epigraph when we were barred by copyright issues from printing the original epigraph.
JS: For any Asymptote readers looking to follow Transfer Window with another contemporary Danish novel, are there are any titles you’d particularly recommend? What will you be translating next?
LFvR: That’s a difficult question! For those who don’t read Danish, I imagine (I haven’t read it yet) that Denise Newman’s translation of Naja Maria Aidt’s novel When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back (Coffee House Press) would be a compelling read. And recently I found a similar honesty and skill in writing about the complex of emotions involved in death, mourning, and sorrow in Puk Qvortrup’s debut novel Ind i en Stjerne/ Into a star published (in Danish) by Gif Forlag in May. It’s an autofictive novel about the sudden death of the author’s husband.
Next up will be my first Faroese book called Óendaliga vera/Infinitely Vera (2016) by Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs, a novel primarily narrated by a woman with aphasia (roughly a third is narrated by the nephew who cares for her) that Kerri Pierce and I will co-translate—a passion project we will launch in collaboration with Farlit early next year.
Lindy Falk van Rooyen is a literary translator of Danish fiction. She holds an LLM in Commercial Law from the University of Stellenbosch and an MA in English and Scandinavian Literature from the University of Hamburg. Book-length translations include The Last Execution (Simon & Schuster, 2016) by Jesper Wung-Sung and What my body remembers (Soho Press, 2017) by Agnete Friis that was short-listed for the Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel in 2018. She is the recipient of a number of translation awards and grants, most recently, a PEN Heim Translation Grant for her translation of Haabet / The Hope (Lindhardt & Ringhof, 2016) by Mich Vraa, and third prize in the John Dryden Translation Competition 2018/2019 for her translation of Kort over Paradis/The River that Runs both Ways (Lindhardt & Ringhof, 2018) by Knud Romer.
Jacob Silkstone is an Assistant Managing Editor for Asymptote. He was previously Managing Editor of The Missing Slate (Pakistan) and has worked at international schools in Bangladesh and Norway.
Read more from the Asymptote Book Club here: