Naja Marie Aidt’s novel Baboon comes out in October, but you can get an early look at it right here, as World Literature Today has published one of its stories, as well as an interview with translator Denise Newman.
The story in question is titled “The Woman in the Bar,” and it is a haunting, voyeuristic tale with a surprise ending. It starts:
I didn’t see her come in, but suddenly she’s there. She’s walking on the polished floor in her heavy boots. She’s long-legged. That’s the first thing I notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking a cup of coffee, watching people; I had an errand to do in the neighborhood, to pick up some dry cleaning, but then I also bought a bouquet of tulips, some tea cake, and a watermelon. My grandchild is visiting tomorrow. I’ve been walking around the city for a few hours and I’m cold and my legs are tired. It’s pleasant just to sit here as it grows darker outside. I’ve always liked this restaurant. It’s large with tall ceilings, white tablecloths, and terrible acoustics. An enormous dining room. People are lingering over late lunch, others are just drinking wine or cocktails, and behind me a couple of children are playing with a small train under the table. The atmosphere is pleasant. I lean back relaxed and enjoy the view of the young woman. Now she’s standing at the bar. She’s tall and erect; her neck is long and white. It’s the end of November. This morning I was thinking about how long it’s been since the wall fell. I thought about how quickly time passes. Even though so much has happened. Now the streetlights go on. It looks like it’s started to rain.
Here you can see Aidt’s trademark sentences, very terse and sharp, making for stories that generate a lot of momentum and carry you right through. If you like these sorts of sentences, you’ll find them all over Baboon, albeit used to a wide variety of narrative ends.
And here’s Denise talking a bit about this style and how she translated it.
MJ: Was it easy to retain this spare style in translation?
DN: Not always. Sometimes her short sentences sounded flat in English, and occasionally I had to combine sentences in order to keep the rhythm true to her style. I really admire Aidt’s economy of expression, and I found the need to use English just as succinctly to be both challenging and enormously engaging.
MJ: What was one of the thornier translation challenges in this project, and how did you resolve it?
DN: Naja and I went back and forth with certain epithets and obscenities (there are quite a few) trying to get the degree of emphasis and naturalness right. We got some help from her son who went to high school in Brooklyn. A more general challenge was finding the right voice for each narrator—for example, there’s a four-year-old girl, a depressed young man, a mother at the edge of her psychic strength—quite a range. I had to take time getting to know them, their situations and ways of seeing things, before I could find the correct tone.
MJ: Did you face any unique translation difficulties in “The Woman in the Bar”?
DN: The narrator of this story is an older woman who lived through the war, the creation of the GDR, and its dissolution. It helped to have visited Berlin before and after the wall came down to be able to appreciate how profound the changes would be in her life. What was tricky about this narration was holding to the physical expression of what the protagonist is experiencing. The most dramatic piece of information is withheld from the reader, the protagonist knows, but it’s only revealed with one subtle sentence in the final paragraph.
You’ll be hearing lots more about Baboon soon. We’ve got a six-city tour planned for Aidt (details to come soon!), and there will be plenty of reviews.