Lost in Translation with Laura Vogt’s What Concerns Us, Translated by Caroline Waight
By Victoria Bromley and Sarah Lydon
For Women in Translation month, we (virtually) sat down with author Laura Vogt and translator Caroline Waight to discuss Vogt’s novel What Concerns Us, published by Heloise Press. Our discussion flitted from Laura’s inspirations and writing habits to Caroline’s experience translating the book from German into English.
What Concerns Us is a fruitful and tender exploration of motherhood, pregnancy and the trauma these experiences can embody. It follows sisters Rahel and Fenna through their experiences of motherhood, postnatal depression and consent.
We began by discussing Laura’s primary inspirations for the birth of the book. While she said it is “very hard to tell what the original inspiration was,” she remembers attending a reading in 2015, after which she went home and started writing what would later become the novel. Laura said “I just sit down and start writing; I try not to think about anything.” Laura then took a break from writing after falling pregnant herself and it wasn’t until her son was two months old that she picked up the project again. With a small child, Laura admitted the difficulty of finding time to write. But when her son was older, she split the parenting “fifty-fifty” with her husband and would often write in the mornings.
Laura would get the words down on the page then find the themes to shape the fiction. At the time, Laura was “surrounded by motherhood in different ways.” She spoke to other women about their experiences with motherhood and Laura’s own pregnancy meant that she could see her own body changing. This contributed to the authenticity of her writing as she was “so emotionally close” to the topic. The themes of women and bodies have always been the essence of her work. Laura says, “our body is our home,” but there’s also “a very big pressure about bodies, especially women’s bodies.”
We then turned to Caroline to find out more about her personal experience with translating What Concerns Us. Caroline began by saying how this book stood out as “it’s so playful with language.” She had to be particularly careful with word choice as there “were so many layers” of meaning. Caroline compared the translation to being a puzzle to solve as the book is so multifaceted. It’s impossible for a text to be replicated precisely in another language as a text is “not completely translatable.” Rather, she had to “produce this other text which is inspired heavily based on the original.” While something may be lost in translation, a new language also offers other possibilities to explore. Translated books often sprinkle in additional information as a helping hand to the reader who’s not as familiar with a setting or culture. But it’s a “balancing act” as the text doesn’t want to seem like a “guidebook” but a piece of literature.
Word choice in translation is often a compromise. Caroline described this as a “prioritization of hierarchy” when there are multiple layers of meaning to communicate to the reader but it’s unlikely that all these aspects will be carried across, so the word choice must connote the most important meanings. “It’s like damage control,” she said. We were also interested in how Laura found the translated text and she said that the English translation was like reading the book with “different glasses.” For her, the experience was “strange, but in a positive way.” She and Caroline were able to find a common ground and make sure both texts were harmonious while standing alone as different texts in their own right.
While individual words are translatable, there are broader, cultural ideas to consider in translation and whether readers from different countries will have the same emotional reaction and understanding of the text. Laura explained how deeply ingrained it is in Swiss society for the mother to look after the children at home. Laura said it’s unheard of for women to go back to work after having a child in Switzerland. This cultural particularity comes into play in the book when Rahel gives up music after her son Rico’s birth, then falls out of love with singing. It sheds light on one of the many ways women become different people after pregnancy.
As far as the behind-the-scenes of publishing this novel, we wanted to know how Laura and Caroline were paired together for this project. Caroline told us that she was approached by the Heloise Press to translate the book, then Caroline translated a sample of the text for Laura to read and check that the “voices were compatible.” Throughout the translation process, Caroline would email Laura questions to enquire about motivations for certain ideas. They would then collaboratively edit and refine the translation to make sure they were both happy with the outcome. Laura is now working towards her third novel after her English book tour for What Concerns Us and looks forward to future projects.