It’s Elastic: A Conversation with Translator Sherilyn Hellberg

By Alex Brostoff and Sherilyn Hellberg

Alice sits in the shower. Alice examines the curtains of her cunt. Alice wonders. So starts Johanne Bille’s Elastic, a novel stretched taut over the contours of a body and gone slack with echoes of the unsaid. The Danish language may not use terms like “ethical non-monogamy,” but Alice and Simon are trying. Straining through the social minutiae that fester and chafe an open relationship, Alice falls for Mathilde, whose elusiveness is matched only by her partner Alexander’s promiscuousness. Fragments splinter and white space punctuates the places between chapters and between bodies. How to keep an elastic from snapping?

What’s being stretched is a silence, a sentence, a norm. Taking up the mercurial relations between women as its subject, Elastic poses pressing questions about translating gender and sexual politics across cultural difference. Published in Danish by Forlaget Gladiator in 2018, Elastic appears in English in 2019 by way of Lolli Editions. Like the text’s title, Sherilyn Hellberg’s translation is supple and taut, pliant and resilient. A furtive glance shoots across a sentence and an infatuation pangs: “You cannot see it but you can,” as one of Alice’s intrigues might say (59).

Like Hellberg, I came to Elastic much in the way Alice comes to Mathilde: quietly, by chance, and then quickly, by all means. On an August night in Copenhagen, the proofs presented themselves in the same slender office in which they’d been translated. The sun rose and the air mattress fell. I fell, too. This slim volume, at once understated and overstimulating, craves queer corpulence even as it caves to psychic violence. Following the novel’s polarizing reception as both feminist and anti-feminist in Denmark, Hellberg and I got a chance to chat about translating a text whose elasticity ranges far beyond the parameters of the Danish language.

––Alex Brostoff

ElasticAlex Brostoff: I want to start with the way Alice starts. The opening scene in Elastic portrays flesh as flexible, suggesting that Alice’s own embodiment is “elastic.” How does this set the scene for a text whose relationship to gender, sex, and sexuality is, ostensibly, “elastic”?

Sherilyn Hellberg: On the first page, Alice is sitting in the shower, looking at her vagina and thinking about how strange these fleshy curtains are. This alienation plagues her sexually as well. (For most of the novel, although she is infatuated with Mathilde, Alice is in a relationship with Simon. When Alice and Simon open their relationship, she sleeps with Alexander, Mathilde’s partner). Alice isn’t just questioning her body, but her way of moving through the world.

In Denmark, there’s been an explosion of these slim, experimental, autobiographical books by women. A few years ago, a Danish critic published a controversial piece in which she argued that this “introverted, navel-gazing, and girly narcissism” was ruining contemporary Danish literature. Elastic starts by literally gazing into another hole, further south. This sets up a mode of stretching the folds between gender and sexuality, between embodied experience and social norms.

Alex Brostoff : In addition to contending with her own body, Alice is also navigating an increasingly twisted matrix of sexual relationships. The relationships in this novel might recall The Ethical Slut for English-language readers, but the practice of non-monogamy in Elastic isn’t exactly ethical per se. Would you say that the quadrilateral tangle (of Alice, Simon, Mathilde, and Alexander) responds or corresponds to cultural norms in particular ways?

Sherilyn Hellberg: Though it exists in practice, it’s rare that you would hear a phrase like “ethical non-monogamy” in Denmark. Heteronormative family constructions are more pervasive, maybe because it’s more financially tenable to have a family in Denmark since you don’t need to allocate significant funds to health or child care as you would in the U.S. The Scandinavian welfare state, historically, depends on the production of citizens who will grow up to pay taxes, which make possible the distribution of wealth, and so the cycle continues. This encourages and perpetuates heteronormativity on a vast social scale. Danish benefits, which include a year of maternity and a few months of paternity leave, “child money” (børnepenge), heavily subsidized child care, and ample vacation time also inform the configurations and conditions under which children are produced.

Alex Brostoff: Elastic not only critiques the construction of the family, but also represents expressions of queer desire that complicate kinship more broadly conceived.

Sherilyn Hellberg: Yes, completely. There’s a part of Elastic where Alice and Simon are walking through the park and in the distance, they see a stroller and a family. It incites an unbearable fantasy. This whole life springs up around them:

There are prams on the green path and parents carrying their babies. Snot-nosed kids are playing in the sandbox, sand sticking to their palms and cheeks….Maybe we should have a baby. It’s Simon who says it and suddenly we’re two parents walking with a child in between us. The child separates us, gives us the space we need. (116)

There’s a tempting pleasure of this life, but it’s not what Alice wants. Following that path with Simon would mean giving up Mathilde. The novel toggles between Alice’s restlessness and her fear of going down another path, and this ultimately precludes both possibilities.

Alex Brostoff: In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed extends this precise metaphor: “A path gives life a certain shape, a direction, a sequence (birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, reproduction, death),” she writes, “Once a flow is directed, it acquires a momentum…A path is created by being followed and followed by being created” (45). Moving with the majority may feel effortless, while moving against the traffic may risk ramming into people. As Ahmed puts it, “You become an obstacle; an inconvenience” (45).

Sherilyn Hellberg: That’s exactly the sensation Alice feels. In Denmark, the roots of Janteloven (the Scandinavian code of conduct that emphasizes conformity and modesty and privileges the collective over the individual) still runs deep. Doing something differently—whether that’s not eating meat or being non-monogamous or using they/them pronouns—can be perceived as you considering yourself “special.”

Alex Brostoff: To stick with the traffic metaphor while switching gears, in translating, were there particular moments when you felt like you were moving against the traffic of language?

Sherilyn Hellberg: There’s so much between the lines of Elastic, which is very understated. This is Bille’s style, but it also has to do with the Danish language, which uses fewer words to build layers of meaning.

There are also cultural differences around gender and sexuality, which filter into linguistic difference and vice versa. This comes up when Alice attempts to describe her relationship with Mathilde, and Mathilde’s relationship with Alexander. Alice doesn’t seem to have the vocabulary. In one chapter, Alice’s partner, Simon, has just come back from Vietnam and he and Alice go for drinks with Mathilde and Alexander. It’s the first time Alice clues Simon into her relationship with Mathilde and Alexander. In the Danish, she says, “Mathilde og Alexanders ægteskab er anderledes” [literally: “Mathilde and Alexander’s marriage is different” (76)]. This was tricky to translate because she’s saying that they have an open relationship, and there’s so much vocabulary in English— “they’re open,” “they’re non-monogamous,” “they’re poly,” etc. There are few equivalents in Danish because that vocabulary is less culturally pervasive. A lot can be under the surface of “anderledes,” which seems more imprecise in the English “different.”

Alex Brostoff: Sometimes the understatedness of the Danish took curt, unexpected turns. In one of my favorite moments, Alice exclaims, “I needed to get away, I needed to get away from her short eyelashes” (43). Short eyelashes! These are the kinds of details that you only notice when entirely infatuated. Suddenly, eyelashes are a sizeable threat.

Sherilyn Hellberg: There are wonderfully im/perfect descriptions of minutiae in this book, of mundane but intimate interactions. The awkwardness is left there to fester, which produces a kind of quiet comedy.

I think there’s something in the book’s temporality at play here too. There are sentences, like the one with the eyelashes, where Bille makes two moments or feelings collide. When Alice and Mathilde kiss for the first time, “A little tip of a tongue just barely touched my front tooth as her sunglasses clicked against mine” (8). Awkward intimacy echoes.

Non-verbal language is key to Elastic, and the novel is also full of blank pages: some white, some black, some with little dots. These fill or cover or deepen jumps in the narrative. They stand in for what can’t be articulated or might be better left unsaid. Blank pages work toward articulating the difficulties and insufficiencies of language.

Alex Brostoff: Do you think that this struggle with language, which is both thematized and formalized in the text, might in part account for how polarizing Elastic’s reception has been in Denmark? In an op-ed, Bille notes how the Danish word “venindeskab” describes friendship between women in which “the rules are different.” “Publishing Elastic felt dangerous,” she admits, “like social suicide.” Her fears turned out to be warranted when Elastic was hailed for its feminist representation of queer desire and also attacked for representing the violence women inflict on each other. Why might Elastic may have provoked the impression of being anti-feminist in Denmark?

Sherilyn Hellberg: Elastic received positive reviews, but it also sparked outrage among more conservative feminists in Denmark. Johanne told me about a radio interview she did, and after they stopped recording, the host leaned over and said, “You know you’re a traitor, right?” According to the host, there are enough men saying terrible things about women, and we don’t need women doing the same. Johanne was shocked because Elastic is a love letter to a woman—Alice is in love with Mathilde! The characterization of queer violence may seem dangerous to some. But to me, it’s much more feminist to write nuanced portraits of people.

Alex Brostoff: Absolutely! If fiction were limited to representing exclusively idealized relationships between women, then Elastic couldn’t critique how heteropatriarchy structures their relationships with each other. Those violences get lodged in the body, and perhaps this begins to account for Alice’s alienation. Speaking of which, were there times when you felt alienated as a translator?

Sherilyn Hellberg: I think alienation is central to translation. I was rereading Walter Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator” recently. He writes that whereas, in the original, language tightly adheres to content “like a fruit and its skin,” in translation, language covers content in a more floppy and sloppy way—like “a royal robe with ample folds” (258). I love that image. Translation can sometimes feel like putting on a costume, or forcing the story into one.

Discomfort is essential to the process, but when it becomes too much, I seek solace in other translators. I’ve been lucky to swap anecdotes with talented translators working between different languages, not least Marlena Gittleman, whose translations were recently featured in Asymptote. I’m also part of a network of Danish-English translators called DELT. When I was working on Olga Ravn’s Celestine, I was introduced to the wonderful Katrine Øgaard Jensen, the editor of EuropeNow and translator of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart, who has been an incredible source of wisdom.

When I’m stumped, I’ll look at Katrine’s translations, or translations by the fantastic Martin Aitken. Danish has a pronoun that can be translated as “everybody,” “one,” “he,” “she, or “they.” If you translate it as “he” or “she,” you inadvertently assign a gender, but “one” sounds formal and dated in English. The first time that word came up, I actually just opened one of Martin’s translations to see what he did. Reading other works in translation has been helpful for approaching diction and syntax in creative ways.

Alex Brostoff: Forgive the pun, but it sounds like translating has made all language “elastic.”

Sherilyn Hellberg: When I start translating, I sometimes get flashes of a perfect version of the text that seems to exist between what’s on the page and what the English might be. But as soon as you get into the thick of it, you realize how impossible that is. The editing can seem like moving in concentric circles toward this perfect thing that isn’t there.

Alex Brostoff: Elastic doesn’t have a translator’s note, but if you were to write one, what would you say?

Sherilyn Hellberg: I think I would have tried to write about my attempt to capture the minutiae of affect and temporality—the feeling of loss—hidden in commas and periods and little turns of phrase and blank pages. But I also wouldn’t want to influence the reader too much. I want Elastic to stand on its own.

Alex Brostoff: What other Danish-language texts would you like to make stand on their own for English-language readers?

Sherilyn Hellberg: I’m currently translating Jonas Eika’s hazy and brilliant Efter Solen (After the Sun), which will be coming out soon. I’ve also recently started translating Bedårende (Adorable) by Ida Marie Hede, which is mind-blowing. It’s a blend of fiction, poetry, and memoir about death and childbirth and the digestive tract, about relationships, human and non-human, coalescing and breaking apart. It’s kind of bacterial fantasy. And it’s full of bodies! Bodies forming and breaking apart.

Alex Brostoff: More bodies!

Sherilyn Hellberg: Yes, more bodies! I love the bodies!

 Alex Brostoff: I also love the bodies but I’ll leave the translating to you.

Bille, Johanne. Elastic. Translated by Sherilyn Hellberg. Great Britain: Lolli Editions, 2019.

Johanne Bille is a Danish author based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her debut novel TÆNK NU HVIS appeared in 2015 (Tiderne Skifter) and was lauded for exploring the fear of losing a parent and the unexpected beauty that may blossom in the midst of grief. Her second novel, the critically acclaimed ELASTIK, was published by Forlaget Gladiator in 2018, and is Bille’s first novel to be translated into English.

Sherilyn Hellberg is a literary translator and Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. In 2018, she received an American-Scandinavian Foundation Award for her translation of Caspar Eric’s NIKE.

Alex Brostoff is a writer, teacher, and Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer Magazine, Hyperallergic, Hypocrite Reader, and ASAP/Journal.

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