Narrating and Translating Love and Grief in “TI AMO”: Norwegian Author Hanne Ørstavik and English Translator Martin Aitken in Conversation with Nataliya Deleva

With the first lines in Ti Amo (by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken) we break into the disturbing reality that shapes the narrator’s presence. Through the deeply intimate and lyrical prose, she allures us into her confession of love to her husband who’s been given a terminal diagnosis with less than a year to live.

Ti Amo is a sensual and honest exploration of love, of the heavy feeling permeating the weeks and months before the impending death of a loved one, the memories that engulf you before the imminent parting. Many novels depict the heaviness of the grief that follows the loss of a loved one but this book is unique in the way it renders the awareness of our mortality. Death is not an abstract idea; it is presented as an almost tactile experience. The novel reads as a permission to start grieving before the ending in those moments when the knowledge of death is clutched between two people and forms the fabric of their daily routine. But it could also be read as a permission to live again, to self-love and love others while saying goodbye to a loved one. It is a fragile state of mind interlaced with the friction and dynamic between two energy forces: the urge to cling for as long as possible, and the need to let go.

I speak to Hanne Ørstavik and her English translator Martin Aitken about Hanne’s impulse to write Ti Amo, her and Martin’s craft practice and the way they both relate to the English translation of Ti Amo, which was published on 13th September by Archipelago Books.

Nataliya Deleva

Nataliya Deleva: Hanne, I read Ti Amo a few weeks ago and the feeling of sadness and loneliness still lingers in me. So often what make us unhappy are not past events but the things that never happened and those we long for: an unrequited love, a life stolen abruptly, a relationship cut short. Ti Amo reads as grieving the dream of a life together that was taken away unapologetically. How did you approach the idea of narrating grief that comes before the parting with the loved one? Or, was this book rather an attempt to narrate love?

Hanne Ørstavik: I started to write Ti Amo because I needed to. I had no plan of writing a literary text or a book or anything; I just needed to write so that in the process of writing I could have a place where to go with all the things that my husband and I could not talk about. My husband did not want to die, he was terrified of death, or I think he was, or perhaps he wanted to protect me by not talking about it – I will never know. I needed a place where I could say: ‘You are going to die’. So, what I did in this text was to be extremely honest to myself and the reality I was living in, next to my dying man.

ND: Could you please tell me more about the process of writing this book? I read recently that you completed the first draft in about ten days – is that the case and how was this process for you?

HO: In a way the book itself shows its own process. It’s all laid out in there, the text is written in present tense most of the time, and that is actually how it was. The Now in the novel, was the Now of the writing moment. It was completed in ten days, and I sent it to my publisher in Oslo. The editing was minimal. There it was.

While I was writing the novel, I would make notes every moment we were together during those ten days: in the hospital, at home, etc. He knew I was writing, and in a way I think he knew that I was writing about this, about us, about what was happening. He was so proud of me. He was always so happy when I was working on a project. But he never asked what it was about. He had so little strength. When the draft for the cover came in April or May, a couple of months before he died, we were sitting in the sofa having breakfast. The Norwegian cover is pale pink, with only the title in pale grey: somehow sober and silent. I showed it to him and I saw on his face that he understood. It was our novel.

ND: How do you feel about the translation of Ti Amo in English? After so many of your novels being translated into other languages, do you still feel this interpretation (as the literary translation often is) as a ‘second skin’ as you’ve previously described it?

HO: I have not read the translation. For me, translations are always painful, I lose my language. But then, the translations are not made for me, so I have come to both be extremely grateful that another deeply talented and skilful person devotes his whole ambition into re-creating my novel in his own language, and also leaving it there, with trust and faith that his translation and the editorial process with the publisher will take the novel to the best possible new existence in this other, foreign to me, language.

ND: Martin, I’d like to ask you a similar question. You’ve translated several of Hanne’s novels in English and your work on Ti Amo is again masterfully crafted. Do you feel that your long writer-translator relationship with Hanne has allowed for a more fluid dialogue between the two languages?

Martin Aitken: This is the third of Hanne’s novels I’ve been fortunate enough to translate, so to a certain extent there is a sense of familiarity with her style of writing. That said, I think Love sticks out among the three in that the sentences there are somehow firmer and more precise. In the other two novels, the writing very much reflects the narrator’s turmoil, their anguish at the impossibilities of connecting with their fellow humans in the case of The Pastor, and with grasping the inevitable approach of death in Ti Amo. It’s an anguish that manifests itself in sentences that can often be quite intangible in meaning, products of feelings rather than rational thought. So there’ll sometimes be non sequiturs, sentences that never quite get off the ground and aren’t actually sentences at all, more like dislocated, wispy threads of emotion. Rendering that can be difficult indeed, because of course whenever we write there’s a syntactic imperative, a mental grammar that kicks in and is always going to compel us to produce proper, well-formed sentences.

ND: Hanne, you write about a very personal experience that has influenced the narrative in Ti Amo (as you’ve also lost your Italian husband to cancer), but you’ve chosen fiction as a genre to depict the feelings which this experience of parting and suffering instils. As a writer, I’ve often found this approach to be the only way to tackle one’s own past traumatic experiences, and this was the case for me while writing my second novel Arrival. Do you find it helpful to ‘fictionise’ your personal experience in order to distance yourself from it, and that way, perhaps, to be able to narrate it with a painful honesty?

HO: It was my publishing house that labelled the text as fiction. I have no need to call this book a novel; I think maybe they did it also because of the literary support system in Norway, where we have a huge support for fiction, and a quite small one for non-fiction. This text is more of a document for me, a report from a moment in time – but I don’t really think it’s that important what you call it. For my ’real’ novels, it is extremely important that they are fiction – not to protect myself, but to free myself, and most of all, to free the text. In my writing I tap onto my own life and experiences, however the aspects of life that make it necessary for me to write are the ones unknown to me. So I could say I write about the things I cannot find in myself, and to have access to them, I need fiction, because I do not know.

ND: When I interviewed Denise Newman about her brilliant translation of Naja-Marie Aidt’s memoir When Death Takes Something from You, Give it Back, she mentioned how difficult it was for her to translate some of the most painful moments describing the last hours of the narrator’s son’s death, so Newman often needed to take breaks ‘to clear her head’. Martin, was there a moment in Ti Amo when you had to pause because you felt too close to the pain you had to construe in English?

MA: Aidt’s book too is a devastating read, and brilliantly translated by Denise Newman. Ti Amo dealt me most of its body blows when I read the manuscript prior to the book coming out in Norwegian. Obviously, I realized straight away that it was a highly autobiographical work, so I had to take that aspect in, the personal story, Hanne’s own, which until then I’d only been superficially aware of. But in any translation, in the writing, the formulation of the underlying senses, meanings and emotions, you’re inhabiting the character in much the same way as the author was doing in her own act of writing. So even though I knew what was coming, there were still passages that had me stepping back and taking some very deep breaths. There’s an innocence in the dying partner’s bewilderment at his situation that is extremely touching and poignant.

ND: The second person doesn’t always work in a novel but it feels like the only possible choice in Ti Amo. It creates a sense of proximity and helps the text to read like a love letter. What was your reason for this creative choice, Hanne? Did you experiment with first or third person, or was the second person always your preference from the start?

HO: It just came out like that. It was there when I started to write.

ND: There’s a brief mention of a connection between the narrator and another man whom she meets during a book fair in Guadalajara, Mexico. If we look at love as a feeling in its pure state, or ‘electricity’ as you describe it, I find this connection that erupts so suddenly and without an invitation both honest and somehow natural. While life drips away from the dying husband and his body grows weaker and empty of zest, his energy almost metaphysically moves over to the body of this stranger with ‘strong, defining presence’. I find this an interesting metamorphosis of life and the way it ‘moves’ between the two male bodies separated by space and time. But while the narrator asks herself if it’s possible to feel love towards two men, there’s something else that is born out of this connection: the feeling of guilt of this unexpected desire for someone else. Why was it important for you to touch upon this aspect? Is there such a thing as ‘pure love’ or do we always define love (and guilt) in the context of societal expectations?

HO: To me, the reason to include A. in the text (A. is the man in Mexico), had to do with life-force, with the force that gave me the incipit to write. The whole text would not have forced itself out of me without that meeting. To write is an act that comes from inside of us, it demands an extreme effort, and during the whole illness of Luigi, my husband, I had no spirit to write whatsoever. It was the inner conflict and friction between the ’falling in love’ or ’experiencing a love meeting’ and the ’extreme sadness of losing a loved one’ that drove me into writing this text. To me the experience of meeting A. did not question my love for Luigi. I did not feel guilt, just an extreme tension between different states of energy.

ND: How different did it feel for you to narrate this type of sensual, passionate love for someone in their last days of living, compared to the motherly love (or rather, longing for love) you depict in your previous novel Love?

HO: I have never thought of that but both novels rose from a relationship. Ti Amo was born out of my love and then the loss of my husband. I started writing Love when my daughter was just born (published 23 years earlier back in 1997). The investigation in Love was to me the immense feeling of helplessness: How could I ever be sure that my daughter knew I love her. Because you can say it over and over again, but when are the words complete with the meaning they carry when spoken out? Love doesn’t come just by naming it.

The life situation of writing the two novels was so extremely different, and the relationship to love that made them necessary for me to conceive them, too.

ND: Martin, I find your work of translating literature especially from the so called ‘small languages’ like Norwegian incredibly important. You’re one of not too many translators who’re able to do this full time, which I also find remarkable. What do you find most rewarding, and also most challenging, in this process?

MA: I don’t think it would have been possible, say, thirty years ago. But the world’s a different place now, bigger and smaller at the same time, and there’s a lot more interest among readers and publishers these days in literature coming out of other language areas. Translation is a thing, there’s an ongoing discourse about it, growing numbers of journals and publishing houses focusing on it, all of which is a very happy state of affairs. The rewarding thing about it for me lies in the actual transformative rendering into another language, being in that creative mental space where translation happens. It’s not the thought-about side of things, poring through the thesaurus for the right word, racking your brains or consulting a dictionary for some lexical equivalent. Rather, it’s the part that can’t be explained, because it’s creative. If you’d asked Glenn Gould how he played the Goldberg Variations, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you, because it isn’t amenable to explication. For me, it’s the same with translation. The challenge, I suppose, is to find the centre of gravity in that process and then stay there.

Hanne Ørstavik is one of the most prominent voices of Norway’s literary scene today. Her breakthrough came with the publication of Love, which in 2006 was voted the 6th best Norwegian book of the last 25 years and became a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for translated literature. Ørstavik’s second book published in English, The Pastor, “distinguishes Ørstavik as a leading light in international literature,” according to Publishers Weekly.

Martin Aitken‘s translations of contemporary Scandinavian literature are numerous. His work has appeared on the shortlists of the International DUBLIN Literary Award (2017) and the US National Book Awards (2018), as well as the 2021 International Booker Prize. He received the PEN America Translation Prize in 2019, and most recently the 2022 US National Translation Award for Prose. He lives and works in Denmark.

Nataliya Deleva‘s debut novel, Four Minutes, was originally published in Bulgaria (Janet 45, 2017), where the book was awarded Best Debut Novel and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year (2018). It has since been translated into German (eta Verlag, 2018), English (Open Letter Books, 2021) and Polish (Wydawnictwo EZOP, 2021). Her second novel ARRIVAL, written originally in English, is published by The Indigo Press, UK (2022).

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