Translation of Jon Fosse play mesmerizes readers of China

By Qi Xijia Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-28 18:23:01

Perhaps the most globally performed author in history is Shakespeare and right after Shakespeare is probably Ibsen. Maybe third is Jon Fosse.

Though new to Chinese readers - the Chinese version of Dream of Autumn was recently published - the Norwegian playwright, poet and translator has been staged across the world more than a thousand times and translated into 50 languages. 

Whenever one discusses Norwegian theater, the name Henrik Ibsen invariably arises. Yet while Ibsen usually focused on social issues encapsulated in a personal story, Fosse avoids addressing specific or overtly obvious societal topics.

"If I can use a visual metaphor, Fosse's society is the blurry background of a black and white photo while Ibsen is a painting rich with bright colors and sharp details," said Fabrizio Massini, project manager of the China office of Ibsen International, an independent organization that promotes performing arts in the world.

"Among all kinds of people young and old, in the circle of art and culture Fosse is very famous in Norway. That also goes for Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France among those who like to see theater," Fosse fan Øyvind Stokke, Consul General of Norway in Shanghai, who has been reading Fosse's works for 20 years, told the Global Times.

"Fosse's books showed how far away people live from each other in Norway. There are large mountains separating each village, and the weather is quite bad. Some people struggle to maintain contact and become very lonely," Stokke explained.

Due to Fosse's ability to portray this isolation in words, readers from big cities across the world have come to value his works. "Fosse's work illustrates how difficult it is for people to communicate and how misunderstandings occur," said Stokke.

Struck by a stone

Though Fosse only started writing in the 1980s, his volume of work is already highly valued in literary circles. "I think what makes an author a classic is that his work can survive throughout time and can take on different meanings, like Shakespeare. I think people will still stage Fosse in one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now," said Massini.

Fosse's work is considered by the average reader particularly hard to understand, however, primarily due to the sophisticated language he uses. His brief bursts of short dialogue can also be quite exasperating for new readers.

"If you take just the surface, Fosse is very dry and there is not much content there. You have to understand the dynamic between the characters speaking, because there are several layers of subtext. You have to dig deeper," Massini explained to the Global Times.

It is thus challenging for stage actors to find easy ways to communicate this dialogue to an audience, just as it is equally difficult for language translators to interpret Fosse's themes and symbolism.

"It was quite challenging," Zou Lulu, the translator of the Chinese edition of Dream of Autumn, told the Global Times. "Fosse is simple at first glance, but it feels like there is a deep dark hole that drags you down when you enter his world."

Beneath Fosse's minimalism, however, is the rhythm of language, which not only exists between the lines but also between different plays. In Fosse's world, says Zou, there is a system with strong association and relevance between his plays.

Zou began translating in 2004 and has published nine plays in 12 years. "The moment I read Fosse I felt like I had been struck by a stone. I was shocked and locked his book in my drawer for three months," said Zou.

"I have never thought someone from another country who speaks another language would go to the bottom of my heart and share my understanding of life like Fosse did," she said.

In 2009 Zou met Fosse in person for the first time at the Bergen International Festival. "He was quite nice. He is very interested in Chinese culture. We often spoke about Buddhism and Chinese poetry," said Zou. "We both hope that one day we can translate a Chinese poem together, with me translating Chinese to English and him from English to Norwegian."

Consul General Øyvind Stokke and translator Zou Lulu speak at the launch ceremony of Dream of Autumn's Chinese edition.


Consul General Øyvind Stokke and translator Zou Lulu speak at the launch ceremony of Dream of Autumn's Chinese edition.


File photo of Jon Fosse


Book cover of Dream of Autumn

Photos: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House and Qi Xijia/GT

Newspaper headline: Dream of a Chinese autumn

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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