“I want a writer, [Varvara had] told my editor. I want someone who knows how to lie without being exposed.” That is how Pelle—our hapless, cash-strapped narrator—is thrust headlong into the life of aging socialite Varvara Eng and her lover Knud.

In Simon Fruelund’s darkly comic novel The World and Varvara, information swirls and churns around Pelle, who has been tasked with ghostwriting Varvara’s memoir ahead of her eightieth birthday. While The World and Varvara‘s lean prose and frequent detours call to mind writers like Mary Robison or Jean-Philippe Toussaint, the novel that rattled around in my head while reading was Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, in its probing of the relationship between writer and subject, the muddling of lines between myth and fact.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Kyle Semmel, the translator of The World and Varvara (and several other of Fruelund’s titles), about this outstanding novel, which was published in English for the first time by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing.

Ravi Mangla: The World and Varvara is many things. But the quality that first drew me in, as a reader, is its comedic sensibility. I was hoping you could speak on Fruelund’s offbeat humor and what challenges you came up against translating a comic work like this into English.

K.E. Semmel: Simon is definitely a comedic writer, though not in the way of, say, Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders, or A.M. Homes. His brand of comedy is, at times, very subtle to the point where you might miss it. 

What makes translating Simon difficult is exactly this understated style. As a translator, you obviously have to hew pretty closely to what a writer is doing. With Simon, what appears to be easy is sometimes anything but. There are only 25,000 words in this book. But unlike with a fat crime novel, where plot is king and words are more like soldiers going off to battle in wave after wave, these words are precisely chosen to maximize the spareness of the prose. There’s no fat on these bones. Simon is actually involved in the translation process, which is different from nearly every other writer I’ve translated. I will share my work with him when I’ve finished a draft. A number of times I would insert questions in the text, like “Is this too subtle? Do you think readers will understand?” or “Should we clarify here?” 

Almost invariably, Simon would say no and we’d move on. And I’m glad. Keeping the subtle spareness of his style was the absolute right thing to do. 

It’s interesting to know that Simon was so engaged in the translation process, which strikes me as fairly unusual. Do you prefer having a more collaborative relationship with the author or does that complicate the process?

I’m not sure it’s that unusual, especially for translators into English, since English is the lingua franca of international relations. For me, how collaborative the relationship is depends on my relationship with the author. I’ve known Simon for years. Our friendship began when I found his first collection of stories (Milk) in a random bookstore in Western Denmark. I liked the book so much I translated one of the stories (“Tide”), found him online, and emailed him the translation. From there it was an easy transition, a natural transition, to the kind of writer-translator relationship we have now. 

For the most part, I’ve always tried to query writers with questions (and I know many translators who do the same). That includes Naja Marie Aidt (Rock, Paper, Scissors), Thomas Rydahl (The Hermit), and Jesper Bugge Kold (Winter MenThe Wall Between). But there are a couple writers, like Karin Fossum or Jussi Adler-Olsen, that I’ve never actually met. Nor did we correspond during the translation process. That works fine, too. 

In your Necessary Fiction essay, you spoke of Fruelund’s “pointillist, non-plot-driven” style. I find myself waffling on a near daily basis on the question of plot, and whether I actually care for it or not. What do you see as the merits of a less plot-dense style? Is plot overrated?

That depends on the work. I love reading novels of all kinds. Some modes of narrative—particularly in the so-called genres—need plot to succeed, while others can play fast and loose with plot. Plot is as much about readers’ expectations as anything else. When a reader picks up a Stephen King novel, say, they know what they’re getting. I love reading King’s novels, and I expect to be pulled in and along by the plot. When I think of less plot-dense novels such as Jenny Offill’s Weather or Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water, I think of how the form itself can both illustrate and augment the work, almost like a shape poem. Take Black Water. That book works in a circular way, using repetition and time loops to heighten the tension and deepen the reader’s appreciation of the story. But I think you could make an argument for or against plot with any book. A skilled writer could take that same story and straighten it out, turning it into a plot-driven masterpiece that gives its characters depths and nuances that maybe Oates did not in her more experimental work.

In Varvara, Simon doesn’t fully subscribe to a plot. Yes, there’s the Pelle-Varvara storyline running through the narrative, with its cause and effect, but there are also these discrete pauses that lurch readers out of that story and into a batch of expatriate profiles. These profiles are only loosely joined to the main storyline; Knirke, the photographer, is the connective tissue. By diverging from the plot here–and this is another merit of a plotless novel–Simon’s characters expand the meaning of the main narrative.

I’m looking forward to digging deeper into Fruelund’s full catalog over the coming years. Along with titles mentioned above, do you have recommendations for folks looking to get better acquainted with Danish fiction? 

For sure! Here are some of the writers I admire. (I’ll keep these focused on authors whose work I know has been translated.) Peter Høeg has multiple books translated into English, of course, and he’s a great place to start. Borderliners (translated by Barbara Haveland) is a classic.

A Fortunate Man by Nobel Prize winner Henrik Pontoppidan, originally published in the early 1900s, was translated by Paul Larkin and it’s a classic too (it was also translated as Lucky Per, most recently in Naomi Liebowitz’s translation). From all accounts, both versions are excellent. 

Kim Leine is also a writer who is worth reading. Two of his books, Dansk Standard and De søvnløse, are as yet untranslated but absolutely should be. If you are an editor or publisher reading this interview, please look them up! In the meantime readers in English can get started with The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (translated by Martin Aitken).

Helle Helle is an absolute must read. I’ve lost track of which of her books have been translated into English, but everything should be. I absolutely love her minimalistic style and sharp prose. This Should Be Written in Present Tense is definitely translated into English, by Martin Aitken (one of the best in the business).

I’m going to plug my translation of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, ScissorsIt’s such an amazing book! 

When I lived in Denmark, I would always buy the newspaper to read Carsten Jensen’s columns. He’s an outstanding writer on societal topics, but it turns out he’s also a great novelist. His first novel, We, the Drowned, was translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder and is phenomenal. His second, The First Stone, translated by Mark Mussari, is an example of how criminal it is when great books in translation go unnoticed by the general reading public.   

Your debut novel comes out later this year from SFWP. Can you tell us a little bit about the book? I’d also be curious to know if translation has influenced or altered your approach to your own fiction writing.

The Book of Losman is about a literary translator in Copenhagen who gets involved in an experimental drug study in the vain hope of finding a cure for his Tourette Syndrome. It may not sound like it, but it’s a comic novel in the way Matt Haig’s are comic novels: the humor is stirred with a dash of existential melancholy. 

The story is very deliberately inspired by my work as a translator—especially my work with Simon’s fiction. Losman is, in many ways, a meta character. The opening chapter of the book is an actual literal retelling of Simon’s short story “Kramer” from his collection Milk & Other Stories (also published by SFWP). In essence, I inserted my fictional Losman in Simon’s story (with Simon’s permission). After that, the narrative takes off on its own, but the woman in Simon’s story becomes a central character in my novel. And parts of other characters, and even themes, from Milk and The World and Varvara make an appearance in Losman. To use a very Scandinavian word, it’s a smorgasbord of connections.

I don’t think you intended your question to have such a literal answer, though, so I will answer the question in another way. The great thing about translation—about all writing, really, but translation presents a terrific hothouse laboratory—is how you’re constantly pressed to get a draft done, usually fast. And getting a draft done means putting in the work. Putting in the work and straining to find the right words. You put your ass in a chair every day and you work with the clay of language, one, two, three, four drafts, or more, until you finally find the right word or combination of words to accurately reflect the meaning of the text. That’s what all writers do, sure, but I honestly believe that I write better first drafts now because I’ve gone through the crucible of translation. 

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator of more than a dozen novels from Danish and Norwegian. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ontario Review, Lithub, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Southern Review, Washington Post, and elsewhere. The World and Varvara by Simon Fruelund is his most recent translation. His debut novel, The Book of Losman, will be published in October 2024 (SFWP). Find him online at kesemmel.com.

Ravi Mangla’s most recent novel is The Observant (Spuyten Duyvil, 2022). His writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction, Paris Review Daily, and Los Angeles Review of Books.

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