Translation & Story

Kristine: Damon, as an American who has lived in Norway for some time, you have learned both some of the language and some of the social norms that Norwegians abide by. During our time in Finnmark filming for Koppmoll, there were many moments when asking a question, you would receive a very different answer in English compared to what I received in Norwegian. Once you asked me if that was because of Janteloven [a set of Norwegian social norms]. Looking back at those moments, how and in which ways do you think, or feel, that stories changed based on what language they were told in?  

Damon: This is a great question, Kristine.  Because of my limitations with the language, what I found myself noticing was how a particular story was told, more than specific words. When the story of the dogfight between the British and German plane was told, for instance, I had ideas about how I would have told the story. Obviously, this would have been different from a Norwegian telling. Typically, Norwegian storytelling is understated. Of course, for the film, we wanted Norwegians to tell their stories as they tell them, and as it turned out, Tore Walde did a great job telling his own stories.   

To address another part of what you say, there are words in Norwegian that touch me.  I like the word you mention, Janteloven.  There is much history and social definition in that word.  I like the word hav.  It is a simple word, and I like how it sounds.  I am also touched by the Norwegian word Kjæreste. In English, we would say “dearest,” which does not capture all that is implied within Kjæreste. But I struggle with languages and with Norwegian in particular, as you know. This is one of the many reasons I am glad you were involved with the production of Koppmoll.  As I have said, Koppmoll would not be the same film without you.  You were the translator, yes, but you were also a strong, at times comforting, presence on the set.  Were there specific moments while filming when the difference between English and Norwegian struck you as curious?  Were there times when you recognized differences in the telling?

(L to R) Tore Walde speaks with Kristine Fostervold and Damon Falke about life at 71° N in Koppmoll, STT’s forthcoming documentary.

Kristine: Thank you so much for that, Damon. There were moments I remember thinking to myself that something sounded very different in English compared to Norwegian. As you mention, Norwegians often tell stories in an understated, almost minimalistic style.  Interestingly enough, in Narvik where I’m from, we are known for the opposite. We exaggerate to make stories better. Tore however, did not exaggerate, nor did he need to exaggerate the dogfight story. It’s an incredible story, and I think, especially while filming, Tore wanted the story to shine. What I noticed when comparing the languages and different renditions was a difference between emotional honesty and emotional connection. Tore’s voice, manner, and face were more animated when speaking about the dogfight in Norwegian. It seemed easier for him to imagine himself in a similar situation.  Despite this easier connection, his vulnerability was not as apparent.

Yet when we were sitting at the kitchen table early in our time in Finnmark, you were both speaking in English and talking about families. Towards the end of that conversation, it became quite emotional when you asked Tore “Did your grandfather ever tell you about his experiences during the war?” Tore replied, simply, “Not a damn thing.”  That conversation could not have happened like that in Norwegian. Likely, if the same conversation had occurred in Norwegian, Tore would have laughed after saying “Not a damn thing,” as opposed to the potent silence that followed. The expectations of emotional control and honesty are very different between English and Norwegian. A different conversation in Norwegian could have led to a similar end, but you would have needed a very different path to get there.  

(L to R) In a scene from Koppmoll, Damon Falke listens as cousins Stein Viggo Bergerud and Tore Walde tell their family’s story of witnessing a dogfight near Kjøllefjord.

While on the subject of language and conversation, how did you feel while talking with Aksel? Or rather, did you feel more connected to him before we read his stories while you conversed in Norwegian or while I read his stories and asked him questions and the conversation got to the level of complexity where it had to be translated? 

Damon: Let’s consider Aksel a separate conversation. The circumstances through which he came into our film is remarkable, but so is Aksel—the fact that there is an Aksel.  We will give him his attention.

You bring many interesting observations to our conversation—how we might share a story with a specific audience and what is our connection to a story in terms of our vulnerability or the lack of it.   There are many lines we could consider. Curiously, I find myself returning to a question of why do so many, if not most, of us feel compelled to tell stories.  I am often guilty in desiring singular causes and results to speculative questions.  I sometimes desire Rome to have a fallen for a singular reason, as opposed to the honesty of the many reasons.  With a story, there is a mixture of keeping ourselves while keeping another.  I suppose that is what we have in, in a sense, our stories.  And like Aksel’s story and his way of telling, there are many parts.  And we could say the same of Tore.  I suppose really this a desire, on my part, to hear more and to learn something more of the parts that go into making not just a story, but a person, a human being. 

(L to R) A screen-grab from Koppmoll, Kristine Fostervold and Damon Falke discuss memories of WWII in the far north with 91 year old Aksel Jenson.

Kristine: That is a romantic thought, in its own way. I think all of us, at least sometimes, would prefer singular causes behind the stories we’re told, at least I know that I can relate to that. I do find the ways we tell stories to be utterly fascinating, and language is one of the many delicate dimensions that go into storytelling, and so I do enjoy the complexity of a story as well as the simplicity, or rather the singularity, you say you crave. Sometimes, however, the most important parts of the stories are not the ones that can be defined as singular or complex, and they are shown to the listener in ways that are not consciously chosen, neither can they be forcibly expressed. From time to time stories and the feelings that are woven into them seem to take on a will of their own, they demand to be told, to be felt, and that’s when we get a moment like we did with Tore, where his response went beyond any social norm or language. Through his non-verbal response, we were given access to an important part of both the stories that he tells us during the film and the stories that he has yet to tell. As someone who enjoys observing the intricacies of how language affects stories, it is also inspiring and beautiful to find the parts of the story where those barriers that I normally look for have been transcended. That’s what I look for, those little moments in a story where we can feel the story transcending the ordinary, regardless of the story’s actual subject. 

Damon: Transcending the ordinary.  I like that.  I like that we cannot necessarily create such a moment.  As if, in those moments, we discover, unexpectedly, another of our worlds. 

Kristine Bjørndal Fostervold is a Native Norwegian from Narvik, Norway. She studied music theatre at Falmouth University in Cornwall, England, earned a BA in language and literature from the University of Tromsø, and in fall 2019, she will begin working on an MA in translation in England.

Damon Falke is a core member of STT. He is the author of The Scent of a Thousand Rains, which will premiere in Sept. 2019 through a partnership with Spokane Public Radio. He is the writer of Koppmoll, a film about war and memory set in the far north of Norway. His other works written for STT include The Sun is in the West, Now at the Uncertain Hour, and Laura, or Scenes from a Common World.

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