Next up In Conversation is a roundtable discussion between the affectionately titled “Team Venus”: author Mona Høvring and translators Kari Dickson and Rachel Rankin of Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born. Set in a hotel, high up in a mountain village, Because Venus follows two sisters as they aim to reconnect after distant years that contrast their close, almost twin-like upbringing. Martha has just been discharged from a sanatorium after a mental breakdown. Ella agrees to keep her company in the hope that the clean winter air will provide clarity—and a way back to their childhood connection. But tensions build and Martha disappears in a rage, leaving Ella to discover a new sense of self outside of the fractured relationship.
In our discussion, Høvring elaborates on the mountain setting, along with Ella’s search for meaning in forms of both enchantment and self-knowledge; Rankin and Dickson share insights on the collaborative translation process; and all three author/translators shed light on the nature of fate in Ella’s life and what it means to lose a relationship. Read on for a truly enlightening chat.
B*H: Why did you choose the Alpine mountains as the setting for this story?
Mona Høvring: I wanted to write a novel that could be read as a tight chamber play. It is always important to me to find the right surroundings. With this novel I knew even before I started that it had to be set in some kind of dreamlike locations. I wanted to establish a timeless atmosphere. The realistic but at the same time literary scenery is in a way a homage to writers I love: Fleur Jaeggy, Robert Walser, Johanna Spyri, and Thomas Mann to mention a few. The wintery atmosphere in this hotel high up in the thin mountain air gave the story the almost isolated feeling that I was looking for.
B*H: The protagonist Ella has many strange encounters with people throughout the novel. Is there something specific about her character/personality that invites these experiences?
Mona Høvring: Ella is searching for new ways of connecting with people. She is wide open in her own state of confusion and desperation. In her troubled everyday life she is constantly looking for glimpses of magic and wonderment.
B*H: What role does fate play in Ella’s life?
Kari Dickson: Gosh, I’ll be interested to see what Mona and Rachel answer here. To be honest, this has never crossed my mind. I guess it would depend on what you mean by fate. I see Ella as a very self-possessed, independent person, even though she is at sea within her relationship to her sister. She’s a person of action and impulse, but also self-aware – albeit at times despairing of herself. Fate – I don’t know has to be my answer.
Mona Høvring: I think Ella believes in fate, or at least she wants to believe in fate. But at the same time she knows that she must make her own destiny. This is a paradox in Ella’s life.
Rachel Rankin: To some extent I feel that fate plays quite a central role in Ella’s life, at least where Martha is concerned. The fact that they were born on exactly the same date one year apart always struck me as significant, as it implies that they are fated to be extremely close, but with a slight gulf, a distance. Twins, but not quite. Always together, but not quite. I feel like the novel itself explores the breakdown of fate, or at least the breakdown of expectation. Ella believed that she and Martha were fated always to be close to one another, but this was not their true fate – rather, it was an expectation, and one which is shattered throughout the novel.
B*H: Ella discovers a book by Stephen Zweig which has a profound impact on her. But before she finds Zweig, she reads a passage from a book called Death and the Maiden, which speaks about the nature of love. Why include this book in the scene?
Mona Høvring: I included the quote from Quentin Patricks novel to show how Ella is always looking for signs and experiences (also in her reading) that can throw light on her own life. She responds to sentences and passages in books like they are personal messages to her. The sentences she reads in Death and the Maiden are obviously connected to Ella’s sad and troublesome relationship with her sister Martha. It is a melancholy statement about love and separation.
B*H: Martha’s disappearance from the hotel causes Ella to do a lot of self-reflection. Relationships supply us with meaning in our lives. Now, I’m wondering if the opposite is also true—does the end of a relationship also inspire meaning?
Mona Høvring: Yes, absolutely, and that is undoubtedly one of the main themes of the novel.
Kari Dickson: Yes, for the very reason that it causes us to reflect and rebuild. Ella is able to resolve her feelings about her sister and her sense of self within in the relationship, because Martha’s disappears (again). And that also has a knock-on effect for her relationship with Dani.
Rachel Rankin: I think this is a great question – I would definitely agree that the end of a relationship – whether it be romantic, familial, or platonic – can inspire meaning, particularly in the case of Ella. Ella’s identity is so wrapped up in Martha that it takes the end of this close relationship for Ella to discover who she really is without her sister. Since Ella is in her early-twenties, this might not seem unusual – after all, many people would agree that your twenties are a time of soul-searching and self-discovery. However, it appears that Ella has never really considered herself as a being independent of Martha, so the breakdown of this relationship is really a catalyst for her to see herself as an independent being, no longer relying on Martha to fulfil her identity.
B*H: To what extent did the three of you collaborate on the English translation?
Rachel Rankin: To a great extent, I would say! Translation is inherently an act of collaboration, and even more so when there are two translators involved. Not only did Kari and I work closely with each other, but Mona also had a lot of input on the final translation, meaning we were able to discuss the text right down to the finer details. I believe this resulted in a text all three of us were happy with, and I’m sure we all hope that people enjoy reading the book as much as we enjoyed working on it!
Kari Dickson: Mona was the guest author for a Norwegian workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School the summer before Rachel and I started work on the translation of Because Venus, which we both participated in. So we were in the fortunate position to have already worked together and know each other. Mona is very generous with her time, comments and encouragement. She read through the finished translation, answered our questions and made suggestions, so there were a few back and forths until we were all happy. I have enjoyed every minute of working on this book, and with the fabulous Team Venus and can’t wait to hold it in my hands.
B*H: Mona, how do you feel about being translated into English?
Mona Høvring: Well, obviously it opens up for a new audience, readers from other parts of the world, with other experiences, living in other surroundings. I’m also excited about being published by Book*hug. It seems to be a great place to be as a writer, with such dedicated people. I feel honoured about it, curious, – grateful.
B*H: And what do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Mona Høvring: Something hopeful. Something profound, like grace and comfort.
Mona Høvring is the author of six poetry collections and four novels. Her previous novels include the acclaimed Something That Helps (2004), The Waiting Room in the Atlantic (2012), winner of the Unified Language Prize, and Camilla’s Long Nights (2013), nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature, was a finalist for the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, and was included on numerous critics’ Best of 2018 book lists.
Kari Dickson is a literary translator. She translates from Norwegian, and her work includes literary fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, theatre, and nonfiction. In 2019, Book*hug Press published her translation of Rune Christiansen’s Fanny and the Mystery in Grieving Forest. She is also an occasional tutor in Norwegian language, literature and translation at the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) and the National Centre for Writing. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Rachel Rankin is a poet and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2019 and was selected for the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme in 2018. She has also worked as a tutor in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she has taught classes in Norwegian language and Scandinavian literature.