What Concerns Us scrutinises gender roles within our society, examining what it means to be a mother and the nature of femininity, as well as how to remain independent in a variety of different types of relationship. New Books in German speaks to the book's author and translator in advance of the publication of this punchy contemporary read in English.
The English-language rights were bought by the new UK publishing house, Héloïse Press, whose mission is to promote contemporary female voices. Sheridan Marshall sat down with author Laura Vogt and translator Caroline Waight to mark the publication of What Concerns Us in English on 16 August 2022.
Sheridan Marshall (SM): Can you tell us about how you came to write the book?
Laura Vogt (LV): I started to write this book when my first child was two and a half months old. After the first period when things were very intense with the child and I was finding myself again as a mother, I felt a pressure to write again. I just sat down and started writing. But I had already started work on the project – I had written the first page a year earlier. So, I was already very much surrounded by questions about motherhood, about gender roles. But I had never had post-natal depression, so this is an aspect of the fiction that I created especially for Rahel.
SM: That’s interesting because as I was reading the book, I was wondering to what extent it was drawing on your own experience? Obviously that’s a complex question – it doesn’t have to mean straightforward autobiography.
LV: It was a very difficult question for me because when I first started writing about the characters I didn’t have the plot, I just had the protagonists, and then I started writing without thinking, if that’s possible. That’s how I came to understand the topics I’m interested in and who the characters really are. Because of this process I went through with the characters, it’s hard to say now what is fiction and what is not fiction.
SM: Are there any parallels for you, Caroline, between the translation process and the creative process Laura has described?
Caroline Waight: Definitely. You can’t help putting a little bit of yourself into a translation. I think we always imagine that you’re going to be this perfect mirror of the author and it just flows through you into English, but it can’t work like that, because obviously you also have a creative role. You have to make all these decisions about what you think the author is saying, and what you think is working in the language in German to create this effect. Then you need to think how to create that effect in English, so it’s a kind of parallel rather than a mirror.
It was strange for me because in some ways I related more to Rahel’s mother, Verena, because at the time that I was translating, I also had cancer. As I was reading about her and her story, I felt like that spoke to me more than the motherhood aspect, because that’s not something that I have personally experienced in my life. It was quite a powerful experience for me.
SM: Verena’s journey with cancer is not fully outworked in the story, but nonetheless it’s very impactful on her relationships with her daughters.
CW: It’s cleverly seeded – it’s not about her as much as it is about her daughters, but you feel her presence very strongly and she’s very key to the whole dynamic.
There were some weeks when I just concentrated on one person, on one character – to be able to get to know her, not just in relation to the others, but just for herself. And then I was able to bring her back into the whole story and see what it means now.Laura Vogt
SM: The triangular and multilateral mother-daughter relationships are fascinating in the book, and they must have been a challenge to map out as you were writing, Laura?
LV: Verena’s cancer is not central to the story. I was always questioning whether it was enough. Is it too much? What does it need? How can I balance this whole thing? Of course, there are many things in the centre of the story. There were some weeks when I just concentrated on one person, on one character – to be able to get to know her, not just in relation to the others, but just for herself. And then I was able to bring her back into the whole story and see what it means now. My writing process is rather chaotic in the beginning: I have a lot of files and then I just focus on one page, and I bring everything onto this page, and then I have to go over it again and again and change things.
SM: It’s very interesting to hear about your writing process, because I think that multi-layered way of working is reflected in your narrative and the themes of the novel, especially in the multi-generational perspectives you have on motherhood. The relationships that Rahel has with Rico and Leni are contrasted continuously with her own relationship with Verena, and with her relationship with Fenna. That complexity is so well-realised in the novel.
I wondered about how self-consciously you are writing about maternity, and the extent to which you see your work as part of the growing body of twenty-first century literature about the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood?
LV: When I started writing in 2016 this was not so much the case. But now some of the English-language books on these themes have been translated and we have a lot more books in German too. Not just about motherhood, but also focusing on diversity and female perspectives in general.
CW: It’s the combination of specifically female artists, or writers and painters and all these hip creative women who then write about their pregnancy experiences and experiences of motherhood. There is a Danish author, Olga Ravn, whose novel The Employees was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in its English translation. Her next book is called My Work, and it’s about her work as an artist, but also her pregnancy and how her child is like a project or a part of her creative process. I feel like there’s some of that going on in your novel as well, reflecting this identity crisis, of the woman as a mother and as a creative artist, and how those things can be reconciled.
SM: Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work from 2001 talks about children being part of women’s creative endeavour and an inevitable part of the way in which you may, as a woman and a mother, end up working. I notice that this linguistic association of work-labour-maternity features in many of the titles that have been published on motherhood in recent years.
Caroline, were there any particular sorts of linguistic challenge that you encountered when translating this text?
CW: Definitely, yes – it’s a book that does play with language a lot. I remember the word ‘Feige’ or ‘fig’, that can also be a slang word in German for vagina, and in English it’s not, so there were some instances where that gets used in the book where I had to decide whether I wanted to try to find another similar word in English, or maybe one that carries those associations. In the end I didn’t – I thought it was clear enough from the context. I felt it had to be a fig – it had to be that fruit because of its uses in the Bible and the religious connotations that it has.
SM: I remember there being a discussion of the etymology of ‘fig’ and wondering about how that worked in German and English.
CW: I checked that, and ‘Feige’ and ‘fig’ do have the same etymology. We have kind of lost that dual meaning in English, but I feel like in the context it was clear what it meant anyway.
That’s just one example of these decisions you’re making. You’re always trying to decide whether the context speaks clearly enough or whether it’s going to be confusing and needs changing, in which case, how do I do that? Do I find a close parallel? Do I come up with something that’s completely different but kind of has the same effect?
Those are the kind of decisions that I was making a lot during the translation process. Normally I make notes as I go along if I feel like something is going to be an issue in translation. I just put a comment box in the margin, and I type out a load of ideas, just word association – like fig, cherry, bun – and then I just leave it. I decide not to think about it and move on to the next bit. But then obviously your brain is working. So, three days later in the shower you’ll be like, oh that’s a great idea! And then you can go back and add it to your list of associations, and then there is this gradual process of refinement, whereby you realise what the right decision is. It’s almost organic – you know that it has to be this, it can’t really be anything else.
SM: You’re homing in on the right language.
CW: My process is like a subconscious groping around in the dark, I think!
SM: Laura, what’s it like to see your book out in the world in English?
LV: It’s crazy! It was such a pleasure to find out that it’s going to be translated. It was a year ago, and it was the best day of the year! And then and then going through this process with Caroline and Aina was fantastic I had such a good feeling about it. And then I read your translation Caroline. I read it fast because I was somehow a little bit fearful. But it was fantastic because I felt as though I was reading the same text but with different glasses. I could really feel my text, but of course it was different. I’m really very happy about it and I’m looking forward to holding the book in my hands.
Yes, I always think it’s important to be in touch with the author because there are always points where you just don’t know and where to make a decision by yourself would be guesswork, and it doesn’t feel right to do that.Caroline Waight
SM: It’s a beautiful book to hold in your hands. I think I prefer the English cover to the German one; it’s gorgeous.
Did you collaborate with Laura on the translation, Caroline?
CW: Yes, I always think it’s important to be in touch with the author because there are always points where you just don’t know and where to make a decision by yourself would be guesswork, and it doesn’t feel right to do that. I try to do most of the work myself early on and make sure that I have a clear sense of what direction of the book is going in, but there are always some things where you have to ask. So, I gathered together some queries and sent them across to Laura and I just said could you talk a little bit about what you were thinking in this sentence?
It’s often a query about the motivation, or to make sure that I haven’t missed something. It’s a book that does a lot of referential word play. Sometimes you wonder whether there’s something that I’m missing here, and you just want to make sure that there isn’t or that if there is, you know what it is.
Laura was great. I sent her all this stuff and she would reply with this is what I was thinking here, or this is what the character wants here. And then sometimes you get these situations where you hadn’t even thought that it could be interpreted differently. We went through a few iterations of that, of emailing back and forth. And often you use track changes as well to communicate and then you get these little conversations. In the end, we’ve gone through probably three or four rounds of that.
SM: Could you talk to us about your portrayal of female sexuality in the book, Laura? I feel like this is a theme that can often be brushed over in literature in the way that women’s maternal experiences are.
I felt that Rahel’s experience of self-obliteration after having Leni included the loss of her sexual feelings, and that part of her journey of finding herself again was rediscovering her sexual feelings and her relationships.
LV: I talk about naming the vagina and the vulva – Rahel needs to be able to name things and to realise things in order to keep going. For her naming the female genitalia means realising more and more about who she is. Who she is as a person, as a woman and as a mother, in these different roles or categories.
I think she lost her sexuality somehow when her daughter was born. She talks about that with Fenna when she says she doesn’t feel this pleasure in her sexuality anymore, and it probably has a lot to do with this uncertain feeling about her daughter. And this uncertain feeling about her daughter is related to her own childhood experience of being a daughter. They go hand in hand, somehow.
She doesn’t exactly find herself, but she has to go through this process to be more stable. And it has to do with sexuality and with being female.
SM: Caroline, can you tell us about what it was like having to translate the rape scene when Fenna is brutally raped in the mountains? Was that a particular challenge?
CW: Strangely enough it was one of the first scenes from the book that I translated, along with the opening section. Aina at Héloïse Press asked me to do these two sections to show to Laura before we signed the contract.
From the beginning of my translating encounter with this novel the rape scene was very much at the forefront of my mind. The thing that really struck me is that although obviously it’s quite harrowing it’s also beautifully written and it is a scene that really pays attention to the landscape. That’s why it’s so jarring and so powerful because as you read it, you’re thinking about how beautiful Switzerland is. You’re conscious that the scene is so wonderfully written, but at the same time I’m reading about this horrifying, brutal rape scene.
It’s a very memorable scene that has definitely stuck in my mind. It’s disturbing, and the way that Fenna responds to it is so sad. It’s very real and it hits home because of that. I found Fenna’s storyline very moving and her as a character just fascinating. I still don’t think I fully understand the way that her character’s mind works. If you’re going to write a sequel, I would read one all about Fenna. Please do!
SM: What is your perception of Fenna in the book, Laura?
LV: Writing Fenna’s character was a grey path for me. I find myself still thinking about her. On the one hand she seems so free and so open-minded, and she’s very strong and powerful and she has really great ideas, I think. On the other hand, she’s not a perfect feminist at all. Like in the way she reacts to this rape – it’s something that probably happens a lot, and it’s not something I wish for anyone, and I didn’t wish for anything like this for Fenna. But I didn’t want to answer questions, I wanted to ask them. So it has worked – I keep on questioning myself over and over! have a very ambivalent feeling about her, but human beings are always ambivalent, so Fenna is, as well.
SM: How has the novel been received in Switzerland?
LV: It came out at the end of February 2020, so it was not very good timing because soon after that there was a lockdown and every reading was cancelled, so this was really frustrating. I tried to find my way through doing things online. There were some articles published in Switzerland, and later on of course it was possible to have readings again. I’m not quite sure how Covid-19 touched the book or influenced its reception; it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t the perfect situation.
SM: Well, we’re very excited about What Concerns Us being published in the UK later this month. Thank you so much Laura and Caroline for being here today and talking so eloquently about the writing and translation of the book.
Laura Vogt will be reading from What Concerns Us in Canterbury and London on 6th and 7th September 2022.
Laura Vogt (Teufen, 1989) studied Creative Writing at the Swiss Literature Institute in Biel and Cultural Studies at the University of Luzern. Her first novel So einfach war es also zu gehen came out in 2016. She is also the author of numerous short stories and articles as well as lyrical and dramatic texts. What Concerns Us is her second novel, which she started writing just two months after having her first child. In her work, Laura is particularly interested in exploring the complexity of relationships, maternity, as well as inquiring into the many forms that womanhood can take. She is currently working on her third book. Laura lives in the canton of St. Gallen.
Caroline Waight is an award-winning literary translator working from Danish, German and Norwegian. She translates both fiction and non-fiction, with recent publications including The Lobster’s Shell by Caroline Albertine Minor (Granta, 2022), Island by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen (Pushkin Press, 2021) and The Chief Witness by Sayragul Sauytbay & Alexandra Cavelius (Scribe, 2021). She is based near London.
Read on…an interview with the publisher of What Concerns Us, Aina Marti from Héloïse Press.
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