Kira Josefsson has been shortlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize for translating Ia Genberg’s The Details from the Swedish.

In this novel, a famous broadcaster writes a forgotten love letter; a friend abruptly disappears; a lover leaves something unexpected behind; a traumatised woman is consumed by her own anxiety. In the throes of a high fever, a woman lies bedridden. Suddenly, she is struck with an urge to revisit a particular novel from her past. Inside the book is an inscription: a message from an ex-girlfriend. Pages from her past begin to flip, full of things she cannot forget and people who cannot be forgotten. Johanna, that same ex-girlfriend, now a famous TV host. Niki, the friend who disappeared all those years ago. Alejandro, who appears like a storm in precisely the right moment. And Birgitte, whose elusive qualities shield a painful secret. Who is the real subject of a portrait, the person being painted or the one holding the brush?

The jury said about the book, “Ia Genberg writes with a remarkably sharp eye about a series of messy relationships between friends, family and lovers. Using, as she says, “details, rather than information”, she gives us not simply the “residue of life presented in a combination of letters” but an evocation of contemporary Stockholm and a moving portrait of her narrator… She has at times a melancholic eye, but her wit and liveliness constantly break through.”

Kira Josefsson is a writer, editor, and translator between Swedish and English. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Bernard Shaw Prize. She lives in Queens, New York, and writes on US events and politics in the Swedish press.

In a conversation, she spoke about living in various countries, translating from the Swedish, and the author Ia Gensberg.

Sweden, Finland, France, Canada, and the USA. You have lived in all these countries. How has this shaped you as a translator?
I think I was drawn to translation partly because of my experience living between different languages. I grew up in Sweden. My mother is Finnish. A lot of people in her family had members who were married into other languages.

I moved to Finland after high school to explore those roots. I don’t speak Finnish. I did when I was little, but I can’t speak it fluently at all. Later on, I moved to Paris, because I loved French. I had studied it in school and I was really curious about learning that language better.

Then I ended up moving to Montreal for college in a bid to continue speaking French, but what really happened was that my English got much better. That’s how I became fluent in English. Then I moved to New York where I live now because of the person that I was dating at the time and friends who moved here after graduation.

I would say all these moves were at least in part motivated by an interest in languages and the excitement of inhabiting a new linguistic world that happens when you move somewhere. It showed me that it is possible to live in between languages in the way that you do as a translator.

What was your first full-length work of translation?
It is a novel called The Trio by Johanna Hiedman that came out in 2022 in the UK and in 2023 in the US with Europa Editions. It’s about three friends and lovers and their relationship with each other.

It’s a beautiful, dreamy novel that is set in Berlin, New York, and Stockholm, and also thinks a lot about language and what it means to your identity to move between different places. The book was given to me by Johanna’s agency, and I loved it immediately when I first started working on it.

You’re a writer too. What was your first published work?
I have not published any novels or books. My first published piece, I think, was probably when I was 19 for a magazine in Sweden.

It’s about the time when I went to see a medium, like a spiritual medium, who was trying to get in touch with this Swedish author named Selma Lagerlöf, one of the Swedish greats. And I was a kind of chronicle of that experience.

Tell us a bit about your role as editor, too.
I worked as an editor before I worked as a writer or a translator.

I was working in editorial at that same magazine that published this medium story. I worked at another magazine called Bonn Magazine, which is a bilingual Swedish and English publication. I worked there while I was studying in Montreal.

I would go back during the summers and work there. My university training is in political science, political theory and cultural studies. So I don’t have formal training in writing or translating or editing, but working as an editor really was an excellent lesson in what makes a text hold together, how much you can stretch the language in a text or not, and in, in writing in general. That was my introduction to writing, I would say. And later, to some extent also to translation, because it was, after all, a bilingual magazine. I sometimes translated those pieces and that was the first time I got to use these two languages that I was increasingly living in side by side for a written purpose.

How similar are writing, editing and translating as literary activities?
They’re definitely similar in many ways, not least, of course, in that you’re working with text, right? In editing, you think more about structure and about what makes a piece hold together, which is not something that you have to worry about in translating because someone else has already done that work.

In writing, of course, that is also something that you have to think about. In translating, you don’t have the fear of the empty page that sometimes comes with writing. So I find that those two activities complement each other very well.

And then writing is a way of letting your mind and imagination run free in a way that doesn’t happen for translation or working as an editor. Although all three activities do involve a lot of thinking and dreaming and imagining, I would say.

Before we get on to the novel, The Details, please tell us about the author Ia Genberg. She was a journalist and started writing fiction at the age of 45.
She, as you said, began her writing career as a journalist. She then retrained to become a nurse to work in the medical field to be able to spend more time writing fiction. I think a lot of people are involved in something that’s creative but maybe not creative in the way that you actually want it to be. For instance, journalism is a very demanding job and it draws on those same writing muscles, but I can imagine that it’s pretty difficult to get home and start writing novels in the evening when you’ve already spent so many of your words doing other kinds of work.

So she retrained to be able to write and debuted as an author in 2012 with the novel Sweet Friday. She’s written a novel called Belated Farewell, short story collections called Small Comfort and Four Other Tales About Money, and The Details in 2022. The Details is the only one of her novels to be published in English.

How did you get to translate the book?
I work a lot with agencies. The Swedish literary world has a pretty solid agency system. So a lot of translators work with agencies who commission translators to bring the novel into English.

This was also the case for The Details. I started working on it when it was sent to me by an agent. I was asked if I wanted to translate it and I said yes without knowing much about it. And no more than ten pages in, I was stunned. I thought it was incredible.

I was just so enamoured with this book. It’s a short novel and it will be translated into 32 other languages.

What kind of interactions did you have with the author while translating the book?
Not a ton. I translated this book very quickly and before it had been published in Swedish. I tend to work alone for the first several drafts and then towards the end, when I start to feel that I have a sense of the language, a sense of what I want it to look like in English, that’s when I approach the author if I have any questions.

I was part of a fellowship with maybe ten or 12 other translators as well as a group of publishers. And it turned out that there were four of us who were translating The Details into four different languages. We talked but there wasn’t a ton of consultation. I think often the questions you have for the author can sometimes depend on the language that you’re translating into.

And I did have a question then about the machine that is used to brew what one of the characters calls the piss wine. The way that contraption is described, I hadn’t been able to find a picture that matched that description, so I was uncertain about how to describe it in English. Ia ended up finding a picture of that exact machine. So stuff like that.

Please tell us a bit about the novel.
The Details is a portrait of a person who is refracted through four different people who’ve been close to her. But they are people that she has lost for one reason or another. There is Johanna, who is her first proper girlfriend.

There is Niki, who’s a very close and very explosive friend. One of those people who are extremely charismatic but quite difficult to be around. For a long period of time, there’s Alejandro who is a lover who appears like a storm right when she needs it. Someone who really sweeps her off her feet.

And then there is, I won't speak that much of because I think that the discovery of who she is is important to the reading of the novel. This is not a novel where spoilers would be a thing, really, other than that, perhaps. It’s a very quiet book, but it also has an enormous sense of grace and generosity.

It’s not a strictly plotted novel and yet the sentences are so beautiful.
That style is integral to the novel itself. It was really important to retain it. However, English is famously fond of short, efficient sentences, brief and concise, although of course there are a lot of important English language writers who don’t follow that precept.

In Swedish, it’s very beautifully, smoothly written. I ended up doing a lot with punctuation – semicolons, commas, em dashes. Sometimes I also ended up breaking up certain sentences, but sitting with that and figuring out how the rhythm of a sentence could work in English was a big challenge.

As a translator, you’re so close to the bones of the language that you easily notice when the seams don’t really hold. You also notice when they do hold because when something is really beautifully and tightly written, you can really push a lot on the language and it still holds.

Sometimes you work on something, and at first read, it sounds great, but then you start messing around in there, as you always have to do as a translator, and then it falls apart. But there is nothing about this book that, there is nothing about Ia’s writing that ever did that. It just really gave itself up really beautifully to translation, because it is so thoughtfully written.

Listen to the interview here.

Harshaneeyam’s podcast focuses on translated literary fiction from around the world.