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On Translating Nobel Laureate Jon Fosse’s Works for American Audiences

Sarah Cameron Sunde is an interdisciplinary artist and director working at the intersection of performance, video, and public art. Her current practice, rooted in the visual arts, explores deep time, embodiment, and ecological crisis, and it is informed by her decades of experience as a theatremaker, director, and translator. Amelia Parenteau is a writer, translator, and theatremaker who has translated fifteen plays from French into English. 

Both Sarah and Amelia are passionate advocates for more dramatic works in translation on US stages, and they have spent many hours in conversation together on this theme while attending Fence conferences at the Lark in New York City and the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in Cairo, Egypt. 

Since 2004, Sarah has translated six of Jon Fosse’s plays from Norwegian into American English and directed their premieres. This conversation pays tribute to Sarah and Jon’s longstanding creative relationship, upon the occasion of Jon Fosse being awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature. 

A group of actors perform in a dimly lit space.

Carlo Albán, Karen Allen, Maren Bush, and Samantha Soule in A Summer Day by Jon Fosse, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City, 2012. Translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Dramaturgy by Oda Radoor. Scenic design by John McDermott. Costume design by Deb O. Lighting design by Nicole Pearce. Sound/projection design by Leah Gelpe. Photo by Geoff Green. 

Amelia Parenteau: How did you first become connected to Jon Fosse? 

Sarah Cameron Sunde: I learned Norwegian when I was twelve. Around 2003, I was devising and working in New York with a lot of writers who were my age, just out of school. I was trying to figure out what my directorial voice was. I went on this trip to Norway with my dad. His cousin and her husband worked for the University of Oslo Library and the Library College, and they are very culturally minded, always seeing lots of plays. They planned to take us to a Fosse play, Vinter (translation: Winter), at Torshovtheatret, which is a smaller stage connected to the Nationaltheatret. My uncle gave me a print out of the play we were about to see and said, “You should read this before we go. Fosse writes in Nynorsk, so the dialect might be a little tricky for you.” I read the play, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is what it must have felt like when people read Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett for the first time.” It just felt revolutionary, and I was really excited.

I went to the show that night and loved it, and I remember reading in the program that Fosse’s plays had been translated into over forty languages and produced all over the world. But not in the United States. 

And here I am, a twenty-six-year-old director, but I remember sitting at the kitchen table that in Oslo that night and saying, “I think I’m going to do this. I’m going to bring Jon Fosse to New York. We need to experience this work in United States, and I want to be the first to do it.” I just knew that his voice would teach me a lot about making work as an artist. So, that sent me on the journey.

I am a director, first and foremost, and my concern was always, “How does this come to life on stage?”

Amelia: What were the next steps on that journey?

Sarah: I bought all the plays published in Nynorsk–I think at that time there were three volumes–and brought them back to New York and started reading through them. At the time, I was working for New Georges, and I’d worked at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and I was part of another company called Spring Theatreworks. So, I knew a little bit about how to make something happen.

I went to the New York Public Library to look for English translations of Fosse’s work. I thought, “I can read them in Nynorsk, but no one else can.” There was only one translation in English at the time, and it was of Natta Syng Sine Songar; the British translation was Nightsongs, and I later translated to Night Sings Its Songs, which is more literal and also more poetic. I found that English translation, and I thought, Okay, I’ll do this one because I can share it with people. A few of my friends at Spring Theatreworks read it and jumped onboard to help. 

I started on this path of thinking I would direct this play, and I wrote an email in Norwegian to Fosse explaining I wanted to bring his work to New York, and this is the play I wanted to do first. 

And he said, “Great, I would love for you to do my work in New York.” It was very overwhelming because he was so esteemed in my opinion. I thought, “Really? You trust me? Ok, here we go,” and that’s how it took off. 

I also remember thinking, Fosse’s work is going to get out to the rest of the American theatre, and once they see or read this work, everyone is going to want to produce it. They felt like such special plays to me that I thought that surely the rest of the American theatre would want to work on these texts immediately. I felt this pressure to do that first production as fast as possible. I had visited Norway in February 2003, and that first production happened in June 2004.

A man lies on the ground while a woman crouches in the background, watching him.

Louis Cancelmi and Anna Gutto in Night Sings Its Songs by Jon Fosse, produced by Oslo Elsewhere at 45 Bleecker Theater, New York City, 2004. Translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Dramaturgy by Marie-Louise Miller. Scenic design by Lauren Helpern. Costume design by Maline Casta. Lighting design by Roma Flowers. Music by Christopher Tin. Sound design by Ryan Tilke. Photo by Jim Baldassare.

I reached out to the Norwegian consulate, and they were interested in helping. The day I went to meet with them, the Norwegian actress Anna Guttormsgaard, who now goes by Anna Gutto, was there. I was introduced to her, and they said, “Sarah is working on bringing Fosse to New York.” She had been thinking about doing this as well. So we teamed up and created Oslo Elsewhere as a theatre company to co-produce with Spring Theatreworks and worked to secure Norwegian funding to make it happen. 

I thought, I’ll direct the play. I assumed I would change some Britishisms into Americanisms, really not knowing much about translation at all, but also understanding there were things that didn’t resonate. And then Jon sent me a couple other attempts at American translations of this text. I read the first couple pages of these other translations, and then I looked back at the Nynorsk version, and then I looked at the first couple pages of the British. One was too literal/foreign sounding, and the other felt like it was trying too hard to be American. None of them were actually nailing it in terms of what the Nynorsk is doing. They were close, but certain things were not working. 

That’s when I wondered, “How am I going to really make this work?” Jon encouraged me to do my own translation, and my dad, who is Norwegian, said, “You can do it, Sarah.” 

My friend Marie Louise Miller stepped into the role of dramaturg, and she really encouraged me. We spent hours and hours, days and days, going through that first translation, honing it, listening to the tones and trying it out with actors to get it where it needed to be. I was so committed to translating this unique voice as effectively as possible for a New York audience.

Fosse writing in Nynorsk informs the poetry. When I read it, I understand the physicality of the place that he’s writing from because it’s in Nynorsk.

Amelia: Translation is such a collaborative process, especially for theatre, and it’s wonderful that you have been in conversation with Fosse from the beginning. I imagine that shaped your path with this work.

Sarah: I am a director, first and foremost, and my concern was always, “How does this come to life on stage?” The thing that was amazing for me as a young artist was that Jon really trusted me. If I would ask him a question about something, he would say, “You know the answer.”

That meant I had to decide. It was such a different experience than working with my colleagues who are American writers, who I love dearly, but who were finding their own voices, so they were protective of everything. His trust in me encouraged me to get closer to what the work was really trying to do and say. Fosse talks about writing as if he’s channeling the words, so he doesn’t even totally have control over it, it’s just coming to him.

It made me want to do the best possible job, to work so hard to get it right but also trust what I felt was right, was what was right for this moment, this place, this time. Someone else would do it differently, but his works are so open that the best thing I can do as an artist is to trust completely in what my vision is and give over to that.

The work speaks to so many people in different places. There are no pop culture references, so it can translate into any culture at any time. There’s no technology; there’s never talk about the local spots. In his plays, there are very, very few specific references to locale. That means that it can really go anywhere and feel connected to place. 

Because of his sparse language and repetition, there’s the open quality to the work, there’s space between the words. There’s space between people. Words are not always sufficient, and we are always trying to get closer to somebody through our words, but it’s never really working exactly the way we think it is. It’s this delicate poetry that has a real driving force beneath the words. 

Formally, it’s just so different. The characters are The Young Woman and The Young Man, and The Older Woman and The Older Man, etc. Often, it’s the same person in different generations, so he’s playing with time and temporality. The content is interesting, but I think it’s the form that’s mind-blowing, and what makes him so masterful. 

Two actors perform in a large cement room.

Karla Boos and Martin Giles in Dream of Autumn by Jon Fosse, produced by Quantum Theater in a site-specific production at the Former Park Schenley Restaurant at the Royal York, Pittsburgh, 2013. Translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Scenic and Costume design by Narelle Sissons. Lighting design by Todd Brown. Sound design by Joe Pino. Photo by Narelle Sissons. 

Amelia: How have your translations of his work been received in New York?

Sarah: They’ve been received well! This is very European work, and I worked my ass off to do the best productions that I possibly could. It is hard to do well because it’s so different, and I experienced that with American actors here. Some people got into it and loved it. A lot of people loved it intellectually, but then when they’re actually doing it, it’s hard to do something that’s so different. So it wasn’t easy. Satisfying, but none of the productions were easy. 

A lot of people see the work as incredibly dark. It is dark, and it can be read as very bleak, but the most important thing is that there’s light and hope in that bleakness. It is about us, as humans, recognizing our temporality.

Death is very present, and in American culture we are deeply afraid of death. We do not acknowledge death. In so many other cultures, acknowledging our own temporality and the delicacy of every moment is much more prevalent. I was able to do five productions that were “successful,” but Fosse’s work didn’t take off in the way I had anticipated.  I think it scared a lot of other people, or they read it and didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if that’s just my taste, that I like things that are hard and difficult. But I felt like I could do it because I had this “in” to the culture.

Amelia: I’m curious about the “new Norwegian,” Nynorsk, and what it means that he’s writing in that language in a Norwegian context. Also, does that affect the way that you’re thinking about how you’re phrasing it in American English?

Sarah: Nynorsk is a written language based on dialects from the west coast of Norway mostly. Norway was under Danish rule for hundreds of years, and so Bokmål, the other written form of Norwegian, was very influenced by Dano-Norwegian. Ibsen’s works are mostly in this old, Danish-influenced language. But there was this whole movement in the mid-1800s, when a lot of the Norwegian people on the west coast and in the mountains were like, “Our Norwegian, what we speak, is not represented in the written language.” So this guy created Nynorsk as a written language based on the dialects, as a way of preserving what that Norwegian sound was on the west coast.

It is one of two official written languages in the country. Only about 10-15 percent of the population uses Nynorsk as their primary written language. Fosse is the fourth Norwegian to win a Nobel Prize in literature, but he is the first one who writes in Nynorsk. People who are staunch advocates for Nynorsk are very excited about this. 
Fosse writing in Nynorsk informs the poetry. When I read it, I understand the physicality of the place that he’s writing from because it’s in Nynorsk. It’s very western Norway, these mountains and fjords. 

This rugged environment informs everything. But the plays can take place wherever you want them to take place. As a director, I have my reference points for where it is, but it’s not necessarily in the United States or in Norway; it’s somewhere in-between. It’s our own specific connections to place. We don’t have to necessarily agree on where in the world we actually are, but we’re in a place that means something to us. So it is creating this other world and this other space. 

A selfie of Jon Fosse and Sarah Cameron Sunde.

Sarah Cameron Sunde and Jon Fosse, on the streets of Oslo after meeting up over lunch in August 2023.

Amelia: Is there anything you’d like to share about your personal relationship with Fosse?

Sarah: We’re friends, and of course he’s this great writer and I’m lucky to have known him now for twenty years. He is curious about, “Why can’t I crack the English-speaking world in the same way as the rest of the world?” He’s very shy and also very confident. He’s very prompt at writing emails. Whenever I’ve been in Norway, we get together, and he came here for the United States debut production in 2004. Actually, we sat next to each other and he held my hand the whole time. I think it was meaningful for him, which was really lovely. He doesn’t like to travel, so that meant a lot that he came. I feel lucky that he took a risk on me as a young artist, and he gave me so much trust, which really allowed me to become the artist that I am. Fosse taught me about being in the everyday and the existential, and about slowing down and taking time. 

Amelia: How did Fosse’s ten-year hiatus from playwriting affect your career, and your role as his American English dramatic translator?

Sarah: I remember hanging out with Fosse in 2012 and him telling me, “Sarah, I started my life as a poet, I’m going to end my life as a poet.” And he took a big, long hiatus from writing his own plays. He is very prolific and had written over thirty plays at that point. I think he’d just channeled so many that he needed to take a big break. I could have keep going with his older works, but ended up taking a break too, and my directorial work has moved more towards the visual arts.

Then this past August, after I saw him, he sent me his newest play. I got to be the first reader of his newest play, which is awesome. And I said, “I want to translate it.” 

Two performers stand on a multi-leveled stage, one looking down at the other.

Natalia Payne, Dick Hughes, Charles Borland, and Diana Ciesla in deathvariations by Jon Fosse, produced by Oslo Elsewhere at 59E59 Theaters, New York City, 2006. Translated and Directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Dramaturgy by Marie-Louise Miller and Oda Radoor. Scenic design by Lauren Helpern. Costume design by Courtney Logan. Lighting design by M.L. Geiger. Music by Cristian Amigo. Sound design by David M. Lawson. Photo by Lauren Helpern

Now that he has this Nobel Prize, maybe American theatres will take a risk on him. All of a sudden, I’ve been thrown back into this position of being his cheerleader, because I do think we need his voice in the American theatre. Maybe this is the moment for him to really take off. I have hope that will happen. 

And for the translation community, if we have this person who’s gotten this enormous recognition, how do we use this to advocate for looking more seriously at plays in translation? And what can that mean in this moment where the theater is really struggling in many ways? 

Amelia: What makes a good dramatic translation?

Sarah: Action underneath the words, tension, and rhythm that will help the actors make it work in the live art form. Translating plays is so different than translating books because of the live action that’s necessary and the multiple layers of translation that have to happen, from the writer to the translator to the director to the actors to the audience. That collaboration is really important. It’s a really different form of translation when you’re translating a play that’s compact and tight but has gazillion layers of subtext, versus a book that’s long and has similar interesting momentum, but doesn’t need to then go through so many other spaces in order to reach the person who’s receiving it.

Amelia: Especially because Fosse’s dialogue and stage directions are so sparse, all the action needs to be summoned from these tiny verbal fragments. That’s a real challenge. And also, the very fun part of translating theatre.

English is so privileged as a language around the world, so it means we don’t have to work as hard to understand other people. We assume everyone will understand us.

Sarah: I feel like it’s a puzzle. And that’s exciting, but there’s an abyss of choices you can make that will not be good. I talk about translation as moving towards infinity because of the attempt to get as close as you can to the original text, and knowing there are all these possibilities and all this potential in any given moment, but you can never fully get there. So you get closer and closer as you hone. 

I would always choose the word that would leave that openness for the actor to play with, so they can also make a choice about what’s happening in a given moment. I’m not making that choice for them, but I’m trying to leave it open in a similar way that Fosse’s leaving it open for me. And that’s just a really fun thing that I think is really different from literary book translation.

And maybe also why it’s hard to effectively translate plays here in the Unites States. It takes more resources and more people in the room. But he and his production agent really understand the necessity of American translation, and if there are theatres who are interested, we are trying to encourage commissioning new translations. We’re working on how we can encourage theatres to look at his work seriously, and when they look at his work to know that there are those of us out there who can help make good American English translations happen, and so not to be afraid of that as a barrier.

Amelia: Why is it important for American audiences to encounter dramatic works in translation? 

Sarah: As Americans, we can go anywhere and people can understand us. English is so privileged as a language around the world, so it means we don’t have to work as hard to understand other people. We assume everyone will understand us. So we often don’t try to listen, and that is problematic for foreign policy, and it just trickles down. It’s the capitalist country we live in that doesn’t prioritize culture; and then within that culture, there’s not a prioritization of learning and listening from other cultures. It’s very insular, in a way.

I often work site-specifically and also on a global scale, so I think about these questions of why it’s important to both be working really locally, but also thinking from a global perspective. How do we make sure that’s not just about commercialism and consumerism, but about real understanding?

Any encounter with a voice, or a work of art that is maybe not comfortable, or not easy, but that comes from a unique perspective—if people can really take the time to engage in that, I think there’s always something beautiful to be learned. 

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