Friday, December 11, 2009


What can I say? I've been away. I've had a sinus infection. We got broadband TV.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


"Nicklas let out a beery belch that reverberated through the churchyard. For a short moment he wondered if she had gone because of the argument they’d had the night before. But he pushed the thought out of his mind again just as quickly as it had appeared. That couldn’t have been it. Amanda had sworn she had forgiven him when he had asked her that same morning. And yet now she had gone off with a bloke she didn’t even know … or did she?
Nicklas emptied the second can in one swill. The beer made him think more clearly, and it occurred to him suddenly how stupid he had been. Of course she knew the bloke. She had said his name … Kristian or Karl, or whatever it was. How stupid he had been. The little bitch had found someone else while he was out bringing in the trawl, thinking about her blond hair and missing her. And it had been so easy for her to keep it from him, because she always knew exactly when he’d be home. The two of them had been screwing. Maybe even in Nicklas’ own bed. He felt a rage coming over him. Of course that was how it was. Now there was a whole load of other things that fell into place all of a sudden: friends acting funny and giving him sly looks down at the pub. They’d know all along she’d been two-timing him. It was always the way. The whole bloody town always knew about that sort of thing before the bloke himself.
He should have seen it coming, he thought to himself. Infidelity was a curse in his family. His grandmother had been a tart. His dad had told him about how she had two of those white china dogs there were so many of in the windows of fishermen’s homes. When they were facing each other, the fancy man could see that Grandad was home, and could stay well away. But as soon as he had put out to sea again, she would turn the dogs to face away, and the fancy man could see it was all clear.
He had heard that his grandmother was sleeping with the dairyman. Grandad had never said as much himself, but his dad had told him so while they were unpacking the china dogs from the case when Nicklas’ mother had been clearing out the house after their deaths. And he had gone out into the yard and smashed the two of them against the flags.
“There’ll be no more funny business with them,” he had told Nicklas’ mother. “You’ll not have things that easy when I’m away.”
Nicklas had never known his mother receive visits from men, but his father was in no doubt they’d been there. He had once yelled that the only way Nicklas’ mother could have afforded her new woolen overcoat was by screwing the builder, just like they all said she’d been doing.
And now it was Nicklas’ turn. A new generation with a two-timing bitch who couldn’t keep an itchy cunt in check while her bloke was at sea. It also explained why Amanda had been acting so strange of late. Bad-tempered and sulky in front of the telly all the time. Not like before, when she used to sing and dance around the living-room for him. Now there were some mornings she just stayed in bed, lying there and pretending to be asleep, even though he could tell she wasn’t. But she buried her head in the pillow and was too lazy to get up.
Nicklas smiled bitterly at the thought of how down he had been when he had got back from the baker’s that morning with the rolls Amanda liked. Now he realised it wasn’t only his fault they’d started arguing. He may have lost control, but she was defintely the one who had started it, all the while she was making plans to run off with her little shite of a boyfriend. But she’d got another thing coming now. He was going to find her alright. If it was the last thing he ever did. He was going to find her and put her in her place and bring her back with a firm, loving hand to Hirtshals where she could once again be the sunshine that kept him warm. He was going to make sure that everything was going to be like before and that she never again would be tempted by another man. And definitely not by that lad she’d gone off with earlier that evening. That little runt was going to regret ever having set eyes on Nicklas Frandsen’s girl. He’d make sure of that.
He sat for a while longer on the bench by Brønderslev church, shaking his head at his own stupidity. Then he left through the gates, staggering slightly, and went by the filling station and bought a new six-pack of Special Brew for the journey."

Mette Finderup: 'Blink'.
Extract from draft translation.

(c) Mette Finderup and Gyldendal 2009
Translation (c) Martin Aitken 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

high maintenance

"A decision to involve the author actively in the translation process is not one to be taken lightly, and his or her offer to ‘help out’ or to ‘take a look at the manuscript’ should not be accepted merely out of courtesy. Authors are as individual in temperament and personality as other human beings, if not more so, and there are ‘easy’ authors and, so to speak, ‘high maintenance’ authors. More than one translation project has foundered because of excessive authorial input (read interference).


There are authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who display a commendable awareness of the formidable tasks inherent in literary translation and have only good things to say about those who labor to reproduce their works in other languages.


The potential problem arises when an author thinks he or she is sufficiently fluent in the TL [target language] to judge the translation and even to propose changes in it. (...)

A cautionary tale: a certain Continental author, convinced despite never having written directly in English that his command of the language was beyond reproach, insisted in his contract on having final cut on the translation. Notwithstanding his unavailability for consultation during the actual translation process, which lasted almost a year, he nevertheless minutely pored over the finished manuscript, finally declaring it ‘amateurish and unacceptable’. To the consternation of publisher and translator alike, he demanded either a completely new draft or a different version by another translator. The publisher, faced with an unexpected doubling of translation costs and an inevitable delay in bringing the project to fruition, opted to cut his losses; the book was never published in English."

Clifford E. Landers (2001). Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. Multilingual Matters.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

buddhist in boston

The Buddhist by Dorthe Nors. My translation. The Boston Review Sept/Oct 09. Out now.

(photo from Dorthe's blog)

Monday, September 14, 2009

bargepoles and bestsellers

At 6 am tomorrow, Mich Vraa will receive a mail to which will be attached a file containing Dan Brown's new novel. Then will follow approx. 30 days of nonstop translation work, some 20 pages a day, before Vraa's Danish version is done. In this illuminating article in Politiken, Vraa reveals among other things that he "never reads a book before beginning its translation" and that his 20 pages a day will be mailed to his editor every evening to be edited on the hoof. Interestingly, it transpires that the Swedish translation will be done by a team of six translators working independently - and fast enough to get the book out before you can say "goldmine". Vraa himself, understandably, "wouldn't touch that kind of project with a bargepole."

Friday, September 11, 2009


Nordic Council Prize winner (for the collection Bavian) Naja Marie Aidt has included on her website my English version of a speech made by Information's critic Lilian Munk Rösing on the occasion of Aidt receiving the Danish Critics' Prize in 2006. Read it here>>. Also included (and a much better English read) is an excellent translation by Anne Mette Lundtofte of one of the stories in that collection, Bulbjerg.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

i digress but slightly

Jørgen Leth asked me the other day if I would translate some liner notes he wrote for an upcoming CD-release. It was about jazz, he said. I said I didn't know anything about jazz. He said it didn't matter, it was a lyrical text. I read the text and said yes immediately. It is a lyrical text. An excursion into a recording session in New York in September 2008. An excursion back into Leth's one-time interest in jazz. The recording session at New York's Avatar Studio was to lay down tracks for a new album of compositions by the young Danish guitarist Jakob Bro (here>>). A session featuring a whole array of jazz luminaries, unknown to me, yet brought to life by Leth's liner notes. And suddenly I realised that Jakob Bro until recently also was a member of the Copenhagen indie combo I Got You On Tape, whose first record has been languishing on my computer here without ever really being heard. Now I've heard it, and bought the second, from which the above video is culled. Listen to Jakob Bro's tender guitar.

Friday, August 7, 2009

karate chop

More Dorthe Nors. My translations of the stories Ællingen and Den sommer gik hun på kirkegårde from Nors' acclaimed collection Kantslag (Samlerens Forlag, 2008) will be published in US journal New Letters (here>>). The English titles are The Duckling and She Frequented Cemeteries.

Friday, July 24, 2009

fruelund, river and sound, redivider

Talking of Three Percent, they just directed me on to a new online journal called River and Sound. It looks great. First off, they even have Simon Fruelund's excellent piece Phosphorescence, translated by K. E. Semmel. Read it here>>. Incidentally, Fruelund's short novel Borgerligt tusmørke is well worth a read. Maybe someone will put it out in English. Maybe K. E. Semmel should translate it. Maybe I should.

And now I see that another of Semmel's translations of Fruelund's stories - What is it? - is out here>> in Redivider, a journal I didn't even know about until now. But then, I never did want to know everything.

inger christensen exists

Inger Christensen, Denmark's major modern poet, died a few months back. Her monumental poems Alphabet, It and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem are all available in award-winning English translations by Susanne Nied. Now, Denise Newman has translated Christensen's novel Azorno for US publishers New Directions. It's reviewed here on Three Percent. Newman's translation of Christensen's novel The Painted Room came out in 2000.

There's a five-minute clip from Jytte Rex' 1998 portrait Inger Christensen - Cikaderne findes here>> (Danish).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

jørgen leth / from 'sports poems'


Fausto coppi
was a fantastic human
most at ease entirely alone

When he attacked in the mountains
no-one could follow him, he
was a fantastic human

Departed early,
fausto coppi
fausto coppi

from Sportsdigte [Sports Poems] (1967)

© Jørgen Leth & Gyldendal, 1967
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2009

Saturday, July 4, 2009

what I do when I translate

There are some thoughts in a mind. The thoughts are joined. The thoughts are joined into something meaningful. The meaning is not necessarily determinate. The mind represents the meaning in language. The mind represents it in words joined into sentences. The sentences are uttered. Now there are some words on paper. There are utterances on paper. There are utterances joined into text. The text is a representation of some thoughts in a mind.

The text is not an exact representation of the thoughts in the mind. The text does not fully encode the meaning. The words and the sentences are semantically underdetermined. They are not big enough on their own to contain all the meaning. They are blueprints for understanding. The utterances and the text may convey some or all or none of the intended meaning.

There are some words on paper. There is a text. The text is an input to a decoding process. Decoding delivers a semantic template representing the encoded content of the words and sentences. The representation is a semantic representation that is underdetermined in relation to the meaning. It falls short of the meaning. The mind fills in the gaps by means of inference. The text means nothing without a mind to fill in the gaps.

The mind represents the text by combining the decoded semantic content with assumptions about the world and the possible intentions of the writer. It adds things up and works things out and makes informed guesses. The representations so delivered are contextually determined. They may bear some greater or lesser degree of resemblance to the writer’s intended meaning.

They may bear some greater or lesser degree of resemblance to the writer’s intended meaning.

The number of representations of the text is equal to the number of readers of the text.

What am I translating? What am I not translating?

I am translating my representations of the text. My representations of the text may bear some greater or lesser degree of resemblance to the writer’s intended meaning. I am striving to encode my representations of the text in another text. I am striving to encode my representations of the text in words and sentences whose encoded semantic content will provide an input to decoding and inference that is as similar as possible to that provided by the words and sentences in the original text. I am striving to encode my representations of the text in words and sentences that are stylistically as similar as possible to those in the original text.

I am not trying to encode the thoughts in the writer’s mind. I have no direct access to the thoughts in the writer’s mind. The writer can only convey to me the nature of the thoughts in her mind by encoding her representations of those thoughts in language.

I am doing my best to produce a text that provides just the right input to cognitive processing as will yield representations as similar as possible to my own representations of the original text.

That’s it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

jørgen leth

Just less than a week to go before this year's Tour de France kicks off with the traditional short individual time trial in Monaco. Just less than a week to go before the much-awaited return of Jørgen Leth as Tour de France commentator for Danish TV. A national event, no less.

Jørgen Leth. Poet, filmmaker, bon viveur.

A short selection of Leth's poems under the title Boredom will be published in my translations in The Literary Review this coming spring. A lengthier collection will hopefully be appearing in Canada some time next year.

In the meantime, here's an extract from a sample I did for Gyldendal from Leth's recent book Tilfældets gaver - tekster om at lave film [Gifts of Chance: Texts on Filmmaking].

Oh, and you can watch the trailer for De fem benspænd [The Five Obstructions] here>>

The Five Obstructions


It started with Zentropa Real’s chief executive, Carsten Holst, saying that Lars von Trier wanted to make a film with me and suggesting that we meet next time I was in Denmark.

We met at Lars’ bungalow. Lars wanted to know what I found trivial. I mentioned a few things. He nodded and said he would think. He would come up with something.
I returned to Haiti. During the time that followed we exchanged a number of short mails. Lars wrote that he still needed to “think a bit”, but that he would soon be in touch again.
A couple of months later he wrote that he now believed he had an idea. He called it Obstruction. He wanted me to make a film based on a number of hindrances.
What follows is an excerpt of our correspondence (December 2000):

“The challenge/film you are to make/solve is called: The Five Obstructions.
I’d like you to show me a film to begin with, and to talk about it, after which I set up a number of restrictions, orders or prohibitions that require you to remake the film. This we do five times … hence the title. I think it would be natural for our discussions to be included in the final film … plus of course the six small films.
Hope you like the challenge. Perhaps the subject for the first film could be something we agreed on? Obviously, it would be best if the subject were to allow as much progression as possible between film one and film six. [In our initial correspondence he referred continually to six films, although we ended up doing only five.]

Tell me what you think.

Hope the depression’s doing fine. I actually understand you now … the whole Haiti thing. A place where you’re allowed and expected to go to the dogs!!! You sure figured that one out.

All the best, Lars.”

I replied the same day:

“Re. The Five Obstructions.

Dear Lars

I find the challenge appealing. I can see an interesting progression between films one and six, the pathway around the obstacles, the discussions. I can see us making something out of it. A compelling prospect. I look forward to facing your obstructions.
(I’m reminded of Michael Laudrup, who so elegantly avoided being injured by the brutal challenges to which he was always exposed.)
I really like the idea of having to change, adapt, pare down according to stipulated conditions. Progressively.

But how do we get started on the first film you want me to do?
If I’m expected to devise it, alone or with you, and then shoot it here in Haiti, then obviously it would be on DV, with all the built-in restrictions, especially as to sound.

Or should the first film simply be a note? I’m sure that if I pull my head out of the morass in which it’s immersed – spurred by your brilliant idea, I’m certain I can – then I might be able to think up a simple story to tell which can be filmed here. Maybe.

Is that how you see it? Or do you want me to do it some day in the spring when I get back to Denmark?
Is this correspondence already a part of the project?

The depression’s doing fine. Bouts of cheerfulness. As you’ve discovered: My arrangement here is a good one.

All the best, Jørgen.”

Still later the same day, Lars got back to me with these words:

“Dear Jørgen,

Thanks for the mail. Glad to know you’re feeling as planned. The first of the six films could also be an excerpt from something you’ve already done. That would be about the most clear-cut option, I think. What about The Perfect Human! You know that was the one I sat and watched over and over back then at the SFC.

All the best, Lars.”

I thought that was a great idea. I very much wanted to go back to The Perfect Human, recultivate the film’s simplicity, its emblematic character. I could see the possibilities immediately. It was like going back to a motif in much the same way as a painter is able to return time and again.
Perhaps I could use the actor Claus Nissen again. Maintain the very stringent aesthetics, the empty space in which the characters perform a variety of simple actions and utter a number of words.

The arrangement was then to meet up at Lars’ bungalow at Zentropa when I arrived back in Denmark prior to my commentating the spring cycling classics for television.
We agreed that our meeting should be filmed using two DV cameras. Lars had already suggested that our discussion as to how the project should develop was to be documented and perhaps included in the final film. I liked the idea. At the end of the day I would be selecting what was to go in, completion of the project being left up to me.

I was received by Carsten Holst and Lars von Trier. We walked over to the bungalow together. I saw the two DV crews as soon as I came in through the door: photographers Kim Hattesen and Jakob Bonfils with assistants. They were already rolling.
Lars and I sat down on the plush sofa and chatted over a variety of topics, but in particular my original film The Perfect Human. Lars told me again how great an impression the film had made on him. He’d seen it more than thirty times and said he’d also had it in mind working on his latest full-length feature, Dogville. Then we watched it together on his TV, after which we said nice things about the film’s keeping qualities. It all felt good, and I felt at ease.

Later we had The Perfect Human lunch – poached salmon with white potatoes and Hollandaise sauce accompanied by a fine Chablis. That’s how he set me up for the impending attack. I lit a Havana cigar.

We were agreed on the starting point. I was to do a number of remakes of The Perfect Human and each time Lars was going to set up various obstructions to make it more difficult for me. Obstacles to be overcome. We agreed that the new versions – five in all as stipulated – each were to be five minutes in length.

Lars was eager to reveal his first obstruction, but first he tried to get me to say something about how I envisaged making the film if I had to do it over again. I was rather reticent about giving anything away. I might prefer to do it in colour, perhaps in a black room rather than a white one. But I had made no decision about anything. I evaded his attempt to get me to start the ball rolling. I realised that he wanted something he could obstruct and my response was that he could obstruct a repeat of the original film. That was my starting point.

Then he presented his conditions. The first he tabled was that no cut should be longer than twelve (12) frames, i.e. half a second. That was what he said. I took a sip of Chablis and said that would be fine. It was madness.
Then he wanted the questions asked by the narrative voice in the original film to be answered. Further, that the first obstructed version should be filmed in Cuba. Why? Because I was unfamiliar with Cuba.
He left the room for a moment and asked Carsten Holst if there was enough money in the budget to send me to Cuba. It didn’t sound much like a question. There was, and that was that. The film was to be shot in Cuba, no cut more than 12 frames, questions to be answered.
I wasn’t entering into any discussion about the conditions laid down, but I did ask a question about the Cuba shoot. I wanted to take a screen with me, in the style of the photographer Irving Penn, as I had previously done in e.g. Notes on Love in order to isolate the characters. That was the thing I mentioned.
Lars thought about it for a moment and then said: “It’s a shame. You can’t.”

© Jørgen Leth & Gyldendal, 2009
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009


Pulitzer prize winner 2008 Junot Díaz, author most recently of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has this to say about the stories of Dorthe Nors (here>>), soon to be out in my translations in AGNI Magazine, The Boston Review and now Fence Magazine:

Beautiful, faceted, haunting stories ... Dorthe Nors is fantastic ... a rising star of Danish letters.

Thanks, Junot. And thanks to Thomas E. Kennedy (here>>), author of the Copenhagen Quartet (soon destined for world fame courtesy of Bloomsbury in NY), who says this:

Meticulously observed glimpses of everyday life and its small dramas, Dorthe Nors' stories will make you chuckle, make you feel, break your heart and make you see - all in the turn of surprisingly few pages. These are stories for our time, paced for our time, yet old as the human heart. Dorthe Nors is the real deal!

Two more stories from Dorthe's Kantslag collection are on their way soon. Look out for them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

revenge of the lawn / gräsmattans hämnd

Richard Brautigan's wonderful collection Revenge of the Lawn from 1971 has just appeared in a Swedish translation, Gräsmattans hämnd, by Jonas Ellerström and published by Bakhåll (here>>).

The first reviews are deservedly more than positive. Svenska Dagbladet's web edition (here>>) says "Major literature in a small format", while Borås Tidning (here>>) enthuses:

Brautigan's texts exude a marvellous joy of language and I can think of no better book than this to give as a source of inspiration to any young writer in spe (...) With this publication, Backhåll have once again done us a cultural favour.

My own translations of five of the texts in the collection have recently appeared in the Danish journals Apparatur and Den Blå Port (Lars Bukdahl here>>: "cool, wittily sensitive 70s short prose").

Someone ought to do like Backhåll here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

husum and jesus

Lars Husum went through the roof earlier this year with his debut novel Mit venskab med Jesus Kristus, which was sold to all over the place even before it was out in Denmark. I did the English sample translation for Gyldendal, and though Portobello in London already had a translator in line when they snapped it up, I'm still pretty chuffed about my own shot. A short extract from that sample is up here>> in the Danish Literary Magazine.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

nordic voices

Nordic Voices in Translation (here>>) is a new blog "devoted to the English translation of the literatures of the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And also Estonia." Among its instigators and regular contributors are David McDuff, known for his excellent translations of Pia Tafdrup, and "Reg" aka. Steven T. Murray, one of the most prolific forces in the translation of Nordic literature, most recently Stieg Larsson's megaselling Millenium trilogy.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

louis jensen

The Hans Christian Andersen Awards (here>>) are presented biannually by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) "to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature." It's a prestigious award, often referred to as the 'little Nobel prize'. Among the nominees for the 2010 award is Louis Jensen for his book Tinhjerte og Ællingefjer, an endearing journey into Andersen's work and mindset seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic father and his inquisitive young son with a school project to do on Denmark's most celebrated author. The Danish publishers Rosinante asked me to do the English sample translation for the award committee. Here it is.

13: What makes the tale good

I have read my story aloud.
“Is it good?” I ask.
“It’s dramatic,” says my father.
“Is it as good as Hans Christian Andersen?”
He shakes his head. “It isn’t, but then not many can write that well. Not even real authors.”
“Can I get to be as good as Hans Christian Andersen?”
“Perhaps,” he says. “You can certainly become better if you practise. And if you want to become really good, you must read a lot!”
“Must I read Hans Christian Andersen?”
He smiles. “It would be a good idea, but there are many other good writers. The library is full of them!”
“Why was Hans Christian Andersen especially good?”
He scratches his nose and furrows his brow. He’s racking his brains. I hope his forehead doesn’t break, though it would be interesting to see what his head looks like on the inside.
“There’s more than one reason,” he says. “His fairy tales and stories are dramatic and entertaining. His plots are good.”
“The things that happen. Like the princess declaring that she will marry the man who has the most to say for himself. Then we have three brothers. The first one knows the whole Latin dictionary by heart, and the town’s newspaper for three years. The second has learned all the articles of law. And the third can do nothing at all. At least, that’s what the others think!”
“Clumsy Hans!”
He smiles. “Exactly. The rest you know. And all the things that happen with the billy goat and the crow and the wooden shoe and the mud and the clever brothers, that’s the plot. Oh, yes, and there were blots of ink that got spurted on the King’s floor, too.”
“My plot was good as well!”
“Yes, it was! The plot’s important, but what happens doesn’t really amount to anything unless it’s told well!”
“Does it matter how you tell the story?”
“What do you mean by well?”
He scratches his nose again and furrows his brow. Racking his brains. At last he says: “It’s what matters most, the way the story’s told.”
Then he smiles. I think he’s found a way of explaining: “It’s like a house. A house built of bricks. Imagine you’ve two great piles of bricks, each exactly the same. Now imagine there are two builders. The first builder is very good. The second is careless and lays the bricks all wrong. Will their houses be just as fine, even if they’ve used exactly the same bricks?”
“The first house will be better than the second!” I say.
He nods. “It’s the same with words. They have to be put together in just the right way. We all have the same words inside our heads, but some use them in a special way. That’s what Andersen did. And even when he’s only writing about a green field and a blue sky, everything else in the world becomes a part of it, too, and one becomes so joyous it can pain the heart.”
I know how it is. I’ve felt it, though it doesn’t last long. It stops quickly.
He opens his mouth. Then closes it again. I don’t think he knows how to explain. Perhaps he hasn’t quite fathomed it yet? Sometimes you can feel you’re just about to grasp something, but then it disappears. Does he have that feeling, too?
“To tell a story well,” he continues, “means when the language, or more exactly the words, complement each other and the plot. When they sound well together, like a good tune. When they have a ring, and when the rhythm is fine and tickles the ears. There are many ways it can be done. Andersen had his own special way.”
“Isn’t there only one way to lay bricks?”
“There are many! I think everyone has their own way. That’s what it’s all about: finding your own voice. If you can do that, then you can write well.”
“Shouldn’t one imitate Andersen?”
He shakes his head. “That’s when it will fail, and fail miserably!”
He looks like he’s been given a turn. “But it’s as well to read him and see how he does things.”
We sit quietly. Then I ask: “So Hans Christian Andersen found his own voice?”
“He did, but it took a long time. The first things he wrote were magnificent. Novels, plays and poems, but he hadn’t yet found his own voice. Not quite.”
“You told me about that. About The Walking Tour. Just after he’d finished school.”
“Exactly,” he said. “And later came his novel The Improviser, and in no time at all he was famous all over Europe.”
A strange title. “What does improviser mean?”
“An improviser is someone who makes things up on the spot. That’s called improvising. Andersen had been called an improviser. And it wasn’t meant as a compliment.”
“Who called him that?”
“I think it was Hertz.”
“The one the Collin family thought better of?”
“Yes, but the most important thing was that he began to write fairy tales. And even more important: the fairy tales were written for children. The two things together were exactly what gave him his own special voice.
“So it takes a long time to find your voice?”
“I think so. It certainly took Andersen a long time. But all that he wrote prior to that was important, too. It was what had to be done in preparation, to make it possible for him to find his voice.”
He hesitates. Then continues: “There’s a famous example that’s always used to illustrate when Andersen found his voice.” He goes over to the bookcase, returns, opens the book, flicks through the pages and says: “I’ll read you a little excerpt from the fairy tale called The Galoshes of Fortune.”

Inside one of the houses close to King’s Newmarket a party was being given, a very large party whose purpose, like that of so many others, was to secure the others’ reciprocal invitations for the season.

That’s what Andersen wrote first, but then he changed it, and now it reads like this:

It was in Copenhagen, in one of the houses on East Street, not far from King’s Newmarket, that someone was giving a large party. For one must give a party once in a while, if one expects to be invited in return.

“Can you hear the difference?”
I really can! “It’s quicker,” I say.
He nods.
“It’s like he’s talking,” I say.
He smiles. His whole face is smiling: “Exactly! That’s precisely what’s happened! And it means the reader is drawn right into the story. He can’t resist. He has to read on. In those days not many people thought that was a proper way to write. On the contrary! His friends told him not to. They wanted him to write as he had done in The Improviser, that had made him famous all over Europe. They were afraid he would ruin his good reputation as a writer. And it had all only just started. But Andersen persevered. He continued working on his fairy tales in his own way, and now everyone agrees that using everyday language, the way it’s actually spoken, was just the right thing.”
I’m taking notes. “The year?” Ruth wants a year.
“The year? How do you mean?”
“The year he found his voice.”
“That’s hard to say, but the first fairy tales came out in 1835.”
I jot down: 1835.
“You see,” he continues, “when the plot is good and surprising, full of unusual ideas and told in a lively manner, in a language like music, then it will be a good tale. Andersen was really quite daring when he put in everyday language and exclamations. Things like: Hi ho! Now it’s common, but in those days it wasn’t. And there’s another thing!” He looks right at me. I must listen carefully now: “It’s amusing! It’s humorous! And in a special way. His very own way of being amusing. The fairy tales are always, almost always, amusing. Not in the way of Laurel and Hardy throwing custard pies at each other, but amusing in another, more subdued way. He said so himself: Humour is the salt of my tales.”
“The salt?”
“It’s an expression. It means what’s important!”
Then Marie is my salt! But I don’t say so out loud.
“His diary is funny, too. You know he was very tall, and when he sailed to Germany on his first journey abroad, he lay stretched out during the night on a long bunk that was meant for three. At one end he was asked to keep his head to himself, and at the other to keep his legs to himself. Can you picture that?”
I can. He has to bend and curl and crumple himself up.
“And always, whether he’s sending up an emperor or poking fun at an old plaything, one senses he’s fond of those he’s being witty about. He feels for them. He understands their weaknesses and is forgiving of them.”
“And one more thing! Even though the fairy tales are amusing, beneath the surface they are deeply serious and tell us that despite all hardship and misery, the world is good, for a loving God always makes sure all is well in the end!”
“Always, even when it ends badly, it ends well!”
“I don’t get it!”
“Try reading The Story of a Mother, then you’ll understand what I mean. The way in which he tells the tale is uplifting, even though it ends unhappily and even though it makes you sad. Because you sense that despite all the hardship and misery there is nonetheless a meaning.”
So one can be both happy and sad at the same time, I think to myself. Then I ask: “Is there a meaning?”
“What is the meaning?”
“For Hans Christian Andersen it was God, and His doing what is best for us!”
I look up at him.
“Occasionally Hans Christian Andersen would doubt. Especially when he became old. But whenever he began to doubt he always ended up believing in God again, and then he would apologize to God for having doubted. When he was a child and a young man, he believed in God much as a little child who doesn’t know anything other than that God is up in heaven looking down and watching over us.”
“But he didn’t go on believing like that?”
“Not quite.”
We sit quietly. I’m making a note.
“It was God who gave him his voice. That’s what I believe he thought,” says my father. “In The Fairy Tale of My Life he writes in the very first paragraph of the very first page: The history of my life will say to the world what it says to me: there is a loving God, who directs all things to the best.”
I can see it before my eyes: God finds Andersen’s voice and hands it down through the clouds to place it on his tongue. From there, it descends into his arm, out into his fingers, into the pen, into the ink and onto the white paper.
“And there’s another thing, too!”
My word! I take up my pencil.
“Another secret is that the fairy tales are written for both children and adults. Andersen says that the children have the fun parts, while the grown-ups are given something to think about.”
I see. But didn’t he think that children could grasp the serious parts? I ask: “Is that a secret? That the fairy tales are written for both children and adults?”
He smiles. “Not at all. But it’s a fine thing. It enlivens the tales.”
I note down. I must talk to Marie about this!
“You see, there’s the plot,” he continues. “And there’s the language, there’s his compassion for his characters, there’s the humour. And the most important thing is that it all hangs together so well. It can’t be taken apart. The humour is in the language, and so is the compassion, often in the same sentence. And then there is God. God is behind everything and inside every little letter and comma. God is the heart of the fairy tale. If one takes away the heart, the tale will die!”
It can’t be taken apart, I think to myself. I don’t want to be taken apart either. Perhaps only to take out my heart and give it to Marie.
My father has gone over to the bookcase. He’s searching for something. He doesn’t hear what I’m thinking.
“Writing meant everything to him. Listen to what he wrote in the diary: Dreamt I was writing and the letters set fire to the paper.
“Did he dream that?” I ask.
“Indeed, there was so very much at work. The letters set fire to the paper. Just like the tin soldier and the paper dancer caught light. You’ll recall they were transformed by the fire. Do you remember the tin heart? Reading Hans Christian Andersen transforms us in much the same way. The flames rise up from the paper and catch into our hearts.”

© Louis Jensen & Høst & Søns Forlag, 2004
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2009

[1] Jean Hersholt’s translation in The Complete Andersen, 1949.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

the host

My translation of Stephenie Meyer's mega-seller The Host will soon be done. The equivalent title is pretty naff in Danish, so most likely it'll be called De vandrende sjæle [The Wandering Souls]. Here's how it starts, as yet unedited:

Healerens navn var Fords Deep Waters.
Fordi han var en sjæl, var han efter sin natur godheden selv – medfølende, tålmodig, ærlig, retskaffen, og fuld af kærlighed. Angst var en usædvanlig følelse hos Fords Deep Waters.
Irritation var endnu sjældnere. Men fordi Fords Deep Waters levede inde i en menneskekrop, var irritation somme tider uundgåelig.
Eleverne hviskede, så det summede i det modsatte hjørne af operationsstuen og fik ham til at presse læberne sammen i en tynd streg. Udtrykket føltes malplaceret på en mund, som ellers var mere vant til smil.
Darren, hans sædvanlige assistent, bemærkede hans grimasse og klappede ham på skulderen.
”De er jo bare nysgerrige, Fords,” sagde han sagte.
”En indsættelse er næppe nogen interessant eller ufordrende procedure. En hvilken som helst sjæl på gaden kunne udføre den i nødstilfælde. Der er ikke noget, de kan lære ved at iagttage i dag.” Fords studsede over skarpheden i sin sædvanligvis milde stemme.
”De har jo aldrig set et voksent menneske før,” sagde Darren.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


There will now follow a so-called flurry of activity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

the marrow

The three poems by Niels Hav that recently appeared in PRISM International (here>>) in my translations have been included in an online chapbook selection of Niels' poems entitled The Marrow (here>>). The book is part of a broader series called World Voices (here>>), edited by Walter Cummins, editor emeritus of The Literary Review (here>>), and Thomas E. Kennedy (here>>), novellist, essayist, translator, etc. Included in Niels' collection is this ace poem:


You can spend an entire life
in the company of words
not ever finding
the right one.

Just like a wretched fish
wrapped in Hungarian newspapers.
For one thing it is dead,
for another it doesn't understand

Translation P.K. Brask & Patrick Friesen
© Niels Hav

Friday, March 6, 2009

david peace is a brilliant writer

David Peace is a brilliant writer. When they talk about him, they talk about Yorkshire noir. Or better: Dewsbury noir. I’ve been to Dewsbury. My father moved there after remarrying late in life. He died of cancer there. I think there was some drinking, too.

Like many boys growing up in Yorkshire, Peace feared that his father might be the Yorkshire Ripper. Every night his sister prayed that their mother would not be the next victim.

Now they’re televising David Peace. The Red Riding Quartet is on Channel 4. A film adaptation of The Damned Utd. is out soon. Read about it all here>> and here>> and here>>

An immodest claim: I’m probably the only professional translator in Denmark capable of translating the Yorkshire books: the Red Riding Quartet, GB84, The Damned Utd. I was there. I know what was on telly. It’s all impossible unless you were there. Try reading it.

David Peace lives in Japan. His second novel in a Japanese trilogy will be out this summer. The following is my translation of an excerpt from the first: Tokyo Year Zero. One Danish publisher has expressed interest. Nothing’s moving yet.

David Peace is a brilliant writer.

den 16. august, 1946

Tokyo, 32 grader, sol

De sorte lus klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg rejser mig fra det lave bord. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg går hen til køkkenvasken. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg trækker en kam gennem håret. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Lusene falder ud i klumper. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg knuser dem mod vasken. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Kropslusene er sværere. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. De er hvide og så meget vanskeligere at jage. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg åbner for vandet. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Vandet løber. Vandet standser. Vandet løber igen –
Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari
Brunt og derefter klart, klart og derefter brunt igen –
Jeg skyller ansigtet. Jeg leder efter sæbe for at barbere mig –
Men der er ikke noget at finde, igen –
Jeg skyller munden og spytter –
Jeg er en af de overlevende …
Jeg tager skjorten på og bukserne, den samme skjorte og de samme bukser, jeg har haft på hver eneste dag i de sidste fire-fem år, den samme skjorte og de samme bukser, som min kone har plejet og repareret, lappet og lappet igen, ligesom strømperne og skoene på mine fødder, vinterjakken på min krop og sommerhatten på mit hoved –
Det klør. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Det klør, og jeg kradser –
Jeg er en af de heldige …
Der står en enkelt lille skål med zōsui på det lave bord, en grød med ris og grøntsager. Jeg lader den stå til min kone og mine børn –
Jeg tager mit ur frem. Chiku-taku. Og jeg trækker det op –
Klokken er 4 om morgenen. Min kone og mine børn sover endnu –
Det klør stadig, og jeg kradser stadig. Gari-gari
Jeg tager mine gamle militærstøvler på og snører dem ude i genkan’en. Jeg åbner forsigtigt hoveddøren, lukker den og låser efter mig. Jeg går ned ad havegangen. Jeg lukker lågen efter mig –
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton
Jeg går væk fra mit hus, væk fra min familie –
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton
Jeg går ned ad gaden mod stationen –
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton
Gennem lufthamrenes lyd –
Ton-ton. Ton-ton
Et nyt Japans frembrud –
Genopbygningsarbejdet begynder tidligt; de huse, der blev stående, sættes i stand eller rives ned, til erstatning bygges der nye; vejene ryddes for murbrokker og aske, murbrokkerne og asken tømmes ud i kanalerne, kanalerne fyldes og forsvinder. Men Tokyos floder og veje stinker stadig af pis og lort, af kolera og tyfus, af sygdom og død, af død og tab –
Dette er Det nye Japan; Mitaka station myldrer med mennesker i hundredvis, i tusindvis, der venter på tog i begge retninger; for at rejse ud på landet for at sælge billigt ud af deres ejendele for at købe mad; for at rejse ind til Tokyo for at sælge mad for at købe andres ejendele billigt: uophørligt frem og tilbage, tilbage og frem, uophørligt i gang med at købe og sælge, sælge og købe; Det nye Japan –
Hver eneste station. Hvert eneste tog. Hver eneste station …
Folk i to solide rækker langs begge perroner, svajende idet nytilkomne forsøger at mase sig foran, mens de træder og tramper på kroppene af dem, der har sovet ude hele natten på perronen, og så en sidste enorm bølgen frem, samtidig med at det første tog mod Tokyo kører ind –
Hvert eneste tog. Hver eneste station. Hvert eneste tog …
To tomme vogne forbeholdt Sejrsherrerne, en andenklasses med hårde sæder til de privilegerede Besejrede, og en lang række nedslidte tredjeklasses vogne til alle os andre –
Dem, der har tabt alt …
Vinduerne i tredjeklasse allerede slået i stykker, vognene fyldt til den sidste centimeter kl. 5 om morgenen, folk på perronerne, der presser flere bylter ind gennem vinduerne, som skal tages med ind til Tokyo, mens andre kæmper tavst for at få fodfæste på trinbrættet eller koblingerne –
Hver eneste station. Hvert eneste tog …
Jeg tager notesbogen frem –
Det klør, og det klør …
Jeg råber: – Politiet!
Det lykkes mig at komme med. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Jeg presser mig ind i en af vognene. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Folk bliver ved med at skubbe bagved mig. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Toget sætter langsomt i gang. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Armene hænger fastlåst ned langs siderne i trængslen. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Der står mennesker og bagage hvert eneste tænkeligt sted. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. De sidder på hug på sæderyggene, de sidder på hug på bagagehylden. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Jeg kan kun bevæge øjnene. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Drengens hoved foran mig er dækket af ringorm. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Der kravler lus ind og ud af håret på den unge kvinde til venstre for mig. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Mandens hovedbund ved min højre side lugter af sur mælk. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Toget slingrer hen over endnu et sporskifte. Det klør, men jeg kan ikke kradse. Jeg lukker øjnene –
Jeg tænker på hende hele tiden …
Det tager over en time at nå frem til Yūraku-chō station, og så skal man kæmpe for at komme af toget og ud på perronen –
Jeg kradser. Gari-gari. Jeg kradser. Gari-gari
Jeg går fra Yūraku-chō station hen til Politigården. Det klør, og nu sveder jeg, og klokken er ikke engang 6 om morgenen, og Tokyo stinker af lort; skidt og lort og støv, det skidt og lort og støv, som sidder i mit tøj og i min hud, og som skærer i næseborene og brænder i halsen for hver eneste jeep, hver eneste lastvogn, der passerer forbi –
Jeg stopper op. Jeg tager lommetørklædet frem. Jeg tager hatten af. Jeg tørrer mig i ansigtet. Jeg tørrer mig i nakken. Jeg ser op på den afblegede himmel og spejder efter den usynlige sol, der gemmer sig et sted ovenover skyerne af tyfus, skyerne af støv, af skidt –
Af lort, af menneskelort …
Vejsiden flyder med folk på måtter, mænd og kvinder, unge og gamle, soldater og civile, øjnene blanke eller lukkede, udmattede –
Mine hænder knyttes, brystet trækker sammen, lungerne skriger: Hvad venter I på?
Det er et år siden, at folk knælede på jorden uden for voldgraven og græd. Det er et helt år siden, men folket er stadigvæk på knæ, på knæ, på knæ, på knæ –
Rejs jer op! Rejs jer op!

© David Peace, 2007. Denne oversættelse © Martin Aitken, 2008

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Something here>> in The Guardian about translated fiction in the UK. The usual three-percent sort of thing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

hav in PRISM

Blindness: Three poems on a theme by Niels Hav in my translations. Out now, apparently, in PRISM International (here>>).

Monday, February 9, 2009

højholt in calque

One of the judges in that best translation game (see below) is Steve Dolph, editor of the excellent Philadelphia and New York-based journal Calque. Calque has its issue #5 coming out on 14 February. Among a whole load of good stuff are my own selected translations from Per Højholt's fabulous Praksis, 8: Album, tumult (1989), a preview of which has already been published online here>>. The printed pieces are accompanied by my own short introduction to Højholt and his work. Sadly, this will be the final issue of an excellent and highly acclaimed journal that is going to be sorely missed.


Over at three percent they're closing in on the best translated book of 2008. Maybe someone should play the same game for, say, books translated into Danish. Or maybe not. Whatever, long and shortlists can be perused here>>.

Monday, February 2, 2009

english christensen

Inger Christensen (here>>), arguably Scandinavias greatest modern poet, died recently at the age of 73. Consistently touted as a Nobel candidate, Christensen has most notably appeared in German translation. However all three of her major works have appeared in award-winning English translations by Susanne Nied. The titles are It (here>>), Alphabet (here>>) and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem (here>>).

Friday, January 23, 2009

wallace in danish

My translation of David Foster Wallace's story Suicide as a Sort of Present from the collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men will be appearing in the Danish journal Den Blå Port. The Danish title is Selvmord som en slags gave.


A piece here>> in today's Guardian on the current UK vogue for Scandinavian crime literature.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

the buddhist

And then, quicker than you can say "But I don't want to be reincarnated ...", the second of my two Dorthe Nors translations, The Buddhist, has been accepted for publication by the prestigious Boston Review (here>>). Thanks here are due, not only to Dorthe for her excellent story, but also to 2008 Pulitzer-winner Junot Diáz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) for pointing us in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Just out here is Apparatur #18 (here>>) containing, amongst a whole load of other excellent and exciting stuff, my short introduction to Richard Brautigan and his work, as well as three of his stories from the collection Revenge of the Lawn (1971) in my Danish translation. The stories are The Literary Life in California/1964, I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone, and Partners.


Like I said, I recently translated two stories by Dorthe Nors (here>>), taken from her excellent collection Kantslag [Karate Chop]. Now, almost before you could say Vadehavet, one of them, The Wadden Sea, has been accepted for publication by the American journal AGNI (here>>). First word is it'll be out in the fall 2009 issue (that's autumn, for the rest of us). AGNI comes out of Boston University and has previously published such luminaries as Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates and Derek Walcott, to name but three. Thanks to Rick Moody (The Ice Storm and much more) for the pointer.