Hayden's Ferry Review


Foreign Tongues: Danish

HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. This recurring post Foreign Tongues will give you a little culture and a little history, a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.
in the first place). So let's begin, shall we?

By now, you've probably figured out my format--introduce the language I'm talking about, give a little background info, shamelessly name a few famous people associated with the language, and finally, tie it back to HFR (which is where I find languages to write about in the first place). So let's begin, shall we?

Danish. Not necessarily an “unusual” language or a language that might make you say “wait, what?” when it pops up in conversation. It's one of the languages most people realize on some level must exist, because they learned about a place called Denmark in geography class, and there's always a language that goes with the country, right? Still, it’s not something most public schools offer as a second language (or maybe I'm just living in the wrong part of the country). But Danish is spoken by over six million people around the world, most of them living in the country of Denmark right above Germany.

Famous people. My favorite part of these posts is looking up the country the language hails from and figuring out people or events I know of, but didn't necessarily know were connected to the country and the language. It's a comforting form of the unexpected. This time, the people that made my list include (but are not limited to): Hans Christian Andersen, Niels Bohr, Søren Kierkegaard and three of the band members from Aqua (René Dif, Claus Norréen, and Søren Rasted). This is my most exciting list yet—I used to read Anderson’s fairy tales as a kid; I studied Bohr’s atomic model in high school (although I was never taught much of anything about the man himself); and as a kid because I liked to listen to Aqua’s music, even though I thought they were just singing about Barbie dolls and candy (I was sheltered).

Now it's time to let you all know how HFR brought this language, and consequently my favorite foreign tongues famous people list to-date, to my attention. I found, in #44, a travel essay written by Pia Tafdrup and translated by K. E. Semmel. The first line to catch my eye was "Even for the city's children, the festival is an important event. The children stream out of houses to join the huge procession, especially when Indifference and Forgetfulness are buried and those in costumes groove to the beat of drums and numerous other instruments. They scurry in and out of the carriages that carry the caskets." Then I looked back to the first line of the essay and the sense of poetry that image gave me, made sense. "How do you get a small child to associate poetry with something exciting and meaningful?" I really should start reading things in order.

After contacting and eliciting answers from K. E. Semmel, he brought quite a few points to my attention about the difficulties and hazards of translating. There were too many to sum up, so I decided to include the interview at the end of the post, for you to read as you please. Two of these points I want to highlight here. First, he summed up for me exactly what I thought the best part of translating was when he said, "What I like about translating is hitting the right notes, finding the perfect word in English." When that happens, I think it is always an epic "ah-ha!" moment. Point two: he told me the interesting fact that, at least in the example he gave to me, "in the subordinate clause, the subject...and the verb...are reversed in Danish. Obviously you can't translate them in reverse order in English. Any reader would instantly recognize it as a poor translation--literal translations tend to jar the flow." It was yet another example of how different languages have to be treated differently when being translated into English. Also, I might just sympathize a little bit with the fact that backwards sentences or clauses so often are found in Foreign Languages, and Danish happens to be one of them.

There is a lot of complications in translating any language. Semmel's example is one more on the long list, but when the result of finding a way around the complications is that more people get to read wonderful pieces of writing like Tafdrup's travel essay, how can it not be worth it?

1) Why did you choose to learn Danish? Why did you stay with it and become a translator?
I didn't choose Danish so much as it chose me, so to speak: I met and fell in love with a Danish
woman (now my wife). I had learned German, studied it as part of my graduate program. As soon as grad school was over, we moved to Denmark and lived for several years. Picking up Danish, at that point, was a little easier—insofar that my understanding of German helped me read Danish. But the truly hard part came with pronunciation. Danish can be a very difficult sound to imitate, especially the letters å, y, and ø. The sounds seem to come from the bottom of the throat, not the top as American English does. The name Børge still kills me. I started translating because A) I love literature, and B) because I knew I could translate—knew I could use my language skills to bring a lot of great new authors to the attention of American readers.

2) What is the most difficult part of translating Danish?

Whether it’s Danish or some other language, translation is a difficult process. For a text to undergo a transformation from one language to the next requires careful attention to detail: How do you make the translated story/poem/essay true to the original at the same time you make it sound like a fluid translation? Make it sound like the language you're translating into. That’s really the heart of the matter, and I think the most difficult part. It would be the same whatever language you translate.

3) What is the most interesting part of translating Danish?

Same answer as number two, really. What I like about translating is hitting the right notes, finding the perfect word in English. When it goes well and you know you’ve got it right, that’s a great feeling for any translator. It's no different from writing a story or poem. Getting a sentence to flow the way you dreamed it is an intoxicating experience. Translation actually makes me more aware of my own language.

4) How does Danish differ from English grammatically or structurally?

Well, I’m not sure how to answer this question in a short blog post. One big difference lies in syntax. Take this example from one of my Simon Fruelund translations ("The World and Varvara"): Jeg tænder båndoptageren og stiller et enkelt lidt forsigtigt spørgsmål, og snart er hun i gang med at fortælle om sin tidligste barndom."

In main clauses such as "Jeg tænder båndoptageren og stiller et enkelt lidt forsigtigt spørgsmål....", the syntax is very much like English. So in my translation that part reads: "I ("jeg") click ("tænder") on the recorder ("båndoptageren") and ask a single, rather cautious question ("og stiller et enkelt lidt forsigtigt spørgsmål").

But in the subordinate clause, the subject ("hun") and verb ("er") are reversed in Danish. Obviously you can't translate them in reverse order in English. Any reader would instantly recognize it as a poor translation—literal translations tend to jar the flow.

5) A big part of the blog posts is the idea that every language is strongly based on and/or influenced by culture. What are some of the strongest cultural influences on Danish?

I’m not an expert on this, but I’d say the strongest influences on Danish are the English language and English-speaking television, particularly American. Language changes with each generation. With more and more outside influences on Danish culture coming from the English-speaking world, from pop stars to television programs, the more English words and phrases creep into the language. When my wife was a child, she pretty much had Danish, Scandinavian, German, Eastern European, and British programming on television. American shows (like Dallas) were a popular novelty. But today the influence of, say, Friends or The Daily Show—even the Super Bowl—can be seen in everyday speech, which then gets absorbed into the literature.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new. Words are appropriated whenever any two languages meet in a significant way. We see this in English with words like schadenfreude or smorgasbord. I even hear friends say "scheisse" when "shit" would work just as well. This is not at all a bad thing. I like this dynamic. It means that language is continually evolving.

6) Are there any major trends in writing styles in Danish? How is it different from English?

There are so many ways to tell a story—regardless what language you write in—and so many different writers, each one having his or her take on what a story is and how best to tell it. I don’t think you can narrow down a list of trends, not in any way that does justice to a nation’s literature.
About the only thing I will say is that many Danish stories tend, I have found, to not have neat, identifiable endings—sometimes to the point where you're left wondering what it is you just read. Because Danish writers are better supported by the government than in many other countries, less reliant on mega sales of books, I think there's a greater sense of freedom to experiment a little.

7) How is the writing style influenced by the culture?

This is a very interesting question. One thing that I’m fascinated by at the moment is the role of social media on literature, if it has one. In social media the focus is on these short bursts of information—tweets, status updates—and we’re getting used to reading this way, even thinking this way. (How many times do you find yourself thinking, “That’d be a great status update”?) You would think that this way of thinking would carry over into literature, right? Like it does in so-called “twitterature.” But it hasn’t really carried over in any meaningful way, not to my way of thinking. At least not yet. Most of the books you find in traditional brick and mortar stores resemble books that were published ten years ago, at least in the sense that they’re told in traditional narrative styles. (Which isn’t to say that more experimental books haven’t been published—just that they’ve not reached a mass audience yet. That may change. This NY Times article suggests more and more young readers are going the e-reader route.) I think that might be because people are still looking for stories to be full, rich, and big. And that is because the full, rich, and big stories are still what we read in schools—traditional narratives, in other words. When non-traditional narratives become standard fare in schools and colleges, then we may see a radical shift in our dominant manner of storytelling. Until then, or until some groundbreaking author paves the way for everyone else, I don’t expect much to change.
So if by “culture” you mean “book culture”—where literature is produced and disseminated by readers and writers—then it’s probably going to be a slow process. I think writers are reluctant to jump on fads. I mean, according to this Guardian article, they haven't even begun to really incorporate the Internet yet.

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Best European Fiction 2011, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He has translated Danish authors Pia Tafdrup, Jytte Borberg, and Simon Fruelund, among others. His translation of Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum’s next book will be published later this year. He has received translation grants from the Danish Arts Council.