Essay: To be written in english

I forbindelse med, at et uddrag af min bog Hovedpersonen blev publiceret på engelsk af Words Without Borders 1. august, bad selvsamme magasin mig reflektere lidt over, hvordan det er at blive oversat.

Det blev til essayet ‘To be written in english’, som du kan læse på Words Without Borders’ hjemmeside – eller lige her (med tak til redaktør Susan Harris for relevante rettelser):

There he was. The Main Character. The description of him. All the words, verbs, nouns, pronouns, syllables. I knew them all. Already. But only in Danish. Not this way around.

Because here he was, The Main Character, in English. So much the same. But still so different.

In some ways much more classy—but in some ways way more simple.

The first time I was presented for the idea that Hovedpersonen (the Danish title for “The Main Character”) could be translated into English, it had already been done. This, to me, unknown fellow Morten Høi Jensen suddenly sent me three of the texts from my own book, translated into English.

The mistake was my own, so to say, as I had published the three texts on the web as a free extract. But the main intention was to get someone to buy my book—not translate it! And the surprise wasn’t smaller given the fact that I’m not at all known to the Danish public, only present myself as a writer in my spare time (my professional career is in web journalism), and have to this day published only one book:Hovedpersonen.

But there it was. The text. My text. In English. So what to say about it? It looked great—not the typography so much as the words themselves. The words I knew so well because I had written them myself; the words I hardly recognized because they were in another language. In a rhythm I wasn’t used to. In fact, as I read the three texts, the whole setting, the very universe built up by the words, brick by brick, felt different. Not in any bad sense. Not in any particularly better way. Just different. But why?

Part of the explanation seems to be that reading literature in a foreign language sharpens the senses. The eyes, the mind are not at home, not straying through a familiar neighborhood, but through different paths of language than the usual ones, particularly different from the everyday language you speak at home, at the job, at the bar.

I must also take into account that we Danes seem to have low self-esteem when it comes to the abilities of our own language. We sometimes seem to think that the English words are more accurate—and that they “sound” better. Especially regarding technical terms, we sometimes even choose English over Danish—for example, using “to embed” rather than the Danish word “indlejre”—leading to the misconception that there are no such words in Danish.

Of the three texts presented in Words without Borders, the last one begins to reveal the miming of an old film noir and/or detective movie that saturates Hovedpersonen as a whole. In the translation, even these small fragments changed meaning to me: The scene no longer took place in Copenhagen, but seemed to be located among the New York skyline, parks and alleys. Which makes it seem just a bit more classy, dark and big, at least to this reader and writer.

The reason might be that I don’t have all the connotations and fragments of everyday language clinging to the English words, as a native speaker would. Even though I wrote the story and set the scene myself, the translation allowed me to read it as something beyond the borders and context of the Danish language.

I’m really thrilled with the translation (and Morten is translating the thirty-five remaining texts of Hovedpersonen). However, the original Danish text has some features that can’t be directly swapped with English. Some of these features are crucial to the text, at least in its original version. But they are features that I would not be able to recreate in English either, especially as I am not a native speaker.

Some examples of the untranslatable:

The voice of the narrator is (very much) inspired by that of The Perfect Human, an outstanding experimental short movie by the Danish author and film director Jørgen Leth. Where Leth’s narrating uses an anthropological approach in its survey of the main character in the movie, the narrator and whole setup in The Main Character tries to both mime and exceed (the possibility of) that setup by questioning the objectivity and credibility of the narrator (the “we”) itself.  But I guess you have to be familiar with Leth’s movie to see where that line is crossed.

One of my humble tricks for questioning the narrator’s otherwise declarative voice is introducing involuntary humor. This occurs, for instance, in the sentence, “We can call him whatever we feel like. Mads or Mikkel. “ This sentence draws upon a Danish saying,  “You can call me Mads,” whereby you express skepticism. For instance, by saying, “If this guy is a movie star, you can call me Mads,” you express that you’re sure that guy is not a movie star (and given that you’re right, you obviously avoid being called by this in fact very common name, “Mads”).

Moreover, Mads and Mikkel are two names that are commonly used together. This sort of culturally specific, intertextual finesse will inevitably be lost in translation. Mads could be translated to “Al,” but that would not refer to any expression so much as to a catchy tune by Paul Simon.

The last sentence in the translation published in Words Without Borders reads: “Ahead somewhere is a bus stop.” The original text reads: “Forude ligger et stoppested.” The word “stoppested” may be translated directly into “stop point” (a point at which you or something else stops), but in Danish the word usually signifies a bus stop, even without mentioning the bus. In the original, this was exactly the effect I wanted: to tell the reader about the “stoppested” without using the word “bus,” and thereby enforce the image of a bus in the readers’ brain. The stop should be left deserted, so to say. This seemed impossible in English, as the “stop” makes no sense without the “bus.”

I am honored that Morten came across Hovedpersonen and decided to translate it for a bigger audience. And I am more than pleased to see the result. Because there he is. The Main Character, or at least a little part of him, written in English. I’ve read him. I liked him. I hope you’ll read him too.