World Book Day – And the World of Translations

Its World Book Day, so today’s post is going to be about literature, of course.

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now. For years actually but especially since November, when an exciting package was pushed through my door. As a Danish former literature student I have often wanted to tell everyone on my blog about the fantastic literature that is being written not only in Denmark but also in my fellow Scandinavian countries. But every time I have tried to sit down and write about my favourite Scandi authors I have come up with the same problem: Few of them have been translated into English, so what’s the point. Some of them have been translated to other Scandinavian languages, French, German and even Czech. But in English?

This is why I got so incredibly excited when I realised that one of my favourite Danish authors Helle Helle was going to be published in English for the first time, with what is one of my  favourite Danish novels ever, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense.

Danish is only spoken by about 5.6 million people, so it is important that books get translated to reach a wider audience. There has been a wave of Scandi mania hype in Britain the last couple of years after TV series like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen came out, not to mention books by Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo. This Nordic Noir appreciation in the rest of the world has really helped put Scandinavia on the cultural map. And it has helped to get overlooked, more literary authors like Helle Helle a long needed translation into English.

Helle Helle’s book is a quirky and literary novel written in a minimalistic, easy-to-read style. The novel is about the twenty-year old Dorte, who has recently moved to the quiet provincial station town Glumsø to commute to her literature course at the University of Copenhagen. But Dorte seems to be spending more time wandering aimlessly around the streets of Copenhagen, than in classrooms; that is, when she actually gets on a train. Going back between past and present, Dorte looks at the direction her life has taken by the different men she has ended up with, often in quite random circumstances. She wanders accidently through her own life, doesn’t appear to have a direction or any close friends, maybe with the sole exception of her aunt, her namesake, whose pattern in life she seems to be endlessly repeating.

The book makes me cringe and smile at the same time and I think the awkwardness of the situations that Dorte find herself in again and again might work even better on a British audience. I loved the minimalistic style in Danish and was worried that it wouldn’t work in English, which has so many more words for the same things but I still think the language is beautifully simplistic. The translation has been done really well, I think and I was surprised to find that the book still felt the same to read, even though it wasn’t in the original Danish.

I liked that all the place names are in Danish, even if English people might have to look these up but I wish there had been more consistency about the translation choices for some of the words. Either you pick the Danish (exotic) words, like Smørrebrød or Hindbærsnitter and you stick with it, or you choose to use English words or explanations for those who are not familiar with what these mean. I didn’t like that while some iconic words like Smørrebrød has not been translated, the Danish word for Hindbærsnitter and Snegl has randomly been changed into raspberry slices and pastry snail. For me you either choose the exotic words and make people more familiar with them or you make the English text easier to understand in the host language (and perhaps the more often used English words like Cinnamon bun or Danish might have been more appropriate).

As a Dane I have been used to reading as much in original Danish as in translation but until I moved to England I never realized that fewer English readers pick up translated books. I really hope that new translations like This Should Be Written in the Present Tense will help spread the word and make more people familiar with the literature from our little part of the world. *

 

*This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher Harvill Secker, when I asked for a review copy for a chance to look at the translation because I love Helle Helle.

 

 

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