Susanna Nied on Inger Christensen.

I am inordinately fond of interviews with translators, and Asymptote has one with Susanna Nied:

A giant in world poetry and experimental text, much of Inger Christensen’s influence can be seen cascading to many generations of writers, in several languages. Her book-length poem, Det (1969) shook the foundations of Danish poetry, and in its translations, continues to startle and affect readers profoundly. Her essays have been translated into English and collected into a volume for the first time. To mark this literary event, poet and former Asymptote team member Sohini Basak spoke via email to Susanna Nied, who has translated into English Christensen’s poetic oeuvre as well as the forthcoming book of essays The Condition of Secrecy (New Directions).

SOHINI BASAK: For those of us bound by the English-language, it is because of you that we’ve come to know of Inger Christensen’s poetry. And as you’re the translator of her complete poetic oeuvre, it’s very interesting that you started with her first book (Light), and then the sequence almost coincides with the order in which the original collections were published … although not entirely. How did you decide your working order?

SUSANNA NIED: I actually didn’t do anything like choosing a working order. When I started on Light, in the 1970s, I didn’t know Inger had written anything besides Light and Grass. I didn’t even know who Inger was, and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to become a translator, much less her translator. I was just a university student browsing the library stacks for something Danish to read for pleasure, and I happened upon this little bibliography of contemporary Danish poets. When I got to “C” I found “Christensen, Inger”.

Her only two listed volumes were Lys and Græs – (Light and Grass). I liked the titles, ordered the books from Interlibrary Loan, was both grabbed and mystified, and started translating them just to try to understand what this unknown writer was doing and how she did it. (Of course, she was unknown only in the U.S.; in Germany and France she was already well known, thanks to her excellent translators.)

I am charmed by the anecdote, which fires me with nostalgia for my own days wandering library stacks looking for unknown pleasures. Here’s a nice passage on what it was like working with Christensen:

We would sit together at the worktable in her Copenhagen apartment, me with a cup of tea and the manuscript in progress, Inger with a cup of coffee and the original Danish book. Inger would read the first poem aloud in Danish, then I would read my translation aloud. Then we would lay the two poems side by side and look at them. We would go through each page that way. She would ask questions and offer comments, telling me what had been in her mind when she wrote certain lines. It was a huge gift, a tutorial with a world-class writer – one who thought of herself as just an ordinary person.

Many of her questions were about shades of meaning in an English word or phrase I had chosen. She was interested in etymologies as well as current meanings (you can see this in her essays “It’s All Words” and “Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart”) and I too love etymology. We both felt that people somehow sense the whole arc of human experience, beginning long before recorded history, within our oldest words. For instance, if you trace the etymology of the English word tree, you find that it originated with the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language, who lived near the Caspian Sea in the Neolithic age and who gradually fanned out across India and Europe. Tree is derived from their word deru, meaning “firmness”. And you find that trust and truth come from that same root, deru. So, those two words are as ancient as our awareness of trees… I remember Inger saying that etymologies could almost be poems in themselves.

Inger’s English was excellent, but she always spoke Danish to me. Hearing her Danish (she had a soft Jutland accent) was invaluable; it not only improved my fluency but also sensitized me to the varying tones of her writing voice. (There are recordings of her singing some of the poems from Light and Grass.) I was embarrassed by the many mistakes I made. But Inger was incredibly patient. I remember only one thing she ever said that bordered on criticism: “Her har du vist sjusket lidt.” (“Looks like you got a little careless here.”) As she said it, she patted my hand reassuringly.

Of course “those two words are as ancient as our awareness of trees” is silly, but whatever helps a poet write poetry is OK with me. It may well be that tree, trust, and truth do in fact come from the same root (OED s.v. true, entry revised 2015: “further etymology uncertain; perhaps < an Indo-European base related to that of tree n.”). And here’s an interesting response to the question “Did you have to bend the rules of grammar and composition while translating the prose works too?”:

Yes! Grammar, composition, and punctuation too. Inger originally wrote five of the Condition of Secrecy essays in German, then translated them into Danish afterward. The German reading public had known and respected her work since the publication of It in 1969, thanks in large part to her stellar German translator Hanns Grössel (1932-2012). So she was an honored guest in Germany, frequently invited to speak, and her talks later became some of the essays in The Condition of Secrecy. The thing about German is that its syntactic gymnastics are barely conceivable in English. It’s a little like Cæsar’s Latin or Proust’s French: a German sentence can easily take up a whole paragraph and go through numerous convoluted subordinate clauses before finally getting to the main verb. Danish is a bit more syntactically permissive than English, but even so, in translating her German essays into Danish Inger often pushed the envelope (and relished the adventure, I’m sure).

For me, translating those essays was a challenge. Inger had created elegant, elaborate, looping sentences in German and then managed to bring them into Danish, and I didn’t want to destroy their effect by cutting them into neat little packets of English. (She once referred to English as “that strange, smooth language”.) But English-speaking readers aren’t used to following such complex paths, and I did want to make sure the sentences were comprehensible. I ended up using a lot of parallel structures and transitional repetition to keep readers oriented, with a liberal sprinkling of paired commas, paired dashes, and parentheses. And I decided it would be all right if readers had to back up and re-read some sentences. Inger didn’t mind making readers do double takes at key points in her essays. It provided windows for thought.

I confess I’m not familiar with Christensen, and I don’t know why Det “shook the foundations of Danish poetry,” but I’ll take their word for it; you can hear a poem from it read in Danish here, and Christensen herself sings some of her lyrics here and here. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but “shook the foundations of Danish poetry” sounds rather like something one character in a Saki short story would say to another character about yet a third character who is believed to be temporarily out of earshot.

  2. I always like to hear of translators and their impossible labours.

    In Ubud the other day, where I was staying I encountered a young French woman with long bronze-golden hair, and we briefly discussed Paul Valéry (as you do). I later spied her half-submerged, dawdling in the sunlit pool surrounded by tropical vegetation. “Of course!” I thought, and promptly set about translating Valéry’s “Baignée” – one of several items in Album de vers anciens on the topic of young women in water but also (of course) about the nature of art and human existence. The original:

    Un fruit de chair se baigne en quelque jeune vasque,
    (Azur dans les jardins tremblants) mais hors de l’eau,
    Isolant la torsade aux puissances de casque,
    Luit le chef d’or que tranche à la nuque un tombeau.

    Éclose la beauté par la rose et l’épingle!
    Du miroir même issue où trempent ses bijoux,
    Bizarres feux brisés dont le bouquet dur cingle
    L’oreille abandonnée aux mots nus des flots doux.

    Un bras vague inondé dans le néant limpide
    Pour une ombre de fleur à cueillir vainement
    S’effile, ondule, dort par le délice vide,

    Si l’autre, courbé pur sous le beau firmament,
    Parmi la chevelure immense qu’il humecte,
    Capture dans l’or simple un vol ivre d’insecte.

    Out of my usual, um … modesty I do not show my translation. It’s nicely metred, but I’m a stickler for rhyming and so far that eludes me in this case. I simply invite Hatters to join in wonderment at the Valérian syntax and imagery. Hard enough to disentangle in French, let alone twist and plait with grace into another tongue.

  3. That first graph…

    It’s not just shook the foundations. There’s “influence (that) cascaded to many generations”. Weird wording, and a neat trick in 50 years. There’s the author of this piece for Asymptote, introduced as a “former” team member of Asymptote. And her method of communication with her subject was to “speak via email.”

    Are we sure this wasn’t written by AI?

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Up they soar, the planet’s butterflies,
    pigments from the warm body of the earth,
    cinnabar, ochre, phosphor yellow, gold
    a swarm of basic elements aloft.

    Is this flickering of wings only a shoal
    of light particles, a quirk of perception?
    Is it the dreamed summer hour of my childhood
    shattered as by lightning lost in time?

    No, this is the angel of light, who can paint
    himself as dark mnemosyne Apollo,
    as copper, hawkmoth, swallowtail.

    I see them with my blurred understanding
    as feathers in the coverlet of haze
    in Brajcino Valley’s noon-hot air.

    De stiger op, planetens sommerfugle
    Som farvestøv fra jordens varme krop,
    Zinnober, okker, guld og fosforgule,
    en sværm af kemisk grundstof løftet op.

    Er dette vingeflimmer kun en stime
    af lyspartikler i et indbildsk syn?
    er det min barndoms drømte sommertime
    splintret som i tidsforskudte lyn?

    Nej, det er lysets engel, som kan male
    sig selv som sort Apollo mnemosyne,
    som ildfugl, poppelfugl og svalehale.

    Jeg ser dem med min slørede fornuft
    som lette fjer i varmedisens dyne
    i Brajčinodalens middagshede luft.

    ”Sommerfugledalen”, s. 1.

    Maybe this poem is untypical, but it does not seem to me to be “pushing the borders experimentalism”. The original is playful, dense, controlled, assonant and alliterative–I like farvestøv and warme krop. I miss the vowel contrasts in the translation (a and o, i and y), but of course you can’t have everything. I don’t know if the alternation was meant to give the effect of fluttering or a light breeze.

  5. I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but “shook the foundations of Danish poetry” sounds rather like something one character in a Saki short story would say to another character about yet a third character who is believed to be temporarily out of earshot.

    Yes, I rolled my eyes at that, but it’s hard to avoid overstatement when propagandizing for a writer you suspect most of your readers will never have heard of. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that myself, though I try to avoid it.

    Noe: Valéry is amazing, and I thank you for that sample (and totally understand your translatory difficulties).

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Through a perhaps eccentric chain of free association I was reminded of the U.S. political sex scandal about 15 years ago where the then-governor of South Carolina managed to temporarily make “hiking the Appalachian Trail” a jokey euphemism for “having an extra-marital affair with an exotic foreign lady” and was struck with the idea that “shaking the foundations of Danish poetry” might have similar joke-euphemism potential. See also, e.g., “discussing Ugandan affairs,” which I understand is one of a number of running-inside-joke euphemisms in the _Private Eye_.

  7. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    shaking the foundations, if you know what I mean and I’m sure you do. Danish poetry is not known in Denmark for the particular quality of its foundations, or the display of same, though the gender imbalance would tend to make me pass on a spot on the awards panel.

  8. David Marjanović says

    For those of us bound by the English-language,

    If you meet the autocorrupt on the road, KILL IT WITH FIRE.

    you find that it originated with the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language

    Like most of the words that Shakespeare didn’t personally invent, I gather…

    Valéry’s “Baignée”

    That looks like it was written for Noetica personally.

    Have we ever seen the two in the same room at the same time…?

  9. Sprung!

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Like most of the words that Shakespeare didn’t personally invent

    Yes: it reminds me of “Made entirely from natural ingredients” (presumably, “contains no ectoplasm.”)

    I suppose poets are allowed to talk nonsense about etymology. Now, if only all those who talked nonsense about etymology were poets – especially poets with cascading influences!

    Inger Christensen is, of course, not a giant in world poetry, and never will be, because not enough people know Danish, and translation (no matter how committed and talented the translator) will never be able to turn her poems into “world poetry.”

    This is by no means to denigrate Chrisensen as a poet. Exactly the same is true (mutatis mutandis) of Dafydd ap Gwilym, a poet so amazingly good as to make verse in one of the most formally constrained of all poetic traditions seem spontaneous and completely natural. He’ll never be a world poet either. So what? It’s not Eurovision or the Nobel Priize for Literature.

  11. Compare the case of Valéry, and another unfortunate:

    There are also instances of candidates not being awarded the prize despite the great tenacity of their advocates. The record here is held by the Catalonian writer Angel Guimerà y Jorge, who was nominated every year from 1907 until 1923, in other words 17 times. In addition to him, mention can be made of Paul Valéry, who was nominated 12 times between 1930 and 1945, but who died just when it seemed that the Academy was about to award him the prize.

    It seems that two writers exclusively in Danish – Henrik Pontoppidan, and the novelist Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (“for the rare strength and fertility of his poetic imagination with which is combined an intellectual curiosity of wide scope and a bold, freshly creative style”) – did win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in addition to a poet who wrote also in German (Karl Adolph Gjellerup). Frédéric Mistral, a philologist and poet writing in Provençal, also scored: “in recognition of the fresh originality and true inspiration of his poetic production, which faithfully reflects the natural scenery and native spirit of his people, and, in addition, his significant work as a Provençal philologist”.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    The Nobel Prize for literature is occasionally awarded to genuinely great writers, on the principle of a stopped clock being right twice a day.

    It does compare favourably with the Nobel Peace Prize, though.

    My favourite exhibit for anyone taking these ludicrous prizes seriously is Allvar Gullstrand, though the ludicrousness may be more apparent to fellow ophthalmologists. The fact that he was Swedish and on the actual damned committee had, I’m sure, nothing whatsoever to do with anything.

    Gullstrand’s genuine claim to distinction is his use of his position to block Einstein from getting the Nobel Prize for the theory of relativity. A man of fine judgment and a credit to Sweden.

    The Eurovision Song Contest is much more rigorous.

  13. Catalonian writer Angel Guimerà y Jorge

    Any good?

  14. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Denmark invented grooks, what more do they want.

  15. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    It turns out that Inger Christensen shared her first name and birth year with my mother. And she was indeed one of the names you were/are supposed to know, even though I have a feeling that very few people actually read her books — like with most poetry, I guess.

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