Translator’s Cut: Martin Aitken (Denmark)

K.E. Semmel talks to Martin Aitken about translating and the urge to create


As an independent translator, I am interested in the art of literary translation. Translators invigorate our reading lives: Without them there would be no world literature. And yet, translators are rarely heard from. What do they think? How do they go about their work? In each issue of The SFWP Quarterly I will travel the globe, so to speak, “visiting” a new country or language and interviewing a translator about his or her work.



I have a lot of countries to visit on my world tour. But Denmark seems a natural place for me to start, and so I begin with my Danish-language colleague, Martin Aitken. Martin and I will be part of a panel at AWP, along with Simon Fruelund and Kim Leine, called “Out of Denmark: Danish Novelists and Their Work.” Unfortunately, Naja Marie Aidt will not be able to participate as planned. A special thanks to the Danish Arts Foundation for helping to make the event a reality.

Martin Aitken is a widely published translator of Danish literature. He received the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Nadia Christensen Translation Prize in 2012. Recent books are Peter Høeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, and Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord.

K.E. Semmel: You spent many years teaching at the Copenhagen Business School. What made you decide to get out of academia and go into literary translation?

Martin Aitken: I was there for quite a few years, yes. Basically, I drifted up the ladder from doing a PhD in Linguistics there. I know it may seem odd for a business school to have a linguistics programme, but for a small nation like Denmark, trading with other countries has always necessitated communicative skills in foreign languages, so there was an historical reason for that university being split into faculties of economics and modern language studies. I ended up in a tenure position, doing research in English semantics and pragmatics and teaching grammar and communication at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I knew all along I was working with the wrong hemisphere: rather than examining the language, teasing it apart and trying to figure out how it all works from behind, I wanted to be using it creatively. I’d come from the arts back in the UK, theatre and creative writing, and for some reason there was this urge to translate literature. Not that I had any big ideas about enriching the world with Danish literature or anything like that, doing some great service. I can best describe it as a creative urge.

I couldn’t read anything without wondering what it would sound like in the other language. So I think it was really a rejection of the cerebral in favour of something else that was far stronger, the other hemisphere. Something more in tune with the actual experience of being human than detaching yourself in order to gain academic insight, which in our societies is becoming more the measure of a person. People can be slaves to being clever. A university’s a very stressful place as well, a place of high expectations. How brainy is he? How much does he know? Let’s test him. Pretending to be clever all the time was a source of insecurity and anxiety for me. I didn’t see the point.

KES: I never spent much time in academia, thankfully, but I know what you mean about anxiety from some of my own past jobs in the nonprofit kingdom. Being a translator is very liberating in that sense. I’m always fascinated by the different ways translators go about the business of, you know, translating. Can you describe your process? How do you go about translating a book?

MA: I’ve had to think about this recently, since I’ve been mentoring an emerging translator on the BCLT (British Centre for Literary Translation) mentorship programme. In most cases I’ll have read the book beforehand, sometimes I won’t. It depends really on whether I’ve had the time. That’s another thing about translating full-time: it’s deadline to deadline, with copy edits coming in at intervals, usually when you’re struggling most to get through something else on time, and having my nose stuck in a book all day means I generally try to do something other than read in the evenings. The procedure is very basically to get a draft done, which I then revise before submitting the manuscript to the commissioning editor. Which sounds simple enough. When I was starting out I always felt very uncertain talking to other translators, because they seemed to do things differently. I spend most time on getting the first draft as right as possible, so I’ll usually only revise that draft once, twice at most before submitting.

There can be exceptions, though, like Helle Helle, whose pared-down style requires vast amounts of revision. Other translators will tend to produce a loose draft rather more quickly, then spend more time revising, three, four times, maybe more. I’m a lot more at ease about that now. It’s an individual thing, whatever you’re most comfortable with. Working with my mentee I’ve been separating out into isolated stages what in real time goes on more or less seamlessly inside my head: making sure you bring the semantic content over into the English, shaping and molding the English in terms of the rhythm and music of the language, always working within the constraint imposed by style, making sure things actually make sense, and, if they don’t, going back to the original, getting behind the lines on the page to find out what the author actually intends in that instance. That’s a hell of a lot of comment boxes if you do it that way, far more than Word can handle fruitfully, but like I said it’s all going on at once in my head, a continual flow of writing and revision. And basically it’s all about capturing the music. Actually, I like to think about translation in terms of music: playing the same piece on a different instrument with different properties, potentials, possibilities and constraints. Of course, once you’ve submitted your manuscript, the copy editor is going to come back at you with all sorts of suggestions, and corrections, too, for that matter, so the process carries on with negotiation there.

I’ve heard some translators say they wished copy editors didn’t exist. I take the opposite view: in every instance I can think of bar one, the copy edit has improved the work. Manuscripts, whether they come from authors or translators, are like toddlers: they need a helping hand before they’re ready to walk off on their own. More generally, I translate sitting at my desk in my flat here. I don’t listen to music when I’m working. I wish I could, but it tends to distract. And ten pages a day, at most. That’s quite enough!

KES: There’s this popular notion that English-language readers don’t give a shit about translated literature. And yet books are translated into English all the time. This notion has always seemed too simple to me. What is your take?

MA: Yes, there’s the three percent figure that’s bandied about. I’m not sure how accurate that is. My feeling is that readers are probably a lot more accommodating now than a generation or so back. The world’s so much smaller now in every respect. I left the UK in 1986 and at that time it was still unusual to meet a foreign student in Newcastle where I lived. That’s all changed now, the UK is much more European and has embraced aspects of continental culture that can make it seem a very different place to when I left. A town like Brighton is teeming with young students from all over the world and they’re all bringing something of their own in with them. The Brits are even watching Danish TV now, with subtitles. The classics have always been read, of course, often in very scholarly translations with footnotes. But nowadays it’s much less of a big thing if a book was originally written in another language. In America, the small presses are flourishing, there’s such a tremendously vibrant scene over there, with publishers and journals all over the country hungry for new literature, and specifically looking out into other language areas, publishers like Open Letter, Two Lines, Deep Vellum, Archipelago, and Graywolf, to name but a few, and journals like Asymptote and A Public Space. And the readership is there, people are much more aware of, and interested in, literature coming from other countries.

Not everyone, of course. Apart from some big sellers like, say, Stieg Larsson, we’re talking about outside of mainstream here, but the market for a six-volume memoir by a Norwegian writer no one else but the Norwegians had heard of a couple of years ago has proved to be astonishing. Looking at my own back yard, the fact that I can make even a modest living translating Danish literature into English full-time speaks volumes. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have been feasible thirty years ago.

KES: I agree, and it’s actually rather incredible that there are so many of us. You’re also one of the few English-language translators I know who has translated in both directions—that is, into English and into Danish. How is the experience different?

MA: I left the UK and settled in Denmark back in the mid-1980s, so while I’m a native speaker of English, I’ve been living with Danish for thirty years. That doesn’t necessarily make you proficient in the language – and native English speakers, my former countrymen especially, are notoriously reticent about venturing out into new linguistic territory and are often content for others to switch into English. In my case, though, I seem to have acquired the language pretty easily, and if it crops up in conversation that I wasn’t born here most Danes are surprised. When I decided I wanted to translate literature one of the first things that happened for me was that I was asked if I’d like to take on the Danish translation of a 700-page American blockbuster, which I did.

After that came a few novels for young adults, there was some Percy Jackson in there, and then a book by Pulitzer winner Katherine Boo, narrative nonfiction about life in an Indian slum town, which was well received. By that time, though, the English translations had taken over, so it’s been a couple of years now since I last did anything into Danish. The difference for me is that while I’m pretty good at the language, my intuition is always going to be more sound with respect to English. So when I translate into Danish there’s one question that I ask myself more than when I’m working the other way around, which is: Can you actually say this or am I making it up? That said, I think I’ve got away with it all right so far, and I’d certainly like to do some more. Come to think of it, nobody’s asked me for a while now, so maybe they sussed me out.

KES: Maybe they’ve just figured out that you’re too valuable as a translator into English. I’m going to ask a really horrible question now, one that I’ve been asked before. But since we’ll be discussing this at AWP soon, I thought I’d pick your brain. What would you say distinguishes Danish literature from literature written in English?

MA: I’m the wrong person to ask, really. Most of the time I’m focused on the translation I’m working on rather than surveying the scene. I don’t have time to be the literary scout, so I’m nowhere near as well versed as I might be. There are some trends in Danish literature that stick out for me, though, even if I’d have difficulty making comparisons with literature written in English. The interface between fact and fiction is fairly obvious. We’ve seen Karl-Ove Knausgaard from Norway achieving literary superstardom in the UK and the USA, but a lot of contemporary Danish writers have been playing with the idea of identity and the hybrid genre, too, since at least the beginning of the millennium. A writer such as Nielsen is a case in point. He’s taken things to extremes, killing himself off as Claus Beck-Nielsen and re-emerging in a variety of guises, most recently as Madame Nielsen (whose The Endless Summer will be published by Open Letter in Gayle Kynoch’s translation). A writer like Pablo Llambias is another good example, too, I think. And Kim Leine’s first books, that take place in Greenland, very much merging the novel with autobiography, though not in any obviously experimental way.

A lot of work from the new writers emerging from the Writers’ School in Copenhagen has the language itself very much at the core. Often you look at the pages and they look like pages of poetry. Line breaks and empty spaces. Josefine Klougart’s work is very much driven by the idea of language creating identity, shaping the people we are. Her work is a flow of very saturated imagery and the effect is highly poetic. Olga Ravn, Asta Olivia Nordenhof, Ida Marie Hede and Amalie Laulund Trudsø all lean in that same direction, away from traditional constraints such as chronology and plot. (It strikes me now that all these writers are women).

At the other end of the scale we have writers producing very spare, minimalistic prose, Helle Helle being the primary example, but also writers like Simon Fruelund and Peder Frederik Jensen. Interestingly from the point of view of translation, this kind of work is extremely demanding to render. As mentioned above, in relative terms I’ve spent more time on Helle Helle’s work than any other writer’s I’ve translated. The poetic stuff like Klougart is very hard, too, but the leanness of Helle’s language makes very exacting demands: each sentence of hers is perfectly weighted, and while at first blush her books might seem totally unremarkable, they have this quite astounding effect. You think nothing happens, but all the big stuff is hidden away, as The Guardian’s reviewer put it recently. The translation has to do the same thing. Short fiction enjoys a strong tradition, too, with Dorthe Nors and Naja Marie Aidt both making names for themselves in the United States now, and both once again with this leanness of style, that I think is well suited to Danish.

I should mention crime fiction, too, it being so popular. The continuing wave of Nordic noir, writers like Jussi Adler-Olsen, Sara Blædel, Lotte and Søren Hammer. The best in the genre, by Christian Dorph and Simon Pasternak, hasn’t made it into English yet, though they’ve just published the fourth in what is a truly excellent, highly literary and very dark series. I hope a good publisher will pick up on that.

KES: Every time we talk you’re working on a new project. So what are you working on now? What can readers look forward to from you in the next couple years?


MA: Right now I’m working on a crime thriller by sister-brother team Lotte and Søren Hammer, for Bloomsbury. It’s the third in a series of six, and I’ve just been drafted in to the project. There’s still a big market for Scandinavian crime novels out there, the really big Danish seller being Jussi Adler-Olsen. After that I’ll be starting on something quite different, the first of two novels by Josefine Klougart for Open Letter and Deep Vellum respectively. Klougart is a major new voice in Scandinavian literature. She’s not thirty yet and has already been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize twice. There’s quite some excitement about her coming out in English. Then there’s Peter Høeg, still Denmark’s major world name twenty-odd years after Smilla’s Sense of Snow. His new one will be out in 2016, probably entitled The Susan Effect. It was excellently reviewed in Denmark when it appeared a few months ago and I’m looking very much forward to that. Before all the above, though, my translation of Kim Leine’s epic The Prophets of Eternal Fjord will be out this summer on Liveright in the US and Atlantic in the UK. It won the Nordic Council prize in 2013 and I think it has the potential to be massive. Then there’s Martin Kongstad’s hilarious satire Am I Cold, out on Serpent’s Tail in the UK in the autumn, and Simon Pasternak’s chilling Death Zones, out at the same time, I think, on Harvill Secker. All in all, there’ll be some parcels of books for me. And holding the finished book in your hand is always a thrill.


K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in the Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Writer’s Chronicle, Southern Review, and elsewhere. His translations include books by Karin Fossum, Jussi Adler Olsen, Naja Marie Aidt, and Simon Fruelund.