A translator is browsing a bookstore at Copenhagen Airport and picks up a book. The journey between that impulse and its eventual translation of the memoir into English was both emotional and accidental.
In the summer of 2016, my wife and I drove home through Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen after visiting family. We stopped to browse the bookstore and I noticed a reprint of a book by Danish author Tove Ditlevsen giftI hadn’t read much of her work, but I knew she was a big name, so even though the cover was weird, I bought her, a psychedelic skull on a gray background.
It took no more than a few sessions to devour this memoir of Tove Ditlevsen between the ages of about twenty-three and thirty-five. It shows her rise as a bestselling author while having four failed marriages, two backstreet abortions, and a near-fatal five-year addiction to the opioid Demerol. I still remember exactly how I put the book down after the last page and thought to myself: I think this is a masterpiece. This was an intuitive judgment, not a conclusion that I had come to after analyzing the text. Now, looking back, I think what led me to consider this work a masterpiece is the combination of Ditlevsen’s writing style, which is succinct, honest, and ironic, combined with the content of her story, which through her many disturbing experiences pulls that back Veil over dependent behavior and addiction in a deeply personal yet universal way.
After I found that out gift Having never been translated into English, I immediately started receiving a letter of permission. This took about a month and included some inquiries and follow-up inquiries with the Danish attorney in charge of Ditlevsen’s estate. When I received written permission to translate and publish, I applied for a grant from the Danish Arts Foundation, which has a program of writing sample literary translations of around twenty pages that translators can use to present the books to publishers. Within a few months, I received the scholarship and had finished work on my book with poetry translations by Benny Andersen. Something to live up to, so I started on page 1 of gift.
My process, similar to that of most literary translators, should be based on the text. I weigh each sentence in the original and try to recreate it in English as if the author wrote it in English, with the same tone and emotional charge. I try to keep the style intact, including paying attention to sentence length and punctuation.
Ditlevsen writes in a controlled, colloquial, confidential tone so I needed the English text to reflect this.
There is a balancing act taking place of drawing a fine line between using Danish phrasing and changing the items to be changed so that they can be easily read in English. Part of this involves sensitivity to the emotional content, which is often signaled by the register or tone of the vocabulary. Ditlevsen writes in a controlled, colloquial, confidential tone so I needed the English text to reflect this. When translating, I often feel like an actor is feeling himself, learning lines, and then reciting them with the character’s emotional intent. I also take the text into my body and feel the emotional effect, so that I can restore the effect through the English text.
As I proceeded to complete the sample translation, I was happy with the result. I felt like I hit Tove through her lyrics and restored the effect of the original. I felt vindicated in my choice and assessment of the book as a masterpiece and I didn’t want to stop. So I didn’t do it. Although I didn’t have a publisher, I was sure I would find one, so I went ahead and translated the rest of the book to specification.
To do this justice, I had to empathize with the text on a deep level. I was on Tove’s side. I wanted her to succeed.
Anyone reading this book cannot help but be impressed by the many turbulent events in Tove Ditlevsen’s life. The translation process is not the same as reading. The translation is slower and more intimate as I weigh, embody and rephrase each phrase. To do this justice, I had to empathize with the text on a deep level. I was on Tove’s side. I wanted her to succeed. I was fascinated by her talent, her honesty and her determination to stay true to her art. Still, she made these self-destructive decisions, like cheating on her husband at a college party and doing unnecessary ear surgery that left her deaf in one ear. It was like she had certain blind spots, and she couldn’t see the many opportunities that were available to her as a successful writer.
I remember exactly when I got to the end of Part 2, Chapter 5. Tove had just been carried out of her house after her long addiction. She had dropped to sixty-five pounds, was lucky enough to be alive, and was put in an ambulance to be driven to rehab. I remember calling my wife from the kitchen into the living room to tell her what had just happened to Tove. Then I realized that if I turned the page to continue translating, Tove would be going through a retreat. I remembered from my first reading that this was one of the most excruciating writings I had ever seen. I realized there was no getting around it. She would go through it, and I would go through it with her in my own way. I sobbed in my wife’s arms.
I realized that I had been through a second hand trauma while translating the book.
I realized that I had been through a second hand trauma while translating the book. I was deeply moved and triggered by Tove’s struggles with love, fear, and addiction, and I had to sort that out before I could move on. So I decided to put the book on hold for two weeks, which I had never done before with a translation project. During this time I set up lunches and phone calls with friends and family. I’ve talked about and worked with this book, and I’ve written and meditated.
I paid special attention to the idea of dependent behavior. I thought of my uncle who was bankrupting his family by gambling. I would bet everyone knows someone who has dealt with addictive behavior or addiction. Then I realized that I am like that too – that I have blind spots too, that I have used work and other compulsive behaviors to cover up or escape difficult emotions. I have come to believe that there is a spectrum of dependent behaviors to which all humans are susceptible. Whether it’s drugs, food problems, smoking, drinking, work, sex, shopping, gambling, or something else, there are many addictions to choose from. And I think our society encourages overconsumption and emotional avoidance. But when a person like Tove gets off the rails and self-destructs, they are usually accused of not being in control.
Tove Ditlevsen never preaches gift or philosophize like me. However, I think by exposing her story she is exposing a shadow in our society where we are more likely to alienate and judge people with addiction issues rather than providing the support and compassion they need.
Eventually I felt emotionally strong again and returned to work and finished translating the book. I still needed a title and a publisher. Fortunately, I was at the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference in the fall and discussed the book with my roommate Sebastian Schulman. I offered my feeble attempts to win a title and he very casually blurted out the suggestion, “How about” addiction “?” All I can get credit for is recognizing genius when I came across it. I love like the word Addiction References to marriage and relationship, in addition to the more obvious definitions. As you may already know gift in Danish means both “poison” and “married”; A brilliant title in Danish that has no English equivalent. But I think with Sebastian’s help we did well in that regard.
It was harder to find a publisher than I thought. I sent samples from the book or the entire book to a dozen or so publishers who accepted unwanted manuscripts. I had no access to major publishers, no agents or contacts in this area. After about a year, I received all rejections or no responses. Disappointed, I turned to the small publisher I had worked with on my other books, Spuyten Duyvil Press, and asked him to take over the book, which he was happy to do. But when he wrote to the Danish publisher Gyldendal about the rights, they turned him down.
I was surprised and wrote to the rights manager in Gyldendal to find out why they had refused his offer. She replied that she knew of other major printing presses that might be interested in this book. That was news to me and I wrote back to her asking who these presses were and if she could put me in touch with them, considering that I translated the entire book into English. I didn’t know if she would or could do that, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
The Gyldendal Rights Manager wrote back with two email addresses and wished me the best of luck. I mailed my manuscript to both of them and then went to Vermont for a week-long writing conference. Within a few days, I received an email from the editor of Penguin Classics that she wanted the book and would present it to her colleagues that week. They wanted it. When I got home, I was contacted by the second publisher who I phoned for an hour. He wanted it too. Obviously there was a bidding war and Pinguin prevailed. It was now the end of 2018. The book was due to be produced and published in September 2019 as part of a trilogy.
What I didn’t know was that while I was submitting my manuscript to various publishers, Penguin had sent an editor to the Frankfurt Book Fair to look for a great Scandinavian writer to advertise. The editor asked at the Danish Arts Foundation’s table and Tove Ditlevsen was recommended to them. The Penguin editor then contacted Gyldendal for more information on which Ditlevsen books would be good candidates. Of course, I had no idea when I sat in my office translating the book and then opening it.
More than any other book I’ve translated – although I believe in all of them – I felt from the start that this particular book had the potential to be a catalyst for sweeping social change. that if enough readers spend time with Addiction and the trilogy could lead to a widespread shift toward more compassion for ourselves and for others, and more support and less judgment for people struggling with dependent behavior. I know that requires a lot of fate. But given all the fateful events that brought the books from Denmark, I’m not ruling out anything.