Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In communication with a translator friend, Okla Elliot, recently, he expressed uncertainty whether he wished to be a writer first and translator second or vice versa.

This reminded me of a conversation I once had with the excellent translator of the fine Dutch novelist, Marcel Möring. Her name is Stacey Knecht, and she comes from Brooklyn but had moved to the Netherlands and was now translating Dutch literature into English.

I, too, had done some translation of Danish literature, and my conversation with Stacey clarified something for me. At that time – late ‘80s/ early ‘90s – I was a kind of half-hearted translator- rendering stuff from Danish into English for no reason other than that I could not really fathom the impact of Danish poetry or fiction unless I got it over into my own native English. But I tended to be an impatient translator back then. I wanted the pay-off fast and if something didn't seem right, I would consider taking liberties to make it what I saw as right. A translation that I did of a Klaus Rifbjerg poem for the magazine Frank, Rifbjerg referred good-naturedly to as “enthusiastic.”

And occasionally I have made the kind of mistakes that are called howlers. Obvious, glaring errors that evoke a howl in the knowing reader. I did this with a couple of poems by Thorkild Bjørnvig once – translations that were destined to appear in Tel Aviv Review. Thorkild was not only a wonderful poet who had an amazing life (for more information read his book The Pact – about his friendship with Karen Blixen – a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, known no doubt to some as Meryl Streep), but he was also, in my experience, an incredibly kind man who wore his very large reputation lightly. When I sent him my translations, he wrote back saying that they were excellent and he was very happy with them; however, he added, they are not about foxes but about ravens. (The word for fox in Danish has a resemblance to the word for raven, and I blundered right into that mistake because I had not carefully taken the time, eyes and mind wide open, to check and check again my translation.)

Stacey was clearly a more dedicated translator than I. We met at an international conference at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands, where I used to teach, and she was attending my fiction workshop because she wanted to focus more on her own writing for a while. Ironically, Marcel visited our workshop and gave a reading from one of his books – The Great Longing – in English, Stacey's translation. It was wonderful –students and faculty alike were enthralled. Afterwards we sat in the salon of the castle – named for the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, Sophie, who had died nearly 500 years before – sipping cognac from snifters and talking, and Marcel was encouraging Stacey to go on translating his fiction. For an author to lose an outstanding translator is a great loss.

I said to Marcel, “She’s good, huh?” and he said, “The best.” So I asked Stacey, "What does it take to be as good a translator as you clearly are?" and she answered, "You have to put yourself second."

I've never forgotten that. Now when I put on my translation cap, I remind myself that it must be a humble one, that while I'm translating, I am less important than the person I'm translating, that I come second. Of course I have to let my instinct and my intuition into the process as well – otherwise, the translation will be slavish and uninspired. But I must maintain that humility which will have me read and reread and reread and keep looking at words, hunting for the words that I translated quickly and facilely so that my eye might see them fresh, might see through the easy mistakes one makes, the false linguistic friends, or the easy mistaking of a present tense for a past, of a present tense used to indicate future. Actually, this process has also helped me in editing my own fiction – because it has made me more patient at revising my own stuff now, too, and even at proofing it.

Since most of the people I translate are still alive, if there is something I don't understand, I will contact them and question them about it to try to get it right, as close as I can to the original. And I always submit the translation to the author for final approval. Not all translators do -- some even have it in their contracts that they have the final say, and this can result in bad feelings.

Most Danes are good at English and can get a sense of it if you didn't quite catch something in the poem or fiction, and most are willing to work with you in the interests of getting it right, but without trying to usurp your "sovereignty" as the English-speaker in the relationship. Some will call in third parties to review the translation, and that can rankle, particularly if it is, for example, somebody’s cousin who happens to be good at English or born in Bath or somewhere – and Americans, as some find it amusing to remind us yanks, do not speak English. Sometimes the consultant called in is an academic with a lot of knowledge of English but little imaginative facility in deploying that knowledge.

Nonetheless, even in these cases, it behooves the translator (behooves me I should say) to resist the urge to fly into a Donald Duck like rage and simply dismiss all the “suggestions” out of hand. Because sometimes something valuable is brought into the process, sometimes something that you did passably is made better. And those moments call for a repositioning of the humble cap on the skull and, again, putting oneself second.I think for most people who aspire to be artists, their own vision is hard-pressed to put itself second to the vision of someone else. For this reason, I satisfy my wish to translate mostly with short works -- individual poems and stories, only occasionally a book. I have translated scores of poems and many stories, but of my approximately 28 books, only three are translations, and two of them are not quite completed yet. While I work on them, they come before my own writing. But those are short stints.It is indeed an honor and honorable work to render a piece of good writing, of art even, from another language into our own. It makes us a kind of messenger of the gods, a semi-divine go-between.

But although it is a pleasure for me to be able to do that, I have no doubt about it: I am a writer first.As a writer, sometimes you get a taste of being translated. Sometimes it is into a language that you have not a jot of understanding of, so you can only trust. I've had a few stories in the former Yugoslavian magazine SVESKA (which funnily enough means, very nearly, ‘prune’ in Danish, but ‘notebook’ in Serbian) and could only trust the translator because I could not even read my name in the Cyrillic lettering.

With Danish it is another matter. I do have a fair mastery of it and cannot resist involving myself if someone is translating something of mine from English. Once someone was rendering one of my stories into Danish and sent it to me for review. There was a sentence where I had incorporated a phrase from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" -- "the melancholy, long withdrawing roar" -- by which of course I meant the sentence to have an echo of the loss of faith as reflected from Arnold's magnificent poem. That sentence in my story had not been translated in any way resembling those words, and I suggested that she find the standard Danish translation of Arnold's poem so that the sound and sentiment of that line could be retained. She thought I was being fussy. "No one is going to notice this anyway," she said.

My current translator, Birgit Fuglsang, however, is a dream, and she makes me understand how much hard work it is to BE translated when you have a good translator who wants you to be fully satisfied with the result. Which keeps me honest when I am translating, too -- wearing the humble cap, keeping myself second.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: The Bookshops of Copenhagen Minus One -- Chester's turns the key.

A couple of months back, I had the pleasure of sharing the joy that the city I chose as my home has, amongst its many delights (which include 1,525 serving houses), at least eight outstanding independent bookstores: Arnold Busck, Politiken’s Boghal, Atheneum, Chester’s Book Café, Paludan’s Book Café, Tranquebar, the Jazz Cellar (mostly records but also books), and the absolutely unique, Booktrader.

Well as of this evening – Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 – their number has decreased by one when Chester’s Book Café turned the key on its Christianshavn Shop for good. For bad, rather. It is always sorrowful to say goodbye to a great place, an inspired space.

Chester’s – with its leaders Anders and Lars – has been a wonderfully supportive place, not only for readers, but also for writers. The café had a variety of excellent coffee and cakes, beers and wine, and hosted regular public readings. I personally launched each of the four novels of my Copenhagen Quartet there. Walter Cummins and I launched our co-edited book, The Literary Traveler, there three years ago and were joined at the reading by the wonderful Baronness Varvara, whom the essay I read was about. Chester’s also hosted the launch of an issue of The Literary Review in which I had included a feature focusing on the Danish Writers School and including samples of work from several of the students who had recently completed their education there. A couple of years back, I assisted in the launch of a book by the 93-year-old (alas now deceased) Bob Deane, who had written about his late wife, Ebba Lund – the girl with the red beret who had helped ferry many many Jews to safety in Sweden when the Germans occupied Denmark during World War II. And my partner, Alice Maud Guldbrandsen, launched her book there in 2005, Silence Was My Song: The Bombing of the French School – an emotional evening of remembering not only the dead, but also the survivors of that tragic catastrophe. And last year, Chester’s generously hosted the launches of both my new books – a novel and a story collection.

That’s at least ten readings that I myself and Alice had the privilege of holding there – but there were scores and scores more, by outstanding Danish and international writers.

Chester’s was a place that cared about writers and made us feel at home. The shop stocked our books and made them visible and available to the many readers who came in to enjoy a coffee while browsing and listening to the jazz playing from Chester’s outstanding collection of CDs. It was a place where we spent many pleasant afternoons and evenings –even on past closing time until we finally moved the company around the corner to the Eiffel Bar to continue into the wee hours.

About three weeks ago, Alice and I went in and heard the sad news from Anders. Alice was in again a couple of days ago to say goodbye – I couldn’t make it then or for the closing reception today, so I have to choose this method of saying goodbye and paying tribute to a great place for books that ended much too soon.

Chester’s will continue to exist as an on-line bookshop, and that is good. They will even continue to sell their excellent blends of coffee on-line, and that is good, too.

Still, I have reached the age where I don’t like changes – especially changes of this sort. Chester’s was there for not quite five years. All of us who had the good fortune to be frequent visitors there can count ourselves among the lucky ones.

We’ll remember Chester’s. Thank you, Anders. Thank you, Lars. Thanks to all of those who made it run.

Don’t forget to google Chester’s Bogcafé or contact for future book orders.

And don’t forget to support your local independent bookstores. Because if you don’t, they will disappear. And we need them.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Estanislao Zuleta

I've recently been part of a project to translate some of the writings of Colombian philosopher Estanislao Zuleta (1935-1990) into English. Zuleta is one of Colombia's greatest thinkers, and translation of his writing into English is certainly due.

Many of Zuleta's writings result from close readings he has done of European thinkers and writers including Nietzsche, Freud, and Thomas Mann. His thoughts on a variety of subjects including war and the dynamics of social groups confronting adversity are especially timely in the U.S. at this time.

There will be a symposium on him at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY; 445 West 59 St., Room 1551-N, New York, NY 10019) on Feb. 16, 2008 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The symposium is sponsored by Momentos de . . ., a cultural organization.

Below are some selected lines from his writing (translated by Rosene Zaros and myself):

"The terrible attraction of collective entities, which become intoxicated with the promise of an unproblematic human community, based on an infallible word, is that they suppress indecision, doubt, and the need to think for oneself; they grant their members an identity exalted by participation; they distinguish a good inner entity—the group—from a threatening exterior."

"A great question mark must be placed over the value of what is easy; not only over its consequences, but over the thing itself, over the predilection for everything that doesn’t demand some sort of overcoming from us, that neither puts us in question nor forces us to rise to our potential."

"Just as, whether your eyesight is good or bad, you have to look from some standpoint, in the same way, you have to read from a certain standpoint, from some perspective, which is nothing other than an open question, an unanswered question, which works within us and on which we work with our reading. An open question is an ongoing search that has a specific effect on reading."

"The eradication of conflict and its dissolution among people living together is neither attainable nor desirable, not in one’s personal life—love and friendship—nor in the community. On the contrary, it is necessary to construct a social and legal space in which conflicts can manifest themselves and develop, without the opposition to the other leading to the suppression of the other, destroying it, reducing it to impotence or silencing it."

Monday, February 11, 2008


As readers of these periodic Shouts will know, prostitution has been legal in Denmark since the end of the last millennium. In a society where it is viewed as a violation of human rights to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term – because it is, after all, that woman's body over which to decide, it seems quite logical to decline to criminalize the sale of sexual services by an adult woman – or man, for that matter. Thus, prostitution has been legal here since 1999.

What is not legal, however and fortunately, is for third parties to profit from the sale of sexual services. This would seem to have solved – at least in principle – the old problem of trying to suppress the oldest profession. (That unscrupulous persons do exist who find ways to exploit women and children and force them into sexual slavery is also an unfortunate, nay, despicable fact; but this Shout is not about that – this Shout is about another, to my mind, brighter aspect of this issue.)

As my criminologist friend here, Professor Dave Sorensen, has pointed out to me, this also led to the solution of a long-standing problem about the right of the physically and mentally handicapped in this advanced social democracy to have their sexual urges satisfied on a regular basis – with public funding. At present, a monthly government allotment is available for visits to prostitutes by disabled persons in recognition of the inevitability of sexual desire and of the rights of all adults to seek satisfaction for their sexual needs with consenting adult partners. (How can you fail to love a country that recognizes the inalienable right of men and women to get laid?! And provides funds to secure the fulfillment of that right?)

This allotment has been in focus in the media recently because a fellow named Torben Hansen, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has sued the government for declining to cover the additional costs of having a prostitute visit him in his home because "access barriers" prevent him from visiting a prostitute himself – which, he charges, constitutes disability discrimination. (If Torben can't come to the prostitute, let the prostitute come to Torben.)

At a time when doctors no longer routinely make house calls, it would hardly seem fair to expect a prostitute to do so without extra compensation. (This might be said to constitute professional discrimination.) The question here is whether the state is willing, or required, to pay that extra fee. In the case of medical visits, it is a matter of how sick the patient is – if you are very sick, an emergency doctor can be dispatched; so perhaps in the case of the prostitution service it should be a matter of how horny you are – whether you are, so to speak, dying for it. As Molly Bloom said to Leopold, "Give us a touch, Poldy. I'm dying for it!"

And as my friend, Professor Sorensen points out with a bemused smile, there is also a movement afoot to secure the right to government-funded prostitution for the unattractive, the awkward, the bashful, those with halitosis…

I say that if you fund it, they will come.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Absinthe Recommends

Absinthe recommends the Arts and Ideas podcast from the BBC. Recently the German filmmaker Wim Wenders was interviewed and spoke about his return to Europe after living in the U.S. for many years. The novels Day In Day Out by Terezia Mora (translated by Michael Henry Heim) and The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky). Irving Singer writes about Ingmar Bergman in Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher. Check out the winner of the Foreign-language Academy Award The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck and the Danish film After the Wedding, directed by Susanne Bier.

Monday, February 4, 2008


A few months ago Grace Paley died. I met her only once and had always hoped I might have the good fortune to meet her again. That one time was in 1986 at a barbeque in Vermont one summer evening, and to the annoyance of the hosts and other guests, I hogged her company far longer than was polite. Why she allowed me to do so I do not know, for I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to hear me lengthily gushing at her ear trying to articulate the pleasure her stories had given me, how particularly her story “Faith in a Tree” had encouraged me. She would have been 64 years old that evening, my age now; at 42, I perceived her as elderly. But wise. And she radiated something warm and kind and smiling. In any event, she was kind enough not to turn her back and flee, to allow me my one opportunity to celebrate her.

She was not quite 85 when she died, and The New Yorker in December of 2007 published a poem of hers about death which takes my breath away each time I read it. Until reading that poem, the statements about death which have most satisfied my own perception of the inevitable end we cannot quite conceive have been ancient ones – from Chaucer and Gilgamesh:

There is the house where people sit in darkness;
dust is their food and clay their meat.
they are clothed like birds with wings for covering,
they see no light, they sit in darkness…the house of dust.”
-The Epic of Gilgamesh (tr N. K. Sandars)


What is this world? What asketh man to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Fare wel, my swete…
-Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” lines 2776-80

Now, however, I add Grace Paley’s breath-taking expression of the end awaiting us all – because somehow it takes the cold loneliness of that end and makes it an embrace of another, of the one you most love, a last embrace in words:

One Day
One day
one of us
will be lost
to the other

this has been
talked about but
lightly turning
away shyness this
business of con-
fronting the
preference for

my mother said the
children are grown we
are both so sick let us
die together my father
replied no no you
will be well he lied

of course I
want you in the world
whether I’m in it or
not your spirit
I probably mean

there is always
something to say in
the end speaking
without breath one
of us will be lost
to the other

-Grace Paley

Against the poems of death, of course, there are the ones of life. Grace Paley’s marvelous story “Faith in a Tree” has always – since I first read it in New American Review number one from 1967 – been such a confirmation of the determination to live and be happy, and I keep it in my heart alongside two others – one from antiquity, one from the mid-20th century.

The former is, again, from Gilgamesh, the words of the divine ale-wife challenging the hero’s ambition to find eternity:

Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
Why do you come here, wandering these pastures
In search of the wind?
The life you seek you shall not find,
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they held in mind,
Life they kept inside their hands.
You, Gilgamesh, fill your belly,
Make merry by day and by night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water,
Pay heed to the little one that reaches for your hand,
Delight your spouse with your embrace
And rejoice in hers.
For this, too, is the lot of mankind!

And finally there is this exchange between Caligula and his advisor Cherea in Albert Camus’s play, Caligula, which sums up most simply and profoundly, to my mind, the choice that lies before us:

Caligula: Men die, and they are not happy.
Cherea : Yes, but I choose to live and to be happy.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

See also for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized. And on the website you are invited to see film clips from a documentary video of the Copenhagen novels and find information about Kennedy’s 2007 books of fiction, A Passion in the Desert and Cast Upon the Day, as well as the forthcoming essay 2008 essay collections: Riding the Dog: A Look back at America and Writers on the Job: 20 Tales of the Nonwriting Life (co-edited with Walter Cummins)