Very occasionally in your life, you will experience a moment where your efforts in a particular discipline all meld together into a sense of great harmony. That something you did was exactly as you wanted it and had worked for. It doesn’t matter whether you excel at knitting, crown green bowling, flower growing, bird watching, darts or painting. They are all forms of play, of fun and enjoyment, the basis of all art; but also represent years of practice, dedication, grim determination even, in the face of past failures in your chosen calling.
Just one of those moments when everything goes right; all your abilities and interests, your passions, coalesce to create something unique.
My translation of A Fortunate Man – called Lykke Per in the original Danish – by one of Denmark’s best ever authors, Henrik Pontoppidan, is one such moment for me. Of course, I got crucial help from others when translating, writing and imagining this book into existence. It’s a huge story with a large cast of characters. It was also written in what’s now regarded as ‘old fashioned’ Danish and depicts a time when horses or shanks’s pony (your legs) were the main means of transport and people still differentiated between formal and informal modes of address (De and Du in Danish), with professional titles also used – Hr Engineer, Pastor, Doctor and so on. Thus I consulted experts in various fields and in particular the sagacious Flemming Behrendt from the Pontoppidan Society who also wrote the afterword to my book. Then at the other end of the process was my brilliant editor at Tusculanum Press, Jordy Findanis. But overall A Fortunate Man is my creation with the original author in the Danish – blessed Henrik Pontoppidan – at my shoulder.
I’m not going to explain all the many reasons why this translation is such a success and don’t want to say very much about this heartrending but paradoxically uplifting tale. I urge you all dear readers to simply get the book and be astonished. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.
I do, however, want to make a point about the scandal of needless poverty and its echoes in A Fortunate Man – indeed very many of Pontoppidan’s works – and how this teaches us something about language and therefore translation. But to get to that point, I need to describe, very briefly, the way I approach translations.
The late and much lamented artist, writer and thinker John Berger is a moral, political and artistic lodestone for me and I want you to hear what he told us in his last book, Confabulations, about the art of translation. It was a Eureka moment for me. But I wasn’t discovering something new in what John says; rather I was confirmed and uplifted in what I already knew. This too is a form of astonishment. To be confirmed by others in your convictions.
Essentially John Berger rejects the idea that human language is exclusively verbal and textual. He describes the key to “true” translations of literary works as being in the discovery of – “what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.” What we must discover is the atmosphere, the inner drama, the motivations and context of the original author as he or she brought their texts to life. The key thing is that, beyond the different individual languages, is a meta-language that we immediately know. The linguistic Mother of all Mothers. No language is entirely separate. We all know symbols and signs, gesticulations, feelings in the air, a space charged with a particular colour.
There is a wonderful scene at the start of A Fortunate Man where our young hero, Per Sidenius, is tobogganing, or ‘sledging’ as the old term is in England, on a snow-swept hillside above a provincial town. There is deep snow, twinkling stars, a racing moon and silvery ethereal clouds. The atmosphere is heightened further by the fact that the young Per shouldn’t be there at all and his absence from home has been discovered.
As he does in the whole of this novel, Henrik Pontoppidan puts his heart and soul into the depiction of this scene, but the words on the page are just the tip of that vibrant, “quivering’” – as John Berger puts it – pre-verbal entity that I wanted to bring into my text of the same scene. How to conjure that excitement. The thrill. The audacity. Then the rooftops and the red street lamps in the snow-clad town below. The feel of them. A dictionary cannot help me in that imaginative leap. Listen to John:
We read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them, to reach, to touch the vision or experience which prompted them. We then gather up what we have found there and take this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and place it behind the language into which it needs to be translated. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the ‘thing’ which is waiting to be articulated.
Yes, language is a logical, physical thing, but it’s also visceral, metaphorical and a dream state. So a word or many words might occur to the translator once he is in that pre-verbal place. They may not be exact translations but they release the exact vision of the scene in the new language.
Elsewhere in Confabulations John Berger writes about Charlie Chaplin and two things strike me very forcibly here. One is that Chaplin’s performances were pre-verbal – all depended on body language and the reactions of others to it and then the scene in which the event was staged. Yes we laugh at his slapstick and it’s obvious, but then we feel the pathos, just by a raised eyebrow or the start of his walk down a long road. This is discourse without words and we all ‘get’ it.
Henrik Pontoppidan spends a lot of time in this sort of discursive space. He will describe a physiognomy, or bodily features and body language, at length, so we are left feeling that visceral intensity of understanding that lies behind a mere description. It may be tragic, or comic, or suddenly profound and uplifting. This is exactly what Charlie Chaplin does. Also, Chaplin showed the scandal of poverty and the dignity of poor people in making it through. Even finding time to create art in that pressed space. In the same way, John Berger shows us the lives of rural peasants and the way they become washed up amongst the urban poor. All this is more about empathy and emotion than words.
In relative terms, the fact that Henrik Pontoppidan placed a great deal of his literary focus on poverty has attracted little attention, as far as I know, but this was indeed a central theme in his work, and not just in his early social-realist period, which is where this is most discussed. Poverty features very strongly in A Fortunate Man, as part of Pontoppidan’s – I would argue – overarching ‘folkelighed’; his embrace of the common people. Pontoppidan’s descriptions of poverty, the desperate need for money, and its baleful effects on the soul, are equal to anything that Dostoevsky wrote.
By a happy set of coincidences, in 1906 Pontoppidan made this commitment to ‘ordinary’ folk culture clear to his literary comrade Martin Andersen Nexø, the author of Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobereren in Danish). Nexø’s book was made world famous by the Danish director Bille August who made the 1987 film version starring Max von Sydow. The happy coincidence comes not just in the fact that Pontoppidan and Nexø were literary, social brothers in arms – Nexø dedicated his Pelle book to “the Master, Henrik Pontoppidan” – but by the fact that Pelle director Bille August and his son Anders August are now completing a film version of Lykke Per and, as with my book, the international English language version will be called A Fortunate Man.
You can see the first brilliant trailer for this film here – don’t worry if you don’t have Danish:
In correspondence with Nexø to thank him for his “Master” dedication, Pontoppidan says that they are as one in trying to create a literature that showed possible scenarios (I paraphrase) for “the art of living” – levekunsten in the Danish – which Pontoppidan describes as the “most difficult of all the arts”. A life-art, if you will, that was based on the lives of ordinary folk and not the finer points of elitist aesthetics. Again in his sweeping portrayals of the masses and their lives, and in his brilliance as a polyphonic writer, Pontoppidan bears equal comparison with Dostoevsky – especially in Dostoevsky works such as Demons and Crime and Punishment.
The sometimes biting burlesque of Chaplin, the emotion of a Dickens, the deep soul searching of Dostoevsky, the respect of the dignity inherent in manual labour as depicted by say Waldo Emerson or Jack London; the hot coals of love and lust and the shock-of-ice rejection thrown on that love – say in Thomas Hardy. Pontoppidan is all of these things. But he goes further and challenges both his characters’ and readers’ assumptions and dispositions; so that we feel we have to make an effort to decide what we believe and what is ‘true’ about these people and these events. We are there beyond mere words once again. In this ‘ironic’ approach to storytelling Pontoppidan is very close, of course, to Kierkegaard.
It is a quintessentially Scandinavian approach to art.
A Fortunate Man will begin appearing in shops at the end of this month (July 2018) but readers can order at a discount from the publishers – Tusculanum Press here:
I would also encourage my many readers to contact their favourite bookshop and request that the book be stocked as this encourages them to look beyond the ‘usual suspect’ list of authors and publishers.
There is an excellent, and very erudite, review of my translation by Rasmus Vangshardt – for those who can read Danish at least- in Kristeligt Dagblad. This article has the advantage of also explaining why this great novel never ‘broke through’ internationally, until now. It can be read here (but via a paywall I think):
This followed an article by Bjarne Nørum in the same newspaper that fruitfully highlights my view of the art of translation and the upcoming film referenced above – with the same paywall proviso.
@ Paul Larkin, Carraic, Dún na nGall