Home > Conversations > No Language Feels Small When You’re in It: A Conversation with Poet-Translators David Keplinger and Patrick Phillips
Published: Wed Jul 1 2015
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2015 On Poetry Translating Writing Process
No Language Feels Small When You’re in It: A Conversation with Poet-Translators David Keplinger and Patrick Phillips

David Keplinger is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013) and has been awarded the Cavafy Prize, the Colorado Book Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and grants from the Danish Council on the Arts and the DC Council on the Arts. The Art of Topiary, translations of the German poet Jan Wagner, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press.

Patrick Phillips‘s third collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015. A recent Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, he is the author of two earlier collections, Boy and Chattahoochee. His work has appeared in many magazines, including Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Nation, and his honors include the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University.

Nicky Beer: In both of your introductions to translations of your authors’ work (David’s in Carsten Ren Nielsen’s The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors, and Patrick’s in Henrik Nordbrandt’s When We Leave Each Other), you briefly touch upon how you came to work with these poets. I’m thinking, though, that the form and character of the introduction obliges one to be somewhat circumspect about the personal, in the interest of keeping the focus on the poet and his work. With this in mind, could you both relate how you came to be interested in Danish poetry and your respective authors?

David Keplinger: I came to translation by chance. I don’t speak Danish. That I am now referred to as a Danish translator still comes as a shock. I first encountered Nielsen’s [author of nine books of poetry and one book of flash fiction] work in Copenhagen, late in 1995. I had been sitting around on a winter day waiting for the feeling to return to my toes after a long walk through the city. Over some beers at a friend’s apartment, we got on the subject of poetry. “Here’s a young poet winning all the prizes,” my friend, who is a Dane, told me. And he pulled one of Carsten’s books off the shelf. He began to read a poem—he spontaneously worded it in English—about a tooth someone found in the lot of an abandoned factory. I fell in love with that tooth. A lonely, gleaming thing knocked loose and lying among the chemical spills, I seem to recall. When I contacted Nielsen to ask about English translations, he said there were none; somehow we decided we should work on them together. It took many years. We did the selected (World Cut Out) in 2007 and then in 2011 BOA published his House Inspections. It was a Lannan Translations Selection. All this would have amazed me back then. I only wanted to read more of his poems. When claiming I am his translator, I have to, at the same time, mentally bow from the waist with humility.

Patrick Phillips: David and I make an interesting pair, in that I came to translation by almost the opposite path: I learned Danish as a teenager, and then only really discovered Danish poetry much later. I was an exchange student when I was fifteen and lived with a family in a rural part of Western Denmark, where I went to public school and lived almost entirely in Danish. I arrived speaking hardly a word and acquired the language the way a child does: my host brothers would point at a plate and say “tallerken” and I’d parrot them, mangling the pronunciation a half dozen times until they finally gave me the thumbs up. And so on, all around the house. After about three months I went to an Oktoberfest party, got drunk, and found myself babbling a broken but comprehensible Danish!

Fast-forward fifteen years to 2000, when I was looking for a way out of a boring job and managed to get a Fulbright grant to go and translate Danish poets. I spent much of the year in Copenhagen’s libraries and started translating Henrik Nordbrandt’s Selected Poems. My process, too, has been almost the opposite of David’s: Nordbrandt [one of Denmark’s foremost poets, who has published over thirty books] wasn’t living in Europe when I was there, and while he’s seen and green-lighted the translations, we haven’t collaborated. I’m very grateful for that, I have to confess, because I think I work best on my own.

Beer: David, as you said, you’re Nielsen’s first official English-language translator. By contrast, Patrick, your translation is the latest incarnation in Nordbrandt’s growing number of English-language translations. To put it more bluntly: Nielsen was “virgin” territory, whereas Nordbrandt was previously “colonized.” Could the two of you speak to the responsibilities, pressures, and freedoms with which your respective tasks came?

Phillips: I love this question, because translating is fraught with such anxieties-Who am I to try this? What right do I have?-and the whole enterprise requires a mix of humility and audacity. To even begin working on Nordbrandtdt I had to believe, audaciously, that I could sound like one of Europe’s great living writers, and then I also needed the humility to spend ten years sweating over someone else’s poems. That humility really strikes home the first time a galley arrives, and you see your name in a little italic font, below the bolded eighteen-point name of the author!

When I started working on Nordbrandt the main English translation was by Alexander Taylor, from 1978. Nordbrandt is really prolific, so that still left a big stack of books English readers had never seen. But then two other translations came out while I was working, one by Thomas Satterlee, and another by Robin Fulton. I admire both, and my own book has a handful of poems in common with them. I was still in the early stages when those arrived, and in reaction I simply shifted my emphasis even more to recent work, so that my book is made up mostly of new, previously untranslated poems. So in answer to your question, one of the main pressures I felt was time, and a kind of race to get my translations out before too many other folks beat me to the punch. I failed on that score, and I’m glad I did, because instead I spent years happily working on the book and was lucky enough that Nordbrandt supplied amazing new work even faster than I could keep up. So the main responsibility I felt was to those poems-to recreating not simply their lexicon and denotations, but something of the experience of reading them in Danish.

I’ve already mentioned the great freedom that came with my project, and that was solitude, in the sense that Nordbrandt left me alone and never meddled, probably because he is too busy writing and is by now very used to translators tapping away in various languages. Before Nordbrandt I worked almost entirely on dead poets (like a wonderful writer named Paul la Cour) expressly because I wanted to be left alone while translating. Now, I realize David will have a very different take on this, having experienced all the joys and advantages of collaboration! And I realize that the downside of working alone is the risk of missing the most subtle nuances in the original. But I tried to make up for that with lots of research and sweat and consultation with native speakers. The real upside is freedom: freedom to leave out poems that simply don’t work in English; freedom to violate the letter of the law in favor of its spirit; and freedom to make unilateral (dictatorial!) choices that are sound not just linguistically and culturally, but above all aesthetically.

I say none of this with any certainty about what will work for someone else and am eager to hear how David dealt with these same issues while collaborating with a living, breathing author-not just a ghostly presence nodding or frowning over one’s shoulder!

Keplinger: I teach a course on translation to our graduate students here at American [University]. The benefits of having more than one translation of a particular poet: students begin to see that the so-called real poem is the one in the gap, in the space between all these versions produced in English. Every translation is a reconceptualization of some untranslatable original. I argue, too, that every new poem my poets write is a kind of translation out of silence. Octavio Paz once wrote that poetry is the realm of the immovable sign, meaning that line breaks and the sounds of words—their relationships to each other sonically, when placed side by side—make the poem “almost” impossible to translate. Ever. Thus multiple translations are of course the way to go. For Rilke we have dozens of translations of a poem like “The Panther,” and so perhaps we’re close to sensing what the original must be like. William Gass wrote a book of essays on reading Rilke in translation, a book in which he lists the many, many versions of that first line of the Duino Elegies, one English version of which goes, “Who, if I called out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” This list, its glorious. God, so to speak, is neither Allah, nor Jehovah, nor Brahman, but all and none of these. What is really God is somewhere in that gap, somewhere between the names. In my books with Nielsen and in my English translations of the German poet Jan Wagner, I am producing a one-and-only, a version that could only ever “suggest” the original. Not a true translation, I’d say. You’re reading Keplinger’s Nielsen, Keplinger’s Wagner. I encourage my students to read every translation available of a particular poem by, say, Ghalib or Rilke or Neruda. They soon realize that this translation thing is quite slippery. Christopher Mauer translates Garcia Lorca’s first line from Poet in New York as “Cut down from the sky.” Ben Belitt translates the same line as “Heaven-murdered one.” Is it the sky we’re talking about, godless and impassive, or is it heaven? Somewhere in between. It’s neither and both.

Beer: I was hoping the two of you might speak about the actual experience translating the Danish language into English. Every language comes with its own idiosyncrasies of grammar, syntax, and vernacular that can render translation a feat of linguistic yoga, and I’m wondering what particular contortions you may have been obliged to perform in your undertakings.

Keplinger: I’m sure that Patrick will agree that Danish has its share of untranslatable words and phrases. One of the first that comes to mind is “vemod,” a term that finds its origins in the Old Norse. According to Nielsen, it means in a literal sense, “woe-mood.” I asked Nielsen if he meant “melancholy.” No, same word in Danish. Then something like “blue?” “Ha, no, not blue,” he said. I offered, “wistfulness?” He looked up wistfulness; “It says ‘melancholy.’” Finally he explained that “vemod” was to him the feeling one gets when a ninety-five-year old great-aunt has died; a feeling a mixture of mourning and also something very introspective, even light. We decided on “wistfulness” for lack of something better.

But there was something better. The word was “woe-mood;” we’d had it all along. Sometimes the language can’t facilitate the trick a translation must play. Yes, it’s got to feel like it was written in the new language; no, it can’t feel far away, so stilted. Then there are certain poems by [Serbian-American] Charles Simic or [Belarusian] Valzhyna Mort (in her new book Collected Body) that were written in English but do feel like they are translations. That’s a clever effect, too. A voice that comes from far away has a spiritual ring to it. I cock my head and listen more closely. Sometimes we do the work an injustice by trying to reinvent every last connotative quality come out of the original. It’s in rare cases like this that the English version is actually improved by simply throwing up our hands and carrying over this “vemod” into the translation. It’s a woe-mood; deal with it. As [Carolyn] Forch puts in “The Colonel,” you are telling the reader implicitly, “there is no other way to say this.” It grabs our attention.

This happened a few other times in House Inspections. At one point Nielsen quotes a clown with a slight German accent who continually says (in an ironic tone), “stur, stur,” meaning “good show, good show.” Apparently Danish clowns do this. It goes back to the historically difficult relationship with the Germans. On the other hand, our [American] clowns are mostly insipid, quiet types with no sense of irony. After a long discussion in the parlor at Hald Hovedgaard in Viborg, an old, distinguished manor where we completed the work, we settled on the tragicomic, “whoopdeedoo.” Should we have gone with “good show, good show”? I don’t know. If it’s spoken with sarcasm, I kind of like “whoopdeedoo.” I was especially pleased that we made our debate while surrounded by paintings of serious-faced Danish kings in their regalia.

Phillips: I love David’s examples of cruxes peculiar to Danish-that enigmatic “vemod,” and the clown’s untranslatable “stur, stur”-and his solutions remind me why I like translating in the first place, and that is how improvisational it is. The original poem sometimes feels like one of those chord progressions handed out at the beginning of a jazz set: the structure is there, you know where you’re headed, and you know you want it to swing. But there are infinite variations, and each choice affects what comes next, so you have to stay open, above all, to possibilities.

As far as the linguistic yoga peculiar to Danish, there are moments in Nordbrandt where things are happening that just aren’t possible in English. Just to focus on one example: Danish is like other Germanic languages in that it allows for elaborate compounds that would sound bizarre in English. Thus, Nordbrandt writes in “The Rebel’s Death Certificate” of a “henrettelsespeleton,” which translates as “firing squad.” But of course there is a great deal packed into that compound, and a lot is lost with “firing squad.” “Henrettelse” means execution, and in “henrettelsespeleton” is both the idea of a correction, from “rettelse,” and the image of the bullet itself, from the French loan-word “peleton,” from which we get both “pellet” and “platoon.” So in one nineteen-letter, seven-syllable doozy of a word Nordbrandt can summon up not just the idea but the image: a platoon of soldiers firing a bullet into the convicted prisoner. One faces the choice of accepting the dictionary equivalent “firing squad” with all its inadequacy, or elaborating in ways that may well save some of the Danish word’s complexity but will at the same time clutter up a line. English just can’t match the efficiency inherent in such compounds.

All of which leads me to the other real challenge of translating Danish into English, and that is that the music of Danish is guttural, with far fewer of the French and Latin words that tend to soften a line in English and make it breathy. At the end of a poem called “The Rose from Lesbos,” for example, Nordbrandt imagines a beloved who holds a rose and

pluck[s] its petals one by one
just to keep from lifting your eyes.

for ikke at komme til at se op__for ikke at komme til at se op

Beer: Danish poet Niels Hav refers to Danish as a “small language,” due to the relatively limited amount of people who speak it. Did the movement between the “smallness” Hav speaks of and the implicit “bigness” of the English language have any bearing on your translation experience?

Phillips: I don’t think that shift-from “small” source-language to “large” target-language-really had much of an effect on my work, mainly because no language feels small when you’re in it. On the contrary, it feels like a vast ocean, in which one drowns for a long time before finally learning to swim. And the way great writers use language is beautiful and mysterious, regardless of whether there are 5 million potential readers, as with Danish, or close to a billion, as with English (if one counts non-native speakers). That is an astonishing disparity between the potential audiences, and I guess that’s why my emails about translation usually get enthusiastic responses from Danes: they realize the incredible payoff of becoming comprehensible to the English-reading masses. If some future Shakespeare happens to write a masterwork in Danish, he or she will certainly depend on a great translator to get the word out.

That said, one of the pleasures for me of translating from Danish was having my preconceptions about a “small” literature blown out of the water. Modern Danish poetry is just as vibrant and varied as American and English poetry, and just as attuned to new vibrations in “the force”: symbolism, modernism, postmodernism, and all the other -isms we use to trace variety and conflict. So nothing about the Danish language and Danish literature has ever felt small to me besides the inherent cap on its potential readership. And that smallness, of course, is part of what justifies my work as a translator. I imagine it’s not very different from the feeling editors get when something amazing comes in over the transom. You feel lucky to have found this work, and motivated by the realization that no one else knows it yet.

But that small audience says nothing about the equally vast possibilities of the language in the hands of someone like Nordbrandt. If we imagine shrinking English down to its last speaker on earth, that person might still carry in his or her head Keats’s “To Autumn,” Dickinson’s “After great pain,” Hal telling Falstaff “I know thee not, old man.” So Danish and English may be like David and Goliath in terms of readership, but when measured in terms of complexity, nuance, and humanity, they are equals. I think it’s a mistake to assume that we know the books we know simply because they are the best, and translators from small languages are energized, I think, by a defiant wish to show everyone what they’ve been missing.

Beer: In the wake of Tomas Transtromer’s 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, have you noticed any increased interest in Nordic poetry from English-speaking readers?

Phillips: The decade since Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2006) has seen a really amazing and unexpected craze for Nordic crime fiction and police procedurals, like the Danish TV series The Eagle. I love all of that, and get a kick out of being able to watch Danish TV on Netflix (though I also get distracted by the inevitable differences between the Danish audio and the subtitles!). Transtromer’s win felt like a wonderful complement to that, such that all the focus on Nordic storytellers was finally matched by New York Times stories about a Nordic poet.

Does that kind of mass-market attention do anything for my book of translations from Nordbrandt? I don’t want to be overly optimistic, given the small audience for poetry of all kinds and the tiny shelves where books of poems are now housed in most book stores. But at least now when I’m making cocktail-party chat, people might have heard about Transtromer’s Nobel, or read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or seen The Eagle. So at least there’s some kind of positive association with Nordic cultural productions, rather than the puzzled, slightly pitying looks I used to get when I said I translated Danish poetry.

As far as Transtromer’s win, for me it is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is great for Nordic writers and helps make the case that important work is coming out of “small languages,” even if most American readers know little about those literatures. I am a great admirer of Transtromer, and Robert Bly’s translations were among the books that first gave me hope that I could make worthy English poems from Nordbrandt’s originals. Transtromer was for a long time Exhibit A when I was asked about translating from Danish, and he featured prominently in my pitch letters to publishers!

That said, the downside is that this makes it less likely that Nordbrandt, or any other Nordic writer, will win in the near future. The fact that the prize is itself Nordic, and awarded by a Swedish and Norwegian committee, means, I think, that there is a real risk of overlooking Nordic writers, since any committee choosing a Nordic winner could be charged with some kind of home team bias. As a result, I was delighted to hear that Transtromer finally won, and also feared that it meant my book of Nordbrandt poems would never go flying (however briefly) off the shelves after a Nobel announcement. But such is the lot of “small language” writers. At times it feels like the mainstream press has attention for exactly one such writer at a time: for the past decade it was Stieg Larsson in fiction, and for a long time it has been Tomas Transtromer in poetry. The hope when translating another major Nordic author, like Nordbrandt, is to capitalize on that buzz, and show people that the Larssons and Transtromers don’t emerge ex nihilo, but like all writers, out of a tradition.

Keplinger: Patrick’s response was so well-rounded and informed, I ought to just doff my hat and mumble, “what he said.” Yet if I were to add anything, it would be that, no, I haven’t noticed an increased interest in Nordic writers since Transtromer’s deserved win. The interest has always been there. And why is that so? Why this unlikely connection with Nordic writers? We read far more Scandinavians, I’d venture to say, than contemporary Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, Hungarian, even Italian or Greek writers. Given that Denmark is a relatively very small country, we have already noted that it has been particularly strong in opening up its literature to a readership here in the States. In America we’ve made household names of [Peter] Heg (Danish: Smilla’s Sense of Snow), [Halldr] Laxness (Nobel winner from Iceland, where, according to the BBC, “one in ten people will publish a book”), [Karl Ove] Knausgaard (a Norwegian, whose 2009 My Struggle The New Yorker called “so powerfully alive to death”), and, of course, Transtromer, and many others from Sweden, including one of the earliest Nobel Laureates, Selma Lagerlof. We connect with writing from Scandinavia, in part, because Denmark, Sweden, and all the rest have made a place for writers in their countries. These countries take care of their artists. As the BBC claims of Iceland, the arts play a central role in the national identity, and that investment manifests later in the way these books gain wider and wider readerships in other lands. America claims more writers and-significantly-writing programs in which the student funds herself, but at the federal level our support of writers pales in comparison. Charles Simic said once that if we climb deeply enough into ourselves, we’ll eventually “meet everybody else.” When such an idea is fueled and fed at the national level, you begin to produce writers and artists who speak beyond their own borders.

Beer: Both of you are highly-accomplished, award-winning poets. Could you each speak a bit about the relationship you see between your own poetry and the poetry that you translate?

Keplinger: The engine that fuels my continuing to write is an obsessive, unrelenting tension between traditional form and its abandonment. The German poet Jan Wagner, with whom I’ve placed about twenty or more pieces in the last few years, is writing sonnets, sestinas, work that is more indicative of what I’ve been doing recently in a new project and what I did in my second book, The Clearing. His subjects, too, signal certain familiar tones in me. I think Wagner and I are probably more naturally attuned in the way we see the world. But the Danish poet Nielsen has changed my work dramatically—perhaps for the very reason that he and I see things differently—and it was through his influence that I began writing poems in prose around 2006. I have now done two books of prose poems. My passage into and through the unconscious, a kind of death world, has transformed me musically and spiritually. It was through the work with Nielsen that my subject matter began to widen and my sense of what was possible in a poem, minus the safety net of any kind of accentual or accentual syllabic structure, began to evolve, grow up. Now there’s another step in the journal required, which is to continue to throw off influences and ask whether these structures we rely on are merely there because they’re safe, or if, ideally, they are disturbances of an easy truth. If they are the latter, they’re the vehicles that will carry us toward our best new work. Translation asks us to do what’s difficult. We have to do what’s difficult, as Rilke says. I support translation as an act of generosity in which the ego is thrust out of the way. The happy side effect of this work, undeniably, is that it forces us to go back to our own poems with a heightened sense of possibility.

Phillips: I love David’s answer to this question, so my main response is to second all that he said about translation heightening one’s sense of the possibilities. I just read a poem in which C. Dale Young writes that “to travel is to rid oneself of oneself,” and for me translation works the same way: it offers a temporary escape from the prison-house of the self. That’s why I love the work . . . because it allows the translator to write poems without wondering-like Annie Dillard’s famous inchworm at the end of a blade of grass-“What next? No further? End of World?” Instead, translation lets you try on a whole new set of obsessions, tones, syntactical moves, jokes, images, emotions, etc., without ever having to wonder what comes next. I’ve also found that whenever I struggle to solve a really thorny translational crux, I end up straying into the furthest reaches of my own language and into forgotten (and thus rich) parts of our vocabulary and syntax. You can’t will that kind of wandering, so I love how translation coaxes me deep into the Franco-Latinate-Germanic thicket of the English language.

I wouldn’t say that I have consciously imitated Nordbrandt very often, or turned from a Nordbrandt translation back to one of my own poems with a clear sense that-presto-I’ve found the way forward. InsteSo in answer to your question, I can’t say exactly how my work as a poet has been changed by the work of translating, and in many ways that’s the point . . . to become more strange to oneself! I first tried my hand at translation in imitation of my early heroes, who I noticed all worked as translators: from Ben Jonson and Ezra Pound to Donald Justice and Deborah Digges. I didn’t know precisely how those poets were changed by the work of translating, but I knew that they were. And I wanted from translation what they seemed to have gotten: to travel, to change, and at least sometimes to write poems unburdened by one’s self.

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Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010) and The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon, 2015). She has won a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits Copper Nickel. She is married to the poet Brian Barker. (updated 9/2015)

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