“Translation is about daring to break the rules rather than follow them”

Acclaimed Danish translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen reveals the secrets to her award-winning work

Translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen

Journalist, writer, and translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen has made a splash with her latest work, a translation of Danish author Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart, racking up the prestigious American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award.

On the occasion of her success, #DenmarkInNY reached out to Katrine Øgaard Jensen to hear more about the difficulties of translating one of Denmark’s most acclaimed contemporary poets, why her translation process is
successful, and how she defines the art of translation.

DKNY: Tell us about yourself and how you came into working as a translator?

I first started translating when I worked as a freelance journalist to supplement my income. I translated all kinds of things for money: subtitles for TV shows, manuals and questionnaires, keywords for video games. It made me interested in pursuing the translation track at Columbia University when I was accepted into the Creative Writing MFA program as a fiction writer in 2013. If I have to be completely honest, I thought literary translation could support me financially while I wrote my fiction. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that literary translation pays poorly compared to commercial translation, but I was happy to discover literary translation as the world’s greatest writing exercise. I find it highly addictive to rewrite the work of my favorite authors in another language, so much so that I’m actually unable to read a good book without wondering what it must be like to translate it.

Cover of Third-Millennium Heart (Broken Dimanche/Action Books, 2017)

DKNY: What are some of the challenges imbedded in the translation process?

I encounter different challenges with every text that I translate so it really depends on the material. One of my favorite translators, Johannes Goransson, recently wrote on Twitter: “It takes practice to become a good literary translator. Sometimes people give the impression that translation is about learning the language/culture perfectly — i.e. mastery. But I think it’s more about learning how to translate with the part of your brain that writes poetry.” I think that’s very accurate. You can absolutely master a language and still be a terrible literary translator and perhaps that’s because translating literature is more about daring to break some rules rather than following them, which is what poets do as well.

DKNY: How do the Danish and English languages differ from one another? And are there any differences between the two languages that you, as a translator, feel are irreconcilable?

I actually think there are a lot of similarities but the biggest difference is probably that one Danish word usually can be translated into a handful of different English words, all of which have slightly different shades of meaning. As a translator, you have to actively make choices on behalf of the author and bring the slightly “vague” Danish into a more specific English. If something is uhyggeligt in Danish, for instance, do you then choose to call it spooky, uncanny, eerie, ghastly, chilling, or scary in English? Or, perhaps even horrifying or terrifying, if the context calls for it?

DKNY: Ursula Andkjær Olsen is quite the Danish literary darling. Did you have any concerns about translating her work?

Absolutely. Ursula is known for her experiments with puns, syntax, and neologisms and I think it’s crucial that any translator of her work dares to take just as many risks in the target language as Ursula took when she wrote those lines in Danish. To me, that was the most intimidating and exhilarating part of translating her work.

To give you an example from Third-Millennium Heart, a neologism such as væksthund (direct translation: growth-dog) became a “charging bulldog” in my version, replacing “growth” with Wall Street’s Charging Bull, an American symbol of aggressive financial optimism and prosperity.

Translating literature is more about daring to break some rules rather than following them, which is what poets do as well.

In another case, I seized an opportunity to translate matriarkatet(direct translation: the matriarchy) to “the matriarchate,” which denotes matriarchy and connotes the free market as well as Mother Market, a character introduced in the book.

DKNY: What was the biggest challenge in translating Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart? And what do you think makes the translation work?

The most difficult part of translating the book had to do with Ursula’s use of voice. The speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. In the Danish journal Kritik, Ida Bencke addresses this complexity in her research article “The Body Is Something Else: Posthumanism and Cyborg Hearts in the Work of Ursula Andkjær Olsen”, where she talks about how the work is composed of several short, out-of-breath-like texts that aggressively branch out, pointing in wild and completely different directions. She then goes on to explain how the ambiguity of this Third-Millennium Heart character is so prevalent that any reading of its intentions could be disproved with an equally well-documented interpretation of the exact opposite statement!

Ursula is refreshingly progressive when it comes to translation: she doesn’t consider her own poetry the original work but rather a translation of an idea that is much bigger than her.

This duality is possible in the original language because Danish grammar allows for multiple ideas — separated by many, many commas — to (e)merge within a single sentence. To accommodate this duality in translation, I replaced some commas with line breaks, to entertain the possibility of connections between certain words or lines. In other cases, when a line break would cause more confusion than clarification, I inserted a colon or a period instead.

So to answer the last part of your question, I think the translation works because I took some chances and tried to expand or evolve the text in translation rather than forcing it into a more traditionally faithful but less playful framework. Thankfully, Ursula is refreshingly progressive when it comes to translation: she doesn’t consider her own poetry the original work but rather a translation of an idea that is much bigger than her. According to Ursula, she is simply the first translator of the work, and I am the second.


Pernille Kjær Ramsdahl is the Culture intern at Denmark In NY.