Kyle Semmel’s work as publications & communications manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is unquestionably a full-time job. Semmel handles all of the marketing and advertising for the Center’s fine offerings (classes, readings, and other programs), helps to network the Center to other arts organizations in the area and beyond, and also heads up the organization’s blog at First Person Plural. But his work at The Writer’s Center is only part of Semmel’s life in the world of literature.
An accomplished writer himself, Semmel has long been committed to the craft of fiction. His first published story, “Lake Effect,” appeared in the Ontario Review, and “The Throw,” a fictional take on Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals, is forthcoming in Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine. His interest in the novella has recently prompted him to work on a connected series of them (a project that continues to evolve) and to write on the novella in his posts for First Person Plural.
In publishing, Semmel has also been closely involved in recent years with the Santa Fe Writers Project, helping to produce and promote books including Ray Robertson’s Moody Food, Alan Cheuse’s The Fires, and Pagan Kennedy’s The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other Stories.
And most recently, Semmel has found success as a translator — particularly helping to bring Danish authors a wider American audience. His translation of Danish poet Pia Tafdrup’s essay “Medellín Illuminated: Poetry and War at the 14th Annual Poetry Festival” was printed in Aufgabe: Journal of Poetry, and he’s been involved in an extended project translating a number of stories and a longer work by Simon Fruelund, several of which have already found publishers: “Tide” appeared in The Brooklyn Review (full issue downloadable here); “Unsettled” was included in The Bitter Oleander; and “What Is It?” will appear in an upcoming issue of Redivider: A Journal of New Literature and Art. As a result of his success so far, Semmel has recently been awarded a Translation Grant from The Danish Arts Council.
Semmel will be sampling his work at a Writer’s Center Staff Reading on January 11. In advance of that, he talks here about the art of translating and recommends several recent and upcoming translations.
How did you first get involved in translating? And why Danish in particular? (A particular demand for Danish literature? A niche market? Some personal tie to the country perhaps?)
My father was fascinated by the German language and so I kind of absorbed his interest. It started there. In graduate school I met my wife, who is Danish. The two languages are very different, but they share enough similarities that it was easier for me to learn.
I don’t think there’s a “demand” for Danish literature, any more than Ecuadorian or Korean. There are a number of great Danish writers — a few Nobel prize winners, mostly forgotten today — but you do see very few of them in print over here. Peter Hoeg is probably the most well-known Danish writer living today after the success of Borderliners (a great book), but Christian Jungerson published a big book here last year, The Exception, that got great reviews (I haven’t read it), and this year Hawthorne Books published Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf. I don’t know how the translation reads — though since Tiina Nunnally translates, I suspect it’s wonderful — but the original is terrific and fun. Fogtdal has quite a few books, so there’s plenty more to mine there.
I think I do it simply because I love doing it, it’s a neat challenge, and there are a large number of great undiscovered Danish writers out there.
How has your training and your skill as a fiction writer helped you with translating another person’s stories into English? And vice-versa, how has translating impacted your work on your own fiction? Can you do both at the same time, shuttling between projects?
These days I’m writing very little of my own fiction. I’m working on the manuscript by Simon Fruelund, and that’s taking the bulk of my time. I might — it’s entirely possible — be trying to avoid writing my own fiction by translating. Has it helped my own fiction? I don’t think so. For me, at least, it seems like two totally separate mind-sets. When I translate I’m taking a form that already exists and shifting it into another language. There’s something almost businesslike about it. You get in a groove, but the story is pretty much all set for you; you’ve just got to do it justice in a new language. When I write fiction I’m out in new territory, making up the story as I go along. There’s something both liberating and terrifying about that — which is probably why I’m not doing it.
But if I were writing fiction right now, I could shuttle back and forth between the two. It goes back to being two different mind-sets.
In advance of this year’s Nobel Prizes, committee member Horace Engdahl made some comments about American writers’ and readers’ insularity — particularly commenting that Americans don’t translate enough or read enough in translation. You’ve already written (passionately) about this controversy, and so I don’t want to revisit it too much, but I am curious why YOU, as a translator yourself, might encourage American readers to check out a new French or Japanese or (since you mentioned it) Ecuadorian or Korean or, of course, Danish writer? What might we get from those works that we won’t find in American novels and short stories?
I think this is the million-dollar question. Why, when sifting through the hundreds of thousands of books published each year in the U.S. alone, would we pick up a translated book over a domestic book? Marketing is the key. New Directions has been publishing Roberto Bolano’s books these past few years [even before The Savage Detectives and 2666] and doing a fantastic job of marketing them. He was a great literary talent — and it helps (from a marketing perspective!) that he died young — and he deserves to be translated into English. My gut feeling is that he’s going to be read in the same way as Garcia Marquez, and treated as a classic Latin American writer.
But the short answer is that American readers don’t read many translated books because they never hear about them. I don’t for one second think that Americans wouldn’t love to pick up more books by foreign authors. If publishers gave a little marketing shove to some translations then you could see more translated books being read.
By the way, I read in the Washington Post that Horace Engdahl stepped down from his position at Nobel. This might be stemming from his lame-brained comments. I don’t know. In either case, I think he’s a representative of an old world belief that needs to be replaced.
What recent (or even not-so-recent) translations would you specifically recommend to others?
Anything by translators Barbara Haveland or Tiina Nunnally. They translate Scandinavian books and they are very good. Barbara Haveland translated Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer into English (which will be published in the spring by Open Letter Press), and Tiina Nunnally has done some of Per Olov Enquist’s books. Jay Rubin’s translation of Murakami’s After Dark is great. Rubin and Philip Gabriel both translate Murakami, and it might be worth seeing the difference in Murakami’s “voice” as it’s filtered through two different translators.
In a separate but related aside, I recently heard a program on NPR’s “The World” about Linn Ullman’s new book A Blessed Child. Linn Ullman is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, and she’s a pretty important Norwegian writer. The new book is apparently a riff on her father’s famous film Wild Strawberries. What was interesting about this program was how the reporter and her guest — a man who directed the international literature division of, I think, the University of Iowa — never mentioned the translator even once. It sounded as though this guy, who describes the book’s plot, had read it in the original, and that sounded fishy to me. So I checked online and found that the translator was a woman named Sarah Death (yes, Death).
Now it IS possible that he read it in the original, but the fact is the book has been translated into English, and that’s a moment when it’d be very helpful for listeners to know that they don’t have to understand Norwegian to read the book.
Translators don’t get much respect. But a good translator can make or break a book, and they should be recognized for the hard work they do. I don’t think I’m just writing that because I’d like to do a lot more of these translations. I think it’s a legitimate concern, because the translator IS responsible for making the thing as right-sounding as possible.
In that regard, what does make for a “good translation”? How can we readers who may not have access to the original for comparison (or the language skills to make that comparison even if we had the original) — how can we judge whether a translated work is successful or not?
I think a successful translation should read smoothly. Readers don’t need to know a language to know that something sounds off. Or if something is written that you know is wrong — calling a medical doctor a medic or something like that, when you know the author must’ve meant something else. Of course, some things are simply impossible to translate, and it may come across as a translator error. Stilted dialogue in the translation may in fact be stilted dialogue in the original. So it’s not a perfect science. My best indicator of a good translation is fluidity: Do we forget this thing is translated? Does it read like something written in English? The same rules should apply for a translation that applies for a book published in English. It should flow, and the language should be exact.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor