Not long ago, I put my own creative work aside and did a translation of a novel. The experience was more than I had bargained for. Translation means total emersion, it’s like wearing someone else’s skin . The writer was Jens Peter Jacobsen, a Danish nineteenth century novelist—no connection to Borgen or The Killing. Couldn’t have been more different. Couldn’t have been more intriguing and beguiling. A journey that will stay with me, that I can’t shrug off because I have lived and breathed Jacobsen—reading his letters, his diaries and the letters, diaries and works of those whom he influenced: James Joyce, Ibsen, Strindberg, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and curiously the American black writer Zora Neale Hurston who I discovered had used the plot of the book I was translating for her novel, Their Eyes were Watching God published in 1937. I found a new edition with a foreword by Zadie Smith. It is one of her favourite books. I grabbed it in and read it—a translator has to read everything even remotely related. Here it was, Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe published in 1876 but now transposed to the thirties US and with black protagonists, but the same vitality, strong prose and the ability to convey real presences. In both novels a woman has two unhappy relationships with wealthy, socially respected men —in the case of Marie Grubbe one was the illegitimate son of a king and governor of Norway, the other a coarse, mean spirited squire— and then finds happiness with someone poor, happy-go-lucky, a social outcast but at ease with his sexuality and able to offer that difficult thing called love. Zadie Smith says of Their Eyes were watching God that ‘ it’s the story of a consciousness coming to life—from an oppressed consciousness to one that is genuinely free.’ That’s the sum of Marie Grubbe’s journey, from daughter -in -law to a Danish king to a poor ferrywoman married to a drunkard who died doing hard labour for manslaughter , with the added piquancy that this did happen, she was real. Jacobsen did a lot of research on the real Marie Grubbe and of course I had to follow in his foot steps. I sat in the British Library reading witness statements from maids who testified when her second husband wanted to divorce her for her outrageous behaviour when she was having a very open affair with his coach driver . Apparently, she couldn’t get enough of ‘ the smell of tar and horse dung’; he she was almost forty, he twenty -two. She was divorced and for a second time, but the king declared that she couldn’t marry her lover ‘within my kingdom.’ So she travelled to Germany and did it there. Undaunted, unrepentant she sums up her philosophy —in Jacobsen— as ‘ everyone lives their own life and dies their own death, that’s what I believe.’
Translating can make you feel humble. Here’s a guy whose prose was admired by Joyce and Thomas Mann, whose verse inspired Rilke and was set to music by Delius and Schoenberg . And here you are searching for the right word—an awesome experience at times, particularly when you can see why Joyce liked him. Both Jacobsen and Joyce use words as if they were literally holding them and weighing them, the line between metaphor and reality is frequently more than blurred; and they both have a love of sound. It’s sound as much as meaning that guides and inspires, leading from one word to another. So the obvious word in English might not be the right choice: it might the same meaning but if it had a soft sound and Jacobsen had used a hard sound, then it would be all wrong. Jacobsen achieves great effect by using sudden short sentences to break a vigorous, tangled layer of descriptive narrative. He is continually taking you by surprise and that makes him exciting and challenging. Yes, it’s been a great journey and, like in any friendship, it feels strange to say goodbye. I shall miss him.
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