Anna Svärd, the latest addition to Norvik Press’s “Lagerlöf in English” series, is the third and final volume of what is known as the Löwensköld Ring trilogy. The characters from Charlotte Löwensköld, the second book in the trilogy, reappear in this novel, and the curse that has rested upon the Löwenskölds relating to the eponymous ring comes to fulfillment. Anna Svärd focuses on what makes a relationship, and what creates or destroys a family.
As if by design, but in fact entirely by coincidence, the Västanå Theatre group, which performs in Värmland every summer, often but not always putting on bright, musical renditions of Lagerlöf works, will be performing The Löwensköld Ring (Löwensköldska ringen) this summer, beginning on midsummer day and continuing into the autumn.
The story of the Löwensköld family, its secrets and its complications, is both a fine portrait of late nineteenth-century life in Värmland and astonishingly topical in its insights into human behavior, not least gender roles. These were late Lagerlöf works, in fact the last strictly fictional books she wrote, and they reflect a mature and perceptive writer.
For anyone traveling around Sweden this summer, even a non-Swedish speaker, reading the books (or even just the first volume, which I understand will be the focus of the play) in English would surely make it entirely possible to enjoy the performance which, although in Swedish, will be so full of song and dance and excitement that the language might seem almost irrelevant.
This slideshow, although not from this summer’s performance which hasn’t yet opened, gives a good idea of what Västanå’s plays are like. They are performed in a wonderful old barn called Berättarladan, or “Storyteller’s Barn”, beautifully situated just next to the lovely Rottneros Park, well worth a visit, and not far from Selma Lagerlöf’s home Mårbacka, where visitors to the house and grounds can anticipate Norvik’s soon-to-be published translation, by Sarah Death, of Lagerlöf’s somewhat fictionalized memoir of the same name: Wishing all readers and visitors to Sweden a full and satisfying summer.
Linda Schenck, translator
Anna Svärd by Selma Lagerlöf and translated from Swedish by Linda Schenck.
Now available at all good bookstores and online >
A large and enthusiastic audience, of whom several had already found time to read the book, gathered for the launch of our first venture into Faroese crime fiction, Walpurgis Tide by Jógvan Isaksen. The panel was introduced by the book’s editor at Norvik Press, Professor Janet Garton. Our chairman was Nordic crime-fiction aficionado Barry Forshaw, who jovially and expertly held the reins in the discussion between the book’s author and its translator John Keithsson. Jógvan Isaksen is a man of many parts who teaches at Copenhagen university and is the author of numerous books, ranging from academic titles to two successful series of crime novels, which are only now starting to be translated into English. He also finds time to take the helm at the Faroe Islands’ leading publishing house. The discussion and audience questions ranged far and wide on topics including Faroese reliance on its traditional whaling and fishing industries, the challenges of translating dialect, the Faroese tendency to live and work abroad, the stark beauty of the landscape, the broadening out of the islands’ publishing industry from more esoteric fare to include popular fiction, and the central importance of the midday radio news in Faroese cultural life.
The author and translator explained why they had chosen to start with the third of the nine books featuring freelance journalist Hannis Martinsson as the main protagonist and pondered on which other books in the series would have appeal for the new, wider readership. Jógvan Isaksen acknowledged Agatha Christie and other Golden Age British crime writers, and American west coast crime from the likes of Hammett and Chandler, as some of his primary sources of inspiration. Parallels were drawn with Icelandic crime fiction; in both small nations, crime rates are very low and murders extremely rare, making the success of the fictionalised crime genre there all the more intriguing. We were lucky enough to have Victoria Cribb, translator of Arnaldur Indridasson and Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, in the audience.
We would like to thank the Faroese Representation in the UK and the Danish Embassy for hosting the event and making us so welcome.
Walpurgis Tide is available at all good bookstores and online>
Kestin Ekman’s wonderful poem Childhood, now published by Norvik Press as a dual language English/Swedish publication. Translated from Swedish by Rochelle Wright.
Kerstin Ekman is primarily known as a novelist, but she has occasionally turned to free verse, especially when the subject is autobiographical. In 1993-1994, Swedish TV 1 conducted a series of talks with prominent writers under the rubric ‘Seven Boys and Seven Girls’. In place of an ordinary interview, Kerstin Ekman read aloud Barndom (Childhood). The poem, which was published for the first time in Swedish Book Review in 1995, appears here with original photographs kindly provided by the author. The prose passages are quotations from Ekman’s 1988 novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (The Forest of Hours, transl. Anna Paterson, Chatto & Windus, 1998).
Childhood has a new foreword by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Linda Schenck. The volume also includes a bibliography of critical literature (largely in English) on the author and her work, plus a full list of Ekman titles available in English translation.
This publication was the initiative of Norvik Press director Helena Forsås-Scott, who sadly lost her life to leukemia before the project came to fruition. The book is dedicated to her. Norvik Press will donate the first year’s profit on sales of the publication to the Marie Curie charity in the UK in memory of Helena, who was cared for at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh in her final days.
Available to purchase from all good bookstores and online >
Norvik Press is looking forward to the forthcoming publication of our translation of Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka. Here is a little about the background to Mårbacka and a preview of a chapter from the book.
The property of Mårbacka in the Swedish province of Värmland went through several incarnations. It was a fairly modest farmhouse when Selma Lagerlöf was growing up there, becoming immersed at her grandmother’s knee in the storytelling that was to be such a central aspect of her own life. Financial difficulties led to the family’s loss of the house, but Lagerlöf, by then an established writer, was later able to buy it back, rebuild it and make it the centre of her world.
Today, the house and gardens at Mårbacka are open to the public in the summer months and attract visitors from all over the world. In the Mårbacka shop they can purchase translations of her work, including titles from the Norvik Press ‘Lagerlöf in English’ series.
Details of all Norvik’s Lagerlöf titles can be found here > Read about today’s Mårbacka >
The book Mårbacka, the first part of a trilogy written in 1922-32, can be read as many different things: memoir, fictionalised autobiography, even as part of Selma Lagerlöf’s myth-making about her own successful career as an author. Soon to be available from Norvik Press in my new translation, it is part family history, part ethnography and folklore, part mischievous satire in the guise of innocent, child’s-eye narration, part declaration of filial love. Above all it is a testimony to the love that the place and its stories and people inspired in Lagerlöf and her nearest and dearest. Its power of attraction can clearly be seen in the taster chapter below, a draft extract from the section at the very heart of the book, ‘Old Buildings and Old People’.
In this season of Nobel Prizes, Norvik Press gratefuly acknowledges funding from the Swedish Academy for the translation of Mårbacka and several of our other Lagerlöf titles. The author herself won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. We also thank the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation and the Barbro Osher Foundation for recent grants to the Lagerlöf project.
THE RAISED STOREHOUSE
All the old folk on the farm declared with one voice that the building next in age after the stone huts was the old raised storehouse. But it was not built there by the first permanent resident; it had surely come into existence some hundred years after his time, when Mårbacka was turned into a proper farm.
The farmers living there then had presumably put up a raised storehouse as soon as they could, because it was expected that a farm of any importance would have one.
At any rate, it was an extremely modest example of its kind. It was supported on low posts with no form of decoration. The door was low, so you had to stoop to enter. But the lock and key were all the bigger by comparison. They would not have been out of place in a prison.
The storehouse had no windows, only some little openings with shutters. In summer, when they wanted the windows open, they used screens of twigs to keep out the flies. They wove the thin twigs into a lattice, until they had a square big enough to fill the window. Not much light found its way through the gaps, but at least it was not completely dark.
The storehouse had two storeys, and the upper one was much better appointed than the lower. That must have been where the farmers kept their most treasured possessions once upon a time.
It was likely that the storehouse was just the same in Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s time as it had been originally. It might have had a new roof, but other than that it had been left in peace. The staircase was not replaced, even though the steps were so narrow that you could scarcely get your foot on them, and the window openings remained unglazed.
The place looked magnificent in autumn. On the lower floor there were big bins full of freshly milled flour. Beside them stood two vats, full to the brim with pieces of meat and bacon in brine. Alongside these were ranged tubs and buckets of different types of sausage – pork, beef and potato – made after that autumn’s slaughter. Tucked in the corner were a barrel of herring, a cask of salted laveret, another of vendace and usually a firkin of salmon, too; in addition to this there would be pots of salted beans and salted spinach and firkins of yellow and green peas.
On the upper floor stood great tubs of butter, which had been filled over the summer and were to be saved for the winter. Cheeses were ranged in long rows on shelves above the window openings and aged smoked hams hung from the ceiling. The homegrown hops were kept in a sack as big as a bolster, and malted grain in another. A whole year’s supplies were assembled there.
In the food store it was the housekeeper who ruled the roost. The food store was hers, and its key was seldom entrusted to anyone else. Miss Lovisa Lagerlöf might be allowed to preside over the pantry and the milk store, but the housekeeper preferred to go to the storehouse herself.
It was she who reigned over all the proper cooking, too. Making jams and cordials and baking biscuits could be left under Miss Lovisa’s supervision, but if there was a joint to be roasted or cheese to be made or crispbread to be baked, then it was the old housekeeper who would take the lead.
The little ones at Mårbacka had a huge amount of love and unlimited respect for her. In fact it was quite possible that they considered her the person of the highest standing on the whole farm.
After all, the children could observe that whenever relatives came to visit, they would immediately go out into the kitchen to say hello to the housekeeper, and whenever anything of note happened in the family, Lieutenant Lagerlöf would call her in and tell her about it, and when Daniel and Johan were going back to school each new year and autumn, they were always told to go and bid the housekeeper goodbye.
The children also heard strangers say that Mrs Lagerlöf was very fortunate to have such a faithful servant in her kitchen. Nothing in her charge was ever overlooked or neglected.
Nowhere, moreover, was there such Christmas beer, such crispbread and such good cooking to be had as at Mårbacka, and everyone agreed that this was all thanks to the old housekeeper.
So it was no surprise that the children considered her the mainstay of everything. They firmly believed that without the housekeeper, everything would go wrong at Mårbacka.
But one day, little Anna Lagerlöf discovered a secret she found really alarming. She could not bear it alone, but had to tell her sister Selma that she had overheard two of the maids talking as if the housekeeper were married and had a husband.
There is no describing how much this troubled the two little girls. For if the housekeeper was married and had a husband, they could not be at all sure of keeping her at Mårbacka, could they?
How would it be for their mother, who relied so much on her excellent help? And how would it be for them, accustomed as they were to her giving them some tasty little treat each time they went into the kitchen? And how would it be for the whole farm?
It was vital that they find out the truth of the matter. They agreed to ask Nanny Maja, the new nurserymaid, if the housekeeper could possibly be married.
Well, Nanny Maja knew the whole story. She had heard it from her mother, who had been in service at Mårbacka at the very time it all happened.
It was the honest truth, though until then the children had never heard a word about the housekeeper’s marriage. And her husband was alive and living in Karlstad, where he was a carpenter. So he was not even conveniently dead.
And this was supposedly how it came about: when the lieutenant and his brother went off to school in Karlstad, old Mrs Lagerlöf sent with them her faithful housekeeper Maja Persdotter, to take care of the boys and cook their meals. There in the town she made the acquaintance of a carpenter, who proposed to her.
And Nanny Maja’s mother said that the spring the housekeeper came home and told her mistress she was getting married, the old lady was downcast and fearful, for she realised she would be losing her greatest treasure. ‘And what sort of husband are you to marry, Maja?’ she enquired. ‘Do you know him to be a good man?’
Oh yes, she had assured herself of that. He was a master carpenter with his own workshop and his own house. He had put his home in order so that they could marry at once, and he would make the best of husbands.
‘But how can you possibly feel at home there, in the barren streets of a town,’ said old Mrs Lagerlöf, ‘as someone who has spent her whole life in the countryside?’
Oh, that did not worry her either. Things would be so good for her from now on. She would be able to live such an easy life and would not have to bake or brew but could simply go to the market and buy everything she needed at home for the housekeeping.
When old Mrs Lagerlöf heard her talking like that she realised the housekeeper had been seized by the urge to get married and there was nothing to do but prepare for the wedding. And the wedding was held at Mårbacka, the bridegroom came and appeared to be a wise and able fellow, and the day after the wedding he travelled to Karlstad with his bride.
But a fortnight later, or perhaps it was scarcely even that long, Mrs Lagerlöf took up the key to the food store to go out and carve some ham for the evening meal. And she never took up that storehouse key without thinking of Maja Persdotter and wondering how she was getting on. ‘If only I had not sent her to Karlstad, then she would not have met the carpenter,’ she thought, ‘and I would still have my excellent assistant and would not need to run to the food store twenty times a day, as I have to now.’
Just as she was about to enter the storehouse, she happened to glance towards the avenue and the road, for there was an unobstructed view in those days. And she was rooted to the spot, for who should be approaching beneath the birches but someone so like Maja Persdotter, her faithful helpmeet and servant ever since her young days, that the storehouse key fell from her hand.
The nearer the stranger came, the more her doubt faded. And when the woman stopped in front of her and said ‘Good evening, ma’am,’ she could not but believe her own eyes.
‘Why, it’s you, Maja Persdotter!’ she said. ‘Whatever are you doing here? Have you not got a fine husband?’
‘He does nothing but drink,’ replied the housekeeper. ‘He’s been drunk every day since we got married. He drinks the pure alcohol he uses for his work. Such a ne’er-do-well is too much to bear.’
‘But I imagined you would have nothing to do but go to the market and buy everything you needed and be spared all that work?’ said Mrs Lagerlöf.
‘Honoured mistress, I promise to coddle and care for you, if only you’ll let me return home again,’ said the housekeeper. ‘I’ve been longing to come back to Mårbacka day and night.’
‘Come in then, so we can talk to your master about this,’ said the old lady, and she was so happy by this point that there were tears in her eyes. ‘And by the grace of God we shall never again be parted in this life,’ she added.
And so it proved. The housekeeper stayed at Mårbacka. Her husband must have realised that it was not worth trying to coax her back. He never came to get her, but let her stay where she was. She removed her wedding ring from her finger and put it in her clothes chest, and the matter was never spoken of again.
Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s young daughters should have been reassured once they heard all this, but they remained anxious for a long time afterwards. After all, with the carpenter still being alive, what was to stop him turning up one day to order his wife back? And whenever they found themselves by the storehouse where they had an unobstructed view up to the road, they always expected to see him coming. Nanny Maja had told them that if he came and demanded his wife back, she would have to go with him.
They did not really know how old the housekeeper was. She had forgotten what year she was born and the date recorded in the church registers was said to be wrong. Now she was over seventy, but the carpenter might want her back with him even so, outstanding woman that she was.
“a distinguished novel by one of Denmark’s foremost writers … compellingly readable” Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement
Norvik Press is looking forward to hearing Helen Cross discuss The God of Chance by Kirsten Thorup on BBC Radio4’s program A Good Read on July 16 at 4.30pm.
The God of Chance focuses on the relationship between Ana, a high-flying Danish career woman from the international finance sector whose work is her life, and the young teenager Mariama, two women whose circumstances are completely different. Ana first meets Mariama selling snacks on a beach in Gambia, and the girl gradually becomes a substitute for the family she has never had. The novel moves to Copenhagen and then to London as Ana brings Mariama to Europe to be educated; the girl finds the cultural shock and living with Ana intensely difficult, whilst Ana’s obsession with her leads to her own carefully controlled life descending into chaos.
Translated by Janet Garton for Norvik Press in 2014, The God of Chance was originally published in Danish in 2011 and is the latest by the prize-winning Danish author Kirsten Thorup. She is well known for her series of four novels about little Jonna from the provinces, which are also about growing up into the rapidly-changing Danish society of the late twentieth century; and Bonsai (2000), an unflinching account of the scourge of Aids and its devastating effect on an ordinary family.
If you would like to purchase a copy it is available online and in all good bookstores.
About ‘The Contract Killer’ by Benny Andersen: Karlsen is a down-on-his-luck private investigator looking for work. When the only job on offer is a contract killing, Karlsen agrees despite his lack of experience. Things don’t go to plan and it seems the contract is open to negotiation. The play follows the twists and turns of an inexperienced contract killer with a weakness for turquoise dresses and wide-eyed women. This absurdist comedy by one of Denmark’s best-loved writers sees the fates of the eponymous contract killer, his target, the employer and his wife, twist, turn and hang in the balance. What is a life worth? Who will survive? And will the hair dye ever make it to Pakistan?
About [Foreign Affairs]:
[Foreign Affairs] is an international theatre company based in London, UK. Formed in 2010 by Camila França and Trine Garrett,both professional actresses themselves, now adding director and producer to their well-established resumes. As their motto states; “[Foreign Affairs] was conceived with a simple idea: to cultivate a creative environment in which artists from all walks of life can come together to explore, work with and develop new, interesting and unusual ideas to showcase to the world”.
Helena Forsås-Scott will discuss Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson’s wonderful Journey through Sweden (Norvik Press 2012 and 2014) at a panel discussion event at University College London.
On 23rd February the Department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL is hosting a panel discussion on Nordic children’s and young adult’s literature. What does writing for a young audience entail? Is writing for children any different from writing for adults? Do children’s classics age? How does modern technology affect the writing and reading processes? What is the relationship between entertainment and education? These are only some of the questions that the panellists will address from their perspective.
The panel will consist of prominent authors and scholars:
• Norwegian author Maria Parr, author of Vaffelhjarte, recently translated into English by Dr Guy Puzey (Waffle Hearts, published by Walker Books in 2014), and Tonje Glimmerdal (2009).
• Norwegian author and script writer Harald Rosenløw Eeg. His works include the novels Glasskår (1995, Shards of Glass), Yatzy (2004, made into a film in 2009) and Den hvite døden (2013, The White Death) and the film script for Tusen ganger god natt (2013, A Thousand Times Good Night), directed by Erik Poppe.
• Danish author Merete Pryds Helle, author of a number of novels and short stories for adult and young audiences. She has recently completed her first interactive children’s story for iPads, Wuwu & Co.
• Professor Helena Forsås-Scott, editor of the Norvik Press “Selma Lagerlöf in English” series, which provides English-language readers with high-quality new translations of a selection of the Nobel Laureate’s most important texts. Prof Forsås-Scott will focus particularly on Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (translated by Peter Graves and published by Norvik Press in 2012, reissued in hardback in 2014).
• Dr Erin Goeres, Lecturer in Old Norse Language and Literature, co-editor of the book Viking Age Dublin: Walking Tour and Activity Book (published by Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, University of Nottingham, 2014), presenting Viking heritage to children.
The event will take place in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, Wilkins Building, UCL. Doors will be opening at 6.15pm and the discussion will start at 6.30pm.
Norvik Press is pleased to announce the publication of our second instalment to Selma Lagerlöf’s Ring Trilogy, the classic novel, Charlotte Löwensköld. Translated by Linda Schenck with a preface by our Selma Lagerlöf in English Series editor, Helena Forsås-Scott and a translator’s afterword. 290 pages (paperback).
A curse rests on the Löwensköld family, as narrated in the first instalment of Lagerlöf’s Ring Trilogy, The Löwensköld Ring.
Charlotte Löwensköld is the tale of the following generations, a story of psychological insight and social commentary, and of the complexities of a mother-son relationship. Charlotte is in love with Karl-Arthur – both have some Löwensköld blood. Their young love is ill fated; each goes on to marry another.
How we make our life ‘choices’ and what evil forces can be at play around us is beautifully and ironically depicted by Selma Lagerlöf, who was in her sixties when she wrote this tour de force with the lightest imaginable touch.
Selma Lagerlöf was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909.
Literary agent, Lena Stjernström, recommends Charlotte Löwensköld as the best book to buy as a Christmas gift in 2014. (Svensk bokhandel 2014)
The Ring Trilogy by Selma Lagerlöf The Löwensköld Ring(Norvik Press, Translated by Linda Schenck, 2011) Charlotte Löwensköld(Norvik Press, Translated by Linda Schenck, 2014) Anna Svärd (Norvik Press, Translated by Linda Schenck, Upcoming 2015/16)
It’s 70 years since Elin Wägner, feminist, pacifist and pioneering environmentalist, renowned author of prose fiction and journalism, was elected to the Swedish Academy. She was only the second woman ever to be elected; the first was Selma Lagerlöf, also published by Norvik Press.
Penwoman, Wägner’s classic novel from 1910 about the Swedish campaign for women’s suffrage, translated by Sarah Death and published by Norvik Press in 2009, revolves around a young female journalist, as quick-witted as she is intrepid:
‘Well Penwoman, you’ll soon have driven them all away,’ said the Scanian, smugly admiring his pretty reflection in the landlady’s largest pier-glass from his vantage point in the most comfortable chair.
Penwoman, catching her breath after the heat of the battle, looked up: ‘Oh no, do you think so? I don’t mean to. But it’s impossible for me to stay calm when anybody attacks women’s suffrage.’
‘No, it can’t be easy for someone with such a pugnacious spirit to be a woman,’ he teased. ‘Tell me, Miss Penwoman,’ he said, squinting up at her, as she stood by the door, ‘wouldn’t you love to be a man?’ Penwoman screwed up her left eye and pondered for a moment.
‘No, but wouldn’t you?’ she asked in turn.
In Sweden the novel remains one of Wägner’s best-known works. Witty and poignant Penwoman, ‘beautifully translated’ (Belletrista), offers incomparable insights into the Swedish suffrage campaign. Read more about Penwoman here.
Also available from Norvik Press is Helena Forsås-Scott’s Re-Writing the Script: Gender and Community in Elin Wägner (2nd ed., 2014). The first full-length study in English of Wägner’s output, it covers texts representing a wide range of genres and shows some of her work to be considerably more radical than has been observed previously. The book has been described as ‘a standard work’ on Wägner (Avain – Finnish Review of Literary Studies). Read more about Re-Writing the Script here.
Elin Wägner’s Penwoman, translated by Sarah Death, available at all good bookstores and online.
Helena Forsås-Scott’s Re-Writing the Script: Gender and Community in Elin Wägner,(2nd ed., 2014), available at all good bookstores and online.
The work of the translator involves a constant hunt for the “right” text. But sometimes the roles are reversed and the text starts haunting the translator until it is translated.
Mit navn er Karlsen. Lejemorder.
With these simple words, The Contract Killer had made its mark. Having had the privilege to be associated with a group of talented actors, mostly through their work with [Foreign Affairs], the voice of Adam Mannering had already begun dancing around in my head. His intensity, mannerisms and cockney accent provided an outlet for Karlsen, the bungling and would be contract killer, as I flipped through the dusty pages of Benny Andersen’s early take on Scandinavian crime fiction.
On a weekend break in Copenhagen to visit friends, nurture romance and enjoy some Danish ‘hygge’, I uncovered Benny Andersen’s ‘Lejemorderen og andre spil’. Browsing through secondhand book bins, trustingly left on the pedestrianised streets of the city centre, is a regular treat on trips to Denmark’s capital city. As a Daneloving Canadian, Benny Andersen was known to me mostly through his music and cultural significance. Had he written plays as well? The unassuming and dark-covered folio in my hand proved that he had done. The reverse cover revealed that these plays had been performed on Danish and Swedish radio in 1969 and closer inspection revealed its subsequent publication in 1970 by Borgen. Yes, just like the Danish TV series. There was no time for flipping through the first pages, it simply had to be mine. And for ten Danish kroner, this was a simple transaction. Except that the shop was shut for lunch. Would a ten kroner piece left on the doorstep suffice? No, that wouldn’t do. Lejemorderen was slipped back into obscurity with the hope that it would remain that way a little longer. Two days later I returned to the scene of the crime and Lejemorderen was exactly where I had left it. The shop doors were open and I placed a single coin eagerly into the shopkeeper’s hand.
Reading Danish unchecked is usually quite straightforward but the urge to immediately translate into English sometimes makes the task more complicated. During my first look at Lejemorderen, I would helplessly read a line, then translate, read another line, then translate, desperate to know if the dialogue was equally as clever and engaging in English. It was. My spontaneous outbreaks of laughter proved too much for my Danish wife to ignore. I read out a few of the lines to her, and it seemed they were even funnier to a native speaker. I quickly crawled back into my shell to keep the enjoyment to myself and protect The Contract Killer from being swooped out of my hands. I knew immediately that I wanted to translate this piece, and a frantic search to determine if anyone else had beaten me to it ensued. The only discovery of note was a website, Lejemorder.dk where apparently contract killers can be hired on the world wide web. Only in Denmark.
Several weeks after believing that my many e-mails to the Danish publisher had been ignored, I received a pleasant e-mail from the wife of Benny Andersen, Elisabeth Ehmer. Benny Andersen maintained the rights to this little known play, and he was very happy for me to proceed with the translation, provided they were informed of any plans for publication or performance. Permission for several readings and the première were later generously granted to us by Miss Ehmer and Mister Andersen, and an eventual introduction at their residence was the culmination of this lovely e-mail exchange. The meeting with Benny Andersen and his wife was a warm and wonderful affair but at the time the experience didn’t seem overly significant to me. When I later found myself drinking Benny Andersen’s favourite drink of Campari and white wine and repeating his colourful stories, I then realised how privileged I was to meet and work with such a wonderful writer.
I can’t say that translating Lejemorderen was difficult, there were awkward passages, frantic searches through various coloured dictionaries and pleading questions to the resident Dane which were often met with spurious replies questioning who the translator and Danish linguaphile was. One such exchange occurred as Karlsen is about to take out his mark: Hvad med at bestille lidt champagne – hva? – sådan på falderebet, mener jeg.
I had a good sense for the meaning, but neither I nor the Dane knew that the phrase was referencing the launching of a ship. The champagne of course is smashed against the ship, but faldereb, are the ropes that line the gangplank up to the ship, helping passengers avoid falling into the waters below. In colloquial terms, it is translated as ‘at the last moment’ but after endless consultations, I eventually decided on ‘last requests’.
Once the translation of Lejemorderen was complete, there was never any doubt that a performance would be the next step; that process began one evening over caipirinhas and cold beers. The aforementioned group of actors were gathered together to perform an initial reading and they effortlessly breathed life into the characters. Encouraging support was expressed by the readers over the quality of the dialogue and translation, to which I could only respond that I was lucky to be working with the words and genius of Benny Andersen. However, certain tones, intonations and other linguistic subtleties were not always expressed in the same way as I had imagined. I found myself thinking of Roland Barthes’ critical ideas from The Death of the Author, that as soon as the words have been written, they no longer belong to you. They could be read, interpreted and expressed in entirely different ways from my own. It took some time to accept that The Contract Killer was being opened up to countless new and wonderful possibilities. This was the most difficult step in the whole process: letting my words be taken over by others. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm and energy expressed by those involved, coupled with my own excitement at seeing the project come to fruition, allowed me to slowly relax my grip over The Contract Killer.
Next up, a private reading of The Contract Killer at London’s latest Danish import, Nyborg’s Kitchen, complete with Tuborgs and Gammel Dansk, smørrebrød and cheese puffs, and the music of Povl Dissing and Benny Andersen playing quietly in the background. The reading was a resounding success with the howls of laughter from the benches on the left, the thoughtful murmurings from the right and supportive voices from the centre intermingling to join the worlds of theatre, academia and friendship in approval. This strong reception paved the way for A Night of Crime and the opportunity to present The Contract Killer to the wider world.
Unfortunately the event did not go off without a hitch. Several of the original actors were unavailable for the lucky night (chosen by our resident astrologist), including Adam Mannering, the infamous contract killer, who was due to become a father on that very same evening. Organising and promoting the event was a huge task, which I enthusiastically assisted in alongside [Foreign Affairs]’s cofounders, Trine Garrett and Camila França. Our plans for the evening were not always the same, and once again I was forced to remind myself to allow the professionals to carry out their own vision for the show. A Night of Crime emerged from Trine and Camila’s creative genius: Ben Stanley’s Ouroboros would serve as an appetiser and my own version of Inger Christensen’s Dialog would bind the evening together with the main event. An unused shop-front in Hackney Wick presented itself as the ideal location: Blacked-out windows and a warehouse style atmosphere provided the setting that few traditional theatregoers would be accustomed to. Now we just had to fill the space. Hourly checks on ticket sales were not unusual for me, as I anticipated the encroaching evening with a good deal of nerves. Why had only two people bought tickets?!? No wait, there were three now, phew. Eventually I was able to calm myself with the belief that the actors would make the show a success no matter how many people were witness to it. Standing by the door on the night of the show, however, I was pleasantly amazed as a queue of known and unknown faces sought entry outside this random location. My nerves had been settled by a gentle shot of tequila moments before with a loyal group of friends and colleagues who had come to share in my excitement. Any trepidation I had held over the use of the new actors had been quelled during the final warm-up session only an hour before the show. Darren Stamford, aka, The Contract Killer, was burning up the stage and erased my disappointment over the loss of the previous killer. Adam Mannering had managed to attend the show in any case, and even he had to admit, despite his sadness for missing out, that the new Contract Killer had been outstanding.
During the show, I listened to my own words being performed with some anxiety. I waited for a word or a sentence to be missed or stumbled upon, or worse still, to fall flat on the audience. Instead I found myself laughing uncontrollably to the lines that I had heard, that I had imagined and formed, that I had poured over countless times. They were no longer mine; the actors crafted them, the audience absorbed them, and in the excited conversations which followed, they were enjoyed and repeated over and over again. The transformation was complete: The words had been taken from me, as they had been previously taken from one Benny Andersen and soon, The Contract Killer will once again be passed on to new audiences.
The Contract Killer was first performed
in 2011 by [Foreign Affairs].
The Contract Killer by Benny Andersen, translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Published by Norvik Press in 2013. Available from all good bookstores and online.
Paul Russell Garrett is a freelance translator. He has a BA in Scandinavian Studies from UCL. He is currently working on the translation of a Danish children’s novel supported by the Danish Arts Council. http://paulrussellgarrett.com/