Panellists at the live launch of Some Would Call This Living, an anthology of Herman Bang’s writings
This is the second of two blogs reporting on our recent book launch event for an anthology of writings by Herman Bang: Some Would Call This Living. In part two, we hear from the translators.
Charlotte Barslund on her translations of short stories
While working on his short stories, I have come to appreciate just how well Bang captures the inner lives of characters who might at first sight not be regarded as worthy protagonists. He nails the stifled, impoverished lives of decent people. They try their hardest to improve their lot in life, and the few happy times they have and their lives of endless drudgery are invoked with agonising accuracy, leaving the reader with a sense of outrage and frustration at the harshness of the human condition. At the same time he is an astute, witty and entertaining observer of human nature’s less attractive sides: greed, vanity, self-importance, desire, snobbery. These themes are universal, they span generations and cultures.
As a literary translator working in commercial publishing, rather than academia, my priority was to produce translations which would make it clear why Bang is a writer who deserves wider recognition. When I encountered issues in the Danish text such as terms which nobody knew, inconsistencies in the geography in some short stories and errors in the naming of characters, I was very keen that these should be resolved and cleared up. I was surprised at how many anomalies we spotted, given that Bang had presumably had an editor for his published works. One unintentionally funny error included a heroine’s brother and love interest both being given the same name on the final few pages, which spiced up the plot no end. Either Bang’s editor wasn’t paying attention, or it was a case of not questioning what they presumed to be a divinely inspired author. However, in my experience working with 21st-century publishers, you do your authors no favours by not fixing their mistakes.
Paul Russell Garrett on Bang’s autobiographical accounts
Herman Bang was a very complex personality, who wrote in different ways in different genres. It was a stimulating part of this enterprise to be sent several collections of his texts to read, and to be able to compare solutions with other translators.
There is a great deal of humour in Bang’s autobiographical writings, sometimes at his own expense, as in his account of the lamentable reception of a tour of Bornholm he undertook with fellow artists. He can be extremely sarcastic – for example in his description of the Kaiser’s family, whose only function in life seems to be to pose for photographs – and is fond of biting understatements. Otherwise he is frequently a sympathetic observer of the different classes of society, especially those who are lower down the social scale.
He can also write very subtly, making oblique hints at events rather than explaining them fully. In ‘Expelled from Germany’, for example, he dances around the question as to why he is driven out of one place after another, leaving it to the reader to conjecture as to the cause of his discomfort.
Janet Garton on her translations
Bang’s fiction is at times problematic, even frustrating to unravel. He has often been called Denmark’s most important impressionist writer; his style is allusive and the meaning often elusive. He refers to things obliquely, giving the reader a glimpse of a person or a situation which suggests hidden depths or ambiguities which you are left to guess at. Let me give an example.
The long story ‘The Ravens’ tells of an old lady, Frøken Sejer, who is presumed to be wealthy, and is surrounded by a family who are all keen to inherit her wealth and stop her squandering it. She gives a lavish dinner for all of them, which they enjoy greedily, at the same time as wondering privately how much it has cost and counting the silver cutlery and cut-glass bowls, which seem to be mysteriously disappearing. Some of them are hoping to have her declared incapable of managing her affairs and confined to an asylum, and there is a great deal of half-concealed jostling for attention and point-scoring against perceived rivals for the inheritance, not to mention downright thieving. There are many unsubtle hints at possible strategies to worm Frøken Sejer’s money out of her, while she enjoys the whole situation hugely.
There is also a concealed homosexual thread running through the story – concealed because of course it could not be openly acknowledged in 1902. There are odd references to having some business in a kiosk, making it sound as if they are places for flirtation, whether hetero- or homosexual. One of the characters in this story, Willy Hauch, is clearly homosexual; he is introduced as being ‘polished to a shine all over’ and comes in apologising for being late because he has had ‘an errand at a kiosk’. He makes various remarks about not being the marrying kind, and during dinner he keeps an eye on Herr Lauritzen, the attractive young hired waiter, who assures Willy at one point that he has ‘many strings to my bow’. As people depart after the dinner, Willy jumps on to an electric tram and, the narrator tells us,
suddenly spotted Herr Lauritzen …
‘Fancy meeting you here, Lauritzen,’ Willy said, ‘we’ve caught the same tram.’
‘So it would appear, Herr Hauch,’ Lauritzen replied with a nod.
No more is said, and they both leave the story at this point.