A Mischievous Process: Translating Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Katrine Øgaard Jensen interviewed by K. B. Thors

Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s translation of the Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart won the 2018 National Translation Award in Poetry. Outgoing Vessel, Olsen’s sequel to Third-Millennium Heart, received the 2015 Danish Critics Prize for Literature and is now out in Jensen’s English translation. In this conversation with a fellow poet-translator, K. B. Thors, Jensen discusses the new collection, what it’s like to translate grief to new contexts, and how the poems evolve in her translation.

K. B. Thors: The book opens with a section called “I Have Spent Time,” in which a speaker declares that it has been “a mistake” to try to decipher experience, that it would be better to turn to stone. We then embark on a trip that is urgent and pissed off to a future that feels blank and timeless. Very 2021! The Danish original Udgående fartøj was published in 2015 as a sequel to Third-Millennium Heart. What does it mean to put this book into historical context when it feels like it floats outside of time?

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: The book feels timeless because its subject matter, grief, is timeless. Put into the context of the collective grief that we’re experiencing in 2021, I think the book naturally moves from timeless to timely in this historical moment. The “pissed-off urgency” that a single person can feel in their grief is something that we’re suddenly feeling collectively as humans, across borders, at the same time.

KBT: Olsen’s narration shifts from technical incisiveness to slangy humor, orbiting centers of intense hurt. For example:

all experience is pathetic
all use of language is in itself a prayer


What is it about translation as a process that makes an emotional human conduit of the translator? Can you speak to the intimacy of this work?

KØJ: While the prequel to this book, Third-Millennium Heart, is about life and bringing a child into a capitalist society, Ursula told me that Outgoing Vessel came out of a ricochet-effect from being pregnant and suddenly feeling the losses in her life very strongly, including the loss of her mother, who died of cancer when Ursula was only fifteen.

In the middle of translating Outgoing Vessel, I lost my own father to cancer, and two months later the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global health emergency. Though I was twice the age that Ursula had been when she lost a parent, my father still died much too soon, and the loss filled me with all these “inappropriate” feelings that Outgoing Vessel explores: grief, of course, but also anger, self-hate, and this highly involuntary vulnerability. To make matters worse, the global pandemic brought with it so many tragic deaths; the losses just kept piling up across the globe and in New York City, where I lived. Lines from the book like “so many dead / their eyeballs are filling this vessel / grave / vessel / grave / vessel / the earth is a slow fire / re: counting the dead: / i have a strategy in place / I HAVE A STRATEGY IN PLACE” suddenly became charged with new meaning in this moment of collective mourning.

All good poet-translators work from a place of empathy, and if I were to describe the inner journey of translating Third-Millennium Heart—a book about abortion, pregnancy, and parenthood, all of which I have not experienced myself—I think the description of being a human conduit fits perfectly. Translating Outgoing Vessel, however, was a completely different journey: it was fucking personal. I’m not religious, but in 2020 translating this work became a prayer, a sort of offering to the cosmos. I poured my own grief and anger, my own pathetic experience, into the voice of Outgoing Vessel’s speaker, and I don’t know if it was healing, but it was one hundred percent freeing to rage through the pages like that. When I told Ursula, after delivering the manuscript, about my “translation therapy” experience, she said that she had had a similar experience writing the book and added, in her cheerful Ursula fashion, “The English version has the straightforwardness and the murderousness that it’s supposed to have.”

KBT: Between the visceral grief and scathing critique, Outgoing Vessel is also quite funny! I was laughing by the second page: 

no one except me can hate feelings
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they still succumb to them

[ … ]

among all time’s winners
i am the hardest

What does the book have to say about hating feelings?

KØJ: When you lose someone, there is an expectation that mourning happens in a nice, quiet sort of way. In reality, loss can make you feel an explosive rage. Adding to that social tension is this economic idea of losing, that someone who has lost is a loser: the capitalist human. The book is exploring the psychology of this capitalist human in a society where loss is simply unacceptable—it cannot happen, and yet it happens all the time. It’s unavoidable, but it’s unacceptable, which is a bizarre position for the human to be in. From a Western perspective, it’s entirely possible to live for a long time without thinking of loss as something natural, and then when you experience loss you end up thinking: there’s something wrong with me, the fact that I’ve lost, it’s a humiliation and something I should hide; I cannot bring it with me anywhere. So I think the book is, in part, a vulnerable speaker’s earnest attempt at and desire for hardness in a society that celebrates tough winners rather than vulnerable “losers,” meaning those who have experienced loss.

KBT: A critic for the Danish broadsheet Politiken wrote that, “While Third-Millennium Heart was about grief and capitalism, Outgoing Vessel is about grief and science fiction.” What role does fiction play in sci-fi poetry? Are space odyssey genre tags useful in bringing a book to readers of another language?

KØJ: In terms of science fiction influence, I know that Ursula is a huge fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, so there’s that. But Outgoing Vessel contains more direct references to Lewis Carroll’s work, so there’s a fantasy connection as well. Before Ursula started studying philosophy and musicology, she went to medical school, and that scientific background undeniably shaped both Third-Millennium Heart and Outgoing Vessel in terms of language and imagery. So I don’t know if genre tags were even a consideration when Ursula wrote these books. Maybe she just felt like a planet-sized grief was growing inside her. But to answer your second question: yes, I definitely think science fiction writing—whether in poetry or prose—has a universal quality that transcends nations and cultures.

KBT: I was struck by these lines:

is hate smooth and does it encircle disjointed love
is love smooth and does it encircle disjointed hate

i don’t think disjointed is the word i’m looking for

What is it like to have the work you’re translating come right out and say “I don’t think X is the word I’m looking for”? Relief? Pressure? In your translator’s note you write that, “According to Olsen, she is simply the first translator of the idea, and I am the second.”

KØJ: That particular example was actually driving me nuts at first—mainly because there’s a callback to that line in a later poem: “two dogs are tangled up in each other’s leashes in front of me / at the park, which leads to my point: not the disjointed, but the / discordant, consisting of different agents pulling in different / directions and STILL not coming apart: a knot of dogs.” I think it reads clearly in English now, but when I first read the Danish version and tried to translate it, I had no idea what the speaker was talking about. It was such a convoluted image to me. However, every time I edited my English version it became a bit clearer to me. In the end, I understood the image and which words to choose in English (disjointed/discordant) to best convey it. This may sound counterintuitive, but stepping away from the original and editing the poems fully in English helps me get closer to what the Danish version is saying. Ursula’s writing in Danish is a bit more fragmented than my English translations, a bit harder to decipher for the reader. It’s a subtle difference between the two versions, but it’s there.

Aside from the attempt to be precise and concise in translation, I mention in my translator’s note some examples of how I wanted to allow Outgoing Vessel to mutate in translation, to give it its own expression in English. For instance, instead of translating forvredethed as “distortion” or “twistedness” I decided on “wrungness,” while in another poem, den ukrænkeligste / urørligste became “the sacrosanctest / untouchablest” in my translation. In a third poem, I chose to directly mistranslate the Danish word skamrides to “shameridden” instead of accurately translating it as “overridden.” I did this to preserve the play on shame in the Danish lines jeg er et æsel som skal skamrides / jeg er et dyr som skal elskes skamløst af de skamløse, which then became “i am a donkey that must be shameridden / i am an animal that must be loved shamelessly / by the shameless” in the English version. In another example, I mutated alle er iført blå morgenkåber (direct translation: all are dressed in blue dressing gowns) to “all are silkrobed in blue,” after asking Ursula which material she had imagined the dressing gowns to be made of.

I like the idea of opening a poem to new possibilities for language and imagery in translation rather than confining the poem to something that can only lose in translation. This was my approach to translating Third-Millennium Heart as well—letting the text evolve in translation—and Ursula has been completely on board with this strategy from the very beginning of our collaboration. It brings both relief and pressure to have this freedom in translation, but along with risk comes play, and I honestly believe that Ursula’s poetry can only really be experienced in translation by way of a mischievous process.

Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Outgoing Vessel, translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, is out now from Action Books.

Published on April 14, 2021