My Imagination’s Storehouse: A Conversation with Translator Denise Newman

Denise Newman is a poet and translator from San Francisco, California. She has translated two novels by Inger Christensen, The Painted Room and Azorno, and two books by Naja Marie Aidt, including Baboon, which won the 2015 PEN Translation Award and an NEA Fellowship. Newman’s fourth poetry collection Future People was published by Apogee Press in 2016, and her writing has appeared in Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, and ZYZZYVA. She teaches at the California College of the Arts.


Katie Smith: When Death Takes Something From You, Give It Back: Carl’s Book chronicles the first few years of the author’s life after losing her 25-year-old son suddenly and tragically. What were some of the challenges you faced in translating such a highly emotional, raw and personal work? What did you enjoy most from the experience?

Denise Newman: First, I was really glad that I could give Naja tangible support during this time by translating her book. When it was published in Denmark, she and I worked with her other translator, Susanna Nied, on excerpts and a summary for English language publishers. We’re all friends, and it felt grounding to be able to concentrate on this together. That part you could say was enjoyable, but the actual work was difficult. Even with fictional characters, I need to inhabit their emotional and mental states in order for them to come alive in a new language. Working on Baboon was demanding in this way because many of the characters are severely deluded. But Carl’s Book was even more challenging; I had to immerse myself in Naja’s voice and narrative and, as her friend and a mother, it was hard at times to retain a presence of mind when I was all stirred up. So I’d step away from it for days, sometimes weeks, and then pulled myself by the sleeve back to the desk.

KS: Naja Marie Aidt’s form is highly experimental, combining diary entries, stream-of-consciousness passages capturing her grief, memories of her son throughout his life, and even Walt Whitman’s poetry. How did you tackle translating such an unconventional book? (For example, in passages utilizing a stream-of-consciousness, do you translate word-for-word, or strive to capture her spirit and meaning in English phrases?)

DN: The constant shifts in form and tone made the translation process invigorating. After doing a rough translation of the whole book, I worked section by section trying to get, as you say, the spirit and meaning of each part right. The poetic sections, like the one on page 19, required more attention to rhythm and sound, which also carry meaning, but still I always try to stay as close to the original words as possible. Naja has told me a few times to feel free to deviate from the original, which says something about my cautious approach.

KS: Aidt quotes a number of other authors’ work through the book. Describe your experience in translating those sections, including snippets of Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, and Nick Cave. In particular, what was it like to translate the poetry of Inger Christensen, a poet whose work you’ve also translated into English?

DN: Luckily there already exist excellent translations of the poems in other languages. We included Susanna Nied’s translation of Inger Christensen’s poems, for example. All the English-language texts got to appear in their original forms, which is probably how Naja reads those authors. She is fluent in English; until recently, Naja had been living for many years in Brooklyn with her family. I did have to translate the notes, poems, and journal entries of Naja’s son. Carl’s actual words hold a lot of power. You feel his presence in his writing, and I had to imagine the kinds of expressions he might use.

Some of the trickiest parts to translate were the dictionary definitions. I couldn’t just use a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary because sometimes there was no clear translation of the word. Take “væsen” for example. It can mean “spirit,” “essence,” “soul,” as well as a person’s “nature” or “disposition.” The word appears throughout the book with different connotations, and ideally they should all point back to the definition. I settled on “spirit” and only included the meanings that pertained to “væsen.”

KS: Grief is a difficult and often universal topic. How did the experience of working with Carl’s Book touch your life? (For me, even the experience of reading Aidt’s book had me texting my mother in the middle of the night.)

DN: I understand why you thought of your mother. On almost every page we’re shown the deep physical and psychic connections between a mother and child. Even death cannot sever them. This book made me feel more compassion for mothers whose children have died violent deaths. Naja’s candor with her own grieving process goes way beneath the surface of what’s typically shown. It’s an incredibly generous work and has a cathartic effect.

KS: The parts I found most haunting from my two reads of Aidt’s book were those wherein she catalogued her dreams of Carl and about his death. Having lost someone close to me, I know my dreams are often a surprising place to encounter my grief. What bit of Carl’s Book will stay with you?

DN: Haunting is a good word for those dreams. They show how the dead are still very much among us influencing our lives. For me, the most gripping parts were the detailed accounts of what happened, from the time of the call notifying the family about the accident, until Carl’s death. Elsewhere, Naja describes the different ways tragedy alters the experience of time, and in these passages, which appear intermittently throughout the book, time seems to slow down. She’s able to recount an amazing amount of detail, calmly and with a directness that makes you feel like you’re standing right beside her.

KS: You previously earned a 2015 PEN Translation Prize for your translation of Aidt’s earlier work, Baboon. How has your relationship with the author affected your translation? Especially in such an intimate work as this.

DN: This is the third book of Naja’s that I’ve translated. I’ve also done an earlier short story collection that isn’t published yet. For me, it’s essential that I relate personally to what I’m translating, and knowing the author only increases that sense of connection. I said earlier that my friendship with Naja made translating the book hard, but it also helped me in many ways. Knowing her and her writings, including her poetry, made it possible to navigate the strange intuitive parts.

She told me that as she was writing Carl’s Book she would sometimes wonder how I’d phrase something in English. This delighted me; translation isn’t always one-directional. Naja’s input with the later drafts was invaluable. She and I are more like collaborators.

KS: You are a writer in addition to your translation work. How does your translation inform your perspective as a poet?

DN: I know translating makes me more aware of language, and I’m always looking up the etymologies of words to see if there are deeper connotations. In a recent poem, I was considering the relationship between the words desire and hunger. I looked up their etymologies and saw that hunger is from the Lithuanian word kanka, meaning torture, and that clarified the main difference and it all became part of the poem.

The other important influence of translation is that I know the books I’ve done inside out—they’re part of my consciousness. It’s a lot like reading a book over and over. Eventually you begin to understand on an intuitive level how its form and meaning work together. These books that I know so well have taught me a lot about writing and are part of my imagination’s storehouse, along with dreams, experiences, relationships, and so on.

KS: What are you working on now?

DN: I’ve just started working on a novella that I came across the last time I was in Denmark. I don’t have a publisher yet—it’s a labor of love.

Author photo courtesy of Taylor Johnson.


Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer and immigration paralegal. Follow her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics. Photo credit: Melissa Kelly.

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