Books In Conversation
THOM SATTERLEE with Tony Leuzzi
Per Aage Brandt, translated by Thom SatterleeIf I Were a Suicide Bomber
Open Letter Books, 2017
As an avid reader of poetry-in-translation, I am deeply indebted to people whose abilities and labors are recessed in shadow. Like a roadie or sound engineer who creates the best sonic conditions for musicians to present their songs in a concert hall or stadium, the translator’s tireless efforts culminate in wide recognition and exposure not for herself but the writer she serves. How many, for example, are likely to swoon at the mention of Stephen Mitchell, Edmund Kelly, or Clare Cavanagh, though each is largely responsible for the appreciation of Rilke, Ritsos, and Szymborska, respectively, in English? The translator’s sacrifice is even more pronounced when she introduces new, untested voices. Per Aage Brandt, one of Denmark’s most substantial contemporary poets, is virtually unknown in the United States, an assurance that his work, while regarded with favor in select literary circles, will be, at best, slow to reach wide readership. Open Letter Books’ 2017 publication of If I Were a Suicide Bomber is an ample selection of Brandt’s recent work impressively translated by Thom Satterlee. Having had the pleasure of reviewing Suicide for the February 2018 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, I found myself wondering with increasing curiosity about the man behind the proverbial curtain. Who was this wizard that made my thorough enjoyment of Brandt’s rational, unsentimental, and highly-human poems possible? Whomever he was, his linguistic agility and poetic sensibility were evident on every page of Suicide. I was therefore resolved to request an interview. Luckily, Satterlee was keen and engaged with me in week-long email exchange where two questions were asked and answered each day in quick succession.
The following discussion reveals that Satterlee’s venture into translation was shaped not by some lofty, lifelong ambition but circumstance and opportunity. A precocious teen whose initial exposure to Danish was the result of a frustrated pursuit of soccer in Denmark, this athlete-come-translator has since seized upon that initial exposure to craft English-language versions of Danish poems as nuanced and rewarding as their originals. By his own admission, Satterlee has had a good deal of help from Brandt himself. Much as Isaac Bashevis Singer worked beside any number of translators to carry his stories from Yiddish to English, Satterlee’s renditions of Brandt are very much collaborations with the poet, who is, as Singer was, fluent in English. Said fluency is impressive, but not enough to bring about a successful translation. Poets attempting to present their work in a language other than their mother tongue benefit from the perspective of their translators. It takes a keen eye and sympathetic heart to make the process work. As the ensuing discussion reveals, Satterlee lacks neither of these attributes. That he is also an award-winning poet himself only deepens his connection to Brandt.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): There are relatively few translators capable and interested in creating English versions of Danish poems. How did you acquire a facility with Danish and what attracted you to the poetry of Per Aage Brandt?
Thom Satterlee: You’re right: there are not a lot of Danish translators out there, especially compared with the Romance languages. But really good work is being done in Danish poetry. The most recent National Translation Award for Poetry went to a Danish translator, for instance—Katrine Øgaard Jensen for her translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen. I love Susanna Nied’s translations of the great Danish poet Inger Christensen; and the work Patrick Phillips has done with Henrik Nordbrandt; and Michael Goldman with a number of Danish poets. So, we are few in number, but mighty!
I don’t know that I’d say I have a “facility” with Danish; not in the sense that I can look at a Danish poem and know, immediately, what it says. I wish it weren’t so, but I have to go to the dictionary for just about every poem I translate. I ask the poets for help, too, since their English is often stronger than my Danish. That’s definitely true with Per Aage Brandt, who’s taught at the university level in English. My Danish is what I learned while being an exchange student for one year of high school in 1983–84. It’s not as sophisticated as I wish it were for the work of poetry translation—but, as I said, I’m pretty handy with a dictionary and I’m aided by the poets I translate.
I felt an immediate attraction to Per Aage Brandt’s poetry. It had something I didn’t see in other poets—not sure just what to call the quality. His is a rational poetry, but never dry. It’s informed by his academic training as a cognitive scientist, but I wouldn’t term his poetry academic in the sense of American poetry coming out of the academy in the fifties and sixties. His poetry is playful, in that he has a very free and far-ranging mind; but it’s controlled both by the forms he chooses—almost always shorter than ten lines with special attention to uniform line length—and his own relaxed personality and dry wit. He’s easy and a pleasure to work with. We often work on a poem together by exchanging emails. And I’ve visited him to work together in person probably a half dozen time over the years.
Rail: Translation is such a self-effacing enterprise insofar as the translator, in the interests of producing the best possible translation, must often suppress his or her own habits and tendencies in the service of another writer’s style and vision. While translating Brandt, can you recall a time when your own creative instincts had to be set aside or redirected in order to produce a translation that best expressed Brandt’s maneuvers and intentions?
Satterlee: A particular instance? That’s hard to pin down. So much gets lost in the swirl and slush of recreating. I used to keep my handwritten draft pages, but I don’t anymore. I do have some of the Word documents with Per Aage’s comments on my earlier versions of specific poems. When I prepared to speak to your class, I found some instances in the title poem to our newest collection, Suicide, where Per Aage suggested different wording, generally in the direction of a more serious tone. In that poem, with its potentially shocking subject matter, I felt like I needed to stay very close to his intention—which was not to shock, but to give a reasoned and humane answer to perhaps the most important question of all: What idea would you die for? Per Aage’s answer is brilliant, I think: to die in the act of destroying “the world’s most / insane, stupid, malodorous, and in every / respect repulsive ideas.” That would be the end to terrorist attacks, wouldn’t it? At any rate, for the poem to carry its message required very careful wording; translating it was a bit like working on a bomb.
Rail: I’m not terribly surprised to hear that you don’t have any exceptional facility with Danish because your admission is similar to those of other translators I’ve spoken with—translators who, like you, ended up serving the poems they translated very well. What drew you to the translation of Danish poetry if your own skills in the language weren’t advanced? Was working with Brandt himself a stipulation of the work? Would you ever try translating, for instance, Danish poems by poets who are not available for collaboration?
Satterlee: I got started translating Danish poetry when I was in graduate school at SUNY Brockport. I believe it was Al Poulin, the founder of BOA Editions, who first asked me who the best living Danish poets were. It probably was Al. I was working as his assistant—their headquarters were in Brockport out of Al’s home at the time—and translation was sort of in the air. He had translated Rilke, both French and German, and was working on the poetry of the Quebecoise poet Anne Hebert. And BOA was publishing new translations of Baudelaire. Still, if my memory is correct, it took a question from Al to prompt me into first looking into contemporary Danish poetry, then discovering poets I wanted to translate, beginning with Henrik Nordbrandt.
Al’s question to me about Danish poets goes back to 1993, so that’s when I started to seriously consider becoming a translator of Danish poetry. I should probably say that back then, in my twenties, I was less humble and more delusional about my skills in the Danish language. I didn’t ask for anyone’s help at first. But then I sent some of my earliest translations to an editor who just happened to know Norwegian, which meant he could read Danish, and received an unsolicited critique along with the usual form rejection. After that experience, I became more careful, though I’m sure I still make mistakes that creep in here and there.
My work with Brandt didn’t begin until 2007, after I’d already published one book of translation and a book of my own poetry. He was teaching at Case Western Reserve at the time, and also leading a Semiotics Circle at nearby Oberlin College. Some of the members of that group wanted to read Per Aage’s poetry in English, and they contacted the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), who then contacted all the Danish translators in their database. I recall doing a sample translation of one of Per Aage’s poems, which he approved of and sent more. It was never a stipulation, on my part or his, that he would be involved in the translation process. But it always seemed like a good idea; like I’d be an idiot not to ask for his help!
I have translated a few poems by poets who are no longer alive, though I prefer to work with living poets. My feelings might be different if I had stronger confidence (and reason for stronger confidence) in my Danish. But still, if an author is alive and willing to assist the translator, why not take the help? Actually, I can imagine situations where collaboration would make the process messier—for instance, if the author is not as expert in the target language and insists on changes that weaken the translation. But I’m lucky to be working with Per Aage. His English is outstanding and he’s an excellent collaborator. He has been part of a jazz band for decades, so he knows how to improvise with others.
Rail: As you admit, Brandt’s knowledge of English is greater than your knowledge of Danish. Why, do you suppose, Brandt himself did not want to try his hand at translating his own poems into English? Is there something inherent in the nature of translation that requires another mind to carry the poems over to another language?
Satterlee: Right. Why doesn’t Brandt translate his own poems? You’re right. He could. And sometimes, to pull the veil entirely away, he rewrites my translations. But he does it with such gentle good humor, and he’s encouraged me so many times with compliments on my work that I’m happy to let him do it. There’s maybe a handful of translations that he’s pretty much completely re-written; I’d have a hard time finding which ones they are, but they are proof, if proof were needed, that he can translate himself into English.
So, what am I here for? To extend the jazz analogy, I’m part of the group, the duo, and I like being part of the music-making process. Happy, too, not really to know where my notes end and Per Aage’s start. Well…well…oh, to be honest, yes, there are times when I reread a translation that’s been published in a journal or book and come upon a line and think, “Damn! That sounds good,” and wonder was that my or Per Aage’s invention. And sometimes I do go to the trouble of looking through old files and seeing if I can discover if I originally translated that line that way or if Per Aage made a suggestion and it’s his English translation of his Danish line that I’m admiring. I have found examples both ways: his brilliant language and mine. But of course, any line I translate had its origin in what Per Aage wrote in Danish. When he translates his Danish into equally evocative and musical English…that shows me what true bilingualism is like. And I’m just in awe of that kind of talent.
Rail: You allude to your own poetry. A book of original material was released before you began translating Brandt. I’m wondering how much of your experience as a translator determined your path as a poet. For example, did you work with Norwegian and Danish poets in some way help you clarify an aesthetic? Or do you see your own original work quite separately from your work as a translator?
Satterlee: I have thought of the connection between my translation and my own writing in terms of an apprenticeship. I started writing poems before I started translating, but it’s safe to say that when you’re twenty-something years old and taking poetry workshops you’re still a long ways off from being a master craftsman. But then I got this opportunity to follow very closely in the word-footprints of accomplished poets. It had always seemed important and helpful to me to read poets in English—that too was part of the training for a young poet. With translation, though, you’re both reading and, in a sense, writing. I suppose it’s like painters who belonged to the workshop of a famous artist—you’re shown how it’s done, and you get to do some of the work yourself; but within certain limits.
There’s a more crass way in which translation aided my development. I don’t think I would have gotten into a good MFA program on the merits of my poems, but I was able to go to the University of Arkansas and study Literary Translation because I’d built up a good portfolio of translations and had some published in journals—better journals than my poems would get into. And at Arkansas, the translation program is part of the Creative Writing program, so students from different genres took many of the same classes. It was humbling to see how talented my peers were; but I could also learn from them—or at the very least ask more of my own poetry while trying to catch up to other writers.
I wouldn’t say that I formed my aesthetic based on the poets I translated. Probably my aesthetic taste, in whatever way it was formed, came first and I chose to translate poets whose poems I liked, that fit my taste.
Rail: What are some lessons English-language readers of, say, Suicide or the earlier collection These Hands might learn from Brandt that will enrich their perspective of poetry in ways that they would likely not have encountered had they not encountered him?
Satterlee: That’s a good question. Maybe I can answer it by saying what I’ve gained by reading and translating Brandt’s work. I find in him an approach to poetry that I don’t see in other poets I’ve read. He has a strong commitment to ongoing, prolific production, and he doesn’t see his work as ever being interrupted, really. In a sense, Per Aage has been writing one long poem since the 1970s, and now that poem spans over thirty volumes. Per Aage, from what he’s told me, has a sense of the “overall flow” of his work, and that’s one reason he doesn’t title individual poems in the customary way, because he doesn’t want them seen as entirely separate entities, crouched there on the page with each its own umbrella-title. Even his book titles avoid dividing the work up. In Danish the word digte, which means poems, is used in the title of most poetry collections. Per Aage uses the word poesi, which is nearer to “verse” or “poetry” and emphasizes how the whole work, from single book to all the books put together, goes together. And when you read Per Aage’s verse, those little six to ten line crates stacked three or four to a page and separated with only an asterisk, you get the feeling, or at least I do, of witnessing a mind unfolding, one thought at a time. I don’t see this approach to poetry-making anywhere else. It’s like he’s leaving a literal record of his mind. And it’s truly a fascinating mind.
Rail: Whenever one translates a poem, one has to consider the balance between accuracy and energy. Do you ever find that one consideration outweighs the other and could you give an example from one of the poems in Suicide?
Satterlee: Certain idioms, and just about any play on words, can present the sort of challenge you‘re talking about. With Per Aage the issue gets even more complicated when he deploys an idiom in connection with one of his post-titles. Here’s the Danish for the last two lines and post-title from one of the poems in Suicide: “så såre vi forstår, hvad / nogen siger, gør vi bedst i at tage benene / (på nakken).” The last four words comprise an idiomatic phrase that means, more or less, get the hell out of there. But the last line runs into the post-title, competing the idiom. Trying to get the sense in English and some of the playfulness, too, meant I had to negotiate these two concerns of accuracy and energy. Here’s what I came up with: “as soon as we understand / what someone is saying, it’s best to start running / (and not look back).”
Rail: I remember first getting my hands on a collection of Yannis Ritsos translations assemble by a number of hands. No matter who was translating, Ritsos’s originality and voice came through. Nonetheless, each translator had an identifiable style. I think of the differences between Kimon Friar and Edmund Keeley’s equally excellent yet distinct versions and am startled by how much the translator’s personality and tendencies come through. I suppose it’s inevitable. What aspects of your poetic tendencies you think come through in your translations of Brandt that another translator might not lean towards?
Satterlee: It’s hard for me to say since I’ve never seen anyone else’s translation of Brandt. I could imagine that I pay closer attention to form than another translator might. I enjoy the challenge of making those lines of equal length, as Brandt does in his Danish, and that technical feature informs many of my word choices. A translator who abandons the need to represent form would probably produce a more literal translation with ragged edges. I think my desire to have bilingual editions of the translation informs my decision about form, too, because even a reader who can’t make out the Danish poem can look from left to right and see if my translation looks like, has the same basic shape as Per Aage’s.
Rail: I understand you are searching for a publisher for another collection of your translations of Brandt poems. What are some ways this new collection differs from Suicide?
Satterlee: That’s true, I am. But it’s actually a pretty big project and I’m a long way from finishing it. It’ll probably take me several years since the new collection, unlike the earlier two, would not be a selection from several books—no skipping the hard poems!—but a translation of every poem from one of Per Aage’s most recent works. And it’s not a single book of poems, either. It’s a tetralogy! Have you ever heard of a poet doing that, publishing a four-book set? I suppose somebody must have. At any rate, the overall title of Per Age’s book is Weather Reports, with each volume having a separate title. When it came out in Danish last year, the publisher produced these beautiful hand-sewn volumes all wrapped together and sold as a set. I would love to find an English publisher who’d treat the work with that much care.
Rail: Have you ever toyed with translating your own poems into Danish? If so, how might your relationship to the language pull the original into new directions?
Satterlee: I’ve never tried to translate my own poems, no. I wonder why that is. I mean, I’ve never even wanted to try, even though I probably could do a passable job and, as you say, the exercise would likely have some interesting linguistic results—pulling my expression in new directions. This question, and my immediate response to it—that is, that even if I could translate my poems I wouldn’t want to—makes me think of your earlier question about Per Aage translating himself into English. A couple of things occur to me. The first has to do with the relationship between original poem and translated poem, which I often think of as analogous to an original composition of music, say for piano, and a later transcription of the same music for a different instrument, say a harp. If you’re the person who wrote the original piece for piano, how much fun is left in transcribing it for the harp? Some, certainly, and you’d probably do a few things differently here and there; possibly to your own surprise. But I think a second artist transcribing the piece is likely to gain more satisfaction in sort of doubling as the original composer, coming as closely as one could to living inside the music in a pure, unperformed, or pre-performed sense. So, I’m guessing that one reason I don’t care to translate my poems is this idea of diminished returns: I’ve already had the experience of creating them in English. I suspect, but don’t know because I’ve never asked him, that Per Aage feels the same. The question, “Why not translate your work into another language that you also speak?” becomes, “Why, when you have a translator who’s willing to do it for you?”