by Ebba Wester
Sherilyn Hellberg is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She recently received the Leif and Inger Sjöberg Award from the American-Scandinavian Foundation for her translation from Danish to English of Caspar Eric’s poem Nike. Radical Art Review recently caught up with her to talk poetry, mythology and the art of translation.
Ebba: Hi Sheri, thank you so much for joining us today! Congratulations again on your recent award for your translation of Caspar Eric’s poem Nike.
I want to read the really nice excerpt of praise published on the Foundation’s website — to flatter you a little bit, but also because I think it gives a nice introduction to both Caspar’s work Nike, as well as to your work of translating it:
“In this excerpt from the autobiographical long poem Nike by Danish author Caspar Eric, Sherilyn Hellberg conveys to the reader in a convincing and idiomatic manner the intensity, raw emotion and occasional awkwardness in the voice of an angry protagonist who sees himself as a dehumanized statistic of people with cerebral palsy.”
So, I thought I would start just by asking what drew you to translate this particular poem?
Sheryl: I guess it just really resonated with me...which may seem surprising because I don’t necessarily identify with the protagonist of the poem. But there is this core feeling which runs through the work which is about this sort of awkwardness—this feeling of being looked at, of seeing yourself through others people’s eyes, and feeling that other people see some part of you that you don’t like or don’t want to be there.
In Nike, this feeling is pretty explicitly connected to the fact that the protagonist suffers from Cerebral Palsy, but at the same time, I think there’s something really universal here. And I think that what’s really compelling about this book is the way that Caspar draws the reader in through this universal feeling. Once he’s got you in there, he draws out the nuances of that feeling from the perspective of disability. All through this bleak but intense language. It’s really powerful.
Ebba: Definitely. The title, ‘Nike’, has a lot of connotations — the Goddess, or Greek marble statue, and the popular athletic wear brand. What ways does the title function in relation to the central theme or themes of the work?
Sheryl: The title is a really good example of something the poem seems to do throughout, namely this blend of high and low, or the artistic/literary and commercial/pop cultural.
You have the Greek mythology as this classic motif, combined with a commercial sports logo… both “ideals” which are always out of reach. I think that it comes out, maybe, in the form of reaching for something—I’m imagining something on a sports logo, but also those Greek statues in pose, throwing something or doing some sort of sport [laughs]. There is this idea of movement, reaching, almost grasping; but then the statue is frozen, unable to do it. In part of the poem he imagines himself as a melting ice-sculpture going to these gallery openings:
I can be so beautiful
when I’m standing there stoned at
various fancy openings
with free shitty beer
I have a natural twist
in my hip because my body
has adapted itself
the best it could
to the various
settings that make me
have a permanent contrapposto
a technique that’s used
to make Greek statues
like they’re moving
from different perspectives
This passage is so interesting! Not only the combination of cheap beer and fancy openings but also the comparison of his “natural twist” to the contrapposto stance of Greek statues. He imagines his body as a work of art, an ideal, but also as frozen and distant in the same way that all these ideals are. And on display, the object of so many strangers’ gazes.
At other points, ‘Nike’ clearly refers to the sporting goods brand, and more importantly to Nike’s marketing catchphrase: “Just do it”. In both cases, the figure of Nike—which, in the poem, turns into this strange blend of Greek mythology and American commercialism—seems to signify an ideal always out of reach. A body that the narrator can never have, and the pressure society puts not only on those with disabilities, but on people in general to obtain this ideal.
Ebba: It’s so great. In that particular passage, I got really excited because I thought that there was a new play on words when he says that he’s “stoned” at these various openings. Stoned, also like a Greek statue! But it turns out that it’s actually the same expression with the same double meaning in Danish [laughs] So that just translated really well.
Sheryl: [Laughs] Sometimes you get lucky.
Ebba: On that note, I wanted to talk a bit about the actual translation of the work, and what that was like. Because I think it can seem deceptively simple…how would you describe it, and what were the challenges in capturing it in English? Maybe we can start with talking about his tone of voice.
Sheryl: I think it feels really raw, really earnest. There’s this intense vulnerability. But at the same time, there’s also this kind of… I don’t know if aggression is the right word, but… If you hear Caspar reading aloud he reads them almost with a kind of hardness. You can hear Caspar read it out loud on YouTube and I really recommend it, even if you don’t speak Danish. It gave me really different sense of the poem than when I first read it.
The language is really simple, mostly everyday words and everyday expressions. It borders on colloquial sometimes. You might read this and think, this is the easiest thing in the world to translate—but it absolutely isn’t. In some ways the fact that it’s simple makes it even more difficult.
I think one of the challenges, especially from Danish to English is that, in Danish there’s often one word to describe something that in English there might be five or ten words for. And it’s not only that when you’re translating you have to sort through them and pick one; my feeling is that, because there are fewer words—or you have one word that describes multiple things—words seem to be weighted with meaning in a different way.
A lot of recent Danish literature uses quite simple, colloquial language and slang, including English expressions. Caspar Eric is obviously a perfect example of this. But I’m also reminded of Olga Ravn’s Celestine from a few years ago, which is a really dense and complex Gothic novel, all about glitter and nachos and teenage crushes.
One thing I love about a lot of contemporary Danish literature is that so much of it is incredibly compelling and complex but without feeling “fancy” or elitist. There’s also been this trend of publishing really short books—both poetry collections and novels —which you can read in a day or even a few hours. So, there’s an accessibility built into a lot of new Danish literature on multiple levels.
Actually when I first saw the award announcement from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, I was taken aback because they wrote that I captured the “occasional awkwardness” of the poem. I was immediately mortified and very nervous that I had somehow produced an awkward translation. But thinking a little more about it, I think that “awkwardness” makes so much sense, especially in relation to the style and rhythm of the poem.
Nike is written as one, basically continuous sentence, where many lines connect to those that precede and follow them. There’s this foundation of continuity, but at the same time, each line is usually just a small handful of words— rarely more than 3 or 4— which gives this choppy, stuttering effect. That was something I really tried to get into the English, but also one of the challenges, since it usually takes more words to convey the same idea or meaning in English than it would in Danish. But I tried to keep things brief and to use short and emphatic words, and when possible, I also tried to mimic the number of syllables or syllabic patterns in a line.
Ebba: It seems to me that there would be an added pressure in translating someone’s autobiographical work. Have you met or spoken to Caspar? Did you do any form of preparation or research outside of the poem itself, or did you approach the text as though (forgive the tired / morbid expression) the ‘author is dead’?
Sheryl: Somewhere in-between probably. I have met Caspar, but I haven’t discussed this specific poem with him before or while translating it. But there were certainly other kinds of research. I’ve read a lot of his other work, and listened to him at poetry readings. I’ve also tried to read around his sources of inspiration. Caspar Eric translated Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel into Danish, for example, and 7/11, Caspar’s debut poetry collection, has this amazing index at the back with all kinds of references.
I think that knowing an author’s interlocutors can be at least as revealing as their intentions. Though of course all of these kinds of paratextual factors can influence the translation in different ways, so it’s good to be wary of that too. This is a really important factor in translating from Danish to English, especially contemporary literature.
Most writers are avid readers. Obviously both because Denmark is such a small country and because most Danes read and speak English so well, a lot of international literature comes in through English. These intertextual moments are somewhere, I think, that the translator can do a lot work and make a lot of connections happen—make a place for a text to be situated in a literary historical context or lineage—that might otherwise be lost in translation.
Ebba: One of Caspar’s repeated ‘motifs’, I suppose you could say, is to write certain phrases or passages in English, particularly when quoting commercial slogans for example. In your translation you’ve kept these passages in English, which in some ways seems both obvious and natural, but it’s also a kind of interesting instance of ‘untranslatability’. What was the most challenging part about translating Nike?
Sheryl: Ugh, tell me about it! Partially because of the influence of American and British popular culture, but also because English is so frequently used in workplaces and advertising in Denmark, it seems like English is increasingly seeping into the Danish language.
Especially among young people, it’s not unusual to hear smatterings of words and phrases in English, which seems to work conversationally as a kind of slang or pop-culture reference in itself. This infiltration of English into the Danish language is reflected in a lot of contemporary Danish literature, but all the more so in the work of an author like Caspar Eric, whose poetry is really immersed in popular culture and everyday life among young people in Copenhagen.
In both “real life” and literature, these bursts of English phrases—usually drawn from television or the like—have a kind of strangeness and conversational capital they lack when put back amidst English text. The irony that’s often embedded in the Danish use of English—especially more cliché and cringy expressions—is totally lost. And it’s not like I could translate them and put them into Danish instead!
One of the stranger things I’ve encountered while translating is the need to translate something written in English in a Danish text into a different English word or phrase. In 7/11, for example, there’s a poem about being at a dinner party where the host has made some (presumably dry) veggie burgers and there’s no “dressing.” At least in an American context, it’s totally strange to talk about putting “dressing” on a burger, or actually to use the word “dressing” without specifying which type of dressing you’re talking about (Russian, Italian, or even “salad dressing”). Or, in Danish, the word you use to describe “a classic” (work of music, etc) is the English term “evergreen.”
Obviously, language develops out of and in relation to cultural and social contexts. So British English is different to American English which is different to Australian English. Along those lines, the English sprinkled throughout Danish has also related in its own ways to the Danish language and Danish culture.
From the perspective of translation, it can be totally frustrating, but it’s also crazy fascinating!
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Sherilyn Hellberg is is currently working toward a PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where she focuses on modern and contemporary Danish, French, and German literature, film, and critical theory.
Caspar Eric’s Nike was published in 2015 by Danish publishing house Gyldendal.