How Literary Translation Upgraded my MFA

Our new blog editor Katrine explains how literary translation transformed her creative writing MFA & writing practice overall.

First, I did it for the money. I used to work as a freelance journalist, and to support myself on the side I translated tv-shows, computer games, websites, you name it.  It paid well. So when I came to Columbia University to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, I thought: hey, I’ll just do a double-concentration in fiction and literary translation so I can support myself as a translator of books while trying to make it as a writer. Ha! Ha.

I remember the writing program hosted a mingle with drinks on the first evening of our intro week, and halfway through the event I was already drunk on a) wine, b) nerves, and c) an incredibly long conversation with poet Timothy Donnelly about the great Danish poet Inger Christensen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

That was when I spotted Susan Bernofsky, translator extraordinaire and director of Columbia’s program in literary translation. I thought: this would be a good time to a) casually schmooze one of the greatest living translators from the German and b) ask about the translation program before committing to anything. Bernofsky, however, stopped our conversation before it even began by asking a simple question: why do you want to pursue literary translation? I blatantly told her the truth: to make money while writing. Bernofsky made a face. She told me that I should just stick with commercial translation, then, because literary translation was a creative endeavor that I would also need a side job for. Basically, she made it clear that I wanted to translate literature for the worst possible reasons.

Embarrassed by Bernofsky’s disapproval, I enrolled in a translation workshop to see for myself if commercial and literary translation were, in fact, such different disciplines. My workshop was taught by Natasha Wimmer, who had translated heavyweights such as Roberto Bolaño and Mario Vargas Llosa into English. Wimmer’s enthusiasm for literary translation and her level of attention to the sonic and rhythmical effect of a sentence amazed me; not only did her class convince me to pursue the translation concentration at Columbia, it also made translation an integral part of my own writing, whether poetry or prose.

As I continued to take translation courses, I often found myself self-translating my own texts, creating multiple outcomes for a single sentence. By considering the choices of other translators and comparing multiple versions of the same text against each other, I learned how to turn a critical eye to my own choices on a sentence-level. Exercises in creative mistranslation taught me how to dismantle and reconstruct literature, especially from languages I didn’t understand. I took a course on translating Chinese poetry without knowing any Chinese, and that was exactly the point of the class: to plunge into the unknown and let go of what I thought I knew, in order to experience a foreign language and culture wholeheartedly.

Today I work as a literary translator and an editor of international literature, as well as editor of this blog (!). Hopefully more MFA programs start offering translation courses in the future, so writers like myself—bilingual or not—get a chance to discover the infinite possibilities of language.

I ended up taking two incredible classes with Susan Bernofsky, and during my final year I was hired as her assistant. I basically owe her a big chunk of my salary once all that money starts rolling in from my literary translations. Oh wait.


Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a Danish journalist, writer, and translator. In 2015, she received a fellowship to teach fiction in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. She previously worked as the editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award 2015. She co-edits the Asymptote blog with Patty Nash.