Translator’s Profile: K. E. Semmel

Q&A with K. E. Semmel, translator from the Danish and 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow.

K. E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Southern Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere. His translations include books by Naja Marie Aidt, Karin Fossum, Erik Valeur, Jussi Adler Olsen, Simon Fruelund and, forthcoming in winter 2016, Jesper Bugge Kold. He is a recipient of numerous grants from the Danish Arts Foundation and is a 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow.


Who are you? What do you translate? 

First, thank you for asking me to do this interview. I’ve started an interview series with the Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP) called “Translator’s Cut,” in which I travel the globe, so to speak, interviewing translators about their work. So I’m more used to being on the opposite side of an interview.

Who am I? I’m a literary translator and writer, working from Danish to English (though I’ve translated some Norwegian and would do it again if the right opportunity presented itself). My educational background is in History and Literature, and my professional background is in the nonprofit world. For the past couple years, however, I’ve been translating full time. Like with any translator, I suspect, my primary reason for translating is that I love books and literature and want everyone to experience some really fantastic books that I happen to be able to render in English.

Early in his career Jonathan Franzen, I’ve read somewhere, would often lie prostrate on the floor following a day of writing—the implication being that the weight of his work, the difficulty, the seemingly endless failure—was simply too much to bear. I can relate to that. Any time you toil with language, knowing your work will soon be held up to public inspection, you feel this immense burden to get it exactly right. But perfection is a mean-spirited, slippery beast, and once you think you’ve got hold of it, it slithers from your grasp. You can’t really contain it. And so you’re left feeling your failure. At least that’s how it is for me. Fear of failure certainly drives me to obsess on whatever it is I’m working on at the moment. Basically, my first reaction to beginning a new project is, Don’t fuck this up!

It’s the same at the end of the project. Whenever I send off a manuscript to an editor I get this sinking feeling in my stomach and I want to vomit. I get that way when the book is published and people start reading the novel and writing reviews, etc. I’m never satisfied. It kind of sucks, actually, but hopefully, in the end, the translations are better for it. Still, the drive to get the words right is intoxicating. When the work starts to come together and you feel it’s right, that’s a very powerful creative experience. It rejuvenates you, keeps you going.


Describe your current/most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it?

My most recent project is Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. Well, let me restate that. My most recent published project is Rock, Paper, Scissors. As with any translator (or writer for that matter), I’ve gone on to other projects since completing RPS last October.

But following the immense and greatly deserved critical acclaim of Aidt’s first book in English, Baboon, fantastically translated by Denise Newman, American readers have begun to learn about Aidt. She has written more than twenty books of poetry and fiction and is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary writers. It’s easy to see why. Her writing is intense and urgent, often illuminating humanity’s darkest nature, and there’s this great Nabokovian depth to it. Simply put: she’s amazing. I can only hope that more of her work begins to appear soon on these shores. Susanna Nied has translated one of her poetry collections, and they’re shopping it around for a publisher. I hope they find one soon.

I was greatly honored to translate Rock, Paper, Scissors. I first read it years ago when it was published in Danish, and loved it. It’s a dark novel, with touches of humor sprinkled throughout, and it’s extremely gripping. There’s a crime element but it’s not a crime novel. Personally, I see it as a kind of bridge between the traditional Scandinavian crime novels that are popular today and the terrific literary work that’s emerging from Denmark. Make no mistake: Aidt is a literary writer. But she writes with the sensibility of a poet and with the raw, page-turning force of some of the best commercial writers. It’s a compelling combination.


What is the best translated book you’ve read recently?

The Unit by Swedish novelist (and translator) Ninni Holmqvist, which I listened to as an audiobook. Translator Marlaine Delargy really brings Holmqvist’s dystopian novel to life in English. The novel is set in the near future. In it, childless men and women who upon reaching a certain age—50 for women and 60 for men—are sent to the Second Reserve Bank Unit. There they are involved in experiments—some benign, some not—designed to enhance science’s understanding of the human body and mind. Sometimes their organs are harvested for the “needed”—those with children, essentially. The novel deserves a wide readership along the lines of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Like those books, it asks important questions for our times. The writing is spare and clean and measured, and the tone is just right. Delargy has published numerous translations of Swedish literature, and The Unit is a very fluid, musical read (Suzanne Toren’s audio rendition is also excellent). I’ve also begun reading, and enjoying, Tunisian novelist Hubert Haddad’s Rochester Knockings (translated by Jennifer Grotz), which is about the Fox Sisters, who are well known in Rochester, NY. I grew up near there and love reading about the history of the region. Haddad’s book (and Grotz’s translation) is a fun read so far.

I would love to read more literature-in-translation from different parts of the world, particularly in regions greatly under-represented in English—Africa, Asia, the middle east. Some very powerful fiction will inevitably emerge from war-torn, impoverished places, and those I will keep my eye on. The 21st century will have its share of issues to deal with, and fiction writers will be the chroniclers of their times. This includes American writers, of course, since we have plenty of issues at home to write about.


How did you know you would become a translator? How *did* you become a translator?

I didn’t really start out wanting to be a translator, I know that much. I started out wanting to be a fiction writer—and I still write fiction, it’s what I do when I’m not translating (I’ve been writing the same novel for eight years!). It wasn’t until I was living and working in Denmark that I decided to translate. I really enjoy reading Danish literature, and puzzling out issues of translation. I found myself reading books in Danish and translating words and sentences in my head. At some point I thought: why not give it a try? So I found one writer whose work I really liked, Simon Fruelund, and got started. Oh, actually, there was something else that came first, I think: I went up to Danish poet Pia Tafdrup at a reading in Washington, DC and told her I really wanted to be a translator. She graciously let me translate a few of her travel essays, and they got published in various places (Aufgabe, dirtcakes). To be honest, I can’t remember which came first. But from those two writers my translation life gathered momentum. I also owe debts of gratitude to Russian translator Marian Schwartz—who actually took time out of her schedule to talk to me, a nobody, on the telephone, and to encourage my translation work—and Danish writer Anne Mette Lundtoft, who recommended me to translate Norwegian novelist Karin Fossum’s The Caller.

Over the years I’ve certainly improved as a translator, but it’s a constant battle. I should note here that for the first eight years I was also working full time, which meant that for my first three big, contracted books (The Caller, Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One, and Erik Valeur’s The Seventh Child) I was getting up at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to get my pages in before going to work. By the end of the day I was fucking tired. It took a toll on me, to be honest, and I’d quit translating before doing that again.

But I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very, very good editors (and that includes my first and best reader, my wife), from whom I’ve learned a lot. I can’t speak for other translators, but I really love and appreciate interacting with editors. By the time I submit a manuscript I’m ready to be done with it—and it’s sometimes hard to see the warts or the Danishisms that might sneak into a text. But good editors spot what you no longer can.


What’s your pet peeve about the translation/literary industry? 

This is a difficult question. In some ways, I find the literary translation industry a very exciting one. I don’t know what it was like ten years ago, or twenty, but there seems to be a strong market for literary translation. It may not be a lucrative market per se—what literary market is?—but it’s there, and publishers are interested in translated books. From my perspective, I would love to have more time to translate each book. The amount of time you get varies from book to book, publisher to publisher. It would be ideal for a translator to get enough time to finish a translation and put the book aside for a couple months to return to it with fresh eyes. But that’s rare, in my experience.

Probably the biggest pet peeve I have, though, is related to reader responses of translated texts. I’ve had people ask me what I think of Stieg Larsson’s books in translation. I’ve not read those books, in either language, but invariably I’m told that they’re not well translated. They’re bumpy. Or clumsy. Or whatever. I don’t quite know what to say to that other than, Can you read Swedish? It’s true that a smoothly flowing text will make you forget a book is translated, but the book may not have been so fluid in the original. It might’ve been bumpy or clumsy or whatever. The translator might have, in other words, chosen to hew closely to the original. Maybe the books weren’t well written in Swedish? I have no idea. But the general assumption often seems to be—when readers dislike something—that the translator is at fault, and I find this troubling. The translator is often ignored if it’s a great book, and pilloried if it’s a “bad” book. How many times do you see, say, quotes by Tolstoy or some other famous, oft-cited foreign author without any attribution of the translator’s role in the quote? Too many.

Like any other translator, I just want readers to recognize that we play this vital role in the importation of texts into their language. I don’t read any other languages besides Norwegian and Danish and, occasionally, German, so I’m immensely grateful to the many translators—and, frankly, literary journal editors like those at Asymptote—who labor in relative obscurity to bring me books, stories, poetry, and essays from everywhere else. Without translators would there be such a thing as world literature?