It remains an incontrovertible fact that major parts of the literature enjoyed by Danish readers throughout the ages have been translated from other languages. Had it not been for translators and their work, much of the world’s most important literature would only have been accessible to readers with specialized skills in foreign languages. This obvious, but often glossed-over fact still holds true today. Also when it comes to Scandinavian and English-language literature, even though some Danish readers are loath to admit it. The linguistic and literary reality is nowhere near as globalized as today’s cultural agenda. Furthermore, without translations and the people who wrote them, Danish literature would have been deprived of the contrasts, reflections and inspirations from other literatures that are so essential to the life, spirit and nerve of a national literature.
Nonetheless, translators are severely underexposed in Danish literary history. There are, of course, a number of academic titles on Danish literary translation. Predominantly, however, these works are either linguistic studies using translation as an illustration of the functional and communicative aspects of language as such or studies in literary theory focusing on translation as an approach to the intercultural aspects of literature. There is no doubt that a lot of good work has been done within translations studies at Danish universities, but except for a few outstanding monographs academic translation studies are not concerned with the actual translators responsible for the making and dissemination of world literature. It is an established fact that world literature comes into being through translations, and yet we have no historical account of the people who actually wrote these translations in Denmark. These are people who have worked on particular literary and aesthetical terms and within particular traditions. These are people who have had enormous influence on literature in Denmark through conscious choices and deliberate strategies as well as personal preferences, aesthetic idiosyncrasies and stylistic tastes. It is only natural that these writers are shrouded in a certain obscurity – after all, a translator’s text is not an expression of his or her own experiences and spiritual universe, but an unfolding of another literary text written by another author. Except for the force of habit, however, there is no reason why this this performative anonymity, as we might call it, should also automatically render translators and their literary practices invisible in a wider historical sense. And this brings us round to the purpose of this initiative to make an encyclopaedia of Danish translators. Translators simply need to write their own Danish literary history.
In order to avoid the complete historical effacement of translators in the slipstream between cultural anonymity and linguistic transparency, between mere bibliography and pure theory, we will now begin to present some of the men and women who have enabled Danish readers (and Danish writers) to engage with other literatures from near and far–the men and women who have actively conducted the exchanges that allow Danish literature to breathe.
In this online encyclopaedia of Danish translators, which is an ongoing project to be continually expanded, biographical and historical entries will present no longer living Danish translators of a wide variety books from different genres, languages and territories. We hope that this initiative will come to work on several levels, both as a frame of reference for the history of translation in Denmark and as a qualification of translation criticism. The individual entries will present a translator and his or her bibliography and literary career. They will also contain accounts of the individual translator’s linguistic background, technical methods, apparent strategies, particular challenges and literary merits in a critical perspective etc. We consider this initiative a first, tentative step towards establishing a platform for further reflection, discussion and analysis.
This encyclopaedia is an attempt by Danish translators to sew up a gap in Denmark’s literary history that no other organization, institution or discipline can or want to close. We realize that we have set ourselves a task that will require comprehensive and prolonged efforts undertaken under conditions of almost complete obscurity. Luckily, it would appear that literary translators are particularly well-suited for precisely such efforts.
by Morten Visby (Danish Translators’ Association)