Recently I’ve been engrossed by the new translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a spectacular book of poetry that’s perhaps better experienced than described. If you want an attempt at a description, read my recent review with The Believer, which I’ll quote here.
The ecstatic, euphoric, helter-skelter, and self-contradictory movement that currently animates technological humanity at its most optimistic much resembles the churn found in Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s multi-award-winning book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. It is a deceptively calm-looking work of brief poems whose lines feel more like energetic prose sentences than the recondite lyricism generally associated with “experimental poetry.” Yet Olsen makes from these modest implements a work of great compression, precision, ingenuity, force, and provocation—most of all, a work where definitions, bodies, meanings, images, and personalities are ever flowing into each other, striving toward a state of complete universality.
In order to find out a little more about this difficult (and very successful) feat of translation and the book that inspired it, I corresponded with Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who translated it from Danish to English. In addition to the translator of this book, Katrine is the editor of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University, a 2017 poetry judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and a judge for the 2017 National Translation Award.
Scott Esposito: In your translator’s note you mention that “when offered to translate this 214-page collection—Olsen’s first book in English translation—I was both excited and terrified.” What is Olsen’s (or this book’s) reputation in Denmark that would elicit these feelings, and how did it come about that you became the translator of this book?
Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Eight years ago, at a café in the Danish city Aarhus, I heard Ursula’s poetry for the first time. A good friend of mine had already attended several of Ursula’s readings, and it was understood that I had no choice but to accompany her to yet another one. The night we went to see Ursula, she was visibly pregnant and had an oracle-like appearance: wild-haired yet elegant, with a gaze that demanded the undivided attention of her audience. She read from her fifth collection of poetry, Havet er en scene (The Sea Is a Stage), which later earned her a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, the biggest literary award of the Nordic countries.
It was the most captivating performance of poetry I had ever witnessed. Olsen’s tone of voice switched effortlessly between cuddly and fuming as she inhabited the many speakers of her unusually rhythmical poems. What intrigued me the most, however, was Olsen’s use of wordplay. Almost every line contained a pun, an invented word, a Danish cultural reference, or a twisted idiom. In other words: a true minefield for a literary translator. Ursula has largely been deemed untranslatable for these very reasons.
So yes, when Ida Bencke at Broken Dimanche Press contacted me about translating Third-Millennium Heart, I was at once excited and terrified. Excited because this particular collection of poetry is considered a major work in Danish literature; terrified because of the puns, the invented words, the many references to Danish idioms and songs, as well as Norse mythology, the Bible, philosophy, and science. I found, however, that the most difficult part of translating Ursula’s poetry has to do with her use of voice. As I wrote in the translator’s note you’re referring to, the speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. I had to pick about ten poems from completely different parts, or should I say temperaments, of the collection, and try to find a sort of middle course in the tone. I went through at least fifteen drafts of those ten initial poems before I found a voice I was satisfied with.
I don’t know why Ida and Ursula decided to reach out to me about translating the book. A small amount of my translations had been published online, and I had had a bit of contact with Ursula via my function as editor-at-large at Asymptote, but I had never done a book-length translation before. Ursula and I recently half-joked about how some cosmic intervention must have brought us together. Apparently, when I heard her read eight years ago, Ursula was working on Third-Millennium Heart, inspired by her pregnancy.
SE: These poems are supported by a number of evocative neologisms that you’ve created to match what I assume are similar neologisms in the Danish. I really like them all, in particular the one “namedrunk,” which to me beautifully gets at this situation of having words for everything yet not being able to communicate effectively about so many crises of our age. Can you tell us about how you arrived at “namedrunk” and what it means for you?
KØJ: Oh man. I could write a twenty-page paper based on this question alone. I guess this also ties into the characterization of Ursula’s work and Third-Millennium Heart in particular: the layers of meaning are infinite.
Namedrunk is an example of one of the many near-words that Ursula likes to invent. The original word, navndrukken, doesn’t really mean anything, but it implies a few things, which opens up to multiple interpretations: that someone is drunk on names, or someone is possibly getting a euphoric power-trip out of naming things (victor), or someone is possibly drowning in the naming of all things (victim), to name a few options. I could also have translated the word as “namedrunken,” but I thought drunken was leaning a bit toward the victim narrative, whereas drunk to me sounded more ambiguous, potentially powerful. I also considered the fact that namedrunk usually appears in Third-Millennium Heart next to the word “nameless,” as its opposite. So I figured namedrunk would have to sound forceful in contrast to the anonymity of nameless. There’s generally a lot at stake in this collection in terms of who gets a name and who doesn’t, and who gets to name or unname things and humans. This operates on the very heartbreaking level of abortion, a child that is named yet never lives to be called by that name, and the naming of blood as RED in order to suppress certain memories of the body (the “distant interior”), but also on a societal level where Mother Market names every thing, names the rules of capitalism (which is ironically called “the feminine’s final victory”), and finally the nomenclature operates on a more universal/cosmic level where all vessels are connected, all genders are one, and everything is named everything.
SE: Let’s talk a little more about Olsen for a second. Could you tell us a little more about how her pregnancy inspired this work? And I’m curious, given how much meaning is packed into this poem and how finely you had to calibrate these words, what is Olsen’s English like, and to what extent did you work with her on fine-tuning the translation?
KØJ: Ursula wrote Third-Millennium Heart during her pregnancy and in the first couple of years after her son was born. The book is considered her most corporeal work in terms of her poetic voice–a voice, which, before Third-Millennium Heart, was more otherworldly, very much outside of the body. To Ursula, pregnancy and giving birth made her hyper-aware of the brutality and complexity of the body as well as the civilization in which the new body arrives. The entire book is built around this notion of things being inside and outside one another.
Despite the fact that Ursula’s English is good, she’s been extremely hands-off about the translation–and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s this running translator joke that goes “a good author is a dead author,” because many living writers don’t like to see their work changed too much in translation. However, I found that Ursula was constantly excited about, and even encouraging of, the changes I made to her poetry in order to make the wordplay and weirdness more apparent in English. It was a stimulating and liberating translation process. When Ursula and I performed together at a Danish poetry festival this summer, she told the audience that she didn’t even consider her own version of Third-Millennium Heart the original work, but rather a translation of an idea that was much bigger than her. According to Ursula, she’s simply the first translator of the work, and I’m the second.
SE: One of the key things about translation is its power to rejuvenate a language with new phrasings and coinages. The list is of course endless, to take just one example: the phrase “the unbearable x of y,” which Sean Cotter has documented came into the English language following Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What words or phrases might you hope that Third Millennium Heart gives to the English language?
KØJ: Earlier this year, Ursula received the Danish Arts Foundation’s Award of Distinction with this statement from the committee: “Few poets, if any, have renewed Danish poetry in the 21st century the way Ursula Andkjær Olsen has done it.” In my translator’s note for the book, I write that Ursula is a poets’ poet and a critics’ darling in Denmark, which means that her fan base mainly consists of other writers and literary scholars who see how genre-bending she truly is. This is to say: I don’t think anyone is expecting or even hoping for Third-Millennium Heart to coin any phrases the same way a novel could. What I can hope for, however, is that Third-Millennium Heart will inspire some English-language poets and writers the way it’s inspired Danish writers, and that teachers of international literature will want to share and discuss it with their students.
SE: As I was reading your responses and looking deeper into the poem, I was getting a Deleuze/Guattari Thousand Plateaus vibe. Not just in terms of the rhizomatic movement of the poem itself but also in terms of the feel of the language. Is this something you’re familiar with?
KØJ: Ursula did read Mille plateaux, although she can’t remember whether she read it before or after writing Third-Millennium Heart—but the part about a breast without beginning or end in the book is very Deleuze. In general, though, Ursula references philosophy and social theory a lot. One of her first writing catalysts was (the also French) Lyotard. Aside from him, Third-Millennium Heart invokes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, Leibniz, Canetti, and—perhaps more than anyone—Marcel Mauss, who wrote the foundation for social theories of reciprocity and gift exchange.
SE: This book-length poem is broken up into several sections (or maybe you could call them “chapters”) with individual titles. I noticed that and the end of each of these sections is a poem that deconstructs a binary; for instance, “Luxury Is Culture and Nature,” or “Life Is Chaos and Order.” And, of course, this practice continues until the end of the work, which concludes with the heading “ALL AND NO VESSELS ARE CONNECTED” but leaves it (I presume?) to the reader to fill in the space below. I’m curious how you, as the translator—that is, as somebody who looks so closely at the exact meaning of words and who is sensitive to all of the webs of implication, sound, cultural construction, relationships, etc that flow through a word—felt about this work that was on the one hand so evocative and precise with language but also on the other hand so open-ended and flexible as to what particular words could mean.
KØJ: In the early stages of translating the book, I thought I had to somehow untangle these spiderwebs of meaning, afraid that readers and reviewers would otherwise accuse my translation of being awkward. English is my second language—I came to America from Denmark just six years ago—so I worried that someone would crack down on my intentional weirdness in translation and assume it was unintentional due to my background. Fortunately, when I started sharing these translations with some of my most trusted friends in poetry, they all told me how much they loved Ursula’s stranger moments. So I decided to preserve the ambiguous syntax, for instance, which is one of my favorite elements in Third-Millennium Heart: the fact that any reading of a line can be disproved with an equally well-documented interpretation of the exact opposite statement.
The sections or chapters that you mention are actually poetic suites. They kind of have their own ecosystems, but they all relate to one another. Everything relates to everything. The entire book is a poetic network, which is very Deleuze, actually, but also—first and foremost—very Bach and classical music in general, which Ursula is particularly inspired by.
SE: To you, what precisely is a “third-millennium heart”?
KØJ: I think the Third-Millennium Heart is, first and foremost, a network. The book is an organ—a heart—and it has this network-like structure which connects every suite, line, and word. Ursula once talked to me about the “six degrees of separation”-idea—the theory that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries—and I think she’s getting at something in that vein when she writes that “all and no vessels are connected.” As if we have these exohearts, like exoplanets, that, while orbiting their own star, are still part of a network containing 3,693 planets in 2,768 systems. And that, to me, is both terrifying and comforting.