Keep Danish Weird

Keep Danish Weird: Lise Kildegaard Talks About Translating Louis Jensen’s firkantede historier (“Square Stories”)

An Interview With Daniel A. Rabuzzi

By turns amusing, poetic, and deeply weird, the stories made me laugh out loud. Reading them, I felt new space unfold in my mind. I felt my imagination stretch its muscles.

Daniel A. Rabuzzi: Thank you, Lise, for introducing me – and so many others in the English-speaking world – to the Danish author Louis Jensen, and specifically to his firkantede historier (“Square Stories”). What first drew you to Jensen’s stories, and what do you want Hopscotch readers to know about them before we delve into particular elements relating to your translations?

Lise Kildegaard: Hopscotch readers will know that some literary translators are people who do this work simply because we have found something we love, and we want the world to know it’s there. I’m one of that crowd.

On a mild summer afternoon in 2006, I sat in a library carrel at the Center for Children’s Literature in Copenhagen, with a stack of books beside me by the Danish author Louis Jensen. I had come to research contemporary Scandinavian children’s literature, and I was particularly looking for this author, who had won many awards for his picture books, young adult novels, poetry, and stories. Lots and lots of stories. I knew that he was halfway through an ambitious plan to write 1001 of the microfictions he called Square Stories, and I had read in the literary journal Passage that the critics Rikke Finderup and Max Ibsen had declared the Square Story project to be “one of the most radical literary projects in all of Danish literature.” [Finderup, Rikke; Ipsen, Max (April 2006). “1001 firkanter–om Louis Jensens firkantede historier”. Passage. 20 (52): 61]

I remember opening the first volume of Jensen’s Square Stories, Hundrede Historier (A Hundred Stories) and seeing the little blocks of prose on the pages. Printed one to a page, each is just a few sentences long. By turns amusing, poetic, and deeply weird, the stories made me laugh out loud. Reading them, I felt new space unfold in my mind. I felt my imagination stretch its muscles.

DR: “Little blocks of prose on the pages!” This image brings to mind another set of little blocks originating in Denmark: Legos, named after the abbreviation for “leg godt,” that is, “play well.”

LK: “Play well” – that’s a delightful imperative. Maybe there is a special Danish attribute relating to unexpected, playful and ramifying uses of small items and seemingly plain or even mundane ideas – perhaps being a small language community (only 6 million speakers) in a small country prompts such imaginative thinking.

And so there I was that summer day. I started translating that afternoon, just so I could regale my family over dinner with what I had found. There’s a potato that doesn’t want to be a potato, I told them. There’s a duck who sells a horse. There’s an impatient moon. A shining stairway. A pair of shoes made of dreams:

In 2016, Louis Jensen completed his plan to write 1001 Square Stories: ten volumes, with 100 stories each, and one last volume with a hundred pages of pictures and one story. And after that day in the library, I continued to translate the stories, in all their quirky glory. I became good friends with Jensen, who died in 2021. I visited with him in his hometown Aarhus and in Copenhagen; I brought him to the USA to visit Luther College, where I teach.

Translating the Square Stories continues to be a labor of love for me. I try to capture Jensen’s conversational style, as well as his playfulness. He has the poet’s trick of being able to describe the most outlandish and miraculous transformation in language that is perfectly simple. The effect is child-like without being the slightest bit childish. I have also come to appreciate the range of Jensen’s imagination and the great variety represented in the stories.

DR: Indeed, both the form and the content of these pieces defies easy categorization. As you say elsewhere, they might be considered “prose poems/concrete poems/microfictions/fractured fairy tales/lyrical interludes.” They are difficult to classify.

LK: Jensen’s stories are diverse, to be sure. They are both wildly original and deeply rooted in literary traditions. That makes them both surprising and somehow accessible. In just a few sentences, he can evoke the international literary tradition of postmodernists like Calvino or Borges, or the fairy tale worlds of Hans Christian Andersen.

DR: Please tell us more about Jensen’s explicit connections to Hans Christian Andersen, to the rich Scandinavian fairy tale and folklore traditions.

LK: Well, everyone knows Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author of literary fairy tales. It’s hard to imagine any 19th-century Danish author who had a greater international reputation – or whose works have more thoroughly been inculcated into modern culture. Jensen was a great admirer, and his stories contain many implicit and explicit references to Andersen and the fairy tale tradition he represents in Denmark and elsewhere.

Jensen’s 1001 stories include many stories populated by familiar fairy tale characters like kings and queens, princes and princesses, dragons and trolls. And like Andersen, Jensen often puts those standard characters into very non-standard situations, putting his own stamp on the tradition:

Some of Jensen’s stories make direct allusions to Andersen, such as this story about an adventuresome leg:

When read aloud to a Danish audience, this story gets a good laugh. They recognize the reference to Andersen’s famous story of the Tinder Box, with its opening line: “There came a soldier marching down the high road – one, two! one, two!

DR: I remember that! I’ve always loved the self-importance of the cadence.

LK: The adventures of the leg suggest another connection to Andersen, who like Jensen wrote many stories about the lives and loves of inanimate objects. Or objects that might be considered inanimate, but there they are, full of energy and purpose, acting as protagonists in their own stories. The Danish word for this is “tingseventyr” – literally, “thing fairy tale,” or “thing story.”

Even the decision to write 1001 stories, which is clearly a shout-out to the 1001 Arabian Nights, suggests Jensen’s connection to Andersen, who described his childhood experience of hearing his father read from the 1001 nights as the foundational moment of his own literary life.

DR: So Jensen’s Square Stories often recall Andersen’s fairy tales in theme and content. And both Andersen and Jensen are consciously situating themselves within a larger fairy tale tradition, including the 1001 Arabian Nights.

LK: Yes. What I think might be harder for English-language readers to pick up on is the way Jensen plays with Andersen’s tone. And Andersen’s tone is complicated. English-language readers and critics tend to hear how Andersen expresses deep emotions – they hear the voice of feeling that he inherited from the Romantic movement. That voice can veer into sentimentality. But Andersen is also wickedly funny. His humor and playfulness are less often recognized, but they’re central to so much of his tone. Striking a balance between sentiment and irony is important to Jensen, too – everywhere in the Square Stories, we find serious topics and serious feelings treated with a lightness that enriches rather than diminishes them. And that wonderful balance between sentiment and irony, between emotion and humor, shows up a lot in Danish culture. I’d argue it’s as characteristic of the Danes as hygge.

DR: Your reading suggests that Jensen’s references to and deployment of the legacy of Andersen bring in a note of playful intertextuality, like we might find in postmodernist fictions of authors like Borges and Calvino.

LK: I think that comparison is an apt one. Like Borges and Calvino, Jensen often engages both intertextuality and intratextuality. Sometimes the stories seem to be talking to each other, or experiencing each other. Several stories could be called “impossible fictions,” challenging the reader’s expectations of logic and order, like his ninth story:

And the stories are often metafictions – stories about stories, or stories about individual words, or even stories about alphabet letters.

Those metafictions and impossible fictions are just some of the literary devices Borges, Calvino, and other postmodernists have taught us to look out for. Jensen is having fun with all of it. Even before he began his Square Story project, beginning with his very first book of avant-garde poetry, Jensen embraced the writing practices and poetic techniques described by the critics Jonathan P. Eburne and Andrew Epstein as the “linkage between poetry and play.” Jensen chose to play well in his writing. [Eburne, Jonathan P. and Epstein, Andrew. “Introduction: Poetry Games.” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Special Issue: Poetry Games (2014), 1]

DR: Say more about how the Square Story project participates in or takes from styles or techniques of experimental or avant-garde poetry – for example, concrete poetry, and contract poetry.

LK: Concrete poetry, or poetry that takes a shape on the page that helps to convey its meaning, has been around a long time – think of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” or Lewis Carroll’s “A Mouse’s Tale,” which is printed in the shape of a mouse’s tail. The Square Stories are formatted as, unsurprisingly, squares – left and right justified, one to a page, surrounded by a substantial margin of blank white paper. Jensen loved this square form – because he saw that those solid little blocks of prose were capable of holding some pretty wild fantasy. And in Danish, they have the same idiom about being a “square” as we have in English – a square person would be someone who is unimaginative, predictable, always following the rules. Jensen enjoyed the contrast between the strong, steady shape on the page and the lively content held within it.

DR: What about contract poetry?

LK: In project poetry or contract poetry, the author begins by promising to adhere to a set of constraints, or, more positively, to fulfill a set of promises. Think of the magnificent long poem alfabet by the Danish poet Inger Christensen (English translation by Susanna Nied), which is structured on a Fibonacci sequence. [Christensen, Inger. Alphabet. Translated by Susanna Nied. New Directions (2001).] Or think of the poetry games and the ludopoetics of groups like Oulipo and other avant-garde writers and artists. By setting out to write 1001 stories, a project that took him a quarter of a century to complete, Jensen made a kind of a contract with his readers. And he fulfilled it.

DR: Given these various influences, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jensen’s work transcends or defies binaries.

LK: Right. I’d say Jensen’s Square Stories transcend a number of binaries – for starters, the binaries between poetry and prose, between fantasy and realism, between animate and inanimate, and between children’s literature and adult literature.

Gender, of course, is among the most powerfully inscribed binaries, and I’m fascinated by the ways Jensen’s stories can sometimes problematize conventional gender expectations.

That isn’t to say Jensen was some kind of new age sensitive guy – I don’t think he was particularly trying to be a gender warrior. When he chooses to write in the first person singular, he often projects a masculine, cis-gendered identity. But nevertheless, challenges to gender normativity show up frequently in his stories where, for example, princesses are brave, or girls solve problems:

Such reframing of normative gender conventions can be instructive – and of course we want stories about strong, adventuresome girls and caring, gentle boys. But that simple gender-reversal seems like the very least we should expect from our authors.

Some of Jensen’s stories go beyond such equal-opportunity role switching to call into question the very category of gender itself. In these stories, gender is fluid and changeable. A man might have a woman who lives inside him. A man might turn into a woman. A prince might marry a dragon and live happily ever after.

But even more radical than these gender-fluid stories are the many stories where gender remains not just fluid but entirely indeterminate. Gender is such a powerful force in the social construction of the self, but Jensen’s stories bring us into a world where that force is not operating – or at least, it’s not operating in the ways we’re accustomed to. In the stories about the town, the dragon, and the secret alphabet letter, what gender identity do those main characters possess or perform? 

The gender of these characters becomes even more interesting when we consider how grammatical gender works in the source text. In Danish, as in many Indo-European languages, nouns are gendered – but instead of the typical masculine and feminine genders, Danish nouns are either common gender or neutral gender. Linguists believe that the common gender resulted from a merger of masculine and feminine, dating back millennia. As a result, those characters all have a grammatical gender, but none of them are masculine or feminine. I’m not a linguistic anthropologist, but I think this Danish grammar history has something to do with how “tingseventyr” work. The things in the stories have consciousness and identity and agency, all human characteristics, but they don’t have “natural” human gender. They have something else.

As a translator, I face particular challenges when it comes to these nouns – and even greater challenges with the pronouns. Danish has a gender-neutral possessive pronoun that English lacks altogether. And the Danish equivalent of the gender-neutral pronoun “it” gets used much more frequently and seems much less de-humanizing than the pronoun “it” does in English. If I assign the English pronoun “it” to the indeterminately-gendered characters, as I have in the stories of the town, the dragon, and the Forever Secret Letter, I run the risk of de-humanizing and objectifying them. But if I choose to use a standard “he” or “she” pronoun for these protagonists, I run the risk of confining them to masculine or feminine identities, and thus reinscribing cultural norms that are not actually present in the original story. I run the risk of shutting down some of the story’s possibilities and diminishing its weirdness.

I usually use the first strategy, assigning characters the gender neutral “it” pronoun, but in the story of the leg, I have chosen the second strategy, assigning the leg a masculine gender. In the Danish original, the leg is named “Sig Selv!” – sig is the gender-neutral reflexive pronoun. Not exactly “It Self,” and certainly not “Him Self” in this story. Neither is the high heeled leg with the golden shoe identified by gender. By assigning a “normal,” gender-specific pronoun, I chose to de-emphasize the thing-ness of the main character, and to highlight the human-like agency of (his? its?) story. But in doing so, perhaps I only reveal my own biases for gendered normativity. I may yet change my mind (and my translation).

DR: Jensen’s playful style (designed for children but to be enjoyed by all), his combination of the universal with the emphatically Danish, his compact expression, his “Square Stories” being in fact not so square at all… how did you address these as his translator? Did you and Jensen have a master strategy for translation, a fundamental agreement on, say, “domestication” versus “foreignization” (to use Venuti’s concepts)?

LK: For a translator, the scope of the Square Story project is pretty daunting – but the individual stories are short! On the one hand, I much enjoy the sense of abundance and plenitude that the project brings, and on the other hand, I enjoy focusing closely on each little story as I fuss over each translation.

DR: I can see that there could be a tension between a massive total project and its compact individual components. Kind of like translating both the architect’s blueprints or a picture of the completed house by translating each individual brick, beam and circuit.

LK: My main strategy has been just to take the stories one at a time – as Anne Lamott would say, “bird by bird.”

English and Danish are not such very different languages, but there’s still some friction for the translator to work out! Danish linguists consider their language an “ordfattigsprog,” literally a “word-poor language,” because the Danish vocabulary is pretty small, at least compared to that commodious record of cultural exchange, appropriation, and conquest, the English language. Some Danish words have numerous potential English translations – for example, “kørt over” could be “driven over” or “run over.” Here the translator’s challenge is to choose the most idiomatic expression, or the one that resonates best with the story. But even though the Danish language is (supposedly) “word-poor,” there are many, many single words and expressions that have no equivalent in English. One of the ones that comes up frequently in the Square Stories is the simple verb “råb,” which means to speak emphatically, energetically, and loudly – but not necessarily angrily (to yell), or with alarm (to cry out), or aggressively (to shout), or with fixed purpose (to call out). I use these English verbs when I translate “råb,” but none of them is perfect.

DR: How “perfect” are you trying to be? What would be a “perfect” translation of the stories?

LK: My ultimate goal in translating the Square Stories is to achieve in English a simple and lucid style that can serve as a match to Jensen’s voice, while still capturing what’s strange and wildly imaginative in his stories. I want to match both voice and vision. I’m reminded of the Oregonian slogan, “Keep Portland Weird”; I’d like to keep Louis Jensen weird. But especially since one of the main audiences for the stories is children, I must negotiate exactly how strange everything in the stories should be.

For example, Danish place names and geographical names are entirely unfamiliar to English speaking audiences, who could no more find Aalborg on a map than they could find the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth – nor can those Danish towns be easily pronounced. What to do with Horsens, Hammershøj, Hirtshals? Will bringing those names unaltered into the translation create a formidable stumbling block for beginning readers? Is the Øresundsbron a bridge too far?

DR: I see what you did there! (The “Øresundsbron” is “the bridge over Øresund,” but only if you already know Danish.)

LK: Then, what about Danish first names, like Mikel, Henrik, Mads? Should those be translated into more standard spellings – Michael, Henry, Matt? Some iconic Danish foods have no English equivalent – what should be done with a story about æbleskiver, a kind of Danish pancake ball? Should I translate them as pancakes and call it a day? Are readers, and especially child readers, better served by a text that’s more strange or one that’s more familiar?

Even more challenging are the many puns, idiomatic sayings, and word games that Jensen includes in his stories. Here I tend to prioritize playfulness over literal meaning, which means sometimes I’m substituting my own word play for the original. There are often difficult compromises to make. Any translator will recognize the feeling that comes when you think you got it right.

DR: I love Jensen’s concept that “we can never run out of stories.” To that point, how does this sense of “endless tales” affect the Square Story project?

LK: Jensen’s firm belief that the stories will never end was what launched him as a writer. He was trained as an architect, and as a young man he was working as a town planner with a private firm – and this in a country that takes town planning very seriously. As he tells it, he was driving around Denmark in a company car, consulting with town after town, and he began thinking to himself, “What am I supposed to do with all the stories in my head?” The stories in his head proved to be an endless supply, as he suspected. By 1986, he was writing full time; by the end of his life, he had published over 90 books.

Jensen’s faith in the limitless supply of stories is both implicitly and explicitly expressed in his Square Story project. The sheer abundance of the 1001 stories is testimony. And the abundance is more than the page count. If we remember the 1001 Arabian nights, we’ll remember that there weren’t actually exactly 1001 nights of stories – the whole idea of that number is that it indicates lots and lots of nights. The 1001 is like our “gajillion” – a word to gesture toward innumerability (not a word, but it should be). I’ve read all 1001 of Jensen’s stories, and while they each are specifically numbered (a first time, a second time, and a one thousand and first time), they tend to pile up in drifts. They rattle around in crowds and sometimes they sing together in my head. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, they “gather to a greatness.” 

DR: That’s a lot like when folks talk about petaflops of data – I know it has a very precise meaning but in my mind it just means, well, another version of “gazillion” – or like light years, which boggle my mind despite their likewise having a very definite quantity.

LK: It is mind-boggling! But that sense of abundance and plenitude is how Jensen experienced his art and how he lived his life. In September 2016, I was in Copenhagen, joining the afternoon reception at the Gyldendal publishing house celebrating the publication of the final volume of the Square Story project, and the final, 1001st square story. After the party, Jensen and I took a long walk through Copenhagen city streets, down to the harbor and back through the “strøget,” the downtown pedestrian streets. He loved to walk through the city and reminisce about its history and the times in his life when he lived there. The evening was cool, but not chilly, and small lights began to come on here and there – all those little lights that I associate with an autumn evening in Denmark, when the dark comes down fast. Lights in the harbor, twinkling lights in the town. He took me out for dinner, where we were served by a pretty young Polish woman who spoke Danish remarkably well, and we talked about the square stories and how it felt to complete such a big life’s work.

The Square Story project has an arc. The earlier volumes feature many stories about scheming ducks, friendly giants, and talking vegetables – along with the alphabet letters, geometric shapes, items of clothing, and natural phenomena that often step in as Jensen’s unlikely protagonists.  His last volume of 100 stories (2016) includes these as well, but also includes many stories where a first-person narrator speaks of dreams, and journeys, and growing old, and longing to see his mother, and being filled with gratitude – and God shows up in that last volume of 100 stories several times, too.

Here’s a contemplative story from the tenth volume:

The eleventh and final book in the Square Story project expresses Jensen’s faith in never-ending stories in its very title: “Der er ingen ende – altid en ny historie” (“There is no end – always a new story”). The exuberant illustrations by Lilian Brøgger and Maria Lundén throughout the book refer back to the 1000 stories that have come before. There’s a hole in the front cover, with a menagerie of characters climbing a stairway up to the hole – on their way to entering the book – which you can see in the images embedded at the end of this interview. On the back page end paper, those characters are climbing toward a matching hole in the back cover, where perhaps they will escape the book and tumble into some new, unspecified story world. One of the characters is a perspicacious rabbit, who peers through the hole in the back cover when the book is closed. The book may close on the last volume of the Square Story project, but are the stories really over?

The 1001st story, printed on the last page of the book, fulfills the promise of the title:

This place with all the stories reminds me of Borges’ infinite Library of Babel, the library that contains every book ever written as well as everything never written, every possible and every impossible story ever told. Borges imagines his famous library as a confusing and confounding space, where the librarians shuffle hopelessly through infinite papers searching for meaning. But Jensen imagines a space where stories and meaning are actually created, found, and shared. He imagines an endless and generative space, a space with a future.

DR: Reminds me of the Kathāsaritsāgara, “the Ocean of the Streams of Stories,” which is the great Sanskrit collection of Indian legends, folklore and fairy tales. And of Tolkien’s endless road, going on and on from one’s own humble front door “until it joins some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet. / And whither then? I cannot say.”

LK: Yes! Many narratives, ancient and new, gesture toward this open ended, infinite space of art and life. The infinite story room in the 1001st story is a utopian space. There’s conversation, and community, and a profound hopefulness. Louis Jensen ended his 25-year-long project in a room without a roof.

DR: “A room without a roof!” is also the refrain in Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” – a perfect note to end on! Thank you for your insights, Lise!

“Der er ingen ende—altid en ny historie” by Louis Jensen,
illustrations by Lilian Brøgger and Maria Lundén, Gyldendal 2016.

For further information on Jensen and on Lise’s translations, readers can check out these links:

Three Square Stories. Translated by Lise Kildegaard. Translation: A Translation Studies Journal. Vol. 2, Fall 2007.

Five Square Stories. Translated by Lise Kildegaard. Iowa Review, Volume 42, Issue 1. Spring 2012.

Kildegaard, Lise (2014) “At Home in an Astonishing World: The Square Stories of Louis Jensen,” The Bridge: Vol. 37: No. 2 , Article 11.

Kildegaard, Lise (2021) “Louis Jensen’s Square Stories,” Presentation at the Museum of Danish America, Elkhorn Iowa.

Lise Kildegaard is a professor of English at Luther College. For her advocacy for the humanities, she was awarded the Dennis M. Jones Distinguished Teaching Fellowship in the Humanities for 2013-2016. Her translations of Louis Jensen’s Square Stories have been featured in exhibits at the Museum of Danish America and at Luther College, and have been published in the journals Translation and The Iowa Review. [Photo: Louis Jensen with Lise Kildegaard in Copenhagen, 2016.]

Daniel A. Rabuzzi lived eight years in Norway, Germany and France, and has translated Norwegian (also Danish and Swedish), German and French in commercial and archival/scholarly settings. He has degrees in the study of folklore and mythology, international relations, and modern European history. He lives in New York City with his artistic partner & spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills. See and @TheChoirBoats. Daniel met Lise as a fellow faculty member at Luther College in the 1990s.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 10, 2022

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