Susanna Nied on Translating alphabet
by Inger Christensen (Part Two)

by: Iris Cushing

Part two of Iris Cushing’s interview of Inger Christensen’s translator. Read part one and an excerpt from alphabet.

Susanna Nied

Iris Cushing: What has it been like to live with alphabet for over 30 years?

Susanna Nied: Not a day goes by without something from alphabet coming into my mind: a poem, a phrase, an image, an arc; sometimes in Danish, sometimes in English, sometimes beyond language. Of course this is partly because Inger Christensen’s poetry is phenomenal— but also because alphabet‘s themes, its focus on the natural world, and even many of its specific images, were already there at my core from the time I was quite young. Judging by the response alphabet has received, I suspect that many people, disparities aside, connect with it in that way. Part of Inger’s gift is this uncanny ability to be simultaneously specific and universal. It marks all six of her poetry volumes, despite their significant differences.

In my own case, I’m the kind of person who has to stick her nose into every flower; stare and stare at every plant, bug, bird, animal; know the names, relationships, interconnections. So alphabet had me hooked with that first apricot tree. I share Inger’s fascination, though not her depth of expertise, with theories of language history and language development, and with the way that words carry traces wider ranging and older than we know. Though at some level, I think, we do know. And of course, Inger and I were both part of the first generation to grow up under the threat of nuclear war: she from the time she was ten years old, I from birth. The Cold War years were, as Inger once said, “very cold indeed.” There was not only a sense of impending nuclear holocaust, but also this inexorable proliferation of nuclear pollution and other lethal pollution. I grieved for the inevitable losses. I still grieve for them. Against the backdrop of all that, alphabet spoke directly to me from the moment I opened it, and it continues to speak to me.

One reader wrote, ‘thank you for giving the world back to me.’

IC: Can you say something about alphabet’s impact on you as a translator?

SN: Translating alphabet was an early peak experience, one of the great pleasures of my life. It certainly clinched what would become my lifelong addiction to translation.

It was a little strange to feel this strong personal satisfaction with the translation, and yet to have the manuscript rejected by publisher after publisher. Twenty years went by between translation and publication. I got pretty discouraged. I knew nothing in those days about the financial realities that U.S. publishers live with. Now that I do know, I’m grateful beyond words to New Directions for bringing out not only alphabet, but all five of Inger’s other volumes of poetry as well. Publishers do not make profits from poetry. They especially do not make profits from poetry in translation. I thank my stars for this gutsy, small, independent house, New Directions, and for the dedicated people at its helm.

The fact that alphabet worked out well in English, in terms of form, was partly luck. English and Danish are both Germanic languages, and the family relationships in their vocabularies made it possible for me to approximate alphabet‘s original patterns of alliteration, internal half-rhymes, and unusual on-again, off-again meters.

IC: What impact do you feel alphabet has had on the world?

SN: I still find it strange that alphabet, and Inger’s poetry in general, were largely overlooked for so long in the English-speaking world, despite her reputation in Europe and elsewhere. But fortunately, because alphabet was published in stellar French and German translations soon after its original Danish publication, it did become accessible to a broad part of the global literary community. It has certainly inspired other poets worldwide. Here in the U.S., one example is Juliana Spahr’s  book this connection of everything with lungs.

But I think alphabet’s most powerful impact may be on the individual reader.  Alphabet manages to remind each of us what we care about most. At a recent reading, someone came up to me afterward and said, “These poems changed my life.” And after Inger’s death, when one of Denmark’s major newspapers ran a web response forum with her obituary, responses numbered in the hundreds. People from all walks of life left comments. The most frequent comment was a simple “Thank you, Inger.” One reader wrote, “Thank you for giving the world back to me.”

Inger has said that when she began writing alphabet, the world situation was so dire, and deteriorating so fast, that she could barely see the point in writing anything at all. Given that alphabet was in that respect a product of its times (the late 1970s and early 1980s), its staying power is interesting. The Cold War has been over for a couple of decades now, and environmental awareness is far more widespread today than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Yet new readers of all ages seem to connect with alphabet as strongly today as readers did back then. I think this is because the essence of alphabet extends beyond its themes. Alphabet can certainly be classified as ecopoetry, and as political poetry and nature poetry as well. But its essence lies beyond classification.

She told me once that she had wanted the first poems in alphabet to be like the poems that the first humans must have composed, maybe somewhere in caves: fundamental, incantatory, marking the power of words and of the things they stand for.

Inger Christensen showed tremendous courage by looking at the world, including us humans, as clearly as she did. She had a tremendous gift and tremendous skill, to be able to state so cleanly and tenderly what she saw. Her alphabet is uplifting and heartbreaking at once. There’s a rightness in it that satisfies something deeper than our aesthetic sensibilities or our intellects. She told me once that she had wanted the first poems in alphabet to be like the poems that the first humans must have composed, maybe somewhere in caves: fundamental, incantatory, marking the power of words and of the things they stand for. I think she succeeded.

Sometimes I wonder what might have been different if alphabet had been published in English twenty years earlier. Alphabet is the perfect gateway drug for Inger Christensen’s work. With those brief, alluring initial poems, the book is so accessible, even for people who usually shy away from poetry. What effects might Inger have had in the English-speaking world if her work had been known for 27 years, instead of seven, before she died? What effects might that broader recognition have had on her?

Susanna Nied, a former instructor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University in California, is an American writer and translator. Her translations have appeared in publications such as APR,PoetryGrantaTin House, and Two Lines, and in several anthologies. For her work with Inger Christensen’s poetry, she has received the Landon Translation Prize of the Academy of American Poets, the American-Scandinavian Association/PEN Translation Prize, and the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize of Poetry Magazine. Her translation of Christensen’s Light, Grass and Letter in April was recently selected as a finalist for the 2012 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.