Why I Translate

Michael Goldman at his deskWhen I was 17 years old I went to Denmark for four weeks on a Rotary International summer cultural exchange.  During my last week there my host family’s daughter, Jette, and I fell in love suddenly and deeply.  After a teary farewell in the airport, we wrote letters across the Atlantic for a year, then she visited me in New Jersey the following summer, on her break from work.  Then another year of air mail letters followed until I returned to Denmark again.  We were together for a few weeks on her summer vacation, and then she had to return to her job in England.

I had left college for the time being and I wanted to stay abroad.  Jette looked in the newspaper and called a few want ads, to see if she could find me something.  A farmer in southern Denmark was looking for help on his potato and pig farm.  I didn’t know hardly any Danish, but I could hear Jette on the phone saying, “nej…nej…nej…”  But then the conversation turned lively and bright. 

Afterwards she told me the farmer had asked if I knew Danish, if I were big and strong, or if I had worked on a farm before.  Then he asked if I could cook.  It turned out that his wife had left him, and he needed someone to hold down the kitchen and shopping more than anything.  Jette told him that I was a better cook than she was.  After dropping out of college I had been living with my dad and stepmom the previous year, and preparing most of our meals.  The farmer, Frede Madsen, said he would give me a try.

Jette dropped me off at the stereotypical white Danish farmhouse in what could have passed for Kansas.  No neighbors in sight.  Just expansive fields of potatoes, barley and rye.  And there was also a modern hygienic pighouse with 100 sows, 50 piglets and a boar. Besides giving the piglets iron injections and sorting out stones on the potato harvester, I did all the cooking and shopping for Frede, his son Lars and the farmhand, Kim. 

From the start I was determined to learn Danish during my time on this farm, in order to win over Jette’s family.  I could feel them looking at me with skepticism, especially her father.  Was this American boy going to carry off their Viking princess?  I hoped that being able to converse with them in their own language would win me some points.

I must confess to being a person deeply attracted to books and words.  For example, I can’t help but look over my host’s bookshelf when I am out visiting.  From the farmer’s bookshelf I pulled out a copy of Forbandede Ungdom, which on the title page revealed itself to be a Danish translation of Catcher in the Rye, a book I had never read.  But I figured that I probably should read it, since I knew it was famous.

I took the farmer’s Danish to English dictionary and started on page one.  Every word I came to that I didn’t know, which at the start was pretty much every word, I looked up in the dictionary.  Then in my travel journal I wrote the Danish word, the part of speech and the English equivalent.  In this way I slowly waded through Salinger’s translated novel in my spare time.

Words repeat, and after a couple dozen pages I began to pick up some vocabulary, and I started to get a sense of Danish grammar as well.  It probably helped that I had always loved English class, and had also taken French and Spanish in public school, plus gone to Hebrew school for seven years, besides having studied Ancient Greek for a semester in college.

All this time Jette and I were writing letters back and forth from Denmark to England.  So I started inserting some Danish phrases, then eventually writing part, and then all of my letters in Danish.  I even tried writing a short story in Danish.  I also experimented with speaking Danish on the farm or when I drove to the little grocery in town.  As it so happened, people could understand me pretty well.  But I had a terrible time when they responded.  I did a lot of nodding and smiling, uncomprehending. 

A few weeks into my time on the farm I got a phone call.  It was Jette’s father.  He wanted to check on how I was getting along out in the boondocks.  I responded to him in Danish.  He was shocked.  How had I learned Danish when the last time he saw me I didn’t know a word?  I explained to him what I had been doing, but that I still had this problem.  I couldn’t understand when other people spoke to me in Danish, although now I realized that he was speaking to me in Danish and I could understand him just fine.  How could that be?  He laughed and told me that down there in southern Denmark everyone speaks a dialect that even he doesn’t understand.

I left the farm six weeks later, and in order to retain the Danish I had learned, ever since I have purchased and read Danish books, mostly classic literature.  Every time I’m in Denmark I shop in used book stores so I can always have a Danish book among my current reads.  The Danish girl, Jette, and I have now been married for 25 years.

Repeatedly I have had the experience, when reading a piece of exquisite Danish literature, that the page suddenly turns into a mirror, and there I sit staring into myself, noticing parts of my inner life that I had forgotten or had never noticed before.  These epiphanic moments are my recurrent falling in love with literature.  And I feel inspired to share these works so they might enrich the lives of others as well.

The Danish language is spoken by less than 6 million people.  As an English speaker who has been reading the literature for 30 years, I am in a unique position as a kind of medium who can lovingly re-create these stories and poems so they may be received by a global audience.

Stories change lives.  I wonder if we can even survive without them.  I feel humbled and honored by the opportunity to share great stories in Danish literature so that English language readers may be inspired in new ways.