Friday, May 10, 2019

Style in Pontoppidan - comparing translations, complaining about clichés, constructing the comic novel it almost is

I thought Henrik Pontoppidan, in Lykke-Per, was an excellent writer in passages.  Other times, he was not so good: flat and clichéd.

First, though, what is going on in the translations – what a luxury, to have two translations!  In this scene, the sister of the heroine, rich cutie Nanny, is flirting, by means of radishes, with her no-good journalist boyfriend.

Here’s Paul Larkin, the translator I read:

“She told us that you were, ahm, entertaining; so we asked her to show us into this room.  My my Dyrhing, you do have a better class of radish.”

Nanny judiciously picked out a new victim from the plate, dipped it into the salt bowl, and snapped her shining white teeth into it.  (Ch. 8, p. 199)

The whole scene approaches camp.  This is Naomi Lebowitz:

“She told us there was someone with you and showed us in here.  These are really good radishes!”  She selected a new one carefully from the plate, dipped it in the saltcellar, and sank her shining white teeth into it.  (p. 162)

Those are different.  “Snapped” versus “sank” perfectly represents the two translations, every passage I checked.  The translators are working on different editions of the novel, how different I do not know, but my guess is that Larkin thought Lebowitz was too flat, too toneless, so he fixed that, did he ever.

So, discussing the style of Lykke-Per, I have to keep in mind that I am reading the punchy, perhaps even, “ahm,” creative, translation.

Positive Pontoppidan: the parallels in the arc structure; the fairy tale and especially the troll motifs.  Thickly descriptive introductions, to places and people.  Pontoppidan does not describe minor characters as part of scenes, but rather provides an entire “portrait” upon introduction.  The gradual scenic method is more artful, but many of the portraits are outstanding, full of little insightful details.  Places get similar treatment.  Per’s college landlords and their home, at the beginning of Chapter 2, is a descendant of Balzac’s boarding house passage that opens Père Goriot.  The landlords have a series of annual parties, including parties for the canary, commemorating the loss of the husband’s big toe (!), and for the wife’s annual blood-letting, which “was always initiated with a substantial lunch with a chocolate theme.”

And that’s the last we ever hear of that.

The beginning of Chapter 19, a description of a Jutland landscape begins with geology and turns into social history, pushing pirates, Vikings, eel-catchers, “haughty country squires” on “flatulent shire horses,” and Per’s Lutheran minister ancestors across the scenery, finishing with a brand-new character who will at least feature in the novel.

Negative: The clichés really wore me out in places.  Received ideas, received imagery.  “Her heart was in her mouth,” that kind of thing.  But I don’t want to catalogue them.  It is too boring.  Here is a more original image:

Fully lit by the setting sun, the old windmill stood by the ruins of the city ramparts at the end of the square.  As if welcoming the sun’s demise with open arms.  (Ch. 18)

My favorite troll description:

… the mountain trolls who could not face the sun without sneezing, the shadow beings that only really came alive as twilight descended and they could sit on their little hillock playing their fiddle or dainty little glockenspiel.  (Ch. 20)

Were you expecting the troll to have a glockenspiel?  Oh you were.  Fine.  Were you expecting the glockenspiel to be dainty?

Pontoppidan often seemed to be on the edge on turning Lykke-Per into a black comic novel.  It never happens.  He means it, whatever “it” is.  Too bad.

Thanks to Dorian Stuber and everyone else reading along.  I have to get the book back to the library, so I am way ahead of most readalongists, who are all, I believe reading Lebowitz.  Please fill me in on the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard synthesis, which I did not really understand.  Frederic Jameson’s 2011 piece on Lykke-Per is the best thing I have read on the novel, for what that is worth.  Good luck.


  1. Now I want to know what the original verb was. Sank vs. snapped, indeed! CAN you sink your teeth into a raw radish?

    Now I want one of those daikons my mom grows.

  2. "saette"

    "... og satte sine skinnende hvide Tænder i den."

    The text.

  3. Ah, OK, that's a very general verb that means set or seat, I would have said 'she set her shining white teeth into it.' That would be very literal. But then I am not a professional translator of Danish, nor even especially competent in the language any more.

    Thanks for the link!

  4. Pontoppidan does describe minor characters as part of scenes, but rather provides an entire “portrait” upon introduction.

    Something wrong there. Is there a missing "not"?

  5. Yes, only the most important word is omitted. Now it is there. Thanks!

    Some of the character details are quite good - novelistic - but they often are mentioned immediately and that's it.

  6. Not a book I'll be reading soon, I think but as always I enjoy reading your reading experience.

    Very different translations, indeed.

    PS: Each time I see the spelling of clichéd or sautéd, it surprises me with its double dose of "participe passé". :-)

  7. Oh yes, "clichéd" is pretty silly in English, although many people omit the "d," which is also odd. But we need the word! Boy do we need it.