Something is written in the state of Denmark

There’s a touching story in Jackie Wullschlager’s wonderful, illuminating biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. In it, a seventeen year old H.C. Andersen enters a school in the town of Slagelse where all his classmates are six years younger. When asked by the headmaster to locate the city of Copenhagen on a map — a town just 57 miles away and where he had recently lived for three years — he is unable. Imagine that. Andersen, probably the single most recognizable Danish author of all time, was for a time the class idiot to a bunch of eleven year olds.

But it’s that story of the iconic figure of H.C. Andersen which I find compelling in a discussion of contemporary Danish (and American) literature. The question, you see, is where is it? Who can locate it on the map? It’s alive and well, of course, this thing called Danish literature. Denmark supports its authors and its publishers, and it has its individual champions here in the states — Garrison Keillor and Paul Auster come to mind. Jonathan Rich of The Paris Review. Or Jeffrey Frank of the New Yorker (who recently, together with his wife, produced new translations of Andersen’s work). Then you have your regular posse of translators, a noble breed that’s too often overlooked by academics and media alike. Without translators, there would be no. such. thing. as. world literature.

Every now and again, a Danish author will break through in the United States. Think Peter Høeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow) or, more recently, Martin Ramsland (Doghead) and Peter Fogtdal (The Czar’s Dwarf). But like so much of international literature, it’s backburnered in favor of the homegrown stuff. It’s been a while since a Danish author broke through in the way that, say, Swede Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or Norwegian Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses) has broken through.

Why is that? It’s certainly not for lack of quality authors. Part of me wonders whether it’s a reverse Andersen effect: it’s now us who can’t locate Copenhagen on the map. Historically speaking, Denmark has always been a powerful force to be reckoned with in Europe — and especially in Scandinavia. But since the end of World War II, when globalization’s engine really started to heat up, Denmark has lagged behind in the self-promotion department. Swedes and Norwegians — much larger land masses to the north — tend to usurp visibility in this area. Perhaps the lesson here is that when you think you’re small, you are small.

Denmark is a nation of only around 5.5 million people, but it’s a leading cultural light in western culture (the cartoon fiasco notwithstanding), very much on par with all of Scandinavia. With its self-sustaining environmental policies, its copacetic, slightly more relaxed way of life and its brilliantly altruistic social welfare programs, Denmark is a role model to other nations. (Sadly, I can envision that privatization will strip the country’s social welfare programs bare in another generation. Am I being cynical?)

In such an environment, it’s no surprise that Danish authors have produced — and continue to produce — terrific material. Stuff worthy of world circulation. According to Open Letter Press’s blog Three Percent (although it’s not original to them), only, that’s right, “3 percent” of the total number of books published in the United States are translated. That’s a whoppingly low number — and perhaps proof that U.S. literature is indeed “insular,” as Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy notoriously suggested?

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center based in Bethesda, MD, an independent nonprofit literary organization that offers over 300 workshops in writing annually. For his work with Simon Fruelund’s fiction he has received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council. He has translated two of Fruelund’s books. The completed manuscript is called Civil Twilight & Other Stories.

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