Translation Notes · 11/20/2014

Milk and Other Stories / Civil Twilight

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English. In this installment, K.E. Semmel writes about translating Milk and Other Stories (Santa Fe Writers Project) and Civil Twilight (Spout Hill Press) by Simon Fruelund.


On Translating Simon Fruelund

I recently attended the Copenhagen Book Fair. While in Denmark, I spent a night at the home of Danish novelist Simon Fruelund. In 2013 two of his books (Milk & Other Stories and Civil Twilight) finally appeared in English, in my translation, when two publishers agreed to publish them. When Necessary Fiction asked me to write this piece, I admit I was stymied. I find it enormously difficult to discuss translations that I completed years ago. So I decided to film a short interview with Simon instead. But before you watch it, here’s a little background.

Years ago, when I was just beginning to contemplate becoming a literary translator, I began searching for something very specific: a collection of realist stories that resembled the kind of fiction I enjoyed reading in American literary magazines. Finally, in the town of Skive in mid-Jutland, I stumbled across a thin book by an author who was unknown to me. I turned to the first story and began to read. Instantly I was hooked: It was early spring. I walked past the inn and saw a young couple stepping out of a silver-gray Peugeot….

If I had been able to map the genomic sequence of that story, I was pretty sure I would’ve found the DNA of Hemingway and Carver. But the story — called “Tide” in my eventual translation — also seemed quintessentially Danish. In it a man drives a couple out to a small island at low tide to watch seals, and with a few very well placed details we learn something significant about the man, the couple, and a tragedy that occurred shortly before the events in the story. In what I would learn was Fruelund’s characteristically subdued way, a whole lot happened in a very short span of eight pages. Fruelund’s stories are compact and precise.

I bought the book.

When I returned to the United States, I set to work translating one of the stories, “Phosphorescence.” Then I found Simon’s address online and sent the finished product to him. That was the start of a long correspondence and friendship. I would complete a story then send it to him for his review and commentary. Since he is a translator himself — he has brought into Danish work by both Philip Roth and Raymond Carver — his input was especially valuable. In this way, the translation process is far more collaborative than with any other author I’ve translated. Using Track Changes, Simon comments on everything I send him. Which is cool. This is why readers of Danish might recognize small changes between the originals and the translations.

Since the publication of his first book in 1997, Simon Fruelund has been a groundbreaking — and delightfully entertaining — writer with a gift for creative reinvention, and this is what I’ve long admired about his work. From his early realist-inspired stories (“Tide,” “What is It?” and “Hair”) to his later “pointillist” experiments (“Man on the Bus,” — which Simon discusses in this video and which was published here at The Collagist in 2013 — Civil Twilight, The World and Varvara, Panamericana, and the recently released Pendlerne (Commuters), he finds new ways to express and shape his ever-developing artistic vision. That vision is deceptively complex. Though his sentences are short and crisp, a lot is going on in them or between the lines. As Publishers Weekly put it last year in its review of Milk, “Fruelund’s short bursts of sentences express inner turmoil so nuanced as to be incognito.” In the Murakamiesque story “Unsettled,” for example, a man’s relationship to his former teacher turns weird pretty fast, and we learn a great deal about him in the process. What does it mean? That’s an open-ended question for the reader.

In Civil Twilight, the more traditional narratives we find in Milk & Other Stories suddenly vanish and instead we’re sliding in and out of the lives of everyone on a particular street (Dante’s Avenue) in a particular suburb. It’s a kind of voyeuristic sleight of hand.

An example:

She thinks it’s embarrasing when her parents kiss each other on the street.
She thinks it’s embarrasing when they hold hands.
She thinks that her father looks stupid when he smiles, and that her mother wears the most horrible outfits.
She doesn’t have any desire to be seen with them anywhere.
She wishes they were divorced like most other parents.
Then she could live with them in rotation and go on two summer trips each year.
She often thinks about the man across the street.
Her theory is that he won the lottery and thought:
Well, hell. Now it’s my turn.
She imagines that he’s sitting on a beach in the Caribbean with a drink and a girl whose skin is the color of nougat.

Read any individual section of Civil Twilight on its own and it’s impossible to see the whole, but dive into the book and absorb it in its entirety and the world of Dante’s Avenue opens up like a jigsaw puzzle that you piece together (you can hear a sample of Simon reading this in a book trailer on his website). I suppose this is true of pretty much any writer, but with Fruelund’s pointillist stories it seems somehow especially true. Take a look at his books. But start by watching this video.


K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, Best European Fiction 2011, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller, Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One, Simon Fruelund’s Civil Twilight and Milk & Other Stories, Erik Valeur’s The Seventh Child and, forthcoming in 2015, Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. Follow him on Twitter @kesemmel.