The work of the translator involves a constant hunt for the “right” text. But sometimes the roles are reversed and the text starts haunting the translator until it is translated.
Mit navn er Karlsen. Lejemorder.
With these simple words, The Contract Killer had made its mark. Having had the privilege to be associated with a group of talented actors, mostly through their work with [Foreign Affairs], the voice of Adam Mannering had already begun dancing around in my head. His intensity, mannerisms and cockney accent provided an outlet for Karlsen, the bungling and would be contract killer, as I flipped through the dusty pages of Benny Andersen’s early take on Scandinavian crime fiction.
On a weekend break in Copenhagen to visit friends, nurture romance and enjoy some Danish ‘hygge’, I uncovered Benny Andersen’s ‘Lejemorderen og andre spil’. Browsing through secondhand book bins, trustingly left on the pedestrianised streets of the city centre, is a regular treat on trips to Denmark’s capital city. As a Daneloving Canadian, Benny Andersen was known to me mostly through his music and cultural significance. Had he written plays as well? The unassuming and dark-covered folio in my hand proved that he had done. The reverse cover revealed that these plays had been performed on Danish and Swedish radio in 1969 and closer inspection revealed its subsequent publication in 1970 by Borgen. Yes, just like the Danish TV series. There was no time for flipping through the first pages, it simply had to be mine. And for ten Danish kroner, this was a simple transaction. Except that the shop was shut for lunch. Would a ten kroner piece left on the doorstep suffice? No, that wouldn’t do. Lejemorderen was slipped back into obscurity with the hope that it would remain that way a little longer. Two days later I returned to the scene of the crime and Lejemorderen was exactly where I had left it. The shop doors were open and I placed a single coin eagerly into the shopkeeper’s hand.
Reading Danish unchecked is usually quite straightforward but the urge to immediately translate into English sometimes makes the task more complicated. During my first look at Lejemorderen, I would helplessly read a line, then translate, read another line, then translate, desperate to know if the dialogue was equally as clever and engaging in English. It was. My spontaneous outbreaks of laughter proved too much for my Danish wife to ignore. I read out a few of the lines to her, and it seemed they were even funnier to a native speaker. I quickly crawled back into my shell to keep the enjoyment to myself and protect The Contract Killer from being swooped out of my hands. I knew immediately that I wanted to translate this piece, and a frantic search to determine if anyone else had beaten me to it ensued. The only discovery of note was a website, Lejemorder.dk where apparently contract killers can be hired on the world wide web. Only in Denmark.
Several weeks after believing that my many e-mails to the Danish publisher had been ignored, I received a pleasant e-mail from the wife of Benny Andersen, Elisabeth Ehmer. Benny Andersen maintained the rights to this little known play, and he was very happy for me to proceed with the translation, provided they were informed of any plans for publication or performance. Permission for several readings and the première were later generously granted to us by Miss Ehmer and Mister Andersen, and an eventual introduction at their residence was the culmination of this lovely e-mail exchange. The meeting with Benny Andersen and his wife was a warm and wonderful affair but at the time the experience didn’t seem overly significant to me. When I later found myself drinking Benny Andersen’s favourite drink of Campari and white wine and repeating his colourful stories, I then realised how privileged I was to meet and work with such a wonderful writer.
I can’t say that translating Lejemorderen was difficult, there were awkward passages, frantic searches through various coloured dictionaries and pleading questions to the resident Dane which were often met with spurious replies questioning who the translator and Danish linguaphile was. One such exchange occurred as Karlsen is about to take out his mark:
Hvad med at bestille lidt champagne – hva? – sådan på falderebet, mener jeg.
I had a good sense for the meaning, but neither I nor the Dane knew that the phrase was referencing the launching of a ship. The champagne of course is smashed against the ship, but faldereb, are the ropes that line the gangplank up to the ship, helping passengers avoid falling into the waters below. In colloquial terms, it is translated as ‘at the last moment’ but after endless consultations, I eventually decided on ‘last requests’.
Once the translation of Lejemorderen was complete, there was never any doubt that a performance would be the next step; that process began one evening over caipirinhas and cold beers. The aforementioned group of actors were gathered together to perform an initial reading and they effortlessly breathed life into the characters. Encouraging support was expressed by the readers over the quality of the dialogue and translation, to which I could only respond that I was lucky to be working with the words and genius of Benny Andersen. However, certain tones, intonations and other linguistic subtleties were not always expressed in the same way as I had imagined. I found myself thinking of Roland Barthes’ critical ideas from The Death of the Author, that as soon as the words have been written, they no longer belong to you. They could be read, interpreted and expressed in entirely different ways from my own. It took some time to accept that The Contract Killer was being opened up to countless new and wonderful possibilities. This was the most difficult step in the whole process: letting my words be taken over by others. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm and energy expressed by those involved, coupled with my own excitement at seeing the project come to fruition, allowed me to slowly relax my grip over The Contract Killer.
Next up, a private reading of The Contract Killer at London’s latest Danish import, Nyborg’s Kitchen, complete with Tuborgs and Gammel Dansk, smørrebrød and cheese puffs, and the music of Povl Dissing and Benny Andersen playing quietly in the background. The reading was a resounding success with the howls of laughter from the benches on the left, the thoughtful murmurings from the right and supportive voices from the centre intermingling to join the worlds of theatre, academia and friendship in approval. This strong reception paved the way for A Night of Crime and the opportunity to present The Contract Killer to the wider world.
Unfortunately the event did not go off without a hitch. Several of the original actors were unavailable for the lucky night (chosen by our resident astrologist), including Adam Mannering, the infamous contract killer, who was due to become a father on that very same evening. Organising and promoting the event was a huge task, which I enthusiastically assisted in alongside [Foreign Affairs]’s cofounders, Trine Garrett and Camila França. Our plans for the evening were not always the same, and once again I was forced to remind myself to allow the professionals to carry out their own vision for the show. A Night of Crime emerged from Trine and Camila’s creative genius: Ben Stanley’s Ouroboros would serve as an appetiser and my own version of Inger Christensen’s Dialog would bind the evening together with the main event. An unused shop-front in Hackney Wick presented itself as the ideal location: Blacked-out windows and a warehouse style atmosphere provided the setting that few traditional theatregoers would be accustomed to. Now we just had to fill the space. Hourly checks on ticket sales were not unusual for me, as I anticipated the encroaching evening with a good deal of nerves. Why had only two people bought tickets?!? No wait, there were three now, phew. Eventually I was able to calm myself with the belief that the actors would make the show a success no matter how many people were witness to it. Standing by the door on the night of the show, however, I was pleasantly amazed as a queue of known and unknown faces sought entry outside this random location. My nerves had been settled by a gentle shot of tequila moments before with a loyal group of friends and colleagues who had come to share in my excitement. Any trepidation I had held over the use of the new actors had been quelled during the final warm-up session only an hour before the show. Darren Stamford, aka, The Contract Killer, was burning up the stage and erased my disappointment over the loss of the previous killer. Adam Mannering had managed to attend the show in any case, and even he had to admit, despite his sadness for missing out, that the new Contract Killer had been outstanding.
During the show, I listened to my own words being performed with some anxiety. I waited for a word or a sentence to be missed or stumbled upon, or worse still, to fall flat on the audience. Instead I found myself laughing uncontrollably to the lines that I had heard, that I had imagined and formed, that I had poured over countless times. They were no longer mine; the actors crafted them, the audience absorbed them, and in the excited conversations which followed, they were enjoyed and repeated over and over again. The transformation was complete: The words had been taken from me, as they had been previously taken from one Benny Andersen and soon, The Contract Killer will once again be passed on to new audiences.
The Contract Killer was first performed
in 2011 by [Foreign Affairs].
The Contract Killer by Benny Andersen, translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Published by Norvik Press in 2013. Available from all good bookstores and online.
Paul Russell Garrett is a freelance translator. He has a BA in Scandinavian Studies from UCL. He is currently working on the translation of a Danish children’s novel supported by the Danish Arts Council.
This article was first published in Danish Review in 2012