Norvik Press brought one of Denmark’s greatest writers, Dorrit Willumsen, author of the novel Bang, over the North Sea for a chat with her translator, Professor Marina Allemano, about their love of the nineteenth-century author Herman Bang, and walking over cracks in the ground. The event took place high above the ground on the tenth floor in the Arena Centre in Bloomsbury. With an amazing view of the London skyline, the city itself made a poetic backdrop to the literary conversation.
The idea of the book originated when Willumsen was asked to write about one of her heroes. She had two subjects in mind, one being her grandfather, and the other Herman Bang – her favourite Danish writer. Known for re-imagining historical figures using the first person, Willumsen used the same technique for the protagonist in Bang. The work was originally commissioned by her publisher as a biography. Willumsen, however, discovered this was problematic, as there were so many biographies about Bang already in print. She read them all, and as she progressed in her research, it became increasingly difficult for her to hold her creativeness at bay. Eventually, the book turned out to be a novel about the last days of the eccentric, flamboyant writer and inspiring actor. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as we follow Bang on his final book tour through America. He is ill, dependent on help from others and on his morphine to get to sleep. But the reader also gets to know the younger, livelier man through his reminiscing.
A household name in Denmark, Dorrit Willumsen started out as a writer in 1965, although sadly not much of her work is translated into English. This translation of Bang goes some way towards remedying that. And that task was undertaken by Allemano, who has always had a great admiration for Willumsen and published a biography about her in Danish in 2015. When asked where she positions herself as a translator, Allemano humbly defined herself as a servant to the original work, a technician; a problem solver. She described the translating process with an analogy: imagine walking on an Earth full of cracks. When you look down between the cracks, you can vaguely distinguish the real, more beautiful world underneath, but you can never fully get to it. However, this modest depiction of her own efforts was quickly modified by voices in the audience. Translation is also a rewriting of the script and demands a great deal of artistic imagination.
Throughout the evening Willumsen lapsed into several entertaining anecdotes of the writing process and how Bang lived his life. The audience learnt that he was a man with a love of spending money when he had it and reduced to borrowing when he did not. He even went so far as borrowing from his doctor and then from his doctor’s wife, with a plea that she would not tell her husband … Willumsen also described what it was like working on a project like Bang, saying it took her five years to write the book; when she had finally finished, her son was relieved that Bang had moved out after living in their home for so long.
Rounding off the evening, as the darkness had settled – creating the perfect storytelling ambience – Dorrit and Marina delighted the audience with the opening passage of Bang in both Danish and English. Herman Bang’s brusque meeting with the big city of New York made a stark contrast to the romantic twinkling of the skyline in the background.