Florence translator puts stamp on new book earning rave reviews

  • Michael Favala Goldman of Florence translated part of a new edition of memoirs by Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen that has earned rave reviews by critics. MICHAEL FAVALA GOLDMAN

  • “The Copenhagen Trilogy” is a new English-language edition of three acclaimed memoirs by the late Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen.

Staff Writer
Friday, February 05, 2021

FLORENCE — The reviews are in, and they’re all good.

A new English-language edition of three memoirs by the late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, a revered literary figure in her country, is earning top marks from critics across the board, particularly the third volume of the trilogy “Dependency.”

That third part of what’s called “The Copenhagen Trilogy” has been translated by Michael Favala Goldman of Florence, who has translated more than 100 works of modern and contemporary Danish writing, including 16 books, for a range of small publishers and journals.

“The Copenhagen Trilogy,” which includes Ditlevsen’s narratives of her childhood, youth and adulthood, is celebrated today as a seminal work by a 20th-century author who, as one critic puts it, “writes about female experience and identity in a way that feels very fresh and pertinent to today’s discussions around feminism.”

Born into a working-class Danish family in 1917 that discouraged her from any career in writing and simply expected her to marry, Ditlevsen went on to write poetry, novels and short fiction, as well as her memoirs. She took her own life in 1977 at age 58 following a tumultuous period that included four marriages, unplanned pregnancies, depression and drug addiction — much of which she writes about, in unblinking fashion, in “Dependency.”

In a recent interview, Goldman, who began learning Danish when he spent time in Denmark as a high school student, said he was both thrilled and surprised to see the reception “The Copenhagen Trilogy” has received, first in Great Britain, where it was published by Penguin, and now in the U.S., where it’s been brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“I had no expectations that anything like this was going to happen,” he said. “It’s very hard for anything written in Danish to get attention in the wider literary world — it’s just such a small bubble.”

Most of his work has appeared in journals and with niche publishers, he said, and previous translations he did on work by the late Benny Andersen, perhaps Denmark’s most successful poet and songwriter, “really didn’t get much traction” in the English-speaking world, Goldman noted. (On his website, Goldman says Danes see Andersen “as a genuine literary hero” and regard him “as Americans might a cross between Robert Frost and Bob Dylan.”)

But critics in Great Britain and the U.S. have been singing the praises of the gritty writing in Ditlevsen’s memoirs. As The Times Literary Supplement in Britain put it, Ditlevsen “looks the slimy and intolerable in the eye and burnishes it into cut glass. She’s a writer who, like Jean Rhys, explores the seamy ambiguities of female abjection — with a voice whose power blasts through.”

Parul Seghal of The New York Times recently called “Dependency” the “most sublime and harrowing” of Ditlevsen’s three-part memoir. And the trilogy as a whole — the first two volumes were translated by Tiina Nunnally, another American translator — is the work of what Seghal calls “a terrifying talent.”

The Paris Review, meanwhile, calls the trilogy “an absolute tour de force, the final volume in particular. … Ditlevsen’s writing ... is crystal clear and vividly, painfully raw.”

Harper’s, Kirkus Reviews, The Guardian and many other publications have also weighed in with strong reviews of “The Copenhagen Trilogy” and “Dependency” in particular, noting that the English translations will ideally give Ditlevsen a renewed and much wider audience.

Goldman, who’s also a poet and writing teacher, says he’s now translated two volumes of Ditlevsen’s short stories and that publishers are showing interest in bringing these out as well.

Indeed, the new memoir trilogy “could be the entry point for getting more of her work out to a much bigger readership,” he said.

Goldman, whose website is hammerandhorn.net, notes that the trilogy is now going to be published in at least 14 other languages.

Translating Hans Christian Anderson

Translating Danish literature into English might be something of a niche business, but there’s at least one other person in the Valley involved in it.

Frank Hugus, a longtime professor of German and Scandinavian studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has translated a number of works by Hans Christian Andersen, the famous 19th-century fairy tale author (“The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling”) who also wrote adult novels, short story collections, plays and more.

A few years ago, Hugus published an English-language version of Andersen’s first novel, “The Improvisatore,” which had last been translated into English in 1845. He has translated work by other Danish authors as well.

As Hugus joked with the Bulletin in a past interview about his work, between him and Goldman, “We probably have more Danish to English translators to the square mile here than anywhere else in the country.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.