Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sophus Claussen in English

The apparent absence of a standard English translation of the work of the great Danish Symbolist poet Sophus Claussen (1865-1931) has always struck me as puzzling. Whether it's because Claussen is still  associated in some Anglo-American literary minds with the European "periphery", or whether it relates to the difficulty of rendering his polished and elegant metrical verse into English rhyme, or whether the obscurity of some of his work has confounded the translators, his poetry has remained to a large extent unknown outside the Nordic region. It has also meant that Claussen's novels, which include Unge Bander (1894), Antonius i Paris (1896) and Valfart (1896), are not yet known to an English-language readership.

During the past few months I've been trying out some English versions of poems by Claussen in the environment of an online translation workshop, where the general atmosphere, though inevitably somewhat foggy, is none the less enlivening. The response among specialists and non-specialists alike has been interesting. Although some participants have dismissed the poems as "glib" and "flowery", others have confirmed by the general drift of their comments that in many respects Claussen's work differs little in form, style and character from that of many other Symbolist poets of his time, although they wrote in French, German or Russian, not Danish. Certainly, Claussen was entirely at home in the world of Parisian literary bohemianism, and was even photographed together with Verlaine and other Parnassian and Symbolist poets. The French translations of his work by the poet Charles Cros, though long out of print, also put him firmly into the context of the French literature from which he derived so much of the technical basis of his inspiration.

In her fascinating and amazingly detailed study of Nordic Orientalism, the Scandinavianist and literary scholar Elisabeth Oxfeldt has examined the  roots and genesis of Claussen's celebrated poem 'Ekbátana', which she sees as a central text in the historic emergence of Denmark from the cultural periphery of Europe towards its centre. She writes that "the poem expresses a longing towards Parisian modernity and cosmopolitanism as well as a built-in resistance towards a Western monoculture whose tendency it is to obliterate peripheral cultures."

In future posts I'll present the Danish text of  'Ekbátana' together with the latest version of my translation, and discuss the poem further.