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. PHOTO COURTESY OF 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
Published: 1/22/2021 11:20:11 AM

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 much 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 volume of what’s called “The Copenhagen Trilogy” has been translated by Michael Favala Goldman of Florence, who has translated over 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 phone call, Goldman, who first 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, meantime, 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.

He notes that the trilogy is now going to be published in at least 14 other languages.

Meantime, on Jan. 26, Goldman will be part of an online panel discussion about Ditlevsen and “The Copenhagen Trilogy” that will be hosted by Scandinavia House in New York City, a center for Nordic culture.

The virtual discussion, which also includes writers Morten Høi Jensen, Rachel Kushner, and Ben Lerner, takes place at 7 p.m. You can register for the event by visiting scandinaviahouse.org and following the link for “events.” Goldman’s website is hammerandhorn.net.

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

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