The Rumpus Book Club chats with Iben Mondrup and Kerri Pierce about the recently released translation of Justine, Mondrup’s 2012 Danish novel about a young artist and the world of art in Denmark, reverse appropriation, and the challenges of translation.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Iben, I guess this book came out in Danish in 2012. What’s it like revisiting a book that you finished so long ago? And Kerri, how did you come to translate this book?
Kerri Pierce: A friend of Iben’s happened to mention the book to Kaija Straumanis, an editor at Open Letter, around the time that Open Letter was considering doing a Danish women’s series. (The percent of women in translation is significantly lower than men in translation.) Kaija asked me to do a sample of the book for them and I absolutely loved it. Obviously, they loved it, too, because they signed the book on.
Iben Mondrup: It’s an interesting experience as I’ve moved to a different place since the initial publication of the novel, but seeing the novel translated and transformed into another language has provided me with a great deal of pleasure. A new and fresh point of view on the book, sort of speak.
Brian S: About how long did it take to translate the book, and did you work with Iben at all on it?
Kerri Pierce: I can’t remember how long it took me to do the translation, to be honest. Translation for me goes through several stages: first, producing a rough draft, where I just basically put the Danish into English, trying to keep as close to the original is possible (which produces a rough English); then polishing the translation, where I go back and do a sentence-by-sentence comparison, even as I am firming up the English text. The next stage is going through the work again, this time with comments from the editor. At this point, the author also weighs in. Once everyone has gone through the book, the finished draft is produced. Whew! I suppose a year went by between the sample and the finished product, but like I said, I can’t quite remember.
Brian S: I’m fascinated by translation in part because I tried my hand at some when I did my MFA and I was really bad at it—I didn’t have enough command of French, and I was too arrogant to recognize it, and the result showed.
Kerri Pierce: Yes, Iben and I collaborated. She was a joy to work with and always responded very quickly to my comments. (A real relief to a translator in process.) We also managed to meet a couple of times face-to-face, once in Copenhagen and once here in Rochester.
Iben Mondrup: In fact I’ve come to love the book more than before, because I had to approach it in a different way, as something moreover founded in language, and this has been eye-opening to me, dealing with it from a distance.
Brian S: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?
Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, where as De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.
Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”
Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.
Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.
Brian S: You trained as a visual artist—how did you move into becoming a writer?
Iben Mondrup: I never really found my true voice and expression in the visual arts. It wasn’t until I wrote my thesis, even though this was a more or less non-artistic assignment, that I realized words are my true medium and material.
Brian S: Kerri, were there any parts of the book that gave you particular trouble? I know jokes are often the hardest things to translate.
Kerri Pierce: Part of what attracted me to Justine was the stylistic brilliance of it. Sharp, colorful, alone-standing, much like the protagonist. Many of the sentences begin one place and end up another, as Justine’s train of thought shifts, or feature strong visual imagery, which, because Justine is imagining it, leaves you (at least me) questioning if what I think the text says is actually what it says.
A passage that was particularly difficult for me, and which I consulted Iben about a couple of times, was the scene when Justine is remembering her mother setting herself on fire in bed.
Brian S: Another favorite moment was the scene between Justine and her grandfather talking about Ane’s video where she’s kicking the goat.
That’s fascinating, Iben—your thesis? What was the subject, if I might ask.
Iben Mondrup: Yes, Ane’s work in the novel, accurately represents the works at the time I was at the Academy of Arts. They displayed a high level of energy and immediacy, and energy which to outsiders may have seemed absurd. But to us it was very significant and laden with meaning.
Brian S: Right, I don’t have any first-hand experience in a visual arts academy—I’m just an observer, and not a super close one at that—but the projects didn’t seem unrealistic to me, perhaps because I see echoes of that in some corners of contemporary poetry.
Iben Mondrup: My subject had to do with different aspects of identity in Greenladic art; the questions were incendiary at the time, as they still are.
Kerri Pierce: One thing I really like about the book is just that portrayal of the art world. (Not that I am by any means all that knowledgeable about the art world.) One of the most unfortunate, but most realistic, turns of events that struck me as the moment Ane resolves to start babysitting to earn some money for a change.
Brian S: That moment hit close to home for me too, given the number and kinds of jobs I’ve held in the last fifteen years or so, some in academia, but some in retail as well.
Iben Mondrup: To answer Kerri’s question, I’d say the book is very much about what it means for the protagonist to deal very little with the actual, concrete world, for example having a child, interacting with normal people and the demands of normal life.
Brian S: Iben, is that where the descriptions of Justine’s Inngili project came from?
Iben Mondrup: Yes it is. Inngili is to Justine an attempt to bridge the gap between the world of normal people and the world of arts. It’s an attempt to get closer, to anchor herself in the Danish/Greenlandic colonial history.
Brian S: Because I don’t have any background knowledge on that history, I found myself reading it as a kind of appropriation, and that made me look a little aslant at Justine’s art. Is that a fair criticism of her, do you think?
Iben Mondrup: This history is to many Danish readers exotic and out of their grasp and reach.
Brian S: Kerri, how did you approach those sections in your translation? What was your understanding of Justine as an artist there?
Kerri Pierce: Just a passing thought, but it almost seemed to me a reverse appropriation. (Does that make any sense?) Justine having some characteristic artistic fun, and taking her audience’s stereotypes and preconceptions as part of her material.
Iben Mondrup: To most Danes the Danish/Greenlandic history is a sort of distant fairy tale, but to Justine it’s full of actuality, a sort of violence.
Kerri Pierce: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that Justine speaks to a larger concern on Iben’s part of exactly that tense meeting of Greenlandic and Danish culture. Her last two novels (which are stylistically and conceptually quite different than Justine) also deal with Greenland/Denmark.
Iben Mondrup: Kerri—I’m in total agreement with your perception of that particular part of the story.
Brian S: Okay, it sounds to me like a similar problem that many Americans have with the history of our treatment of Native Americans—we don’t like to actually think about the violence we visited and continue to visit on them, so we dress it up with stories about how they were in touch with the land and were noble savages and the like.
Now I want to read some more about this relationship between Denmark and Greenland!
Iben Mondrup: Brian: Spot on. What Justine is getting at, is that this particular part of history stinks like rotting fish.
Kerri Pierce: One question I had was whether to translate the name of the Greenlandic natives as “Eskimos” or “Inuits,” since Eskimos apparently has a belittling connotation. (Also the case in Danish, as I understand.) Justine does say in that section: “Having some fun among the Eskimos…” (Or something like that, not remembering the exact phase.) Anyway, that was a question for Iben.
Noble savages… or ridiculous cartoon characters. My five-year-old has been watching Disney’s Peter Pan lately. A total aside… but, yeah.
Brian S: Man, that movie has one of the more racist songs in the Disney canon, and that’s saying something. My daughters are still in love with Tangled for the moment, thank goodness.
Iben Mondrup: Kerri: Today, Greenlanders don’t really have a problem with the term ‘eskimo’, because they’ve gained their true mental independence over the years, as well as their practical independence. So, the sensitivity has faded some, ad become less significant.
Brian S: And now I need to reread the book with that sense of history in mind, because I was seeing Justine’s approach to art as kind of flimsy, tho that made me see her final turn as a moment of significant growth.
Kerri Pierce: Ah, interesting. Well, my in-depth knowledge on the subject came from searching the Internet to find an answer. Oh all-knowing Internet, lend me your… whatever.
Iben Mondrup: To many expat Greenlanders, the questions remain fresh and painful, where as to the Greenlanders presently living in Greenland identity seems to be more clarified and less of a concern.
Brian S: I also read the fire of her grandfather’s house as a blessing in disguise, as a sort of motivator to get into a new set of artistic practices.
Iben Mondrup: Brian: It is a blessing, a sort of birth. From the chains of conformity and dated modernism, into something a lot less banal and simple in its expression. She is set free by the fire.
Brian S: But just like anyone who’s been set free in a traumatic way—first the death of her grandfather and then the fire (not to mention the breakup with Vita)—she seems to be directionless for a while, ricocheting off whoever is around her.
Kerri Pierce: Except that she also accidentally killed her ex-girlfriend. So it’s a birth, certainly, but one with a price. Any birth, of course, exacts a flesh-and-blood price, but this is one is somewhat diabolical and truly makes the novel more complicated in a delicious, very human sort of way.
Brian S: So there’s a chance that the police in that final scene are coming to talk to her about some human remains?
Iben Mondrup: I never in the book made any suggestion as to Justine being a whole or rational person. In that sense the novel is not a pedagogical work; she is bereft of direction. More instinct than intellect.
Brian S: Are either of you working on new projects you’d be willing to give us a preview of?
Kerri Pierce: I still think, though, that Justine has something to teach. 🙂
Iben Mondrup: I have just published a short story titled “The Grouse Hunt” in World Literature Today, which I think very accurately shows the direction of my present work. Here. we find ourselves among real, living and breathing Greenlanders as opposed to imaginary ones and apparitions and symbolic manifestations. So one might say that my more recent work is a lot more face-to-face with actual life and all that it entails.
Kerri Pierce: Right now I’m finishing up on a translation of a Faroese book, also for Open Letter, that will be the first Faroese novel to have been translated into English. The book (by Jóanes Nielsen) is an epic (though often satirical, it must be said), hundred-year-plus history of the Faroe Islands. (Actually, the original title is: The Brahmadellas: A North Atlantic Chronical.)
I’m also “working on my first novel”… but aren’t we all? 🙂
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon/evening, and for such an interesting book.
Kerri Pierce: Thank you, Brian!
Iben Mondrup: Thank you both very much for having me; I enjoyed our little conversation immensely. I could have easily gone on for hours with the two of you. 🙂
Brian S: My pleasure, Iben and Kerri. Best of luck!