Ursel Allenstein

Ursel Allenstein translates Danish, Norwegian and Swedish fiction into German, her native language. She started to engage in Scandinavian literature at an early age, when gulping books by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. Her dreams took a northern direction. 

– Already during the first reading of the script that I am currently translating, I got the feeling of moving into a room inhabited by the characters. They become my friends in a way, she says.

We are sitting in the pale midmorning light in the library of the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators. We can hear a clinking sound of cutlery and porcelain from the kitchen downstairs, where the other guests are preparing a picnic excursion in the February snowscape.
– What is so good here is that you have no fixed schedule, no obligations coming from outside. If I wake up at four o´clock in the morning, I can get up and start working, says Ursel Allenstein.

This is the fourth time she travels from her hometown of Hamburg to Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland. Her first stay at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators was ten years ago, when she received a scholarship from the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds, German Translation Fund.
– Last time I visited the Centre, I translated a novel by Christina Hesselholdt. Another Danish author, who was here at the same time as me, had just read the book that I was translating. I could ask him about anything possible which was very helpful in my work, she says.

Ursel Allenstein studied Scandinavistics in Frankfurt and Copenhagen. When she discovered that many books she was reading and was fascinated by were not translated into German yet, she started to take interest in translation. In the beginning, she thought she would only translate from Danish, but nowadays she translates as many Swedish and Norwegian novels as Danish.
– At that time, in the late 1990´s, I found the literature to be so exciting in Denmark, with experimental books by authors like Helle Helle, Christina Hesselholdt and Naja Marie Aidt, she says.

Since Norway is the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019, German publishers are now focusing in Norwegian literature. During the month that Ursel has spent at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, she has been working on the translation of the Norwegian novel ”Max, Mischa og Tetoffensiven” (”Max, Mischa and the Tet Offensive”) by Johan Harstad.
– A great part of the book is taking place in an apartment in New York, where three artists of different ages have moved in: a pianist, a playwright and a visual artist. Each time I start translating, it feels just like I enter that apartment, living there close to the characters, she says.

A typical working day in Visby she tries to get up with the first morning light. Then she goes out running along ”Hälsans stig”, a running track north, or down to the harbour and further south towards the rock of ”Högklint”, if she is feeling for a longer tour.
– It´s a way to clear and organize your thoughts. If there is something that stresses me, I leave that feeling behind there in nature. When I am back from my jogging tour, I can start working.

The work, which requires absolute concentration, is lonely at the desk in the room or at any café in town, but the social moments shared with the other guests at the centre are there whenever you choose it.
– We often eat dinner together here in the evening. You always have company if you want to, but there are no demands.

She is going to the sauna by the sea in Visby several times a week.
– You feel so Scandinavian when you take a bath in the sea at this time of the year, so reborn when you get up from the ice cold water, she says enthusiastically.

In order to keep the languages alive, she reads a lot and is trying to travel as often as she can. One summer she rented an apartment in Stockholm and was working there, an opportunity to listen to the language surrounding her. At home in Hamburg she is watching Swedish TV, especially Babel, a TV show about literature, and listening to the Swedish radio while cooking.
– I also read a lot of German contemporary literature to maintain and develop my mother tongue. But I save the classics for holidays, she says smiling.

Her first contact with Scandinavian literature was the books that she found in her mother´s bookshelf in the childhood home.
– My parents were members of a book club where you would order some books a year. If you did not order some, they sent you a package anyway. Once they sent the novel ”Kristnihald undir Jökli” (”Under the Glacier”) by the Icelandic author and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, whom I began to read and dreamed of being able to read in the original language, she tells me and continues:
– I learned Old Scandinavian at the university so I can read the Icelandic sagas, but I do not master modern Icelandic.

At the university, Ursel had a teacher who was going to edit an anthology of contemporary Scandinavian literature, in collaboration with the distinguished Fischer Publishing House in Frankfurt. He asked some students if they wanted to try to translate something and Ursel was assigned to translate a short story by Christina Hesselholdt.
– It was kind of awakening, an exciting task that also meant that I came in contact with the author, she says.

Since then she has worked as a translator and also as a consultant, reading scripts on behalf of various publishers and recommending them for publishing. One of the Swedish novels that she has recommended is ”Drömfakulteten” (”The Faculty of Dreams”) by Sara Stridsberg. Since then Ursel has translated more novels by her, and Stridsberg became one of her favorite writers.

As a support and inspiration at work, Ursel Allenstein regularly meets other translators and discusses different kinds of texts with them in chat rooms online.
– When you get stuck and do not find a solution, it helps just talking about it, she says and gives me an example:
– Yesterday I worked with a scene in Johan Harstad´s novel, when a sparrow is dying. He is writing that it is lying on the ground, breathing with a wheezy sound. I could not imagine that sound because I thought that small birds die still. Therefore, I contacted a translator colleague and she knew a vet who could confirm that they really sound like that. She could describe the sound, which made it easier for me to translate the scene.

Sometimes she finds mistakes while translating, especially in crime novels, which she sometimes gets unedited at first and where everyone in the chain of production is working very fast. She always asks the author when she is unsure.
– First, one has to ask if it´s an experimental novel: an experimental writer might have written that this sparrow sings or dances, but Johan Harstad mostly writes realistically.

She works with the translation in several different readings. The first reading is about finding linguistic creative solutions, and trying to recreate the rhythm and spirit of the original text. The second reading is a matter of adapting the text to German sentence building, where it has not already been done, a kind of ”remodeling”.
– Then I print the script on paper and compare the translation with the original: Have I forgotten a sentence? Is there something I might have misunderstood? Finally I read the text as if it were written directly in German: If it sounds like a translation, I have to work further on it.

Ursel Allenstein has received several awards for her work, including Hamburg´s translator award for her translation of the Danish author Kim Leine´s collection of short stories, ”Tunu”.
– I have also received a prize from the Europäische Übersetzer-Kollegium in Straelen for my translation of the Norwegian novelist Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold´s book ”Jo fortere jeg går, jo mindre er jeg” ("The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am”). Once when I came to the centre and read the names of the guests, who are written on a board outside the kitchen, I saw that Kjersti also was here.
It was a pleasant coincidence, she says.  

When we meet for the interview, it´s only a few days left until Ursel is going back to Hamburg and she looks back upon some productive and exciting weeks in Visby.
– On my first day here, when I settled down at my desk, it was like the calm and concentration came back to me. Many times it can be difficult to find it in everyday life at home, she says, looking out through the large windows, adding:
– There is something with the open horizon, that you are on an island, which makes you experience a very special atmosphere.

Text and photo: Maria Molin

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