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
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
– 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
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
– 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
– 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
– 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
– 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.
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