A literary update: UMass professor offers first English translation of noted Danish novel since 1845


When it comes to fairy tales, there are few names more noteworthy than Hans Christian Andersen. The 19th-century Danish author wrote more than 150 of them, including enduring classics that have been translated into 125 languages and been the subject of many film and other artistic treatments: “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid.”

Andersen (1805-1875) was also a prolific and versatile writer whose work ranged far beyond children’s stories. He penned six novels, an autobiography, short story collections, plays, librettos and travelogues, all of which made him one of Europe’s most well known and respected writers in the mid-1800s.

Trouble is, Frank Hugus said, few people today — at least in North America and likely in many other parts of the world — are aware of that body of work. And when the veteran professor of German and Scandinavian studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst first introduced some of his students to Andersen’s novels in the 1990s, he discovered the English translations were creaking with age, laden with what he calls stilted, archaic writing and some mistranslations from Danish.

So Hugus set out to rectify that, and he’s now completed the first step of his project. He’s translated and published, with University of Minnesota Press, Andersen’s first novel, the semi-autobiographical “The Improvisatore” — the first English translation of the book since 1845. (The novel was first published in Denmark in 1835.)

Looking back at that first class he taught, Hugus recalled his students were “really taken” with the three Andersen novels that were part of the curriculum: “The Improvisatore,” “O.T.” and “The Two Baronesses.”

“I thought ‘If they can understand and appreciate all this through a scrim of bad translation, maybe I should think about translating some of this work myself,’” Hugus said with a chuckle.

He’s done just that: In addition to “The Improvisatore,” he’s translated part of “The Two Baronesses,” published in 1848; he’s also finishing up a translation of one of Andersen’s plays, “The Moorish Girl.”

But Hugus hasn’t taken on this work just because he wants to update a few musty translations. He’s a big admirer of Andersen’s writing for adults and believes he deserves larger recognition for that, at least in the United States.

When he first read “The Improvisatore” (in Danish) in the late 1980s, Hugus said, “I was blown away. It was an exciting story, which I hadn’t expected … or that (Andersen) was such a formidable observer of nature, of art and of people.”

He was also impressed with Andersen’s five other novels, especially “The Two Baronesses,” which he cites as a virtually unheard-of example of a 19th-century male writer making two women the lead protagonists of a story.

Part of his attraction to Andersen’s writing is his relatively late discovery of it himself. Hugus did his doctoral work in medieval German literature — he also took graduate classes in Norwegian and later studied Danish — but his first teaching position, at UMass, was teaching Danish. It wasn’t until several years later that he began teaching German and Scandinavian literature.

Like many, he mainly knew of Andersen’s fairy tales and some of his poetry, and he was surprised by the extent of his other work when, in the late 1980s, he began researching it for possible inclusion in a class.

“The breadth and depth of his writing is really impressive,” Hugus said.An adventurous tale

“The Improvisatore” has a bit of a Dickensian feel to it: Like “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations,” it’s a first-person narrative (the only one of Andersen’s novels written in that voice) that follows the trials and adventures of a poor youth as he grows into manhood. The story, set in Italy, reflects some of Andersen’s own background growing up poor and struggling to become an artist, as well as extended trips he took in Italy in the early 1830s.

The narrator of “The Improvisatore,” Antonio, is a young boy when the story opens. He and his mother live a marginal existence in Rome, but they’re buoyed by their faith in the Catholic Church, and Antonio has a fine singing voice that impresses many.

But then his mother dies when she’s trampled by a panicked horse, and Antonio’s life turns upside down. He falls first into the clutches of his scheming uncle, then lives with two peasants in the countryside, where he meets a wealthy benefactor who enrolls him in a Jesuit school back in Rome.

Further adventures find an older Antonio falling in love with a woman, an opera singer, over whom he’s forced into a duel with the singer’s other suitor; being captured by bandits when he flees Rome after the duel; and taking a trip to Naples, where he’s tempted by a married woman and climbs Mount Vesuvius as the volcano is erupting. He also steadily gains attention as an improvisatore, a singer who entertains by creating extended songs and verse extemporaneously.

Hugus said the novel was a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany and Scandinavia, when it was published, and that the book and much of Andersen’s writing for adults remains well known in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries today, and to some extent in Germany.

He’s translated other literature from Danish to English, including short stories by Andersen and novels by Hans Scherfig, a popular mid-20th-century Danish author. He also hopes to translate some of Andersen’s other novels after he finishes his work on “The Two Baronesses.”

The challenge with translating the older books, he said, is making them accessible to a modern audience while also maintaining fidelity to the story and the language of the original; at a minimum, he noted, it requires avoiding words and expressions that did not exist in the mid-1800s.

“You don’t want to be too colloquial,” Hugus said. “And when you’re dealing with an author like Andersen, who was really very careful in his choice of words, you need to respect that.”

At the very least, his work in turning Danish literature into English makes him part of a niche trade in the Pioneer Valley. The only other Danish translator he’s aware of in the region is Michael Goldman, a Florence resident who has translated the work of mostly contemporary Danish writers and poets for small presses.

“We probably have more Danish to English translators to the square mile here than anywhere else in the country,” Hugus said with a laugh.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *