As a novel originally written in modern Danish about an Anglo-Saxon English saint, The Song of Hild, by Vibeke Vasbo, posed an interesting challenge for its translator into English, Gaye Kynoch. Rachel Fennell attended their discussion at Durham Book Festival, to learn how a book inspired by English history and landscape found its way home.
For Vibeke Vasbo, author of The Song of Hild, championing the rights of women is a subject close to her heart. She is, after all, a founding member of the Danish Red Stocking Movement, proponent of the Lesbian Movement, and author of Al den løgn om kvinders svaghed (All the Lies About the Weakness of Women) a novel based on her own experience of being a female crane driver in Oslo. In writing the story of an exceptional woman trying to navigate the daily horrors of the patriarchal world of Anglo Saxon England, therefore, Vasbo is in familiar territory, despite being separated from her heroine, Hild, Abbess of Whitby, by thirteen centuries.
Hild, Vasbo admits, was an obsession. Inspired by seeing an image of the Abbess on a map of the North of England, she spent the next three years researching all she could about a woman who would remain largely elusive. Few written sources about her survive, and those that do were not always as helpful or as interesting as Vasbo would have liked. She confesses that she found the writings of the Venerable Bede, for instance, boring. At the small gasp of horror this provokes from the audience, she smiles, and says she had to read him again before she began to see both the value of his words, and the importance of his deliberate silences. ‘Bede never lies,’ Vasbo clarifies, ‘but he leaves out what he thinks unfitting.’ She had to re-interpret his account and uncover what he omitted, ‘smelling out the hidden nastiness’ and in a novel that deals with rape, murder, warfare, and religious conversion, there are plenty of moments of nastiness. The Song of Hild is thus a mixture of historical fact and intuitive guesswork, supported with what Vasbo learnt from visiting museums and libraries, but also from the numberless miles she walked looking for Hild in the English countryside. ‘History is still visible in England,’ she explains; in tracing the same routes and pathways that her characters take, it is clear that it is in the natural world, in the cliffs, hills, rivers, and rolling fields that make up England, that Vasbo feels most connected to the real people that populate her novel. The Song of Hild is not just a beautifully crafted love letter to the English landscape, however. It is a densely woven text, studded with rich detail about the incidental details of everyday life in seventh-century England, from descriptions of fine clothing, jewellery, furniture, and armour, to herb lore, religious education, and folk belief.
As a translator, it was Gaye Kynoch’s job to reproduce the feel of Vasbo’s Danish in English, and to capture a world that to a contemporary audience had to be comprehensive, understandable, and accessible, but just slightly off kilter in order to keep a sense of the past as something distant and almost uncanny. Kynoch had already translated some of Vasbo’s work before, including several of her poems and excerpts of Al den løgn om kvinders svaghed. But The Song of Hild would prove to be a longer and more difficult challenge. She explains that she had to make a version of the text that balanced exactly what was written, known as ‘formal correspondence’, with a translation that transmitted the author’s voice and intention to the reader, a process called ‘dynamic equivalence’. For Kynoch, the key was in having a deep understanding of both the culture you translate from and into, or ‘knowing where the words are coming from and where they are going’. Thus, she could successfully construct a text that lay somewhere between keeping faithfully to Vasbo’s vision of her story, whilst at the same time trying to express the feeling of one language in another.
It would take twenty-seven years before the English version of The Song of Hild would be published, but for both women the wait has been worth it. As Vasbo and Kynoch each read the opening paragraph of the novel, first in Danish and then in English, both languages lilt across the room, the words crisp, beautiful and ultimately complementary. For Vasbo, seeing the English translation in print is a quiet victory. Finally, she says, Hild can come home.