Revealing the most popular Danish authors
The popularity of Nordic Noir has sparked increasing interest in fiction from the Scandinavian countries. But who else to read once you’ve exhausted the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (from Iceland) and Sweden’s Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? And what about the other Scandinavian countries? A few years ago I asked Marit a blogger from Denmark to share some thoughts on Danish fiction – you can see her guest post here. Some of the authors she mentioned are not well known outside of Denmark and are not available in translation. Out of those who have moved outside a Danish readership, who are the most popular authors?
This was the question a Danish translation agency set out to answer – and they found some surprising results, explains Lasse Nielsen who is part of the external online marketing team at the Diction agency. Lasse can explain this better than I can so let me hand you over to him.
At Diction, we are passionate about translation. This passion and the fact that we are a Danish translation company led us to do some research to find out which Danish author has been the most translated over time.
We did this research to hopefully inspire someone who sees it to read books by authors other than the ones they’re used to reading and furthermore to learn more about the must successful Danish authors. The inspiration to the research came from my favourite Danish author Peter Høeg, whose book Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which is his most popular work, celebrates its 25 year anniversary this year. Miss Smilla is number eight in the list of top translated authors.
Our study is based on the UNESCO database of translated authors where you can find every translation of authors in the world. There we found the Danish authors and for each of them documented how many times their work had been translated and into how many languages. The ten most translated authors feature in our graphic. For each author mentioned you can see their place of birth, their most popular work and the number of languages into which that work has been translated.
Our research showed, no surprise, that Hans Christian Andersen is by far the most popular author in the matter of translation and reach worldwide. His Fairy Tales has been translated into 180 languages. But for us Danes there were a few surprises as well, particularly finding Carla Hansen whose Rasmus Klump is on the list and the Puck Series by Lisbeth Werner (pseudonym) were so popular worldwide.
We’ve had a surprising reaction to the research and our graphic. Besides the fact that Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard came top of the list. I think that most Danes didn’t know many of the other authors who have become popular outside Denmark – people like Sven Hassel who was born in Denmark but moved to Germany to escape the depression.
Looking through this piece of research, a few things struck me.
One is that my knowledge of Danish fiction is even lower than I expected. I haven’t heard of most of the authors in the top 10 (the exception being of course Hans Christian Anderson). I need to start delving into some of these other authors. Since I’ve never heard of them or even know what genre in which they work I had to do a bit of internet research. Wikipedia came to my rescue so below you’ll find a potted biography of the top 5 (after Anderson who needs no introduction).
Secondly none of the six titles Marit mentions as ‘required reading’ because they are considered classics of Danish fiction, make an appearance in the top 10 identified by Diction. Isn’t that odd? I’d have thought a classic would be one of the first to be translated. Classics from many other European countries are widely available (I’m thinking Crime and Punishment from Russia, Les Miserables, L’Etranger from France, The Trial from Germany, Don Quixote from Spain and any one of Dickens or Austen’s works).
So why aren’t Danish classics translated? Is it that publishers think the market is limited because the books deal with issues of interest or meaningful only to Danish people? Unlikely – one of the authors Marit lists is Tom Kristensen whose best known work is Hærværk (published in English as Havoc in 1968). This is the story of a Danish journalist who is driven to self-destruction by drink. It’s theme is the intellectual, political and personal crisis experienced by many European writers and artists between the World Wars. Another ‘classic’ text is Alphabet, a collection of poems by Inger Christensen that deal with themes of nuclear war and ecological devastation. Surely these are topics of interest well outside the borders of Denmark?
Or are these novels not really ‘classics’? A thorny question this because there are so many ways to define ‘classic’. I took another look at the criteria used by the Italian author and journalist Italio Calvino (I wrote about his 14 point definition in this post) in the hope in might cast some light on my question. A lot of his points could apply to the titles in Marit’s list but there was one point that got me thinking. Calvino says “a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works.” So maybe one of the issues is that these Danish works are standalone texts rather than ones that have a connection to the past and set a tradition for ones coming after.
I wish I knew the answer. Maybe one of you who has better knowledge of how publishers reach decisions on what to translate, will be able to cast some light on this.
Top 5 Danish Authors Who’s Who
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 –1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Fear and Trembling (the book mentioned in the graphic) dates from 1843 and has been translated into 20 languages.
Sven Hassel (1917-2012) was the pen name of the Danish-born Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen who wrote novels set during World War II. He moved to Germany in 1937 to join the army. There are competing stories of what role he played in WW2. According to Hassel he was a naturalized German citizen fighting with the German armed forces. He claimed to have surrendered to Soviet troops in Berlin in 1945 and to have spent the following years in prisoner-of-war camps in various countries. But it seems he was actually arrested in Denmark and was held in prison as a German collaborator. He began writing his first book Legion of the Damned while he was interned. His 14 books which depict the brutality of war, describe the exploits of a 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment composed of expendable soldiers – sentenced criminals, court-martialed soldiers and political undesirables.
Lisbeth Werner sounds like a Danish version of Jacqueline Wilson. It’s the pseudonym of Danish writers Knud Meister and Carlo Andersen who wrote a series of 46 popular teenage books about Puk(Puck), a girl that attends a boarding school. The series is available in five languages in addition to Danish.
Ole Lund Kirkegaard (1940-1979) was a Danish writer of children’s literature and youth literature and a teacher. He mainly wrote about the interaction between adult and child. The main character in his books is usually an anti-hero and the events are inspired by his own childhood experiences. His most popular title Otto is a Rhino has been translated into 15 languages.
Willy Breinholst (1918 – 2009) was a Danish author, screenwriter, and humorist. He was rather prolific – according to one web site he has around 165 titles to his name, most of them taking a comic look at the family.
30 thoughts on “Revealing the most popular Danish authors”
I just found this great post in my search for Danish authors. I have a WorldReads blog series where I post about five books from a different country each month. The other Scandinavian countries have been pretty easy to find translated works from – albeit a tad crime heavy! – but I just realised I’ve not read a single Danish book yet. I now have a better idea why!
Im going to go look at your site Stephanie. I’m always on the look out for books from difficult countries
Reblogged this on Bøgernes labyrint and commented:
Dansk litteratur får igen fokus i walisisk bogblog.
I’ve read most of S. Kierkegaard’s writings. I love Hans Christian Andersen but he writes some messed up fairytales. In one story, a boy is punished for complaining by storks killing his baby brother.
A lot of fairy stories are quite grim and disturbing – Red Riding Hood to me is particularly disturbing. A young girl gets into bed with a predatory wolf for heaven’s sake
Yes of course. It was first written in French 🙂 But Andersen’s stories are about the most gruesome (to me). I enjoy his fairytales though
You might like this site – it gives you multiple versions of the famous fairy tales and their history. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/
thanks, so good! Alas, I only know 3/10 so far!!
Me too …
I had to laugh when I saw your post as I’ve just put on the pair of Danish clogs I got for a song on eBay that have just arrived in the post. Following on from my tenuous attempts to match my reading to my footwear you’ve provided ample food for thought. I guess I should snaffle out that as yet unread stash of Peter Hoeg novels I’ve been saving for a rainy day!
I’ve seen many readers match their books to food and drink but never one that matched footwear and books. You’ll have to share the pictures Sarah
I love Alphabet! I taught it many years ago at a local college. The students seemed to really enjoy it, too. The class was about arts and aesthetics, so I gave the students the math equation the author used to write the poems in Alphabet, and then they wrote their own. I still remember one particularly fun student poem about a llama and bacon. 🙂
That was one ultra creative student in your class. Llamas and bacon not being natural bedfellows
If you get a chance to read Alphabet, do. If I remember correctly, there is a guide at the front explaining the math pattern, which I LOVE. Most poetry lets you struggle along and feel dumb for “not getting it.”
I shall need a couple of glasses of wine to help me get through a maths problem. I’m very much a words person not a numbers one
Me, too! It’s very simple.
I probably should have mentioned Karen Blixen (pseudonym Isaac Dinesen) in my list of required reading, sorry.
Looking at your Top Five list, I must confess that I don’t think quantity is the same as quality, which means that you have only two left: Ole Lund Kirkegaard, wonderful author of children’s fiction that can be read by all, and his almost namesake (no relation) Søren Kierkegaard, who is well known and read in philosophical circles. I’ve heard of several, even Japanese, who learn Danish in order to read him in the original version.
One of the comments mention Dorthe Nors, who was on the shortlist for the International Man Booker Prize, which we are very proud of, as we were when Kim Leine also was on the shortlist for The Dublin Literary Award for ‘Prophets of Eternal Fjord’. Unfortunately neither received the prize, but just being on the shortlist is an honour. As far as I know, it is the first time Danish authors have made it that far.
Read my article: https://boegerneslabyrint.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/dorthe-nors-og-kim-leine-i-oploebet-til-to-internationale-litteraturpriser/ – in Danish 😊
Thats an excellent point Marit about quality and quantity though sustained popularity is often used as a criterion for a classic
I love quite a few Danish authors, but mainly as for a couple of years I have been learning Danish, and so attempting (slowly!) to read untranslated novels. Karen Blixen was the first major Danish writer I ever heard of apart from H. C. Anderson, although I’ve never read Our of Africe I do have a book of her short stories. I’ve also enjoyed Jens Christian Grøndahl and Hanne-Vibeke Holst, who has been translated into German, Swedish, etc, but never English. It is a bit odd, really.
That cant be an easy language to learn because some of the letter sets are not ones you find in English but if you are attempting to read novels in the language you’ve obviously made great progress
Well, this most interesting post sent me off to my shelves at Goodreads where I found had six books tagged Danish, three by Høeg (Smilla, The Woman and the Ape and Borderliners and, yes, I’m a fan, I recommend all three). I’ve read one by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast & Other Stories (and have seen and loved the film a dozen times, I have it on DVD). I also have her Out of Africa on the TBR.
One not mentioned by your sources is Ida Jessen’s The Children (the only one I’ve reviewed on the blog (https://anzlitlovers.com/2012/11/18/the-children-by-ida-jessen-translated-by-don-bartlett/). It won the Golden Laurels award in Denmark, which is a booksellers’ award.
I don’t know about you but I rarely find popularity to be any sort of a guide to good reading. Most of the popular Nordic stuff I hear about is, yes, Nordic Noir, and I find crime novels boring no matter where they are set (with Donna Leon’s Venetian detective stories the honourable exception that proves the rule!)
You and Marit were thinking along the same lines re popularity. it can’t be the only determinant of ‘classic’ status otherwise we’d end up with James Patterson’s novels being accorded that status just based on book sales. But you can’t entirely take popularity out of the equation can you – if few people read a particular book how could that be a classic?
Love this post – I’ve had a crush on Denmark for years. Coincidentally, I read my first Danish novel (since Smilla) last month ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors; it was shortlisted for the International Man Booker this year. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t in love with it. I’m glad to have some further suggestions here – particularly like the sound of Havoc.
So interesting – and I now feel most feeble because I haven’t read any of these authors/books apart from Smilla (I attempted some Kierkegaard once but didn’t get very far). An omission I need to remedy.
Miss Smilla is the only one from this list I’ve read too
After watching the TV series Klown (Klovn) I decided it was time to break into Danish fiction which has proved to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. Apart from crime, which is often the most accessible way to break into another country’s books, I read Jonas T Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale. I’d love to read his Submarino but it’s not available in English
I’ve read so little also – Miss Smilla and a novella published by Pereine called The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, an author they call one of Denmark’s foremost writers. your difficulty in finding Submarino just reinforces the point that it’s so difficult to get literature from some countries
I read The Murder of Halland too.
Such an interesting post, Karen. Not much light to shed only that I once heard that the individual translators champion books that they’d like to translate and an observation that the larger publishers seem to have Scandinavians in general firmly in the crime or Knausgaard pigeonholes.
I can see why a publishing house would want to invest in something they see as a near certainty (ie nordic crime) but it comes at the expense of other kinds of writing unfortunately