On Walking and Translating Children’s Poetry: An Interview with Translator Becky Crook

Becky L. Crook is a writer and literary translator from German and Norwegian. She has translated a variety of novels, works of nonfiction, and children’s books. In this interview, she talks to Mia Spangenberg about how she discovered the Norwegian writer Inger Hagerup and her children’s poetry, and the process of translating Little Parsley and That Summer (Enchanted Lion, 2019). These books were originally published in Norway as Lille Persille in 1961 and Den Sommer in 1971.

Mia Spangenberg (MS): Inger Hagerup (1905 – 1985) may not be a familiar name to many. Could you tell us bit about her significance as a writer and situate her children’s poetry in her work as a whole?

Becky Crook (BC): Inger Hagerup was a poet, playwright, columnist and author of multiple autobiographies. She debuted in 1939 with the poetry collection Jeg gikk meg vill i skogene (I Got Lost in the Woods) and went on to write over 20 published works. During the second World War, she was politically active, writing columns for leftist newspapers and publishing poems emphasizing the resistance, the most famous of which, Aust-Vågøy, is still recited today: “They burned our farms / They murdered our men / Let our hearts beat / it over and over again.”

Hagerup is commonly referred to in Norway as the 20th century’s poet of love, and in addition to publishing retellings of works by Shakespeare and Goethe, she wrote several poems on love, eroticism, and feminism.

Today, Hagerup is best remembered for the three collections of children’s poetry that she undertook later in her life. Everyone in Norway from the 1960s onward was raised on these children’s poems. If you ask any Norwegian what their favorite Hagerup poem is, they usually respond in a split second, and it is almost always one of these poems.

It seems there was a trend in writing nonsense children’s poetry at the time that she embarked on this project. Together with the Norwegian-French artist Paul René Gauguin, Hagerup collaborated on three collections, one for each decade between the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Så Rart (So Strange), Lille Persille (Little Parsley) and Den Sommer (That Summer), respectively.

You can see the eras evolving through the three collections. So Strange, which I have yet to translate, is the oldest of the set, and the illustrations look like something from the 1950s, albeit fabulously so. Many of the poems are about strange happenings and appear to be written with the primary aim of saying things in a silly way. One of the oddest, I find, is the one about the baker who lives on an isolated island baking things and crying because he has to eat all his baked goods by himself, and then he finally dies on a pile of rolls.

With the second collection, Little Parsley, it seems that Hagerup moved from a trend of nonsense poem to a deeply playful place of observing the little things, particularly in nature. I might even say that Little Parsley is a fanciful ode to nature, and a nudge to looking at things from a new perspective.

The last book, That Summer, is different in a few ways from the earlier two. For one, the verse no longer rhymes, and it’s more abstract. And Gauguin’s illustration style seems to have changed to match that abstractness.

MS: How did you come across this collection of Hagerup’s children’s poetry? What enchants you about it?

BC: I have a friend who teaches at a university in Bergen and he asked whether I might be willing to translate an article from a colleague on avant garde Norwegian picture books. I was living in Berlin at the time and primarily working on German translations, so this was a nice chance to do something from Norwegian. The author of the article, Tone Birkeland wrote about Inger Hagerup, among others. I was immediately intrigued and managed to get a compiled edition of all three poetry books.

I was smitten. The poems and the accompanying illustrations by Paul René Gauguin are delightful. I especially love the way Hagerup writes about nature, with a kind of dark playfulness, a wonder about certain aspects of life that are easy to overlook, and a basic, sometimes even bathroom humor that makes the reader feel like you’re reading from the height of a child, or even closer to the ground, like an ant or a cockroach. And the images are just fantastic art. I knew I was holding a treasure.

After that, my family and I resettled in the US, and I began researching American publishers who were producing (in my opinion) exceptionally artistic picture books. I sent an email to the first on my list, Enchanted Lion Books in Brooklyn. It was only a matter of days before the publisher, Claudia Zoe Bedrick, called me almost shouting in excitement. And that’s how we began the work of translating and publishing the collections over three years. Two of the three Hagerup/Gauguin books have so far been published in English and I only had to contact two publishers to make it happen.

Sometimes, I think, you just know when you find something special, and if you do your work and bring it to the right people, it’s easy sailing. It is certainly a delight when things happen like that.

MS: Could you tell us about your process for translating these poems? Do most or all of the poems rhyme? It would be great if you could pick one or two poems to discuss in detail.

BC: This is basically how it happened for Little Parsley, which are all rhyming poems (and I will mention briefly later how that differed from That Summer, which are not rhyming):

Sitting with the original poem in front of me—not only the text but also the accompanying illustrations—I would quickly write a very rough draft translation, a kind of spontaneous, joyous outburst that stemmed from the feeling I got when reading the original. I would try not to think too much in this draft, if at all. I hoped by doing this to capture some of the original energy of the poem. These drafts were usually pretty bad. But sometimes they contained elements—a single word or turn of phrase, or a rhythm, that carried over to the end.

After I wrote the first drafts, I left them for a long time—several months or so. When I came back, I had new eyes to see what needed to be done.

The second stage was much more meticulous. I went through every poem line by line, word by word and made difficult decisions. Sometimes I had to take an hour-long walk just to get clarity about a single word or line.

For example, in the poem “My Uncle Fills Pills”,  one line in the first verse in Norwegian goes “Han er så tynn og trist og blek” which is literally “He is so thin and sad and pale”, which would have worked just fine, except that you would lose that nice alliteration of the “tynn og trist”, and plus I just found that it was a lot going on in my mouth to read “so thin and sad and pale” out loud—I think because the lips have to move between “th” and “s” and “p” and the differing vowel sounds. In the end, after a lot of thought and walks and silence and long conversations with Claudia, I decided to add an extra adjective (oh my god!) so that the line became “He’s slim and grim and pale and frail”. There’s even more alliteration here now than in the original, but I really like this line in English. My daughter, who is eight, loves reading this particular line too, she does it with an extra little flourish, and I think this is what I was going for—to write the poems perhaps not exactly how they are in Norwegian, but in a way that captures the joy that it is to say them aloud. Here’s the first verse of that poem in the translation:

My Uncle fills pills

at the city pharmacy.

He’s slim and grim and pale and frail

and fills the powdered pills.

Later on in that same poem there’s a verse about a cousin who captures snakes for the city fire station, but “captures snakes” is “fanger slanger” in Norwegian, so it’s a very fun alliteration, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do that in English because “snake” is just such a hard sounding word. Plus, you have to know, the illustrations were quite limiting. It had to be snakes or something having to do with snakes because that’s what is pictured. I couldn’t switch to crocodiles or lizards or something. I thought about giant worms, but that would have been weird.  

But then, once again on a series of long walks over a few weeks, I stumbled upon the phrase “wrangling reptiles” and I just loved it. If you ever see me walking and beaming from ear to ear, it might be because I just found a translation solution that I love. There may be other translators out there beaming on trails too, you never know.

One or two other really fun challenges were trying to come up with a plant similar to the Norwegian “jonsokkoll”, which is our “bugleweed” (or to be precise, it is Ajuga pyramidalis). The poem is called “De kaller meg Jonsokkoll” or “They call me Bugleweed”. I tried for about a month to write a poem about a bugleweed, and I hated every version. I mean it made me feel really, really grumpy. The word “bugleweed” just doesn’t roll off the tongue like “jonsokkoll”, which is so fun to say (the ‘j’ is pronounced like a ‘y’). “Bugleweed” also, importantly, doesn’t rhyme with “troll”, which is another important aspect of the poem, nor does the “eed” sound have as many possibilities for rhyming.

I wracked my brain and the internet for months looking for another plant that would suffice in both name and look but it wasn’t until I was planting my vegetable garden for the year that I realized some radicchio varieties look somewhat like the illustrations. Also: “radicchio” is such a fun word to say.

And even though a bugleweed is a kind of wild plant that grows in woodlands or as a weed (it grows in my grass, actually), this fact was fortunately not mentioned in the poem. The poem merely states that the little plant believes itself to be a troll, some kind of “lowbred, earthy fiend”. So I felt that I could get away with turning the weed into something grown in a vegetable patch, because some radicchios are rather rugged and they have a bitter flavor.

To add to complications, there were two lines in the Norwegian poem where Hagerup cleverly integrates the word “jonsokoll” into other words “jonsokksvoll” and “jonsoktroll”, which I took care of after a lot of ruminating/ambulating by writing “While squatting in the radicchio-row / A bitter Trolldicchio.”

I think this gives a pretty good idea of the kinds of challenges that were staring me down in this collection.

Another personal rule for each poem was: could it be sung? Would it be fun to sing out loud? If so, and if I could imagine myself singing it happily along a trail, I felt I had accomplished what Hagerup did. All of her poems were made into children’s songs in Norway. I’ve put four or so of the translated poems into music, and it would of course be a dream to actually make them into an album with real musicians and singers (I should note that I do not consider myself a musician).

Just briefly, to mention the contrast, when I translated Hagerup’s third collection That Summer, the process was not as lengthy as Little Parsley because the poems are free form, without a formal cadence or rhyme. There were still challenges, but the process felt a lot less limited. One of my favorites in that collection is about a dog.

Superboy is a little white dog.

Joy and grass

Joy and sea

Joy and full moon

Joy with no collar around the neck

I bark joy!

barks Superboy

MS: Before closing, I’d like to make sure we also mention Paul René Gauguin, whose original illustrations accompany this collection. Can you tell us a little about who he is and how he came to illustrate Hagerup’s poetry?

BC: Paul René Gauguin was the grandson of the French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. He was a painter, a sculptor, and even made stage designs for theatres, but it seems his colored wood cuts are what he was best known for. He studied and lived in France and Spain, and I read that he once went on a bicycle ride through Europe that ended in Ibiza where he stayed for several years learning how to create woodcuts.  His illustrations with Inger Hagerup’s three children’s poetry collections, which combine woodcut with collage and ink drawings, were a contributing factor to his breakthrough as a known artist in Norway.

I do not know much more about Gauguin except that he was also a translator from multiple languages—French, Russian, English, Italian and Catalan—and that a collection of his own poems with illustrations, called Et Annet Land i Sikte  (Another Land in Sight) was published posthumously by Inger Hagerup.