Per Jacobsen, an 82-year-old Danish linguist and translator who is a foreign member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, came to Belgrade on the occasion of the centenary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Denmark and Serbia. He welcomed the team from Elevate, which he happily reads when flying with Air Serbia, to Belgrade’s Hotel Moskva, where he is a regular guest.
Jacobsen fits nicely into the ambiance of multilingual murmurings and joyful energy of this Belgrade haunt which is popular with all those wanting to exchange lively and intelligent words. Modest, as only a thinking man can be, and quiet, because he knows that loudness is no indicator of reason, he is very noticeable in his understatedness.
He is known to the Serbian public as a translator of the works of Andrić, Krleža, Aleksandar Tišma, Miodrag Bulatović, Ranko Marinković, Danilo Kiš, Vidosav Stevanović, Dubravka Ugrešić et al., but also due to the fact that he established the Department for Serbo-Croatian Language and Serbian and Croatian Literature at the University of Copenhagen, advocating for the unification of this language. It seems that he reconciles the estranged through their linguistic similarities...
How did you become acquainted with the Serbian language?
- Completely by accident. I travelled to Athens by train in 1957, but wanted to see something new, unknown. I disembarked from the train and remained in Belgrade for a week. I switched colleges when I returned to Copenhagen. I’d been studying medicine, but after my stay in Belgrade I enrolled in Slavic studies and soon received a scholarship for Yugoslavia. And then I returned here, precisely 60 years ago.
How much has Belgrade changed since then?
- It has remained the same in spirit, though there are many new buildings, as well as ruins.
What are the main differences and similarities between Denmark and Serbia?
- We are calmer; here everything has to be a drama (laughs). In our country everything’s a little quieter.
Is that also reflected in the languages; the Serbian language is said to be harsh?
- It could be described like that. Danish pronunciation is characterised by the swallowing of syllables and shortening of words, which we do to make it easier and more comfortable for us. But in the Serbian language pronunciation is constant, which makes it easy to learn. However, there are some similarities that do not relate to the language specifically, but rather those who deal with it. One of our linguists, Rasmus Rask, met Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in St. Petersburg sometime in 1818. People wondered what they had in common, given that Vuk recorded folk songs and Rask was a pure linguist, searching for the origin of language. It turns out that both of them wanted to reform language on the phonetic principle of “write as you say, read as it is written”, which could not be applied in Danish. And Vuk succeeded. Rask describes him as “a great Serb”.
Still, the professional public here is divided into two currents: one that glorifies Vuk, another that claims he has impoverished the Serbian language?
- That’s that drama of yours again (laughs).
What were the observations of your countryman Hans Christian Andersen when he travelled through this region?
- He was delighted and described it in this way: “As many leaves as there are in these forests, there are that many songs on the lips of this nation.” He even translated three folk songs in 1842.
You’ve translated works of our only Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrić, into Danish ...
- I translated three short stories - The Journey of Alija Đerzelez, The Tale of the Peasant Siman and The Bridge on the Žepa. But that little book was published a couple of months before Andrić received the Nobel Prize. Andrić was exotic to me, but at the same time somehow familiar, intimate. With him I felt the same as in the atmosphere here.
Do you think Andrić’s works would be read even if he hadn’t received the Nobel Prize?
- The Nobel Prize is no kind of qualification, because there are so many excellent writers who never received it. However, with Andrić the quality is indisputable, and I think he would be read as much in this region even if he hadn’t been awarded. In Denmark at one point the people were hot for work which received the Nobel Prize, but not any longer.
Why do you think he is always current here?
- I think every nation must have some great representative of its own. This is especially so if it is in a dilemma between two worlds, which is always the case with Andrić, who deals with that border area. Of course, his literary values are also significant.
Which of his books is currently your favourite?
- The Days of the Consuls, because it is an extremely layered book. It is both a psychological novel and a chronicle, and it also deals with myths. Andrić always has those features in his works, but nowhere else are they so intertwined.
In your opinion, which Serbian writers unjustifiably lack Danish translations?
- Miloš Crnjanski and Borislav Pekić, unfortunately, are not among the writers that Danish readers have had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with.
How did you end up becoming a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts?
- Simply. Predrag Palavestra proposed it and the academics voted... I felt honoured, even though – or perhaps precisely because – that was during an uncertain time, in 1989.
Do you write in Serbian or translate from Danish?
- I write directly in Serbian, but with the Latin script. It’s easier to read thanks to some characteristic lines. I also publish in English and a little in German, and more recently I’ve been writing in Danish about my namesake Jens Peter Jacobsen, a 19th century writer and poet. He was simultaneously a realist and a romantic. He also wrote about dreaming and about atheism, but was not an activist – rather he left it up to the reader to judge. He’s my old love back from my high school days.
Source: Elevate – The inflight magazine of Air Serbia, february 2018.
Text: Dragana Nikoletić; Photography: Nedeljnik