Friday, 18 August 2017

Flowering Cactus

by Kaarlo Sarkia

Like a burning vision you open your flowers
in the stuffy air and my room’s grey light.
And as in a flame, to a sudden burst
of life and colour you wake from your night.

Very poor, very prickly and curled
on the narrow sill all your days you sleep..
But under your dusty, thick and rough skin
you’re alive  after all, your bosom swelling with sap.

Ugly, fettered plant, you nearly burst now,
you can’t stand your shrunken being much more!
You will flame forth from your prison’s dark,
fling colossal dreams into the spring air.

    Kuin polttavan unelman tuoreen kukkasi avaat
    minun huoneeni ilmassa harmajan painostavassa,
    ja kuin liekissä, äkkiä esiin puhkeavassa,
    värin, elämän runsauteen sinä yöstäsi havaat.

    Ylen köyhänä, käpristyneenä ja okain kovin
    ikäs kaiken sa nukuit ahtaalla ikkunalla.
    Mut tomuisen, paksun ja karhean kuoresi alla
    elit sittenkin, täysin ja mahlasta paisuvin povin.

    Ruma, kahlittu kasvi, jo rajoissas nyt pakahtunet,
    sinä oloas kutistunutta nyt enää et kestä!
    Sinä leimahdat esiin vankilas pimeydestä
    kevätilmaan singoten sisimpäs valtavat unet.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Monday, 14 August 2017


Not strictly a Nordic item, though it has many Finnish echoes and connections*: the Edinburgh Research Archive (ERA) has made available a complete downloadable scan of my 1971 doctoral dissertation on the poetry and poetics of Innokenty Annensky.

It’s interesting to see this work again after such a long time.  My writing style has changed somewhat in the interim, but I can still recognise the author as myself. The dissertation is detailed and academically disciplined – there's also some application of the structuralist principles current in literary criticism at that time – but I wasn’t afraid to let my emotions speak now and then. The introduction was written last of all, in 1970, after my return from a second study period in Moscow, and some of the gloom that surrounded politics and literature in the Soviet Union at that time can be detected in the text.

*See, for example, the Imatra page on the Мир Иннокентия Анненского website.

Sunday, 13 August 2017


by Kaarlo Sarkia

The street’s whirl and rush have faded. A space,
a deep, singing brightness have overwhelmed me.
From the stone’s breast, beauty of roses grows apace.
I have left my affliction somewhere far behind me.

Something immortal touched earth in its fall.
The singing of space has captivated my senses.
Who was it? What did I long for? I forgot it all.
Past me down the street your foot now dances.


Kadun humu ja kiire on haihtunut. Avaruus,
syvä, laulava kirkkaus läikähti ylitseni.
Kiven rinnasta versoo ruusujen ihanuus.
Olen jonnekin kauaksi jättänyt kurjuuteni.

Jokin kuolematon lie hipaissut multaa maan.
Avaruuksien laulu on vallannut aistimeni.
Kuka lien? Mitä kaipasin? Unohdin kokonaan.
Sinun jalkas on tanssinut kadulla ohitseni.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Kaarlo Sarkia

I've been looking again at my Kaarlo Sarkia translations. They are not very many as yet, but I want to do some more, as Sarkia's poems demand to be read and heard beyond their native Finnish. There is a certain sense of connection when translating them, as Sarkia was himself a translator of verse -- particularly French and Italian poetry -- and here and there in his poems there are echoes of sources like Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire and D'Annunzio. These echoes sometimes make the task of translation a little easier, though the spare yet sensuous forms of the poems - this is authentic 1930s Finnish design - are hard to render in English.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Encountering myself - and FILI (FLIC)

My profile and interview are up - in Finnish - on the FILI 40th Anniversary website, with among other things my own account of my somewhat tortuous path as a translator:

Tieni kääntäjäksi:
Olen laajentanut kielivalikoimaani venäjästä saksaan ja pohjoismaisiin kieliin. Suomenruotsalaisen kirjallisuuden pariin päädyin tietysti ruotsin kautta, mutta sitä kautta kiinnostuin myös suomenkielisestä kirjallisuudesta. Se tuntui luonnolliselta kehitykseltä.

It's nice to be included along with Danish translator Siri Nordborg Møller and so many other translators of Finnish and Finland-Swedish literature. And it comes as a pleasant surprise that there are so many of us all round the world!

My first visit to Finland under FILI's auspices (though not my first visit) was in 1983 -- back then they were called FLIC. Now, after so many years, I almost feel like one of the family.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Taste and Smell

In collaboration with Pia Tafdrup I have now made complete English translations of the first two books of her  "Senses" series - The Taste of Steel (Smagen af stål) and The Smell of Snow (Lugten af sne). The project is currently at the "reading through" stage, and at some point in the not too distant future we will need to assess the situation regarding publishing. Bloodaxe Books have earlier published five collections of Pia's work, including two volumes that each contain two books - Tarkovsky's Horses and Other Poems (containing The Whales in Paris and Tarkovsky's Horses), and Salamander Sun and Other Poems (containing The Migrant Bird's Compass and Salamander Sun), forming a quartet. We are now hoping that Bloodaxe will continue with the "taste" and "smell" volumes of the "Senses" series.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Ecbatana Redux


by Sophus Claussen

I remember that spring, when my heart in its time
conceived the dream and searched for a rhyme,
whose glory should sink, I know not from where,
as when the sun set in Ecbátana.

A mocker advised me, with scholarly drama,
that the stress on the word was “Ecbatána”,
The sad, silly fool, he wasn’t aware
that the heart is in love with Ecbátana.

The city with terraces thousandfold sprawling,
with passages secret, walls dizzy falling
in Persia down there where the roses are,
buried in memories – Ecbátana!

That far-off spring, when my heart in its time
dreamed of impossible roses and rhyme,
has died, though the air was also light there,
like the sun that died behind Ecbátana.

But in Paris one spring the dream came to rise,
and the world became deep and Assyrian and wise,
as if still antiquity bled as of yore…
I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

My soul floated on like a syrinx of sounds
till the sun’s fall colored the parks' tree-crowns,
and the heart fell asleep in its highness, as there
in a sunset over Ecbátana.

But the people’s customs? The proud man’s feat?
What new and strange things would be left to share?
A terror, a madness, a cuneiform script
On your queenly body – Ecbátana.

But the rose, the most precious that world’s dreams know,
all life’s voluptuousness – who knew what they were?
Just a sign, a flower that was given for show
at a royal feast in Ecbátana.

I grew patient and proud. And then in my sleep
I dreamt of a fortune unemptied and deep.
Let the Flood’s waters carry me hence, afar
– I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

See also:

My Translations

I've made a list of my published Nordic book-length translations. At present it looks like this:

from Finland-Swedish and Swedish

Edith Södergran: Complete Poems (Bloodaxe Books, UK)
Ice Around Our Lips - 10 Finland-Swedish Poets (Bloodaxe)
Bo Carpelan: Axel (Carcanet Press, UK)
Tua Forsström: Snow Leopard (Bloodaxe)
Tua Forsström: I Studied Once At A Wonderful Faculty (Bloodaxe) [with S. Katchadourian]
Tua Forsström: One Evening in October I Rowed Out on the Lake (Bloodaxe)
Gösta Ågren: A Valley In The Midst of Violence (Bloodaxe) (awarded TLS/George Bernard Shaw Translation Prize, 1994)
Gösta Ågren: Standing Here (ebook), The Cities (ebook), Coming Here (ebook)
Bo Carpelan: Homecoming (Carcanet)
Karin Boye: Complete Poems (Bloodaxe)
Mirjam Tuominen: Selected Writings (Bloodaxe)
Bo Carpelan: Urwind (Carcanet)
Bo Carpelan: The Year's Circle (Marjukka Vainio)
Tove Jansson: The Moomins And The Great Flood (Schildts)
Tove Jansson: The Moomins And The Great Flood (Sortof Books, UK)
Various authors: Dolce far niente in Arabia [G.A. Wallin and His Travels in the 1840s] (Museum Tusculanum Press/Society of Swedish Literature in Finland)

 from Finnish

Marianne Aav (ed.) Marimekko - Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture (Yale University Press)
Anni Sumari (ed.) How To Address the Fog (Carcanet, UK) - with Donald Adamson and Robin Fulton
Rosa Liksom:  Dark Paradise (Dalkey Archive Press, USA)
Tuomas Kyrö: The Beggar and the Hare (Short Books)
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (Particular Books)

from Norwegian

Contemporary Norwegian Prose Writers (Oslo University Press, Norway)
Gunnar Staalesen: At Night All Wolves Are Grey (Quartet, UK)
Geir Kjetsaa: Fyodor Dostoyevsky - A Writer's Life (Viking USA and Macmillan UK) - translated with Siri Hustvedt
Øysteinn Lønn: Tom Reber's Last Retreat (Marion Boyars)

from Icelandic

Ólafur Gunnarsson: Gaga (Penumbra Press, Toronto, Canada), Trolls’ Cathedral (Shad Thames Books/Mare's Nest, UK), and Million-Percent Men (FORLAGIÐ JPV útgáfa, Iceland)
Brushstrokes of Blue [with Bernard Scudder]: The Young Poets of Iceland, anthology, ed. P. Valsson (Shad Thames Books/Greyhound Press, UK)
Einar Kárason: Devil's Island (Canongate, UK)
Bjarni Bjarnason: The Return of the Divine Mary (Red Hand Books, UK)
Bjarni Bjarnason: The Reputation (Red Hand Books, UK)

from Danish

Pia Tafdrup: Queen's Gate (Bloodaxe Books, UK)
Pia Tafdrup: Tarkovsky’s Horses and Other Poems (Bloodaxe Books, UK)
Pia Tafdrup: Salamander Sun (Bloodaxe)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Cities

I've uploaded a new Kindle edition of my translation of the second part of Gösta Ågren's autobiographical trilogy - Städren, The Cities.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Standing Here

Gösta Ågren
My translation of  the first part of Gösta Ågren's autobiographical trilogy, Jär, is now available as a Kindle e-book, Standing Here, published on Amazon's KDP. 

My short introductory essay on the trilogy, published in Books from Finland magazine in 1992, can be read here

Monday, 24 July 2017


Again on the Red Hand Books site - Red Hand's founder Richard Eccles talks about his new edition of W.W. Worster's 1921 translation of Knut Hamsun's Pan:
It was the first translation of this novel in to English and is in many ways still the most striking. Like Hamsun in Norwegian, Worster writes in a way that is old-fashioned, from a bygone age, in English. I wanted to celebrate those turns of phrase, the spelling conventions, the simplicity of his achievement for a new audience. For me personally, I remember reading the novel late into the night for the first time – the Norwegian original – and being by turns delighted, baffled, intrigued, astounded and utterly enamoured by this visionary writer and his poetic, ‘Danishified’, sparkling and obscure language. So, on a personal level, it feels such a culmination of a long-held dream to contribute to a new edition.

The Return of the Divine Mary

Also from Red Hand: my translation of Bjarni Bjarnason's novel Endurkoma MaríuFrom the publicity:
‘The Return of the Divine Mary is a wonderfully eccentric, enchanting read. Traces of William Blake mingle with undertones of Bulgakov, Eco and Kafka to create a fast-paced, unpredictable drama constructed on an intriguing premise: What would the Virgin Mary be like as a young woman in modern society, and how would her contemporaries receive her?’

The Reputation

My translation of Icelandic author Bjarni Bjarnason's novel Mannorð is now available from Red Hand Books. Red Hand are a new player on the translation scene, and their website presents an interesting diversity of titles and content.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Ruskeat Tytöt

In the new Press Freedom Blog of The Finnish Foundation for Media and Development (Viestintä ja Kehitys-säätiö - Vikes for short), the editor, author and campaigner Koko Hubara writes and talks about her experience with social media, in particular her Ruskeat Tytöt (Brown Girls) blog:
Within a couple of weeks the Ruskeat Tytöt blog had attracted plenty of attention. It was picked up by other media and started to be cited in the major newspapers and magazines in Finland, both in good and bad tones.
Ruskeat Tytöt won various blog awards and received a lot of praise, but at the same time every other reader and/or (white) cultural correspondent, writer, theatre person, and artist had an opinion on how I should talk about racism and what should be considered “inoffensive”. For instance, when people at work touched my hair without asking and compared it to animal fur – that was simply friendly curiosity about difference, which I should understand and allow.
Of course I also got, and get, anonymous and signed hate mail and people hoping I would be raped or killed. There are still a lot of readers who are in the business of publicly belittling our experience and who change the subject when we raise the problems we face.
But for the most part the debate has been positive since the start, with an enthusiasm to learn and listen, and it has involved racialised people themselves as well as their white nearest and dearest whom the discussions undoubtedly address.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

New Wikipedia page

There is now a Wikipedia page on the contemporary Icelandic author Ólafur Gunnarsson. Its earlier absence always puzzled me, and now I have managed to get the page up, though it may still be edited.

Friday, 2 June 2017

World Poets

Among the participants in Bloodaxe's new DVD anthology World Poets, which presents work by 30 poets together with films of interviews and readings featuring the poets themselves, are Pia Tafdrup and Tua Forsström. There are also poems by Tomas Tranströmer. While it's good to see Nordic poets included here, some of Pia Tafdrup's poems inexplicably appear in Swedish translation, rather than in the original Danish. There are also some glitches and typos in the Swedish texts. It would have been useful to see proofs before publication, but apparently Bloodaxe considered it O.K. to skip that step.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

En värld är varje människa

En värld är varje människa, befolkad
av blinda varelser i dunkelt uppror
mot jaget konungen som härskar över dem.
I varje själ är tusen själar fångna,
i varje värld är tusen världar dolda
och dessa blinda, dessa undre världar
är verkliga och levande, fast ofullgångna,
så sant som jag är verklig. Och vi konungar
och furstar av de tusen möjliga inom oss
är själva undersåtar, fångna själva
i någon större varelse, vars jag och väsen
vi lika litet fattar som vår överman
sin överman. Av deras död och kärlek
har våra egna känslor fått en färgton.

Som när en väldig ångare passerar
långt ute, under horisonten, där den ligger
så aftonblank. – Och vi vet inte om den
förrän en svallvåg når till oss på stranden,
först en, så ännu en och många flera
som slår och brusar till dess allt har blivit
som förut. – Allt är ändå annorlunda.

Så grips vi skuggor av en sällsam oro
när något säger oss att folk har färdats,
att några av de möjliga befriats.

Gunnar Ekelöf

A world is each person, populated
by blind beings in obscure rebellion
against the I, the king who rules over them,
In every soul a thousand souls are captive,
in every world a thousand worlds concealed, 
and these blind, these nether worlds 
are real and living, though uncompleted,
as real as I am real. And we kings
and princes of the thousand possible within us
are ourselves subjects, caught ourselves
in some greater being, whose I and essence
we understand as little as our superior
his superior. Of their death and love
our own emotions have acquired a tint.

As when a mighty steamer passes,
far out below the horizon where it lies,
so evening-shiny. -- And we know not of it 
until a swell wave reaches us along the shore,
first one, then one more and many more
breaking and crashing until all is
as before. -- Yet all is different.   

Then we shadows are gripped by a strange unease,
when something tells us that people have travelled,
that some of the possible have been set free.  

translated from Swedish by David McDuff

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

FILI Newsletter

The FILI Newsletter for the month of May is out, and can be accessed here. From the letter:

FILI moves to new offices

FILI is moving to a new office suite in the House of Nobility (Ritarihuone) building on 15 May 2017.

Our new offices will be upstairs from our previous location, and our street address will change: the entrance will be at Hallituskatu 2 B. To enter, ring the doorbell. Our new offices are on the second floor.

Items of special interest include the following:

Funding received by FILI

FILI's core funding comes from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, but we always need to seek additional funding from other sources to support our operations.

The Finnish Cultural Foundation awarded FILI a €50,000 grant to hold translator training courses for two years.

We have also received €8,000 from the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland for our work to promote Finland-Swedish literature abroad.
And the Otava Book Foundation awarded us €6,000 to update our translators' forum (known as ‘Kääntöpiiri’).

Our sincerest thanks to these funders – our work will continue!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Out of the Blue - 2

I have just received a copy of the hardback printed edition of Out of the Blue - it's an attractive book, and it looks instantly readable, like a story that one knows one wants to know the end of. I completely agree with the assessment by Jón Gnarr, ex-Mayor of Reykjavik:
It's an absolutely unique insight into Iceland's culture, mentality, and spirit - a country where the short story is as valued as the sagas.
See also in this blog: Out of the Blue
Body and Soul

Friday, 12 May 2017

Dead Links

The web site of Reykjavík, UNESCO City of Literature / Bókmenntaborgin is a fascinatingly diverse Web publication, offering an enormous amount of information about Icelandic literature, its present and past. It also exists in two versions, Icelandic and English, which interact with each other in a useful way,

What a pity, then, that the section of the site devoted to bio-bibliographical information on over 130 contemporary Icelandic authors does not yet seem to be complete. While the individual authors' pages come up as expected on the browsers I used (Chrome and Firefox), only the top level links appear to work - on many of the pages, clicking on 'Biography', 'From author', 'About author', 'Prizes', etc. yields no response. This is a great pity, and one hopes that the problem will be addressed before too long.

Update May 13: I'm happy to report that the 'books and authors' section of the City of Literature site now appears to be working properly, and the information can be accessed, though a little slowly.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Translation from Nowhere

In The Bookseller, a report of a talk by A L. Kennedy in which she excoriated publishers for their aversion to books in translation, noting that less than 5% of books published in Britain are translated from another language:
In part of an address originally given at European Literature Night, hosted by the British Library, the Royal Society of Literature and EUNIC, on the future of European writing, Kennedy passionately argued that writers have a responsibility “to resist” and to “say more and more often” on behalf of all “citizens of Nowhere”.  Prime minister Theresa May used the phrase at the Conservative Party Conference in October, when she equated being a “citizen of the world” with being “a citizen of nowhere”. It refers to the poor, the sick, the old, the refugees, the immigrants, the non-white, the non-Christian and the non-compliant, Kennedy said.
Kennedy said British publishing’s aversion to risk meant it currently had “little appetite” for foreign works, especially since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement which fixed prices for books, which she lamented had led publishers “into a territory of simple calculations, of profit and loss”. In the UK, translators are “particularly poorly rewarded”, she added, and their positions “always insecure” - a state of affairs that limits the range of literature UK readers are exposed to.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Pia Tafdrup translation project

I've been endeavouring to start a Patreon page for my Pia Tafdrup poetry translation project. The page is now online, and I'm hoping to attract a few supporters for the task I've set myself of completing an English version of Lugten af sne (The Smell of Snow, Gyldendal, 2016). So far I have only three patrons, all of whom are very welcome, but perhaps in the course of time some more may arrive. The Patreon concept is new to me, and I'm still not entirely sure how well suited it is to a project of this kind, which depends not on images, graphics, videos and multimedia but simply on words and (often) virtual paper. At any rate, this is an experiment, and it will be interesting to see how it works out over the course of the next few months. Donations need not be large - in fact, I set a minimum of $1 - and all contributions are gratefully received. I am still deciding what to offer my patrons by way of Patreon rewards, and will post my decisions here (and there) in due course.

By the end of the project, I should have complete translations of Smagen af stål (The Taste of Steel, Gyldendal, 2014) and Lugten af sne. You can follow some of the progress of the work on the Patreon page, and I may from time to time post some draft versions here on Nordic Voices.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A View of the Kingdom

Nauja Lynge: Ivalu's Color, IPI, 223pp.

Nauja Lynge’s novel is something of a mixed bag: on one level it’s an intervention in the Danish policy debate on Greenland’s status and its exposure to big-power politics, connected with the increased interest in the Arctic region on the part of China and Russia, the Arctic ice-melt due to climate change, the issues surrounding uranium extraction and the approaching reality of Greenlandic independence.  On another it’s a crime story about a trial, an abduction, a case of espionage and a triple murder. The two narratives sit somewhat uneasily beside each other. In their course, however, the reader learns a great about Greenland, its people and history – and in a sense the book is saved from its weaknesses by the tenacity and passionate engagement of its author, whose own experience lies transparently in the background of this autobiographical work.

Perhaps what comes through most clearly from the occasional confusion is Nauja Lynge’s own message: she appeals to Denmark and the Danish people to take more interest in their former colony, and to accept their share of the responsibility for Greenland’s past, present and future, which are inextricably linked. In this, the Danish Realm, the rigsfælleskab of Denmark, Faroes and Greenland – has a vital role to play. Although Greenland left the European Union more than 30 years ago, it needs to consider the consequences of isolation. For if the present vacuum in the Arctic is not filled by a Western presence, it will be occupied by Russia and China, who are waiting in the wings to move into a region they see as ripe for economic, military and scientific development:

Chinese morals and values lie far from Danish values. So when Greenland allies with China and Russia, it positions China as a hostile nation with low morals, which wedges itself into the Kingdom.

It would be interesting to read the original Danish-language version of this book, but it was not available. The English version of the book is not a translation: it's an adaptation, a retelling of the story, with elements of public debate inserted into the story in a way that is at times perplexingly uneven. Throughout, the style is a blend of journalism and crime fiction writing. In the first 90 pages or so the English is distinctly wobbly, with passages that need further editing. Thereafter, however, the style and grammar improve quite a bit, and by the end of the novel – or documentary narrative – the reader feels much more at home, with a sense above all of having learned something.

See also in this blog: Ivalu's Color

Friday, 5 May 2017

Pia Tafdrup audio recordings

News that Pia Tafdrup is currently recording readings of all her poetry collections, which will be distributed as sound files for download over the Internet.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Finns: strong, calm and silent

Janice Turner in the Times, writing about her recent trip to Finland: 
Leaving Finland, I wondered how this country ranks so high in the international happiness ratings, a testament to the forbearance of its people. A stallholder who sold me cinnamon buns told me her bipolar husband struggles desperately through the dark winters. I couldn’t be cheerful in a country where lakes are still frozen in May, there’s little to do but skiing and saunas, where the landscape is unremittingly flat and empty and the architecture (thanks to the retreating Nazis burning every old building) is grim and utilitarian.
But they are strong, calm and silent. Studies show Finns utter the fewest words of any western nation, particularly the men. Which must be maddening in a husband, but in a taxi driver, when you’re tired and empty of small talk, is blessed thing.
 I must say I agree about the silence -- it's been a while since I heard anything from Finland. Hope all the people at FILI are well and busy as usual.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ivalu's Color

Further to our series of posts on modern Greenlandic literature, a reminder that Amazon are now advertising the publication of a new novel by Nauja Lynge entitled Ivalu's Color. From the publicity sheet:

NAUJA LYNGE is the great granddaughter of Henrik Lund, author of Greenland’s national anthem, and granddaughter of Hans Lynge, author, politician, painter and promoter of increased Greenlandic independence in a time before the Home Rule government. She left Greenland for Denmark as a child, and gradually returned to reclaim her native identity as a Danish Greenlander. Through this journey home, Nauja has seen the effects of cultural stereotypes affecting the economy, language, and very heart of those torn between two worlds. She has made this the core of her labors and continues to actively work towards helping Greenlanders gain their due rights. This is her first novel.

See also in this blog: A View of the Kingdom

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Estonian Literary Magazine

The spring issue of ELM , the English-language quarterly of Estonian literature, is now available as a free PDF download from the website of the Estonian Institute in Tallinn. The issue highlights the work of a number of contemporary authors, including Indrek Koff, Nikolai Baturin and the poet Sveta Grigorjeva. There are also features on Estonian classical literature. Although the offerings are diverse, with numerous black-and-white photographs, there's a slight lack of imagination in the way the material is presented, and one has a feeling that the magazine would be more interesting if the editorial approach were more dynamic and less curatorial - at present one has the sense of being in a museum rather than a meeting-place for living authors. There's also a problem with the English in which some of the articles and interviews are written: it doesn't always read naturally, and there's a distinct touch of 'translatese' here and there ('In one respect, she takes a realist attitude close to the land (with her feet on the ground, so to say)'). However, it's good to see the magazine still appearing regularly now.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Body and Soul

Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, edited by Helen Mitsios, with a foreword by Sjón. University of Minnesota Press, 183 pp. 

In addition to being an enjoyable read, this anthology of recent short Icelandic fiction in English translation gives an overview of contemporary prose writing from a part of the world where writing, and the profession of writer, are traditionally held in high esteem. The Icelandic author is a representative of his or her nation, travelling the globe with some of the same nonchalance that the ancient Vikings brought to their more goal-oriented excursions.

Some reviewers of the collection have expressed regret that a number of the stories are set not in Iceland but abroad – mostly in regions of southern Europe. Yet given the history of Icelandic culture, with its openness to Roman and Hellenic influences, this does not seem unnatural. The Icelander abroad is a chameleon-like figure, at once distinctive and transparent, changing according to surroundings, and abandoning foreign cultures and languages as quickly as adopting them. 

Auður Jónsdóttir’s ‘Self-Portrait’, the opening story in the book, is a study of the tension between the fragile consciousness of the vulnerable outsider and the actually threatening nature of a foreign environment. The Sardinian beach resort, with its heat, its homeless people and Mafia operatives, turns out to be more forbidding than the austere northern climate it was supposed to replace and compensate for – in the end it’s a threat to the self, and needs to be rejected.

In Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s ‘Afternoon by the Pacific Ocean’ the film stars Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, both of Nordic descent, read Joyce and Icelandic sagas together on an afternoon picnic under the Californian sun:

Marilyn lay down on her side in the fetal position, and with one hand under her cheek, she looked wide-eyed at Greta, who opened Egil’s Saga. They were at the part where Egil wants to marry Asgerdur after returning from a successful raid. Greta started reading with Marilyn watching her. The sun over the Pacific pierced through the curtains of the big window and bathed the actresses’ feet in golden rays.

The stories set in Iceland – and there are more of them in the volume than some reviewers have implied – blend elements of nature, psychology and society to create an inner and outer portrait of individual people whose lives are at once conditioned and set free by a sense of being at the margins, yet able to look into the depths in a way that is unusual and uncanny. The father in Ólafur Gunnarsson’s ‘Killer Whale’ is gripped by a death wish that is linked to archetypical figures of Icelandic natural and human history:

“No, they’re loners,” Olaf said. “They live in their own herds, by themselves. They don’t mix with other whales. They attack them. They feed on them.”

Likewise Gyrðir Elíasson’s ‘The Black Dog’ focuses on a negative, destructive element in Icelandic folklore and national psychology: in a Kafkaesque parable, the author’s own depression materialises in the image of a dog that ‘for some reason’ can be seen ‘only in mirrors’.

Not all of the narratives dwell on the darker side of human nature, and instead explore the quirkier regions of the supernatural. As Sjón points out in his foreword, in place of philosophy and metaphysics medieval Iceland had poetry and tales – ‘debates on the interaction between body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds.’  Óskar Árni Óskarsson writes about a pen that possesses a magical power, granting the gift of originality to its poetry-writing owners as it passes from hand to hand – a cheap, unremarkable Biro. And again in parable form, Magnús Sigurðsson presents a series of dream-like narrative reflections, one of which centres on a play between the Latin word lego, ‘I read’, and the etymology of the Danish toy manufacturer Lego.

For the most part the translations by several hands read well, with the occasional lapse where the process becomes too literal a transposition of Icelandic syntax and phrasing. 

In general Helen Mitsios is to be congratulated on having compiled a highly readable and often entertaining miscellany of writing from a European literary culture that is still not as well known to the rest of the world as it ought to be. The characters of these short stories inhabit a realm that lies somewhere between fiction, mythology and poetry, and everywhere in them there is the sense of a lone, reflective wanderer, observing and noting inner and outer realities. It’s almost as if the same narrator were somehow present throughout the entire volume. As a result, the stories are best read in sequence, almost like a collective novel rather than as isolated texts: I found it the most satisfactory way to absorb this fascinating and eminently re-readable book.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Eric Dickens

It is very sad to learn of the death of Eric Dickens, one of the founder members of this blog back in 2009, though he later left it. The news of his passing was not widely shared, alas, and I have only heard it now from Mel Huang on Twitter. Dalkey Archive Press posted a notice some weeks ago, and I thoroughly endorse its sentiments.

Out of the Blue

Minnesota University Press have published a new anthology of Icelandic short fiction, edited by Helen Mitsios, with a foreword by Sjón. I'll hope to review it in a future post here. The writers include Auður Ava Olafsdóttir, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Gyrðir Elíasson, Einar Örn Gunnarsson, Ólafur Gunnarsson, Einar Már Guðmundsson, Auður Jónsdóttir, Gerður Kristný, Andri Snær Magnason, Óskar Magnússon, Bragi Ólafsson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Óskar Árni Óskarsson, Magnús Sigurðsson, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir, and Rúnar Helgi Vignisson.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The vexed question

Though it has no particular Nordic focus, this recent article by Tim Parks about literary translation and the conditions under which many or most translators live and work touches on some vital issues. In particular, I'm struck by Parks' suggestion at the conclusion of the piece, which echoes thoughts I've sometimes had myself:
My own feeling is that the problem is less difficult than everyone pretends; that it surely would not be impossible to bring together editor, translator, and, say, an expert in translation from this or that language to establish how demanding a text is, how much time will be involved in translating it, and what would be a reasonable payment for doing so. Perhaps it is time for translators and translators’ associations to focus on putting such arrangements in place, without getting bogged down in the vexed question of authorship and royalties.

Under Cirrus Clouds

As blood springs out on a forehead,
radiant, red clouds of ice crystal
high above the earth, before the sun goes down,
compact smell of pine needles
is brought on a breeze from the trees further away.

A swarm of insects hangs in the air,
I remember how it was to be kept awake
by a story without fighting sleep, just watch
lips in motion, listen to words from a mouth,
feel the warm breath flow towards me,
keep me hovering in the light of the lamp
like the insects in front of me.

Only after the story did I land in the dark,
which was good,
left to myself
words kept constantly bubbling out.

I’m present, and listen to my breathing in the middle of the path
where I’ve stopped,
as I heard my breathing in the dark as a child
without calling for anyone. My lungs

swelled out when the lamp was switched off,
in those days the stories had no conclusion,
they kept on, incalculably,
there was no goodbye,
no one talked about anything ending.

When one story ended, the next one continued,
there were only beginnings, genesis, openings,
as if the stories needed me
in order to unfold, or I needed them
in order to have life breathed into me, to draw breath,
so my lungs reached the sky, expanded
as now in the breeze under the cirrus clouds.


Som blod springer
frem på en pande,
lyse, røde skyer af iskrystal
højt over jorden, før solen går ned,
kompakt lugt af fyrrenåle
føres med en brise fra træerne længere borte.

En sværm af insekter hænger i luften,
husker, hvordan det var at blive holdt vågen
af en historie uden at kæmpe mod søvnen, bare følge
læber i bevægelse, lytte til ord fra en mund,
mærke den varme ånde strømme mig i møde,
holde mig svævende i lampens lys
som insekterne foran mig.

Først efter historien landede jeg i mørket,
der var godt,
overladt til mig selv
piblede ord uophørligt frem.

Jeg er til stede, lytter til mit åndedrag midt på stien,
hvor jeg er standset,
som jeg hørte min vejrtrækning i mørket som barn
uden at kalde på nogen. Lungerne

spilede sig ud, når lampen blev slukket,
historierne var uden slutning dengang,
de blev ved, uberegneligt,
der var intet farvel,
ingen talte om, at noget ville ende.

Når ét eventyr sluttede, fortsatte det næste,
der var kun begyndelser, tilblivelse, åbninger,
som om historierne behøvede mig
for at folde sig ud, eller jeg behøvede dem
som nu i brisen under fjerskyerne.
så lungerne nåede himlen, videde sig ud
for at få pustet liv i mig, for at trække vejret,
som nu i brisen under fjerskyerne.

Pia Tafdrup - from LUGTEN AF SNE (THE SMELL OF SNOW), 2016

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Finland-Swedish dictionary online

The Institute for the Languages of Finland has made freely available an online dictionary of Finland-Swedish. The dictionary's compilers are Charlotta af Hällström-Reijonen and Mikael Reuter. Editing is by Bianca Holmberg, and the publisher is Schildts & Söderströms Ab.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

And now I am here

»Och nu är jag här.
I ett land som i fyra decennier haft en socialdemokratisk regering.
I ett samhälle där opinioner,  debatt, skolväsen – hela samhällsklimatet formats av detta socialdemokratiska etablissemang.
Och jag grips av samma förlamande depression, samma kvävningskänslor som i 1930-talets monolitiska Finland.»

Marianne Alopaeus, Drabbad av Sverige (1983) 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Mirjam Tuominen - complete works

The Swedish publisher Eskaton has begun its republication of the work of Mirjam Tuominen in ten volumes. The first two volumes in the series are Besk brygd (1947) and Tema med variationer (1952). The first reviews have begun to appear - notably a very positive one in Bernur.

For a short introduction to the new series and the current resurgence of interest in Mirjam Tuominen's life and work, see Hbl Litterarum.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Smell of Snow

Pia Tafdrup's new collection Lugten af sne (The Smell of Snow) will be published by Gyldendal in May 2016.

One of the poems from the new book can be read in my translation here.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Caught in the Act

by Pia Tafdrup

The fish catches its food
and itself is caught, has its head
cut off with a cracking sound,
the smell of fish blood rises while
under the knife the fish still twitches.

The light bones and feathers
lie scattered among grass and stones,
where the bird circled in the air,
smelled its way to earthworms in the soil,
before the marten consumed its meal.

On the grassy plains a hungry wolf
goes after the sheep's bellies and guts,
on the carcasses the ribs
are gnawed away, flies and worms
take care of the last remnants.

In the dust among the rubble of war
the wounded lie,
I recognize the smell,
when an angel is grazed.

In the dust among the rubble of war
lie the dead,
victims of a bloody hour, who once
lay in wombs,
must now be placed in the grave
infinitely close to our hearts.

Breathing, collision,
the locations accumulate,
rocks and clods of earth,
the whole world is a crime scene.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Essay Tour

I've translated a section from Gösta Ågren's latest collection, Dikter utan land (Schildts & Söderströms, 2015):

A tour through the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The essays themselves are here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Gösta Ågren: 5 poems


Att riva ett hus är svårare
än att bygga det. Du kan
avlägsna tak, väggar och golv,
men det går inte att  få bort
de tomma rummen.


To demolish a house is harder
than to build it. You can
remove roof, walls and floors,
but you cannot get rid of
the empty rooms.


Vi existerar, en skuld,
som måste betalas. Vår
hänsynslösa vistelse kräver
ett svar, som är större
än brottet.


We exist, a debt
that must be paid. Our
reckless sojourn demands
an answer that is greater
than the crime.


Fönstren är sönderslagna;
man kan inte längre se
igenom dem. Dörren
saknar lås. Den kan
inte längre öppnas. En ram
har ingen tavla; man ser


The windows are shattered;
one can no longer see
through them. The door
lacks a lock. It can
no longer be opened. A frame
has no picture: one sees


Han sitter orörlig
i mitten av sitt nät,
som ingen kommer igenom
utan att ge eller
inte ge.


He sits motionless
in the middle of his net,
through which no one comes
without giving or
not giving.


Tiden är bara en tanke.  För
att kunna gå behöver den
en kropp, hjärtat.

Också evigheten är
en tanke. För att kunna
stå stilla behöver den
samma hjärta.


Time is only a thought. To
be able to move it needs
a body, the heart.

Eternity, too, is
a thought. To be able
to stand still it needs
the same heart.

from Gösta Ågren, Dikter utan land, Schildts & Söderströms, 2015

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff