Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

A few minutes ago I switched on Radio Four, and by serendipity it was Woman's Hour, presented by Jane Garvey, and she was just about to interview the Icelandic novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, whose book "Last Rituals" I am currently reading.

At one point Garvey asked her, in rather incredulous tones, "You write in Icelandic, don't you?" to which the answer was of course "yes".  Sigurðardóttir, who spoke fairly fluent English with a strong Icelandic accent and occasionally had to search for the right word, went on to admit that she wished she could write in English as she would thereby reach a wider audience.

"So why don't you?" asked Garvey in what sounded like genuine bewilderment.

I was reminded of the legions of people who think that translation is a glorified form of typing.

Harry

19 comments:

  1. Well, as I've argued before, there is a case to be made for encouraging Nordic authors to write in English - most of them are probably capable of doing so with a bit of help from a native English-speaker. After all, in Finland English, not Swedish, is now the second language spoken and written by most educated people, and the same status of English is also found in other parts of the Nordic world...

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  2. I think that's a real can of worms you're looking to open there. Nordic or other foreign authors writing discursive prose in English is one thing - a young Dutch academic told me some years ago that it was usual in Holland to write your Ph.D. thesis in English, and I myself have been commissioned to revise historical essays written in English by Scandinavian scholars - but when it comes to imaginative literature, if you or I help, let's say, a Swedish novelist or poet to get down their creative impulse in English, then that fundamentally changes the nature of the creative process and the autonomy of the creative artist. As it is, we translators are always moaning about not getting due credit for our work in making foreign writers accessible to an English-speaking public. If we are actually instrumental in helping him/her to write the thing in the first place, then we're definitely going to want a slice of any Bookers or Nobel Prizes that come along. It'll be like some of the scientific gongs of the past which have been attended with bitter controversy - there are still people who claim that Watson and Crick should have shared their Nobel Prize for unravelling the structure of DNA with the woman (I've forgotten her name - see what I mean!) who was working on it at the same time.

    Harry

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  3. It needn't be a "translator" who provides the helping hand - any native-speaker would do. One day soon it might even be Google - its translation programs are already capable of translating poetry (see the example from Eva-Stina Byggmästar that Eric posted recently).

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  4. "Can of worms", English idiom; I wonder whether it is the same in other languages. I think the Swedes go for "ormbo", where the worms are larger.

    As Harry suggests, it's one thing writing a language-corrected thesis, quite another to write creative literature in someone else's language. The few times that I've written an article in Swedish, I have become very conscious of the fact that I was writing in someone else's language. Nor does the fact that I can crack jokes at the checkout in the supermarket in fluent Dutch mean that I could actually write a successful poem or page of creative prose in that language.

    Very, very few people are truly bi- or trilingual. But because of the way the world is, there is an enormous pressure on people to learn English. Whereas, of course, the converse is not true. Hence the hilariously ignorant behaviour by totally monolingual Brits when confronted by a funny foreigner writing in a language spoken by a mere 300,000 people. Makes even Estonian look big.

    If Brits would have to write more than half a page of school French in a foreign language, awareness would grow.

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  5. I think the very oddness of what someone writing in a language that is not their own is likely to display might actually be a plus when it comes to the writing of poetry or even certain kinds of imaginative prose. Think of Joyce, or Samuel Beckett, or even Edith Södergran...

    As for the British - I think that, confronted with an uncertain and historically dangerous Europe, they are right to hold fast to their linguistic identity. After all, they have a right to it, having enriched most of the world with their language. :-)

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  6. English is a mother-tongue like any other. We, the Yanks, and a few others are, however, in the unfortunate position of having the whole world wanting to use and muscle in on what, for us, is part of our identity. The rest just want to use our language as a soulless-rootless Esperanto for international communication of a relatively banal kind.

    Oddness can be fruitful, especially if you want to write a new Winnegans Fake. In the continuum from internationalism to regionalism in literary terms, I tend towards the latter. Not 'Blut und Boden' but 'Sprache und Boden'. Those poets that write some of their work in dialect are not showing off: it is part of their identity.

    Paradoxically, however, I also support the fact that a nation has to have a default standard, in order to maintain equality. When people snigger at Michael "Order" Martin, Ian Paisley, or Eddie Waring for their regional twang, I feel that it can surely be handy to be able to escape into an anodyne, middle-class form of English, to render you invisible at cocktail parties, during speeches, and when conducting negotiations.

    So, those that are linguistically ambidextrous probably come out best in the long run.

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  7. What David describes is the best of both worlds: you retain a Scottish identity by accent, whilst remaining comprehensible to the rest of the UK. Imagine if a Westminster MP insisted on using, say, Doric (or Broad Yorkshire, Geordie) to address the honourable mumblers.

    In my father's day, a working-class youth like him would take pains to emulate the more neutral speech of the middle-classes, while inevitably retaining a regional undertone. After he'd gone through grammar school, university, the I-Corps during the War, and years of schoolteaching afterwards, you could certainly hear a Yorkshire accent, but the speech and vocabulary were standard.

    Until recently at least, people have taken so much pride in asserting their verbal roots that they have run the risk of becoming incomprehensible. This is also, sadly, the limitation of dialect poetry, however fascinating and brilliant.

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  8. I want to describe it again. (Sorry, I removed the earlier comment)

    It's a neutral, Edinburgh accent, which doesn't really take account of any regional distinction in the way that contemporary regionalism dictates.

    Malcolm Rifkind (who was in the form below me at school) has the purest form of it that I've heard. David Steel (who was a lot older than me, but went to the same school)also speaks it.

    The accent on regionalism, and the cultivation or preservation of an aggressively strong Scottish accent came in later, and I'm not sure that it's a good thing, as it tends to set Scots apart from English people in a way that's not really natural.

    And yes, it also affects literary expression - in the 19th century educated Scots could switch between broad Scots (a kind of Dutchified English), a modified Scots and standard English, and could also write them all. I believe that Walter Scott is reported to have spoken them all with equal fluency, just as he spoke French and German. Maybe Harry can correct me on that.

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  9. I am full of prejudices about accents, and much as I reproach myself for this, I can't help it, it's visceral. I have the usual east-coast Scot's prejudice against the uneducated Glasgow accent - and I use that adjective advisedly, because the likes of Menzies Campbell, the late Donald Dewar and Lady Helena Kennedy to name only three all exemplify/-ied the unobjectionable educated variety.

    House of Commons speaker Michael Martin is embarrassing to listen to for the majority of Scots, certainly here in the east, although even I sometimes have difficulty with the uneducated Edinburgh argot of the "schemies", the denizens of the housing-schemes that Irvine Welsh writes about, or even the occasional young Edinburgh shop assistant who mumbles something at machine-gun speed so that I have to ask them to slow down and articulate before I can understand. And I am a product of a working-class, council-house background, not the owner of a stately pile with a moat that needs cleaning at the taxpayers' expense.

    Another of my prejudices is the other side of the coin from the above - I think most Scots have an acute ear for the sound of a fellow-Scot trying to subdue his native wood-notes wild in hopes of getting on in the world. Malkie Rifkind's strained vowels have been a source of merriment to Scots ever since he began to be prominent in Tory party circles, and Rory Bremner - yet another product of the Edinburgh school that David mentions (George Watson's College) - got Rifkind bang to rights back in 2005 when he described his accent as "a cross between a strangulated Harry Lauder and Miss Jean Brodie".

    I would add that whenever Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling is being interrogated on the Radio Four news bulletins, he begins to sound exactly like an agitated Victor Meldrew in "One Foot in the Grave".

    Incidentally, it has always puzzled me that a BBC casting director chose such unmistakably Scottish actors as Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie to play a supposedly stereotypical English middle-class couple in the Home Counties.

    Harry

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  10. I think that the real problem with Scottish accents - certainly for the outsider - is the proliferation of different varieties. Rifkind speaks what used to be known (maybe it still is) as "Morningside", while Steel speaks with a much less affected version of the "neutral" accent I've been trying to describe, and which went severely out of fashion some time around the early 1970s.

    My own Scottish (Watson's?)accent's been squeezed through numerous mills, including an English wife, a daughter who speaks American and lives over there, a prolonged connection with the US and a sojourn in London that lasted the best part of 26 years. And now I don't know what accent I have (most people can't identify it), and now I don't care.:-)

    As I wasn't born in Scotland, I'll never be accepted as a real Scot anyway, even though both my parents were Scottish.

    All of this will be quite impenetrable to non-Scots, I fear. Is there any country in the world besides Scotland where accent is so important, I wonder? Perhaps it stems from the loss of a national language...

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  11. To that I would add that I don't know of a country where class hatred has been as intense as it was, and still is, in Scotland. Sometimes you get the impression that class is interpreted there in the same terms that were used to define the inter-clan rivalry of the Highland feuds...

    This sets Scotland apart from most of its neighbours, I think - certainly, the Nordic countries don't have anything like that level of class strife any more, though in Finland in particular it was a powerful social force in the early part of the 20th century.

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  12. Eric and I have had this kind of discussion before, elsewhere. On the literary front, one gets fed up with the Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Laura Hird et.al. tendency to portray the Scottish underclass as "working-class". I make no apology for using the pejorative term "underclass". I run into them every time I go out. My wife and I went into Edinburgh city centre on the bus today and at one point one of the baseball cap and shellsuit fraternity got on with his woman and their kid, and before long they were treating the rest of the bus to a stream of obscene abuse, including the c- word. This was directed at a man who refused to hand over the free paper he hadn't finished reading.

    In the urban context, the rehabilitation of the Scots language/dialect is made more difficult by the fact that it is perceived as the preserve of the least educated section of society. It amuses me to read letters to the ineffably middle-class "Scotsman", in favour of the Scots language, written in impeccable English. And I have known professionals in the field of Scots language and lexicography who never drop a single word of Scots into their conversation. It's like Gaelic, everybody's for it, but nobody wants to speak it.

    Scots aren't the only ones with sensitive ears. The Germans laughed at Hitler with his absurd Viennese brogue. That was a bad mistake. Many years later, less disastrously but in the same ballpark, they sneered at Helmut Kohl with his provincial Ludwigshafen accent, but he was also much smarter than people gave him credit for, accent notwithstanding.

    As regards Sweden, I've sat in a restaurant in Linköping with my Swedish girlfriend and other local people, scowling at a loutish family from Stockholm (no mistaking that nasal whine) who were jeering at the girl shouting orders at the service-hatch in the local östgötska accent (which still colours my Swedish). Every time she shouted out "En lövbiff!" they fell about laughing.

    Re Sweden, and re class-consciousness or the lack of it -
    my wife spent two years in Malmö and knew an English girl married to a Swede. They decided to adopt a baby in England, and the initial interview with the English adoption agency seems to have been a clash of cultures. What kind of street did they live in? Was it working-class or middle-class? Well, what kind of people lived there? (Answer - well, there's a doctor, there's a plumber ...).

    Harry

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  13. I wouldn't contest the fact that class prejudice exists elsewhere, outside Scotland. That would be foolish. But it seems to me that there's a peculiar form of hatred in the Scottish psyche that's reserved for a certain kind of difference. It may be based on class prejudice or it may be something else. I saw it turned against one of the people mentioned earlier in this thread when he was a child at school, where he was bullied quite badly. The hatred is sometimes mixed with racism. There was a streak of anti-Semitism in the bullying, and that's another sickness that many Scots suffer from, alas.

    I think that a lot of Scots - especially educated ones - lack self-confidence and suffer from an inferiority complex that in some respects is not unlike the national Russian one. Scots really need a language and identity of their own with which to communicate - but somehow can't find one. I don't think they are going to find it in nationalism, or in Europe.

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  14. This is becoming quite an interesting discussion covering language, class, identity and prejudice.

    I've only been to Scotland for a week in my whole life, and that was in central Edinburgh, not a yardstick for Scottishness, surely. So Scotland is unfamiliar. But obviously, TV brings a whole host of Scots accents and behaviour.

    The first Scots accents I was aware of were those on "Dr Finlay's Casebook", back in the 1960s. But to this day I do not know which region or class those of Finlay himself, Cameron and Janet represent. But I did notice, without Rory Bremner's help, that Malcolm Rifkind spoke funny by any standards. Steel does indeed speak more "normal". My father once told me that an Edinburgh accent was reckoned in some quarters as the best in the UK. I suppose it depends how natural or forced it is.

    Once you get used to the person, you sometimes quite forget the accent. For instance, Gavin Esler on Newsnight is a Scot, but once you've seen him on TV for several years, you no longer notice the accent. Ditto Kirsty Wark, Andrew Neil, and the actor you mention, Richard Wilson. Given demographic mobility, a man with a Scots accent could certainly be an average semi-detached suburban "Englishman".

    I do find it a shame that there lurks an inferiority complex among some Scots, so that Scottish people on TV, especially in sitcoms, are often typecast as characters from an Irvine Welsh book that say and get "pished", and threaten to bottle you in Glasgow pubs.

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  15. I read in the paper a few days ago that there are some regions in England where people are disparaging about their local accent and don't like hearing it on the radio or TV. So that's not just a Scottish phenomenon.

    You mention "Dr. Finlay's Casebook". Andrew Cruickshank who played Dr. Cameron had an old-fashioned, non-localisable educated middle-class Scottish accent, which is partly why he was so believable in the role. Bill Simpson who played Dr. Finlay was from Ayrshire - I was just vaguely aware of a touch of the west of Scotland in his voice, and of course he was supposed to be a medical graduate of Glasgow University - but the really interesting one was Barbara Mullen who played Janet the housekeeper. She was a native speaker of Irish from the Aran Islands, whose family emigrated to Chicago when she was very young, and that's where she learned her English. She had obviously worked hard to master Highland English, but tended to overdo it a bit, and you can still raise a belly-laugh in any gathering of Scots by imitating Janet's "Dr. Cameron's not in at the moment!"

    As for your meeja types, Gavin Esler is Glaswegian, Kirsty Wark is from Ayrshire (but private-school educated), Andrew Neil is from Paisley and Richard Wilson from Greenock - all in the west of Scotland, but these people are middle-class educated professionals and you wouldn't expect them to have strong regional accents.

    Changing tack slightly, my boss at the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue was Jack Aitken, a world authority on both Scots language and lexicography, and Jack very much took the purist linguist's stance that anything that came out of a Scottish person's mouth was "Scots", and therefore to be valued and recorded. I have heard him arguing the toss with people like David Murison, editor of the "Scottish National Dictionary" (the Scots language from 1700+), who came from the north-east and was a great defender of the so-called Doric, and David Purves, a Borderer who wrote literature in Scots, including a popular play for children, and who would heatedly assert that writers should only use "the best Scots" and should turn up their noses at what he considered the language of the gutter.

    The danger with that kind of self-censorship is that you hobble yourself as a creative artist, ignoring not just "bad language" but the hordes of people who use it. It took Scottish writers a long time to extricate themselves from the "Kailyard", the sickly sentimental rural idyll type of literature that held sway before the advent of MacDiarmid and his ilk; and we don't want to go back there.

    Harry

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  16. This discussion, although interesting, is showing serious signs of "thread drift" - we don't to be moderated, now, do we? :-)

    However, Harry makes a good point at the end of his last comment. Indeed, for too long the Scots have been forced to adopt linguistic and other postures that were imposed on them for purposes of identification by their English masters. The Kailyard is a good example of that -- but so, alas, is MacDiarmid.

    At the beginning of the discussion we talked about how Icelanders surprise the outside world by insisting on writing novels and poems in their own hard-to-learn literary language - and I mentioned the possibility that many educated Icelanders could, if they chose to, also write directly in English.

    That choice is denied to the Scots. In spite of Irvine Welsh, for literary purposes they only have one language - and it's one that's not their own. Scots are not content to develop their own form of English and follow the example set by Americans, Australians, and the rest of the inhabitants of the former colonies. They want to be Scots, and to speak and write that way. Except that modern Scots, unlike modern Icelandic, has not succeeded in developing into a viable literary language. This unfortunate fact is an important part of what is often called the "tragic" nature of the Scottish national destiny.

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  17. Scots are not content to develop their own form of English and follow the example set by Americans, Australians, and the rest of the inhabitants of the former colonies. They want to be Scots, and to speak and write that way.

    ====
    David, you are a bit too fond of the sweeping statement. There are certainly some writers who for nationalistic or whatever other reasons write in their own variety of synthetic Scots, but the average Scot is unsympathetic to such linguistic experiments, particularly in the urban centres where most people live. For one thing, there is no general agreement on how to spell Scots, and furthermore a lot of wannabee Scots poets mix vernacular they are familiar with, with obsolete words culled from dictionaries, which bewilders the average reader. There is a certain attachment in the north-east to what they call "the Doric" (always with the definite article!) and Shetland has several writers who write in Shetlandic dialect, but in both examples it's probably largely a case of preaching to the converted. That kind of local literature is mainly designed for a local audience, and I suppose it helps to preserve community feeling and a sense of "differentness".

    But just as Scots like Walter Scott, James Hogg, R.L. Stevenson, Conan Doyle and many more have written in standard English (tho' some have used a bit of dialect where appropriate) so in modern times we have had Neil Gunn, Robin Jenkins, Muriel Spark, Alexander McCall Smith and God knows how many more writing in "normal" English, although just like English/English writers they might insert a bit of dialect where appropriate.

    Among modern English-language poets, it's hard to beat the late Norman McCaig of Edinburgh (but with a Highland background) for sheer limpidity and beautiful use of English. And he co-existed in Edinburgh with fellow-schoolteacher Robert Garioch (aka Bob Sutherland) who was one of the most skilful exponents of written Scots (Aberdonian) in modern times!

    Harry

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  18. >>you are a bit too fond of the sweeping statement

    Not at all - I just like to get things clear and out in the open. :-)

    >>the average Scot is unsympathetic to such linguistic experiments

    But deep down inside he/she would like to speak an idealized/imaginary "Scots". I'm talking about Scottish psychology, Harry, not public opinion surveys.
    Try to get beneath the surface, you'll be surprised what you find there.

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  19. I'm afraid I'm too ignorant of things Scottish to contribute to this thread in the form it ultimately took, but I'll venture a comment on the post. I'm not so accomplished as to be able to call myself an author, but personally I find the ideas I get in one language are much different than those I get in another. Trying to realize an idea in a language in which it did not originate is very difficult and has a dramatic effect on the idea itself. I can understand Yrsa being taken aback. If her experience is like mine, then it's not so much a question of how large an audience she wants to reach as what she wants to write.

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