Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Looming, 1934 - still relevant

What interests me about issues of a literary and cultural magazine from almost three-quarters of a century ago is not the exact geo-political situation of the day along with passing fashions and fads. I leave that to the cultural historian or ethnologist. What interest me are the questions they asked then in Looming which are still relevant today.

So, when Linde, Treiberg and Suits were asked those three questions, as in my previous posting on Looming, some of the issues have never gone away. Not even after a World War, a Cold War and regained independence for Estonia. Foreign languages feature a great deal in the three replies, something that rarely gets discussed in a country like Britain, which happens to speak the "world language" English.

Bernhard Linde mentions, for instance how, when the somewhat nationalist poetic movement "Noor Eesti" (Young Estonia) first got off the ground between about 1908 and 1915, the young generation invited Estonia to reorient from a Russian-German axis to an Anglo-French one. They were mocked for upsetting the status quo. But by 1934, there was what Linde describes as Anglomania. And he continues that he is firmly committed to an orientation towards Britain, when it comes to Estonia's political choices. However, he feels that a broader orientation should be possible culturally. He lists a few countries where this has taken place, such as Czechoslovakia which, while Anglo-French politically, remains culturally in the Russo-German sphere. He mentions the French influence on Turkey, the Italian one on Slovenia, and so on.

These questions are still relevant today, especially for the countries of Eastern & Central Europe, with their often fragile economies. The very discussion of political versus cultural orientation shows that a good literary magazine (nowadays also a blog) can go beyond literature and book reviews, and examine cultural issues in their national and international context.

Linde also says that they could stop teaching foreign languages altogether at primary school level and try to give children a broader education instead.


Peeter Treiberg was very pro-French. In his opinion, more French should be introduced at secondary school level. Nor should a knowledge of German and Russian be neglected, otherwise, he says a large part of Estonian libraries would become "dead capital". He gave a whole list of reasons why France is the bee's knees. Nowadays, French and its promotion are rather popular in Estonia.


Gustav Suits' reply is a whole history lesson, much of which is a grumble at the Baltic Germans. But he too mentions the value and importance of knowing the Russian language. He says that during independence (i.e. from about 1920), Estonian schools rather threw the baby out with the bathwater when, in dumping the language of Lenin, they inadvertently got rid of the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy as well. This same tendency is happening right now, anno 2009, in Estonian schools, where a whole generation are growing up with little or no knowledge of Russian. Estonia cannot shift its geographical position.

One irritation that bothered Suits is no longer there at all today. In 1934, the upper classes in Estonia were Baltic barons, all of whom had German as their mother-tongue. These people were called "back" to a Reich they had never lived in, during the late 1930s by Adolf Hitler. So, nowadays, German is a popular foreign language alongside English and French. But in 1934, the role of German was a fraught issue. Suits thought that at university level, they should teach more French in the humanities, English coming second in this, whilst in the sciences, the orientation should be the other way round.


So in 1934, even just looking at the first issue of twelve, this literary magazine discussed and displayed history, philosophy and actual literature. Less than a decade later it had become a showcase for Soviet literature and Socialist realism.

But the story has a happy ending. In the early 1950s, the magazine sank to its lowest ebb, but after that started climbing back, and one very interesting development was the Looming Library series of, originally in weekly or fortnightly supplements in small book format, where, for instance, Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", some Kafka, Borges and lots of other "decadent Western" authors were published in Soviet times in Estonian translation. And the magazine Looming itself, and the Looming Library supplements, now less frequent, exist to this day.

But even back in 1934, they were busy presenting an article about contemporary Scottish literature, reviewing a recent German book about Danish literature, books about Eino Leino and L. Onerva, an international philosophical congress in Prague, a book about Freud, a mention of D.H. Lawrence, and, most interestingly, a list of the numbers of works in translation appearing in various European countries for the previous year, 1933:

Italy - 930
France - 662
Soviet Union - 659
Germany - 536
Poland - 534
Spain - 461
Czechoslovakia - 431
Britain - 346
Hungary - 309
Sweden - 304
USA - 298
Denmark - 240
Norway - 147

I will occasionally, when there are lulls in our flow of postings, revisit Looming 1934, to afford more insights, linking material found there to the issues of our day.

Looming - a literary magazine, anno 1934, issue 1

I happen to have the complete set of twelve issues of the Estonian literary magazine Looming for the year 1934. So over several blog articles, to make the information more digestible, I will highlight some of the contents of this magazine for that year.

Looming [pronounced: LAW-mink] was founded in 1923 by Friedebert Tuglas, as celebrated in other blog articles here. So by 1934, it was an established magazine. The covers of the 1934 issues had the word "Looming" (Creative Endeavour or Creation) in alternate black and red capitals letters, then an overview of the contents, in the same way as the Finland-Swedish literary magazine Horisont used to do in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the editors and regular contributors were of a left-wing persuasion, social democrats for the most. These included the Modernist poet Johannes Vares, pseudonym Barbarus, who later committed suicide in 1946, after having been made puppet prime-minister of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic not long before; and Johannes Semper, who became the Minister of Education under the same arrangement, but survived. In 1934, these two were still very impressed by French Modernist poetry.

Obviously, Estonian intellectuals of all persuasions had noticed the rise of Hitler the previous year. And Barbarus' poem in issue 1/1934 had echoes of a crossroads; Cain and Abel were mentioned, and the idea of blood-thirstiness. Johannes Schütz also wrote poetry there; he later Estonified his surname to Sütiste - and continued to publish poetry in Looming. Major Estonian prose author Eduard Vilde had just died the previous year; there were articles about his works, visiting his grave, etc. The issue is 116 pages long. In this issue, most of the poetry, prose and reviews are home-grown Estonian ones.

And the editors sent a questionnaire round to authors with three questions:

1) Towards which country's sphere of influence would you prefer we orientate ourselves? Where do you hope that impulses for our intellectual life will come from?

2) Which foreign language would you prefer to be promoted in Estonia, and which language would you like to see as first foreign language in our schools?

3) How desirable or undesirable do you regard the recent enforced cultural orientation in the direction of Germany or Russia for the future of an independent Estonia?

Sensible questions for the epoch, answered at length by three Estonians, author Bernhard Linde (47 years old), historian Peeter Treiberg (39), and poet and academic Gustav Suits (50). Suits, being a rather professorial type and a renowned poet, increased the number of questions off his own bat to seven. He ends his reply with:

7) A propos of Sweden. As we have such a clear tendency to cultivate Germanic languages and cultures, let us not forget the merits of the Swedish language and Scandinavian culture.

As the replies by these three are so long, I'll have to stop here and read them in detail. But suffice it to say that the Zeitgeist was very much in evidence!

Anti-Semitism in Norway - 2

The Jerusalem Post has republished Maya Spitzer's article in an updated version, with some of the linguistic ambiguity that characterized the article in its original form removed.

Tundra Tabloids has some interesting commentary.

Update (April 1): the Jerusalem Post article has been removed again.

See also in this blog: Anti-Semitism in Norway

Old Masters

If you're in the mood for reading older translations of classical Nordic literature, the online Open Library project is a useful port of call. Here it's possible to browse scanned facsimile editions of -the collected works of Ibsen in the translations of William Archer and Edmund Gosse (Scribner's, 1907), John Martin Crawford's 1888 translation of the Kalevala, or the plays of August Strindberg in the versions by Edwin Björkman -- to take just three examples from a voluminous store that's accessible free of charge.

The Open Library differs from the by now widely familiar Project Gutenberg in that it offers a listing of every book, not just text files of out-of-print and out-of-copyright titles. Older books, like the one above, are often scanned in their entirety, while those that are still in copyright are simply listed, usually with a photo of the cover, and the bibliographical details. There are at present 22,845,290 titles, 1,064,822 of which are full-text.

Monday, 30 March 2009

an attempt to resuscitate du'a khalil aswad

Poem by Sjón

an attempt to resuscitate du’a khalil aswad

the human hand looks like an outstretched wing
whether it is throwing
a heap of small stones
or a rock the size of a fist

the pebbles
skim across the water –
pause for a moment
in their flight before they fall

the big stone knows no rest until it
lands on the body of a 17-year-old girl in love

(one is a recent newspaper report
the other the memory of a summer’s night)


the mind will not let go
either of memories or of news reports

it never looks like an outstretched wing


to the god of those who were stoned to death
I offer this poem in exchange for her life

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

Anti-Semitism in Norway

Ever since during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006 the Norwegian novelist and intellectual Jostein Gaarder published an op-ed essay in the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten in which he condemned certain aspects of Judaism and Israeli politics, and argued that the state of Israel should not be recognized in its present form, there has been a steady rise in anti-Semitic feeling throughout Norway. Although the currents of anti-Semitism were already present in Norwegian society, the publication of Gaarder's article seemed to have a profound effect on public opinion in the country, reinforcing old prejudices and stereotypes.

In his essay, translated here by a blogger, Gaarder wrote that

the state of Israel, with its unscrupulous art of war and its disgusting weapons, has massacred its own legitimacy. It has systematically flouted International Law, international conventions, and countless UN resolutions, and it can no longer expect protection from same. It has carpet bombed the recognition of the world. But fear not! The time of trouble shall soon be over. The state of Israel has seen its Soweto.

We are now at the watershed. There is no turning back. The state of Israel has raped the recognition of the world and shall have no peace until it lays down its arms.

And also:

We do not believe in the notion of God's chosen people. We laugh at this people's fancies and weep over its misdeeds. To act as God's chosen people is not only stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity. We call it racism.

Despite protestations that his statements were aimed at a state and not at a people, and that he did not want Israelis to suffer retribution, Gaarder provoked outrage in many parts of the world.

Today, the Jerusalem Post reports on a disturbing continuation of the increase in anti-Semitism in Norway -- a trend that was further aggravated by the Gaza conflict. In one comment, Dr Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Jerusalem Centre of Public Affairs, notes that

"the [Norwegian] elite, the academics, politicians and media consider themselves to be great moralists, with very little self-introspection. Their self-righteousness, arrogance, and inherited Lutheran prejudices against Jews has led to a huge amount of anti-Israel sentiment. Gaza caused these latent feelings in society to come to the fore."

Update:The Jerusalem Post has now removed Maya Spitzer's article from its website following a large number of protests, apparently from Norwegian-American readers. The author has stood by her report, and we are still linking to the article via Tundra Tabloids. We'll continue to watch developments.

For a further update, see also in this blog: Anti-Semitism in Norway - 2

What Estonians translate - poetry & history

To dispel any illusions that the Estonians are still living in the era of wooden spoons, post-Soviet rural ruin, and the Kalevipoeg epic poem, a brief examination of their Ninniku online website, where contemporary and modern poetry is translated. The current issue contains poetry by Rumi, Plath, Creeley, Dove, Loy, Stein, H.D., Neruda, Hölderlin, Rilke, Hesse, Grass, Augustin, plus several Japanese poets.

Several leading Estonian poets double up as translators, something that more British poets could learn from. So, in older issues, the poet and novelist Tõnu Õnnepalu has translated Pessoa; poet Hasso Krull has translated Mohammad Dib and Tahar ben Jelloun from the French, and also Finnish poetry by Jouni Tossavainen; Maarja Kangro has translated Zanzotti from the Italian; Lauri Kitsnik has translated Fujii Sadakazu from the Japanese. The former head of the Estonian Writers' Union and translator of novels by Kafka, Döblin, etc., Mati Sirkel, has translated poetry by Claes Andersson. The editor of the literary magazine Vikerkaar (Rainbow) Mart Väljataga has taken on Brecht.


And: historically:

Although Estonia was busy publishing its own younger poets, this tradition of looking West for poetry was already there during the early years of Estonian independence back in the 1920s. If you leaf through a copy of the literary magazine Looming (Creative Endeavour) from the year 1924, you will find Estonian translations of a part of Childe Harold and contemporary Italian poetry. In 1928, you had the Czech Symbolist Vrchlický. In 1934, you had more Byron, some Alexander Pope, plus poetry by Aleksis Kivi. In 1936 there was Kipling. In 1937, you had Swinburne and Pushkin. In 1939, there were Fröding and Dante.

In early 1940, there was no translated poetry, but an article about translating poetry. Plus plenty of articles covering literature from abroad, like one by Jerzy Kaplinski, the father of the poet Jaan Kaplinski, discussing the Pole Tetmajer; and one about Wells; about new English poetry (mostly Eliot and Auden); about the English novel; a story by E.M. Forster; about Paris theatre life; about the Goncourt brothers; etc. No big panic about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then in force.

Then: wham!

Two issues did not appear. And when Looming returned in August 1940, others were looming at the helm. Suddenly, there were things about Gorki and Mayakovski, and no poetry at all from further west. The September issue started with "A Selection of Poetry From the Peoples of the Soviet Union". There were five poems: Russian, Checheno-Ingushetian (2), Mordvinian, and Georgian, translated, presumably from the Russian, by leading poet Marie Under, who later fled to Sweden. There was Pushkin and an article about the Russian historical novel. And October, ah, October. This issue starts with two full-page photos of Lenin and Stalin. There is a poem with the predictable title: October. And there is an article explaining what Socialist Realism is all about. From then onwards, half of each issue was filled with Russian material... The Western poets were gone.

Rants 'n Raves

Picking through Finland-Swedish poet Claes Andersson's latest collection of poems, Lust (Desire), for a Books from Finland English-language selection, both the translator and the magazine's editor encountered some unforeseen problems: while many of the poems in the book are fresh and engaging, especially when one considers that their author is over 70, many of them also resemble extended sermons which propagate the poet's own personal and left-wing political credo.

For example, items in the original selection included a long, impassioned but ultimately outré rant entitled "black book 1", which contains all manner of arguable statements on issues ranging from global warming, bird flu and the global economy all the way to the Middle East. While the poem would make a terrific blog post, my view was that in the absence of a comments or feedback facility at least some readers might feel prevailed upon. Also, while I had no objection to the poem being published -- indeed, as I was at pains to point out to the editor, the magazine has a right to publish anything it likes -- I felt that as translator I'd need to publish some kind of disclaimer at the end.

So we opted provisionally for poems that are more universal in tone. In fact, I believe that in those Andersson is more successful than his more "political" pieces. Though the apocalyptic-cum-ironic tone is still there, the credo is somehow more genuine and effective -- indeed it's much more interesting, as it possesses an almost religious fervour. Political critique becomes fiery moral denunciation as the adversary turns out to be not some grouping of political forces, but humanity itself, which the poet apparently believes is due for incineration:

Perhaps some will wonder why our empire was effaced?

You may not like the answer, that it was our greed, our violence and our excess, that
we thereby forfeited our right to a good life in harmony with nature and ourselves

All that had depth we turned into surface

All that was surface and skin we burned apart in our compulsion to eradicate and destroy

All the beauty we could be touched and moved by we quite simply killed

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Karl Ristikivi - "Night of Souls"

Karl Ristikivi is the subject of two other postings so far on this blog. One deals with his life as an exile in Sweden, the other shows a couple of his poems. This posting consists of two excerpts from his 1953 novel Hingede öö, translated as Night of Souls. The original was first published in Estonian by Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, the exile Estonian publishing house located in Lund, Sweden. It was reprinted a couple of times after Estonian independence. As far as I am aware, the novel has never been published in translation into any language, even Swedish.

The novel tells of a young man who enters a house in the middle of Stockholm on New Year's Eve, partly to get away from the drunken, yelling crowds, and finds a world where time and space are distorted. He wanders about for hours, meets all kinds of unusual and usual people, attends what looks like the trial of various people for the Seven Deadly Sins, and leaves, some 20 minutes later. The book is vaguely reminiscent of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf; there are maybe hints of Alice in Wonderland.

Two excerpts here. The first is from near the beginning of the novel, when the protagonist enters the building. The second is from when he is in limbo, both an existentialist and a national one.

Night of Souls

[First excerpt]

When I arrived at the beam of light, I could see it was coming through a doorway which, unlike all the others on the street, stood wide open.

I realised immediately what the reason for this was, and was overcome by a feeling of mild disappointment. They were no doubt holding a public celebration, seeing in the New Year, this being some cinema or little theatre tucked away in this side street. By this time the performance would already have begun, which would explain why there was no one around outside walking in the direction of this oasis.

I hoped that I would at least be able to enter for a short while. The fact that the door was stood so invitingly open gave the impression that not all the tickets to this place, with its air of an orphanage, had been sold out. So I would at last be able to stay in that light and warmth, bought for a couple of kronor, for that short hour still left of the Old Year. It would, of course, mean abandoning my former plans. But better to end the Old Year with an admission of failure than starting the New with one.

And so I entered by the open door.


Wouldst thou be in a dream, and yet not sleep?
Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress

The music could now be heard quite clearly, since the following door leading into the hall itself was also open. It was from here that the light had shone through onto the street, since the entrance hall itself was rather dimly lit. The piece they were playing was a piano concerto which I had no doubt heard before but could not immediately place. It reminded me of something which had no connection whatsoever with this evening - the scent of jasmine. I could also see through the open door that people were sitting in rows of seats in the hall but the light which shone towards me was so bright that I could not see anything clearly since my eyes were slightly dazzled by the glare. Apart from the fact that my eyes were a little astigmatic by nature, as it was. Everything looked as if it was being viewed through condensation on the lenses of my spectacles.

For a short moment I felt like retracing my steps, but I forced myself to stay. I looked around the wide, yet low-ceilinged foyer, looking for a ticket window. But I could not see one anywhere. I could only see the dark panelling of the foyer, the beams of the ceiling which looked as if it had been blackened by smoke. The only thing the room contained was a set of coat pegs to my left on which many outer garments were hanging.


I now approached the door to the hall itself next to which stood two men wearing long black jackets, the likes of which I had not seen since my days at primary school, when the manner in which the schools inspector had fished his handkerchief out through the tails had been an unforgettable experience. They were both middle-aged men, with solemn, distinguished faces, more like English footmen than ordinary Swedish doormen. Under different circumstances I would not have dared enter between these two, but now I was not going to take any notice even should they ask me for my ticket. If I had known how long the performance had already been going on, I would have been able to make it look as if I had just come out for a short while. This is what happens in this country during the interval after the first half of the performance. (From which it should not be concluded that I am suggesting people should make use of this mode of entrance.) But without uttering a word, without even looking in my direction one of them handed me a programme and pointed to his left towards the last two rows where there were still a number of unoccupied seats.

It came as a certain relief that the audience had their backs towards me. The brightly lit hall differed markedly from the somewhat sombre foyer with its somewhat mediaeval atmosphere. Rather, the hall was Rococo, high-ceilinged and light, with pale-coloured parquet flooring with a mid-blue runner down the aisle. The hall was lit up by four chandeliers with electric candles and there also seemed to be some kind of spotlight whose beam was aimed at the other end of the hall where there was some kind of podium. It was a couple of steps up from the rest of the hall and there a young girl in a pink dress was seated half-hidden by a grand piano. I never gave a thought to the fact that the positioning of such a piano was rather odd. Just then there was a pause in the performance and I hastened to reach my seat, disturbing as few people as possible, since my steps still reverberated with disturbing loudness.

There was another matter, apart from the fact I needed no ticket, which I now noticed immediately and which increased my puzzlement. At any rate, there was something which would make me noticeable in this company in a rather unpleasant way. I began to wonder even more at the fact that the serious and grim cherubs had let me enter in the first place. Everyone present was in evening dress, the gentlemen in tails or evening jackets, the ladies wearing evening dresses, the majority of whom also had decorative stoles.

But when I had seated myself in an empty seat in the next to the last row, I breathed a sigh of relief. Right beside this empty seat was sitting a young boy whose dress was even less suited to the occasion than mine. I was at least wearing what could be termed restaurant dress. He was wearing a brown jacket, a black roll-neck sweater, quite worn and patched corduroy trousers and army boots. Nonetheless I did not notice him until I was right next to him and clearly no one else had noticed him either. He stood up to let me pass, and when I excused myself with a silent movement of the lips, he smiled obligingly. This could have been because he regarded me, dressed as I was, as someone supporting and confirming his status in such staid company. Perhaps, I had nevertheless met him somewhere before, without really taking any notice of him. He had that sort of face which looks familiar at first glance, since all its elements are so commonplace.


[Second excerpt]


Anyhow, I heard the door slam shut behind me, locking as it did so. I knew it was locked since I turned and tried the handle but could not open it again. I had by then already begun to suspect that it was not the right door and that it had only been left unlocked by accident.

Just then, I heard the distant ringing of bells and the thought flashed through my mind that now, out there in the city, the New Year had begun. Or at least the Old Year was coming to an end. But it was so far away that it left me quite unmoved. I had nonetheless steeled myself against that ringing, which was something I have always feared.

I even received the impression that I counted the strokes and heard that there were twelve. But considered carefully and with hindsight, I could well have been imagining this.

Even more embarrassing was the fact that I have to give an explanation for the rooms through which I had been walking. I had lost interest not only in what had been occurring behind my back, but also what was going on around me. This can best be compared with how a sick patient resigns himself to his condition, satisfied with the mere fact that he is not in pain.

So much had changed compared with my previous life. (Yes, I have said it now and cannot take it back, even if wanted to do so. For I know all too well that too much has been said and can lead many in the wrong direction, searching for an explanation and or conclusion where I did not intend to explain or conclude. But be that as it may, let us term it so for simplicity’s sake, knowing at the same time that one word can have very many meanings.) I had been wandering around, mostly observing and listening, taking in impressions and distilling feelings out of them. I had almost always felt a forbidden joy, a thief's joy, that I had simply wandered into this happy situation by accident, where I was empowered to see, hear and feel. Now, all had changed, perhaps only within me, but in conjunction with that, all that surrounded me appeared too to have changed. Something new had not come to replace the joy of discovery, and this gave me a paralysing feeling of emptiness.

I do not know precisely how I arrived at this small room, which was divided in two by a counter and above it wire mesh. Behind the counter sat an oldish man wearing some kind of dark uniform, and who had pushed his hand out through a small opening.

"Your identity papers, please!"

I had no papers of any kind on me and said so. He smiled regretfully, but also with slight distrust.

"How can that be? You must have some papers. Otherwise I cannot let you through."

"Very well, I can always go back..."

I turned round, in order to leave by the door, but there stood a soldier who was half-barring my way with his rifle. He said nothing and I concluded from the cornflower blue roundel on his cap that we would not understand one another’s language.

I went back to the counter The official had, however, shut the window and was still sitting where he was before now sorting some pink-coloured cards, while a cardboard notice by the window said: "CLOSED".

Someone touched my shoulder. It was a small middle-aged man in a worn and patched grey Wehrmacht uniform, who shook his head in an irritated and weary manner, saying:

"Under no circumstances can you remain here. You'll have to go on!"

I tried to explain: "I can't go anywhere, I haven't got any identity papers," even myself aware of the fact that this was a feeble and naive excuse which would be to no effect. The soldier at the door looked at me with a mocking smile on his lips; he seemed used to such scenes. The official at the counter pushed the last cards into a drawer, locked it and went into a back room accompanied by the jingling of keys.

"Could you not at least give me some advice as to what I ought to do now?" I said again, addressing the man in Wehrmacht uniform. I believe that he even found it difficult to understand my poor German, let alone grasp my situation.

"Forbidden! Forbidden!" was all that he repeated, in the way you talk to children, idiots and foreigners, and he pointed at the sign on the wall which said simply:


And lower, above the spittoon:


"Please show me, then, where I can go. Take me along - oh, never mind!" My former torpor was already beginning to suppress my anger. It little mattered what he did, if I was not allowed to stay where I was. That is to say, it was not entirely a matter of indifference, since I was glowering at the soldier at the door.

The man shrugged his shoulders. He twisted his head and looked at his uniform jacket from which all his stripes had been removed.

"I am not permitted to do anything. You must leave, or else..."

"Or else?"

"Or else you will have to solve the problem yourself," he said with resignation. He seemed to have lost the hope that I would ever understand anything, and he was right in so thinking.

Then suddenly a new man rushed out of the back room behind the counter, he was quite similar to the previous two - small of stature, middle-aged and with a wrinkled face. But he was holding some kind of form written in French, issued by either the police or the customs, and he came up to me waving his hands and giving the flurried explanation of which I understood anything apart from the fact that he kept repeating the words: "Interdit!" and "Defendu!" When I did not react, he turned to the German and began to abuse him in fluent German. Although his words sounded anything but pleasant in tone, the German began to laugh on hearing his mother tongue.


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

Jørgen Kieler - "Resistance Fighter"

I mostly translate fiction and poetry. However, one book that I originally translated for the money but ended up being fascinated by was Resistance Fighter, the memoirs of the Danish Resistance fighter Jørgen Kieler. I do not know whether it has sold well, so here is an excerpt to draw it to the attention of potential readers. My translation appeared in 2007.

At the start of WWII, Kieler was a medical student whose parental home was on the main square of the small Danish town of Horsens. He went to study in Copenhagen. When war broke out and Denmark was occupied by Germany, Kieler joined the Resistance, first helping to smuggle Jews over the sound to neutral Sweden, then helping to run an underground newspaper. He later joined a team of dedicated Resistance fighters whose task it was to sabotage the factories of Danes collaborating with the German Nazi occupation. He was finally caught by the Germans and sent to the underground aeroplane factory Porta Westphalica.

The passages below describe that underground factory, which employed slave labour.


In February 1944, the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force changed their tactics. Instead of systematically carpet-bombing the German industrial districts of cities they began to employ precision bombing of the German aircraft industry. This was made possible by advances in radar techniques, and had catastrophic consequences for the Luftwaffe. The German Ministry of Supply therefore found an answer to this threat. They planned the construction of 20 underground industrial plants, each of between 5,000 and 50,000 square metres in area. The head of the concentration camp programme was now Himmler, and he became the biggest supplier of cheap labour, which he termed "die neuen Höhlenmenschen" (the new cave-dwellers).

One of the first of these plants to be established was at Barkenhausen, near Minden, where the River Weser breaks through what are termed the Westphalian Alps on its way to the North Sea, dividing these hills into an eastern ridge called the Wesergebirge and a western one, the Wiehengebirge. This is where Porta Westphalica (i.e. the Westphalian Gateway) is situated. Before the Second World War, it was known for its natural beauty and its spas. The labour camp Porta Westphalica was established here, an outsourcing camp of the main camp Neuengamme. At first, an old sandstone quarry was exploited - Jakobsberg - in the Wesergebirge on the eastern bank of the River Weser. Then the underground parts of this mine were expanded to also include the Wiehengebirge. Galleries - what the Germans termed Stoller - were bored out of the rock at a total length of 20 kilometres. These galleries connected factory workshops and machine halls of varying sizes with ceiling height of up to 40 metres to enable large cranes to work there. This was where the fuselages and technical equipment of new fighter planes were assembled. But first of all, an underground city had to be prepared.

For this purpose, professional mineworkers from the Saar were called in. Himmler gave these professionals an auxiliary workforce consisting of some 1,500 concentration camp prisoners. The first 250 or so of these came from the Soviet Union and Poland. They had been sent to the concentration camp Buchenwald as early as March 1944 and their first task was to prepare the hall to receive prisoners. This was part of Hotel Kaiserhof, a rather elegant timber-framed building where the SS had occupied all the rooms themselves. The restaurant continued to cater for the local population who were therefore well acquainted with the prison camp in the banqueting hall behind, where large banquets had taken place before the War for up to 2,500 guests. This was the place where the "cave-dwellers" were to work for the German aircraft industry.

Over the spring and summer, the number of prisoners had increased to around 1,000. These were from various East European countries, and in September, 500 extra prisoners arrived mostly from Denmark, France and the Netherlands. The Danish prisoners, 98 in number, were members of the Resistance and were regarded as political prisoners. We represented various political affiliations within the Resistance, but there were, in fact, few Communists. Most of these had ended up in Sachsenhausen or Stutthof.


As we were marching over the bridge, we saw ahead of us a two-storey timber-framed building with bay and dormer windows and small turrets. This was Hotel Kaiserhof. On our way to the hotel we passed one of the local end stations of the local railway. Only some time later did we realise that the railway led to a larger town, Minden, a little to the north.

The sight of the hotel had been encouraging. So the rumours at Neuengamme were true. We would be staying in a hotel. But there was no red carpet, and it soon became clear to us that the front door with the pompous stairway was meant for the masters of the manor and that we were consigned to the back entrance. Behind the hotel was a large building by whose entrance there were still a number of posters which told us that this was a theatre. Between the long wall of this building and the ridge was a path leasing to a yard surrounded by barbed wire which was enclosed on two sides by the backs of the hotel and the Theatre. It was along this path that we were to make our entrance into KZ-Lager Porta Westphalica. Our initially positive impression of the sight of Hotel Kaisershof gave way to fears when I read, in the yard an inscription written in charcoal on the white wall. In large letters the Latin inscription could be seen: HIC MORTUI VIVUNT.


The Theatre was a large hall, 80 by 30 metres. The windows were blacked out and covered with barbed wire. There was no heating. One end of the hall had blocks of bunks, stacked up vertically in fours and in rows of two. The bunks normally had a straw mattress and two thin blankets. The prisoners were not given a fixed sleeping place and as there were not enough bunks for everyone, there was always daily scrummage for a place to sleep and for blankets as two or three men ended up sleeping in the same bunk without blankets.


Outside the hall was an unmade yard which was about as big as the Theatre itself. This was later doubled in size. A number of large leafy trees indicated that the yard was originally for the delight of theatregoers who had come out of the Theatre during the interval. Now it had become an assembly point for the columns of workers going to and from their work. On rainy days it would be reduced to a muddy pool. But whatever the weather, the prisoners had to queue up here for their food rations. They would walk past the kitchen where the chef stood and dealt out the food. Any attempt to keep the Theatre clean was, under such circumstances, doomed to failure right from the start.


The prisoners came from 17 different nations. Including those who came towards the end of October, there were now some 1,500 prisoners. Most of these were from the Soviet Union, including the Asian parts. There were also many Poles, around 200 Frenchmen and some Germans. Otherwise, there were men from the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece and the Baltic countries. We were a motley crew. Some had been partisans, others from the Resistance, like we were. Some were prisoners-of-war or subject to forced labour, or ones who had tried to escape or broken the rules at their place of work. Others were free labourers who had broken their contracts, plus finally a number of criminals. Most of the German prisoners wore the green triangle of the criminal (Berufsverbrecher), or the black one for asocial elements. The chef wore a purple one; he was a Jehovah’s Witness. There were no Jews or gypsies in the camp. As for language, this was the Tower of Babel, although the common language was naturally German.

We Danes were a homogeneous group and were regarded as a unit, and also with a degree of respect as we had been in the Resistance. Only the Soviet and French prisoners had such a clearly defined national identity as we had.

Translated from Danish by Eric Dickens

Lyrikvännen - Tema: Estland

In 2007, the Swedish poetry magazine Lyrikvännen published an issue devoted to Estonian writing. This issue contains poems by a large number of contemporary and older Estonian authors translated into Swedish. It was produced in conjunction with the Göteborg Book Fair Guest of Honour that year: Estonia.

Poets represented include: Betti Alver, Hella Wuolijoki, Jaan Kaplinski, Doris Kareva, Elo Viiding, Hasso Krull, Jürgen Rooste, Asko Künnap, Kalju Kruusa, fs, Kristiina Ehin, Ilmar Laaban, Aare Pilv, Karl Martin Sinijärv, Andres Ehin, Ly Seppel-Ehin, plus other non-theme-issue poetry and articles. One author whose poetry is published here sits on the cusp between Estonia and Sweden: Mare Kandre. Although she was born and bred in Sweden (and lived in Canada as a small child) she is a Swedish author. But her mother is Estonian. Another important author and translator is the Swede of Latvian parentage, Juris Kronbergs, who has almost single-handedly been responsible for introducing Latvian poetry and prose to Sweden over the past 30 years, and is a poet in his own right.

Two Estonian-born translators who have lived for decades in Sweden were responsible for the bulk of the translations: Enel Melberg and Peeter Puide. And Ilmar Laaban, an Estonian exile, translated his own poem included here, years ago. Kalli Klement and Jaan Seim dealt with poetry by some of the Ehin family, represented here by mother, father and daughter.

Jon Fosse - "Morgon og kveld"

Norwegian playwright and novelist Jon Fosse will be 50 this year. He is one of the more visible writers in Norway, and acclaimed internationally as a playwright.

His short poetic novel from 2000 is called Morgon og kveld (Morn and Eve) and is gently experimental. It tells, in two parts, of the birth and the dying days of the protagonist, a fisherman. The first part, told by a third-person narrator, forms one seventh of the 116-page novel, and describes how the father, Olai, is waiting around rather helplessly as the old midwife Anna helps his wife Marta to give birth to his son Johannes. This son's mid-life is passed over, and when we meet Johannes again, he himself is the narrator, so the novel ends in mid-sentence.

In her review, critic
Anne Lise Jomisko notes various things about this novel. Firstly that there are no full-stops in the whole book. Secondly that many descriptions are of daily routines. And that there are repetitions, as the reader can see from the excerpt below. This is a way of writing a novel that brings to the fore the words, the writing, as much as the plot or storyline.

The excerpt from the start of the novel shows the main two styles of the novel: short and pithy dialogue, and long stream of consciousness passages. The whole of the last paragraph here, for instance, continues and takes up pages 9-17 of the novel. This is still a draft; some of the shifting of tenses in the long passages are a challenge to the translator.

Morgon og kveld (Morn and Eve)

by Jon Fosse

More hot water, says the old midwife Anna

No, don’t stand there hanging around in the kitchen doorway, man, she says

No, no, says Olai

and he feels heat and cold spreading across his skin among the goose pimples and a joy goes right through him and emerges as tears in his eyes as he rushes off to the stove and starts to ladle steaming water into a long wooden bowl so that there will be enough, yes, thinks Olai and he ladles even more water into the bowl and he can hear the midwife Anna saying that there must be enough now, that’ll be enough now, she says and Olai looks up and there the old midwife Anna is, standing behind him and she picks up the bowl

I can carry it myself, says midwife Anna

and a muffled shriek can be heard form the room and Olai looks old midwife Anna in the eye and nods and even gives a big grin as he stands there

Be patient, will you, says the old midwife Anna

If it’s a boy, he’ll be called Johannes says Olai

We’ll have to see, says midwife Anna

Johannes, yes, says Olai

After my father, he says

No, there’s nothing wrong with that name, says the old midwife Anna
and another shriek, louder, freer now

Be patient, will you, Olai, says the old midwife Anna

Be patient, she says

Do you hear what I say? she says

Be patient, she says

You’re a fisherman, you know that there must be any women on board, don’t you? she says

Yes, yes, says Olai

And maybe it’s the same with men, you know what I’m getting at? says the old midwife Anna

Yes, a mishap, says Olai

Yes exactly, a mishap, says the old midwife Anna

and Olai sees the old midwife Anna go straight towards the door to the room holding the bowl of hot water in front of her, arms straight, and the old midwife Anna stops in the doorway and turns round towards Olai

Don’t just stand there, says the old midwife Anna

and Olai gives a start, is he standing there and unintentionally spreading mishap? no he didn’t mean to do so and if things go wrong with both loving and honouring Marta, his darling, his wife, then they will, no I can’t happen like that

You, Olai, leave the kitchen door alone and go and sit down on your chair, says the old midwife Anna

and Olai sits down at the end of the kitchen table and places his elbows on the table and rests his head in his hands and it was a good thing he’d taken Magda to his brother’s that day, thinks Olai, and when he was on his way to fetch the old midwife Anna, he first rowed over to his brother’s with Magda and didn’t know if he’d done the right thing, because Magda will soon be a grown up woman, Magda as well, the years pass quickly, but Marta asked him to do so, when she was about to give birth and he was to row out to fetch the old midwife Anna and must take Magda with him, so she could be at his brother’s while the birth took place, she was too young to know exactly what was awaiting her as adult woman, is what Marta had said to him and he had obviously to do what she said, even though he would so gladly have had Magda at his side right now, she’d been a clever and sensible girl as long as he could remember and good at everything she does, I’ve certainly got a good daughter, thinks Olai, but it didn’t look as if the Lord God would bless you with more children and the years passed by and after you had resigned yourself to the fact that there were not going to be more children, that’s how it was, that was their fate they said and they should thank the Lord their God as he had given them Magda, for if they hadn’t have had her, then it would have been sad for them here on Holmen where they had settled and where he himself had built the house and his brothers and neighbours had helped but he’d done most of the work himself and when he was courting Marta he had bought Holmen, which was going for a song and he’d thought it all out, where his home would be built, in a calm spot in the lee for wind and weather, and where it would stand, and he’d also thought about where the boathouse and the jetty would be, but it didn’t end up there, and the first he built was the jetty and built it in a quiet bay turned in towards the land, well in the lee for wind and weather there on the west side of Holmen, yes, and then the house itself got built, not so big and beautiful perhaps, and now Marta was lying there in the little room and would at last give birth to a son, now little Johannes was going to be born, he was sure of that, thought Olai as he sat there at the kitchen table, on his chair, and rested his head in his hands, as long as things didn’t go wrong, as long as Marta gave birth to the child, as long as little Johannes was alright in her belly and as long as both Marta and little Johannes can stand the pain, as long as it didn’t go with Marta like on that terrible day with his mother, no, he couldn’t bear the thought, thinks Olai, because they’ve had a good time together, Olai and Marta, love at first sight, thinks Olai, but now? will Marta be taken away from him? is God so angry with him? alright if He wants to, but it’s just as likely to be Satan who rules this world as it is the good Lord, Olai had never had any doubts about that


Translated from Norwegian (nynorsk) by Eric Dickens

Cornering the Market

Here in the U.K., with the arrival of spring the London Book Fair is once again in the offing. Ever since it moved to the Barbican Centre in 1982 (which was the first year I attended it), and from there to the Olympia exhibition centre in Earls Court, this annual gathering has become a steady fixture in the diaries of publishers, agents and translators. It is really a trading opportunity for publishers and agents - translators occupy a peripheral status, but are none the less present, as the event is an international one, and rights representatives with publishing houses from many countries visit it.

It's a crowded, exhausting, at times even frantic get-together: there is usually nowhere to sit down, snack and refreshment facilities are minimal, if they exist at all, and the stands are often confusingly arranged and numbered, making it hard to find the location and/or people one is looking for. So what's in it for a translator of Nordic literature? Well, on April 20 there's a Nordic Reception at Stand W335/W335/407/W425/Y345 hosted by the Swedish Arts Council, Bok & Bilbiotek (Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden), FILI (Finnish Literature Centre), Kunstrådet (Denmark), The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (Sweden), Bókmenntasjóður (Iceland) and NORLA (Norway). Although members of SELTA (the Swedish-English Literary Translators' Association) receive an invitation to the reception in advance, in order to attend it at all they have to register for the entire Fair, at a price of 40 UKP. However, since most or all of the organizations mentioned send one or two representatives, it's a chance for translators to meet the potential providers of funding for their various projects. They can also meet publishers, of whom there are many in attendance, if not at the reception itself, then hidden away in the clusters of booths and stands that stretch to the horizon.

Most of the serious buying and selling of Nordic books at the Fair is concentrated on the now all-pervasive field of the detective novel, which over the past few years has become the hallmark of Scandinavian literary endeavour. PanMacmillan, Vintage, Harvill Press are the names to look for here. Translators whose interests lie outside this sphere may find it slightly more difficult to find takers, or even listeners, for their proposals and will, with a few exceptions, usually end up in the hands of one or two specialist publishers, not all of whom are even fully represented at the Fair. For poetry, Bloodaxe Books is probably still the most likely home for new translations of Nordic collections, or anthologies. Since its inception in 1979, Bloodaxe has published work by Finnish, Finland-Swedish, Swedish and Danish poets as part of its embrace of poetry from around the world -- a noble aim which more recently seemed to become at least partially obscured by a growing emphasis on Anglo-American poetry of a certain narrative and personal kind that tends to replace the internationalism of the former Bloodaxe with a new, issue-centred focus that is driven at least in part by concerns that have less to do with literature as such, and are connected rather with concerns of a sociological or even left-wing political kind. Nearly all of the Nordic titles published by Bloodaxe have been funded by Nordic arts council-type agencies like the ones referred to earlier.

For prose fiction, there is Dalkey Archive Press, a U.S.-based house that relies heavily on funding from foreign cultural foundations and government-sourced grants. Given the active presence of so many Nordic publishers, rights representatives and state cultural agencies at the Fair, it's not hard to see why Dalkey keeps up its visits each year. Although so far Dalkey's impressive list includes only a few Nordic writers, there are signs that the publisher intends to expand in this direction.

And there's Norvik Press, which Eric covered in an earlier post and which remains the UK's principal publisher of translated Nordic writing, both new and classical.

In a way it's too bad that translations of remarkable, original and unusual literary texts from Scandinavia still tend to fall into the hands of the specialist houses, both here and in the United States, My hope is that one day, with the rise of English as a second language in many or most of the Nordic countries (many younger Nordic writers and poets have a good though not perfect grasp of spoken and written English), translation of these texts will become less of a traditional "author/translator" process, and more a question of Nordic writers preparing "international" English-language versions of their work in collaboration with English-speaking advisers and consultants - perhaps the very same people whom today we know as "literary translators". Then the novels and poems can join their peers in the English-speaking world, and take their chance not as "translations" but as original works in English.

With a Nordic poet I recently embarked on a project of this kind: she prepared some English translations of her own poems, and I worked with her to make them into something that reads like English poetry. When the author has a decent grasp of English, this becomes possible, and it opens up a new line of approach - instead of aiming for "recreation" (or gjendiktning!), one works at the details and fabric of the writing itself, so that eventually the poem emerges as it would have done had the poet written it in English. I see this as a way forward not only for poetry, but also for prose. And some day, when English is universally spoken all over the world, it will seem the most natural way to work. The distinction between "original" and "translation" will become blurred and even effaced, for this is what writing is really all about in the end - the erasure of barriers, with the aim of reaching readers wherever they live, on a basis of universality.

As you can probably tell from my opening paragraphs, I won't be hot-footing it to Olympia in April. But I'll be keeping my eyes and ears open for new developments, new names and new departures. Eric says that he will be attending the 3-day event, and on this blog we'll try to keep up with what's new, as usual.

See also in this blog: Books and Publishers
Detective Story

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Friedebert Tuglas - excerpts

Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971) was a major 20th century Estonian author, and something of an unwilling cosmopolitan. Born in the countryside, he embraced left-wing politics when Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire, and fell foul of the Czarist authorities. After a short time in gaol in 1905, he fled abroad and would not return to Estonia until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

But this long sojourn abroad was the making of him as an author. Many of his best stories, written in what I have termed Gothic Symbolist style, were written either in Finland or Paris. Indeed, Tuglas spent time living with the Ålander family in Åggelby (Oulunkylä) outside Helsinki and lived with a painters colony, including Estonian painters, at Önningeby, Åland. Later in life, he travelled extensive in Europe and the Maghreb, this time voluntarily.

As far as I know, there are only two collections of Tuglas' work translated into English. In 1982, the translator Oleg Mutt, who had lived in New York as a child, but was now trapped in Soviet Estonia, translated five stories and a novella as
Riders in the Sky. In 2007, a collection of a further eight stories, an essay and a novella were published with the Central European University Press in Budapest, in my own English translation: The Poet and the Idiot and other stories.

As the former book has been out of print for many years, and the distribution of the latter book in Britain has been sporadic, I shall here give a few excerpts from my own translations (I am the copyright holder) from some of these works.

The first story is about the desperate plight of a petty thief, Rannus, trying escape prison:

Freedom and Death



Daybreak. In the green sky a faint mist could be seen wafting in large patches, here and there pinks and reds were beginning to spread across the clouds. In the chilly sunrise stood the dark green trunks of trees, as if coated with the greenish mists of the dawn.

The sky grew more and more flushed. And all at once sunrays fell on the clouds. Light wispy ones hovered like towers above the still, dark blue curve of the sea, from which mist rose in long swathes like watery hair.

Then black columns of smoke rose from the factory chimneys into the clean air, and then hooters blew, long and low, like the first heavy stroke of the bow against the double-bass of the day, throwing into the air watery grey spirals of steam.

The day was awakening once more, a new day with people, horses and waggons on all the roads, with strings of carts, trains and ships. A new day over the factories, railway stations and ports, over the blazing chimneys, the thundering rails and the blood-red cranes in the soot-filled harbours.

How Rannus had longed for this day! How much he had imagined his freedom! He had imagined himself emerging in a meadow outside the city, surrounded by dew and a frolicking herd of horses. Or on the beach, where the gentle waves rolled onto the sand between the fishing boats. Or even in the dark of the forest, with cold stars winking through the treetops.

Instead of all this he was still in the prison grounds. In several hours he had done no more that wander around in the prison cellar. And there were bars across the windows and a guard on the rampart – he was almost as much a prisoner as before. In prison, where he would have to stay and to die – within sight of boundless freedom!

He sat is the mouth of the passage, took hold of one bar and started to file another, taking advantage of the growing noise from the street. He had a small three-faceted file used to sharpen saws. But the bars were thick and he would have to file through at least four of them. It was not going to be that easy to escape from here, and the work would take the whole day!

He filed away and at the same time watched everything happening outside. He watched the guard pacing the rampart. He knew this guard, he was number 13. He could imagine his mood from his posture. He followed him walking there and empathised with his boredom, as he put his hand across his mouth and yawned.

As if the filing tired him, or he could not for some reason carry on, so he sat cross-legged like a Turk at the mouth of the passage and watched life before him. It was a long time since he had observed it: those people, vehicles and trees out there on the boulevard!

For him, someone used to tedium and stillness, the bustle out on the street seem to go on for ever and was wearying to him. Weeks and months between four walls with the same routine and the same people had passed unnoticed. How long the hours seemed now!

He noticed of the smallest things and became like a sleuth. He guessed at the nature of passers-by and their professions. He carried on his investigations into them even when they were out of sight. He attributed jobs, friends, wives and children to them. And he sat at the table which had been laid, eating lunch with them.

Then he turned his eyes to the street again. He saw large numbers of horses moving along: chestnut, mouse grey and fawn ones. Waggoners, brewery dray horse drivers in leather aprons on with carts stacked up with beer barrels, and a whole string of carts, where blood red girders made an ear-splitting din.


The next excerpts are from my personal favourite among the stories, one based on a folk tale and embroidered to create a tragic story about the neurasthenic pharmacist Jürgens:

The Golden Hoop


Jürgens stepped out through the cemetery portal. He stopped by the gates as if unsure in which direction to proceed.

The evening street was deserted. No one stirred. All was still. Only the faint patter of rain on the sickly foliage of the avenue could be heard. Dusk had fallen.

At the gate two beggars were sitting. On the one side a blind woman, a shawl around her lemon-yellow face, deep depressions where her eyes should have been. On the other, an old man with no legs whatsoever sitting in a low-sided crate like a trough with small wooden wheels underneath. In the hands of the old man, which touched the ground, were a couple of leather- covered wooden rings with whose assistance he could move along.

Jürgens thrust his hand into his pocket as if about to give the beggars something. But he found his gloves and started pulling them on. The gloves were damp. He brought both hands up to his face simultaneously: the gloves smelt of carbolic.

It could be smelt everywhere. The pharmacy had poisoned him through and through. If he had a soul, even that would smell of medicaments.

With great effort he succeeded in sliding the gloves on over his emaciated fingers. He then turned up the collar of his overcoat and started walking. The ground was wet and soft. The drizzle seemed denser than before. Along both sides of the avenue stood houses of one or two storeys. It was almost completely dark now, yet no lights could be seen in any of the windows.

Along the way stood one or two undertaker's and stonemason's. In the window tiny children's coffins glinted along with the one or two silver tassels, wire wreaths, or an angel holding a palm branch.

The doors of the shops were still open, though inside it was dark and not a soul could be seen.
At the bend in the street Jürgens glanced back: both beggars sat motionless in the rain, the old man had sunk back down onto his hands. He resembled a sitting dog.

The pavement consisted of large round flagstones and Jürgens stumbled at nearly every step. This only increased his sullen mood.

He felt that an injustice had been done to him, bringing him needlessly to this wretched place where he had no reason to come.

Naturally, the death of his mother had shaken him. He had admittedly left home twenty years before and had not seen her for the last seven. And he had rarely had the time to spare her a thought. But she had been his mother, after all.

Now it was all over. Death had crossed out the past, as if with a black stroke of the pen.

He had received word of her illness when it was already too late. He found a short letter from his sister, an empty house and his mother's grave. He sent a postcard to his sister, bought a wreath for his mother's grave and intended staying no longer than it took him to sell the house or at least rent it out at a good price.

This thought brought his feelings on an even keel again. Death - it was inevitable, yet always made him anxious. He was not used to such thoughts, nor did he wish to become so. Life was, after all, something quite different.

He turned into the street which led down to the town. A small dark man zig-zagged from the one pavement to the other and lit the gas lanterns with a long pole. From some way off the clatter of a cart could be heard. And this clattering finally woke Jürgens.

His fate and that of his sister came to mind: himself standing behind the counter of the pharmacy from morn till night for twenty years in the stale air of medicaments, and she in a small faraway provincial town supporting her alcoholic husband and with her brood of children constantly growing. Such had been their lives.

One or two times a year they had written to their mother and to one another. He wrote about his salary increases, she about her latest child; and their mother wrote that everything was as it always had been.

Perhaps they too had once had other ambitions in life. But life had not fulfilled its promise. And Jürgens had finally accepted life for what it was.

No, life had not been easy. And he had begun foolishly. He had gone to the big city like so many others from the provinces and had found pleasure in his smart suit of clothes and cavorted with the women there.

But thank heavens that was soon over. He just did not have the passion, at least not for sin.
Women - they required money, health and time. And he did not possess too much of any of these.

First of all he had discovered the value of money and time. And his yellowish consumptive face did not speak of the constitution of a lady-killer.

Then he understood what he needed to lead was a quiet life. A man had commitments and these commitments brought in the money. Everything beyond this was sheer futility.

He had buried himself in the dust of the pharmacy.


But once again the ringing of the golden hoop woke him. He saw it approaching, waiting for him round the next bend in the road. It seemed to be tired and resting on a rock by the roadside just as he was. One last effort and he would reach it.

His feet were cut, but he took no notice. He was deathly weary but kept on running!

The day drew to a close. He had run in one huge circle. The meadows were growing blue. He turned back in the direction of the town. Its windows gleamed.

He still could hear the sound of the hoop, faintly as if through a mist. There was no one around him any more. He limped at a half-run under the trees. The street seemed full of blue mist. Somewhere the hour struck. He felt a great weariness, as if he had been running for many years.
Then suddenly he realised he was back in a familiar street. Yes, here was the house of his parents.

He reached the gate and stood listening: somewhere in the distance the hoop still tinkled, but its ringing was becoming fainter and fainter, then sounding as if it were right above his head, quivered and stopped as if dissolving into the evening.

He stepped into the garden.

Through the line of tall trees on the other side of the street the low sun threw a broad swathe of light. The whole garden was full of its yellow glow.

He stopped in the middle of the garden and looked around him.

It seemed as if something had changed during the day:

The grass had grown long, wilted and was rotting in places. The trees which had been blossoming that morning were already full of apples which fell now and again all by themselves, bursting open and decaying in the lush grass. The whole garden was full of the odour of rotting trees and mouldering grass.

It was all so strange!

The door to the room stood wide open as before. He stepped inside. The room was empty. But in through the lace curtains streamed a melancholy light. Everything was yellow, too yellow!

And in the yellow light everything seemed that much more sad and abandoned. The simple furniture had aged, the portraits on the walls had grown old, as if they were living people.

He stayed a few moments in the room. All was silent. All was so ghastly! And full of fear, he flung open the door to the other room and leapt inside.


The room was black as pitch. It felt icy cold as the grave.

Jürgens was aghast. Then he remembered: he had left a candle on the table.

Groping he found the candlestick, but the candle had burnt down and the wax had congealed long ago.

He called for Malle but no one answered. He called out a second time, a third, but all was silent.
Muttering angrily to himself, he stumbled through into the kitchen. A couple of times, cobwebs touched his face, he waved around haphazardly trying to brush them aside.

He reached the kitchen, but here it was cold, as if no one had made a fire there in the hearth in ages. From the cold stove he could smell clay. In the darkness the narrow rectangle of the low window shone.

Jürgens listened. All was silent.

Fumbling his way forward, he approached the bed. His knees knocked against the bed board, he stretched out his hand and groped about among the heap of rags.

His fingers touched a human throat, but it was icy cold. He pulled the bedclothes aside and placed his palm on the old woman's chest but it did not stir.

The old woman was dead.


The following two excerpts are in a totally different vein. This comes from a commedia dell'arte story that Tuglas wrote in the 1920s, when established as the editor of a literary magazine. This story is the reverse of Virginia Woolf's Orlando - but preceded that novel by three years! Here the Androgyne starts out as a little girl and ages by the hour, ultimately becoming a cruel prince:

The Day of the Androgyne


And so: a summer’s morning, sunrise!

In the gardens the clumps of trees were stretching towards the radiant clouds. The rosebushes were bending to the ground, spreading their dew, their cool fragrance. The twitter of the tiniest birds could be heard in the trees and the rosebushes.

The Androgyne stirred at the warbling of a lark that was circling above the pavilion. Now the birdsong could be heard from one side, now from the other through the open windows, like a tiny wake-up call.

But the Androgyne did not open its eyes. It was still unawakened, unborn, still only an inkling of life, the first chord of being. All that it could hear was the twittering of the bird and perceive a quivering of light through its eyelids.

It marvelled, through its sleep, at the fact that it was waking here today in this room, this bed. Who had it been yesterday, where had it been yesterday? It had forgotten. What was the past? – pollen dispersed on the wind.

Only the lark trilled.

Who to wake up as today? The thought was dreamt. To be a young hunter clothed in green, a grey-headed old man or a wandering gypsy with his bells –? To be a shepherdess in green pastures, a swarthy Moor in a palm forest, or a soldier in a distant desert –?

All possibilities were open to the unawakened, unborn Androgyne.

Whether even to be at all this day –? To remain in a state of non-existence like an embryo in its sweet dreams –? To see visions, compared with which ordinary dreams were worldly and real –?
To doze in non-existence for a day, several days – centuries, and wake up in another era – or even on another planet –?

Someone unawakened and unborn has more opportunities than ever!

A thought shadow arose and fell. Only the billowing. Only the trill of the lark.
A pink light quivered through the eyelids of the Androgyne, spread in oval wise, in rings, mixed with the song of the lark. An inkling of light and sound awoke in an apprehension of being.

The moist fragrance of the soil wafted in, along with the smell of roses. From this sensation of soil a branch formed, leaves, a bud, the bud opened up into a bloom. A bumble bee flew around the bloom, landed on it, entered the calyx. It was a sweet thought of the earth!

An instant of deep sleep followed, dark, empty of sensations, like pitch-black night. Then the Androgyne awoke suddenly and opened its eyes. It was in a new world, in which all previous ones were forgotten.


She burst into laughter and jumped up like a panther. Treading carelessly over the cushions, the tea service and the Moors, she went off in the direction of the pavilion. Her movements were abrupt and manly, the outlines of her face hard as that of an eagle. She vanished in the dark of the pavilion.

Presently, Lord Byron rose. He watched the hermaphrodite figure and on his lips a cynical smile formed.

At the same moment, through the pillars of the Temple of Amor, the sound of a dulcian, a clarino and a theorbo could be heard. And at that same moment Pantalone emerged, accompanied by Brighella who was dressed like a shepherdess.

Pantalone danced with boundless enticement, while Brighella was unstoppable. She fled dancing through the pâcquerette rosebushes, on her face an expression of true love.

Simultaneously, life had returned to all the rest.

Flavio, Cinthio and Prospero came out dancing, along with Narzissa, Ironetta and Brambilla, some in masks, some without. Daphnis and Chloë were dancing with Arcadian grace and Lovelace and Clarissa were dancing with one another, an epistolary distance apart. From the cool of the trees came Leandro and Ardelia, dancing languidly, each on their own.

The turbans of the Turks were like winding instruments, serpents and rankets. The Moors leapt about striking huge gongs, in their hands fans and parasols. Even Pan joined in the dance, oblivious of his age and dress uniform.

The whole area was transformed into a dance floor. The groups came together in pantomime around Pantalone and Brighella, while developing their own individual themes. Here, a majestic sarabande was worked out, there, a solemn chaconne, elsewhere a subtle musette or a stormy bourrée. Even the music varied, covering various themes, coming from different places.

Only Pantalone was self-assured and unyielding. The tempo of his dancing increased to insanity. He brought into play all his material and manly charms, showing off his money pouch and other pouches. All in vain! This drove him into a frenzy and there was sheer madness in his dancing.
He harried Brighella from one edge of the lawn to the other and danced with the most fantastic leaps. Brighella fled with nimble pirouettes, feigning fear and despair.

Pantalone became ever more insistent, ever more obsessive in his movements. And Brighella fled in the direction of the temple of Amor – not knowing whether to submit or seek sanctuary.

But at that instant, on the threshold of the temple portal appeared the Androgyne, radiant as the young Apollo, surrounded by shouting and hand-clapping Moors.

He was wearing a short purple cloak and a Spanish hat with feathers. His carmine coat had a golden belt and his silver hose had been knit in such a wonderful way as to afford his legs a godly slenderness.


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

The Moomins and the Great Flood

In the context of Moominland we may as well mention another Finland-published English translation. Tove Jansson's first Moomin book, Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood) first appeared from Schildts in 1946, and since 2005 has been available from the same publisher in my own translation. A version of this translation is also available online - something that Schildts have never been entirely happy about. And thereby hangs a tale, for future telling, perhaps.

Moomintroll and the End of the World

In 2007, two journalists and authors attached to the weekly cultural newspaper Ny Tid, Anna Rotkirch and Trygve Söderling, reprinted in book form a fascimile edition of one of Tove Jansson's comic strips, serialised in 1947 and 1948 in the above newspaper as Mumintrollet och jordens undergång, i.e. Moomintroll and the End of the World. The comic strip also had Finnish subtitles.

This book is now also available in an English version, from 2008, translated by Peter Marten: Moomintroll and the End of the World. It contains the comic strip itself, plus an introduction. At the back of the book are essays by the editors, as well as by Henrika Ringbom and Juhani Tolvanen, plus a short retrospective introduction by Tove Jansson herself dating from 1996.

From the introduction:

Jansson's comic strip contains more adult humour than its forerunner, the book Comet in Moominland from 1946. It crosses more boundaries than the book, with more swearing and wilder parties. (...) Until the comic strip was reprinted in book form last year in the original Swedish and in Finnish translation, Moomintroll and the End of the World had dropped out of sight, something of a long-lost link in Jansson's œuvre. We at Tigertext, Ny Tid's publisher, felt it was about time to release the fact-paced first Moomin comic strip, this time in book format, for the 60th anniversary of its original appearance. After receiving a resounding welcome in Swedish and Finnish, we are delighted to present the eagerly awaited English version.

Hurry up and read it before the world ends!
Given our recessionary gloom, the book might even be quite topical!

Northern Lights - conference papers in book form

Translation is a practical activity but sometimes needs some theoretical underpinning. There is a whole continuum from descriptive to prescriptive, when aspects of translation are discussed. The papers from the Nordic Translation Conference, held at University College London in 2008, have been collected together to form chapters of a book entitled Northern Lights - Translation in the Nordic Countries, editor B.J. Epstein, published by Peter Lang, Oxford, Bern & New York, 2009. While the accent is on description, the thoughtful translator can glean tips and modi operandi from the various chapters here.

For a brief description of the conference itself, where these papers were first read, I can do no better than quote from the introduction:

The Nordic Translation Conference took place in London on 6-8 March 2008, and it was exciting for two considerable reasons. First, a major international conference had never before been convened to address translating from, and between the Nordic languages. And second, the variety of topics discussed spanned a fascinating range of studies, ideas, practical advice, and inspiration, encompassing seven languages Danish, Faroese, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, and Old Norse; unfortunately there were no papers discussing Greenlandic or Sami) and issues about children's literature, poetry, linguistics, subtitling, interpretation, legal and political translation, among others.

The resulting book is divided into six parts. The first deals with the differences between related languages; the second, translations to and from English; the third, challenges created by specific styles; the fourth, children's literature; the fifth, the position and role of the translator; and lastly, political issues. There are nineteen chapters altogether.

The majority of papers, now chapters, focus on the linguistic examination of literary texts, but also deal with everything from subtitling crime films to tag questions in translations between English and Swedish. Style in skaldic verse is examined, but so is the contextualisation of Nordic literature when finding a British audience. Children's literature is used as the basis for three chapters, and the Finnish language for a further three.

One paper, not included on account of the author's computer problems at the time, deserves a mention, and that is Martin Murrell's paper "Cultural Competence and Literary Licence", which dealt with translations of work by Eino Leino, Eva Ström, and others.

The Nordic focus was heartening. To quote again from the introduction:

Though the Nordic countries, by virtue of their small populations and their traditionally externally focused outlook, have long recognized the importance of translation, the study of Nordic languages has never played much of a role in the field of translation studies. At translation studies conferences, the more widely spoken languages, quite naturally, have taken the centre stage, and the few attending Nordic specialists often comprise the audience for each others's talks, gathering together to eagerly share research or just to sympathize over being so alone in the field.
Well, Nordic specialists were certainly not alone last March! The hall was filled to bursting point at the plenary sessions. And it is to be hoped that when the next Nordic Translation Conference comes along, scheduled for 2011, a similar book of papers will be compiled, again covering the Nordic languages.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Mati Unt - "Brecht at Night"

What follows is two excerpts - a sneak preview, if you like - of the forthcoming translation of the novel Brecht at Night (originally published in 1996) by the Estonian author Mati Unt. It will be appearing in due course with the Dalkey Archive Press in Illinois, USA. Two earlier novels by the same author have appeared with this press in English translation, here and here.

The novel is a postmodernist one, constructed on the principle of synchronicity. Bertolt Brecht is living in relative comfort in Helsinki in 1940, along with his wife and mistress, after fleeing Nazi Germany and living first in Denmark, now moving on to Finland. His ultimate goal is to travel to the USA by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Meanwhile, a mere 80 kilometres away across the Gulf of Finland, Estonia is being occupied by the Soviet Union. The style is typical for Mati Unt: a large number of short fictional or semi-fictional excerpts, interspersed in this case with poems by Brecht and real Soviet documents pertaining to the occupation. This ties in with the earlier blog articles here about the book of essays about the 1940 and 1949 deportations.

The two excerpts are something of a contrast and highlight the synchronicity of events. The first is from the narrative part of the novel. It depicts Brecht's inability to understand the Finnish and Estonian way of life. In it he is speaking to Hella Wuolijoki, the Estonian-born Finnish playwright with whom he cooperated on his Puntila play. The second excerpt is a small part of one of those documentary inserts, in this case a real article, published by former Estonian KGB agent Vladimir Pool in the Estonian daily Postimees in 1991, and which lists the names and fates of all the members of the Estonian government and the members of parliament. It is written is a sober, factual style, and therefore contrasts starkly with Unt's zany rendering of the way the very bourgeois Brecht perceives Helsinki. This second excerpt describes the fate of the President of Estonia, Konstantin Päts and that of his son Viktor.

In the published version, Brecht will be called just that. In my manuscript, I stuck to the way that Unt called him BB, which has overtones of "baby". He is indeed rather helpless, and his women have to help him. The italicised parts in the two excerpts are part of the novel. Hella is Hella Wuolijoki, Helene is Brecht's wife, and Grete his mistress.


by Mati Unt

[First excerpt]


The next evening Hella is present again. BB was a little befuddled the previous day. It was, after all, his first day in the mists, the North and the night. BB has talked so much about this that his senses have become dulled.

The world outside has not managed to impinge, and his inner world is in a flurry, has changed into politics, philosophy and goodness knows what else.

"Hella, I have to admit that I’ve still not had a walk round your city," admits BB. "I’ve stayed in my room ."

"Take it easy," says Hella in a motherly way.

BB looks at her and thinks that she has a face, yes, a face like the Moon, but that her body is pretty massive too. For some reason it arouses a measure of unease in BB.

"Please sit down, I mean: sit down would you," he says and sees in his mind’s eye how the iron bedstead of the Hospiz sinks under Hella’s weight. But not all the way. Hella is large, but doesn’t weigh an awful lot. The bedsprings creak, but the piece of furniture is far from collapsing. BB would like now to ask Hella how much she weighs. Below the hundred kilo mark, at any rate.

Naturally, he doesn’t ask.

A long pause ensues. I know, thinks BB, that Grete is where she usually is, but where is Helene? She isn’t in her room. She’s in the communal kitchen making coffee. She has popped out for a moment. As for the weather, it’s like it was yesterday. Otherwise, there’s very little to be seen in the sky round here. The part he can see is colorless, in other words, gray.

The pause continues for so long that Brecht is tempted to term it the general pause.

In theater terms, this means a long pause, an impossibly long pause. With such a pause, a great artist proves to himself, the audience, and the critics how ridiculous it is to keep silent for so long. He has a thousand little ploys up his sleeve, facial expressions or slight gestures, with which he can surprise his audience. He draws it out as long as he possibly can. He senses when the audience is growing bored. There is no need to even start coughing. A maestro knows by telepathy when to cut the silence and return to the author’s text. He starts speaking again. The scene continues as if nothing had happened. This is what Hella is doing right now, someone whose plays, which always have a pause at some point or other, are very popular in Finland.

Hella appears to have laid the golden egg.

"Ich liebte eine Deutsche," she then says, "as a young girl I fell in love with a German".

"Oh yes?" says BB cautiously. He is not prepared to enter into intimate relations with Hella. I can’t do everything here under the sun, thinks BB. And Hella is too rotund for BB. Should be bonier, I suppose.

His wife Helene comes in. Grete may soon come and do some stenography, as canonical BB treatment demands.

Hella, who is quite healthy and normal, can see that the woman sitting there scribbling under the palm is ill.

When Grete was 17 years old, a gypsy woman foretold that she would live to the age of 33. Strangely enough, that is what happened: 1908 + 33 = 1941

Hella doesn’t know that Grete is busy stenographing. She thinks that the consumptive woman is doodling. Many people do when listening to a lecture or are thinking third thoughts in some second place.

"You haven’t asked why I said Ich liebte eine Deutsche says Hella, growing a tad nervous."

"Well, why did you?" says BB with the required enthusiasm.

"Our major author Tammsaare wrote a novel with that title."

"Oh did he?"

"He did."

"I understand," says BB, suppressing a yawn.

In fact, BB doesn’t think anything at first. Fine, this "Tammisaari" wrote some novel or other. So what? I suppose those Finns read everything ever written. Something is being written everywhere. This has been caused by the growth of literacy. Literacy pops up all over the place. They all start writing in the end. Once you’ve mastered the alphabet, you start writing. Why shouldn’t "Tammisaari" start writing if he really wants to? It’d enrich culture in general, or some global model or other.

BB maybe doesn’t know about Whorf and Sapir’s theories, which were expounded at about the same time. What can be said about them (in very simplified form) is this: they thought that language determined thought, maybe even behavior. According to this theory, every nation that has its own language has a correspondingly idiosyncratic way of thinking. And it is pleasant to think that in accordance with this theory the Estonians (like the Hopi Indians) are enriching the kaleidoscope of the world.

If it needs enriching, and if this world is necessary in the first place.

If BB had known these theories, he would no doubt have found fault with them. But he doesn’t know them! So he doesn’t find fault with them. He thinks: well, OK. "Tammisaari" fell in love with a German. Many people have fallen in love. And some have even fallen in love with Germans, thinks BB. So, love in what way?

BB poses this question.

"Tammsaare’s novel is about a neurasthenic... and masochistic person, but what is happening to me is positively romantic."

"Are neurasthenia and a romantic disposition opposites?" he asks, just in case.

"I dunno," says Hella, casually.

"Do tell," requests Helene.

Hella smooths her dress over her belly and begins:

"Anyway, I was a schoolgirl and read so much that I became anæmic."


[Second excerpt]


On 30th July 1940, Päts, along with his son Viktor (the latter was a member of the Riigikogu and thus belonged to the group of government officials), and his daughter-in-law Helgi were sent to the city of Ufa, Russia, by way of an administrative disciplinary order. The domestic servant Olga Tünder traveled along with them of her own free will. On 26th June 1941, all the Pätses were arrested and were taken to the internal penitentiary of the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic which was run by the People’s Commissar for Security and located in the city of Ufa. Konstantin Päts was incriminated for crimes as set out in Paragraph 58-3, Clause 4 of the Criminal Codex. The President tried on a number of occasions obtain permission to have himself and his family sent abroad. He was also very concerned about the state of health of his grandson, and made the proposal that he himself could be exchanged for Thälmann or Rákosi, but his proposal was refused. The small boy died.

On 14th September 1942, the President was taken, along with his son Viktor, to Moscow, so that investigations could continue and they could be interrogated by the Special Chamber Commission. After the interrogations had taken place, he was sent for a while to the internal penitentiary in the city of Kirov, and on 24th March 1943, without any decision by the courts, he was put on forced medication, in the closed psychiatric hospital in Kazan (Tatarstan). At a special session of the Special Chamber Commission on 29th April 1952, his case was reviewed and he was again subjected to forced medication. By this time, Päts had spent 9 years in a closed psychiatric hospital under a special régime, and his son Viktor was no longer in the land of the living. He had been arrested at the Ivanovo Prison and death had followed on 4th March 1952 in the Butyrka Prison in Moscow.

The organs of the People’s Commissioner of the Interior had wanted to recruit Viktor Päts as his assistant and use him in some scheme or other. But Viktor's proud and unwavering nature did not allow him to make compromises, and so he paid for this with his life.

In June 1941, shortly following his arrest and his being sent to the Pensa Prison, Viktor Päts had been affected so badly by the illegal judgement that he tried to take his own life, by hitting his head repeatedly against the wall of his cell.


Next in line after the Sverdlovsk oblast regarding these grim statistics comes the Vyatka (Kirov) Oblast. In the city of Kirov itself the following were shot: Hugo-Bernhard Rahamägi and Aleksander Ossipov (as mentioned above), plus members of the Riigikogu Johan Uuemaa (10th April 1942) and Aleksander Saar (1st August 1942). In the Vyatka camps the following government officials died of dystrophy, tuberculosis and other serious diseases, which the prisoners, whose morale had been smashed and were weak on account of hunger, so they could no longer cope with work in the forest : Prime-Minister Kaarel-August Eenpalu (27th January 1942); the Archbishop of the Estonian Roman Catholic Church Eduard Profittlich (22nd February 1942); the General-Chief-of-Staff of the Estonian armed forces, Major-General Juhan Tõrvand (12th May 1942); ministers Mihkel Pung (11th October 1941), Karl Terras (25th December 1942), Karl-August Baars (27th February 1942), August Jürimaa (15th June 1942), Aleksander Jaanson (2nd October 1942), Karl Johannes Viirma (11th November 1942), Karl Ibsberg (27th June 1943); members of the Riigikogu Jaan Põdra (4th February 1942), Joakim Puhk (14th September 1942) and Johannes Orasmaa (24th May 1943), plus Hendrik Lauri as mentioned above, who had been sentenced to be shot when already dead.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

The pedantic listing of dates of death simply adds to the horror of the cold statistics. This excerpt lasts several pages. It is a strange feeling for the translator to copy these names and dates over into what is otherwise a wacky, tongue-in-cheek text. This is one of the better instances of committed postmodernism, as some postmodernist novels distort the boundaries between reality and fiction. Mati Unt, by contrast highlights them, while maintaining the right to humour.