Thursday, 30 April 2009

Eva-Stina Byggmästar - a poem

Only one poem from a collection of more than fifty. Because this author is tricky. But the poem does not involve too many multi-puns, except that curious word "bröstsocker" which means "candy sugar", while the literal meaning is "breast sugar" (!). It is regarded as archaïc usage in Swedish, the term now being "kandissocker".

I like these slightly fay, slightly pantheïstic, poems that Byggmästar writes, but she can test the translator to the limit with some of her multiple
associations. This poem is the first in her 2008 collection Men hur små poeter finns det egentligen (But How Small Poets Are There Really).


MOVING TOWARDS IT, little book
rocked asleep, the nearness, gladness
of small letters, now dreaming next to each other
about transparent libraries.

And if I were a green-clad poet,
in corduroy with hood,
with intrusive woodcocks,
what a blessed piece of luck,
you would walk as if on a naze,
a spit, a tongue of land along
the light word-swell
of small lakes,
like a mere ripple -


MAKAR SIG DIT, lillboken vaggas
i sömnen
, småbokstävernas närhet,
gladhet, drömmer nu intill varann
om genomskinliga bibliotek.

Och om jag var grönklädd poet,
med manchester och luva,
med närgångna morkullor,
vilken signad lyckoträff,
man gick som på näsa,
ett ed, landtunga lång
invid småsjöarnas lätta
som en krusning bara –

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Nordic poetry blogs and info-sites

Young Ny Tid cultural journalist Emma Strömberg has written a lively article about poetry blogs in the Nordic languages, though mainly in her mother-tongue, Swedish. The first thing Strömberg confronts the reader with in this article published last month is her own prejudices:

"... I do feel ashamed at having a snobbish [fisförnäm] attitude to poetry. Because I want to keep poetry at a high standard, a rare dish, something of a luxury."

She therefore looks at poetry blogs with what I would regard a healthy scepticism. She continues:

"So I am approaching all of this with a firm view: I am as decided and immoveable as a rock, ready to accept proof of what I already know. That general poetry forums are, yes, simply full of shit."

No beating about the bush, though she somewhat softens her attitude later in the article. At first she pours out all her prejudices about poetry chatsites and blogs which are filled with naïve adolescent poetry, with clichés and catharsis. She does admit, however, that the internet does afford "the masses" a chance to participate in what risks becoming a dying art.

Emma Strömberg briefly reviews five poetry blogs:

This is an open forum with a relatively sober outlook. This open approach can, nevertheless, attract cyber-graffiti.

This open forum seems to concentrate more on layout than content. The name itself is ominous.

This is an edited forum, which Strömberg says sometimes publishes interesting interviews. I (Eric) feel that this is perhaps the best and most comprehensive of these first three blogsites here, as it has a lot of reviews of poetry collections plus interviews.

These three interlinked websites constitute a literary calendar about poetry events in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, respectively.

This one is where you can read and comment on texts from the first ever Finland-Swedish creative writing course carried out in the form of a blog. This website also gives further links to four Swedish-speaking literary associations in Finland: ones in Nyland, Åboland, Ostrobothnia and the umbrella organisation Finlands svenska littteraturföreningar.


These websites are, despite their various weaknesses, a good way of seeing what is being produced by way of poetry on the internet.

Your Love Is Infinite - 3


The night spreads black shadow over the forest. The path disappears into darkness. Under my feet stones and moss, thicket and fear. I have walked a long way, but I still have not succeeded in burying the birch. The ground is stone-hard, and one can’t dig in it with one’s bare hands.

I climb onto a big rock to pray and let the fear trickle from the soles of my feet onto the ground. From inside the rock flows the strength to face the night, which urges me on the road to death.

Death is my friend. Waiting for me at death’s house is my guardian pony Zorro, who was slaughtered in a sausage factory. I walk through the air to heaven, where Jesus rides Zorro along a glowing path. The light tickles my angel’s wings. I jump onto Zorro’s back and sink my face in Jesus’ sun-fragrant hair.

The thunder of Zorro’s hooves drives all the fear out of the forest.

When I jump to the ground to look for food, Zorro and Jesus disappear. I pick black, foul-tasting crowberries and swallow them quickly, so that the crows don’t have time to notice.

God punishes me with thirst. I rinse my mouth with spittle, but the thirst doesn’t go away. I think about Jesus, who was hung on the cross for my sake and the sake of other sinners. Things went okay for Jesus. He died of thirst and followed Zorro to heaven.

I stumble onwards and come to a clearing covered with a soft carpet of sawdust. I sit down on the ground and let my strength go away. The smell of sawdust reminds of the time when the house was whole and Daddy sawed logs in the back yard. Mummy walked in the garden with the watering can and often looked at the sky, sat on the bench and let the clouds caress her shoulders. Under the bench there was a bottle of spirits, but Mummy didn’t drink from it very often. And when she drank, she began to laugh. She didn’t know yet that everything she ate and drank turned into poison. Then, when Mummy realized that life can’t be trusted, she picked up the garden shears and cut down everything she had planted.

The soft smell of the trees enfolds me in its embrace. I bury the birch deep in the wood-shavings, close my eyes and run to and fro on the carpet of sawdust. I run blind with happiness and see Zorro galloping beside me. When I open my eyes Zorro glances at me, laughing, and gallops out of the clearing.

From the edge of the clearing a rusty circular saw stares at me sadly. I carefully stroke its rough blade and cut my finger. I put my finger in my mouth and quench my thirst with blood.

The night drops a big swarm of gnats on the clearing where the circular saw is. I dive deep into the sawdust and the gnats only find little bits of me. I hope that soon they will suck their bellies full and then die happily.

I’m alive and thirsty. I want to go through sleep to death where no one is thirsty, neither gnats nor people. But sleep can’t manage to open death's heavy gates. It takes me to Daddy, exposing his even row of teeth which gleam in the sunshine like the furiously turning blade of the circular saw.

Daddy throws the logs in and the circular saw receives them, laughing a rusty screeching laugh with its sharp teeth, just like Daddy's.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Your Love Is Infinite - 1

Your Love Is Infinite - 2

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Lars Sund wins the Svenska kulturfonden book prize

Lars Sund (born 1953) has just won the annual Svenska kulturfonden cultural prize worth €20,000. He will be accepting it in Vasa this evening (29th April 2009). This is the latest in a number of book prizes, including the Runeberg Prize, and a nomination for the Nordic Council Prize.

But first of all: what is Svenska kulturfonden? It is the Finland-Swedish fund based in Helsinki (aka Helsingfors) that supports literature written in Swedish in Finland. Such a fund is necessary, as Finland-Swedish authors can sometimes fall between two stools, especially if they emigrate to Sweden itself. (Sund lives in Uppsala.) And the once powerful Finland-Swedish minority has dwindled to a mere 6% of the population of Finland.

Lars Sund has written a series of novels, mostly set in Ostrobothnia. He began as a poet, some 35 years ago. But he is best known for his novel trilogy "Colorado Avenue" (idem; 1991), which has recently been filmed, followed by "Lanthandlerskans son" (Son of a Country Shopkeeper"; 1997) and "Eriks bok" (Erik's Book; 2003). There is more about Lars Sund and his works here in Swedish Book Review.

Today's article in the daily Vasabladet says, among other things:

Sund will be adopting a new genre. "I am principally a novelist, but my next book will be something else. Perhaps something between a novel and non-fiction."

Sund is also an eager participant in what he himself calls the first digital cultural debate in what is termed Svenskfinland, i.e. the parts of Finland where Swedish is spoken as first language. He points out that Finland is not unique in that cultural and literary debate has shifted from the columns of the press to blogs and e-mail, since about the year 2000.

And commenting on other Finland-Swedish authors, Sund notes that there are exciting new ones, such as poets Catharina Gripenberg and Heidi von Wright (some of whose poems are on this blog in English translation), plus the novelist Emma Juslin.


I myself published a translation of a poem by Lars Sund back in 1979 in the publication Swedish Books:

To Marilyn Monroe if ever I should meet her

stuck fast with chewing-gum to my wall beloved marilyn
with your eyes full of hollywood cancer
worn dusty under the studio lights
still a child with breasts as soft as san francisco hills

you should never have come here
where we turn heads inside out and make ideals from the contents
where everything we'll ever dream up has been ready for ages on 35 mm reels
& where there are canyons between the hotel rooms

but it's too late now I feel
because you hardly got to heaven
& in hell there are
far too many like you
we all helped to build the pool for you to drown in
& the heroin was refined on the poppy of our twinkling eye
by men who could stand only the darkness of the movie house

all we have to remember you by beloved marilyn
are the pictures
& your shrill voice on the sound-track hoarse with T.B.
but I sometimes wake up in the night in a cold sweat from your accusing presence
and switch on the lamp to look at you
stuck fast with chewing-gum to my wall beloved marilyn

Translated from Swedish (in 1979) by Eric Dickens

Orphans and Foundlings

News from Washington, D.C. that the U.S. Justice Department is looking into the Google books settlement with a view to determining details of Google's newly acquired right to digitize entire libraries. One important emerging problem is the potential antitrust issues that may arise from the company's ability to commercialize content on an exclusive basis. Peter Brantley, director of the Internet Archive -- another organization that is building a large online digital book collection -- has expressed the hope that U.S. District Judge Denny Chin will reject the settlement as it presently stands on the grounds that Google's ability to digitize the so-called "orphan books" (books or materials for which the copyright owner can't be found, but which are none the less covered by U.S. copyright law) gives it a free pass for infringement.

See also in this blog: Going Google
The Digibooks Row

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

30 Book Festivals - Nordic guest authors last year

In May 2008, The Times (or Times of London as Americans sometimes call it) kindly listed the 30 best book festivals in the British Isles, all on one page. This was a very useful service.

However, Nordophiles were probably less enthusiastic, given the small number of Nordic authors invited to speak at the various festivals. It is to be remembered that when Britons cross the North Sea in a northerly or easterly direction, the first countries you encounter include Iceland, the Faroes, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Rumours that the Nordic countries are really located nearer to New Zealand than to Britain are sadly inaccurate.

Try to identify the names of Nordic authors on the various, albeit abbreviated, guest lists for last year's book festivals. I fear that if you had just published your celebrity "auto"biography, ghost-written by a journo, had no connection with fiction or poetry, and especially if you had appeared regularly on telly - but are English-speaking - you stood a vastly greater chance of being invited to one of the British and Irish book festivals last year than any serious novelist or poet from the Nordic countries.

Let's hope things improve this year, despite the recession.

Mare Kandre: "The Woman and Dr Dreuf" - two excerpts

Mare Kandre (1962-2005) has been described on another thread on this blog. Here follows an excerpt from her novel Quinnan och Dr Dreuf (The Woman and Dr Dreuf; 1994) which has already appeared in French and Estonian translation.

Dreuf, an anagram of Freud, is a dwarfish psychoanalyst-misogynist whose dusty surgery is the stage for the duel between himself and one of his female patients.

The two excerpts are taken from the beginning of the novel where Dreuf still assumes that he will maintain the upper hand. It is still in my draft version, so nothing is set in stone. But the mere vocabulary, style and typographical shape of the page will already afford sufficient insights as to where this novel is going. The indents are not possible to reproduce here, but it can be seen that the lines are jagged, like poetry. The whole text is humorous, ironic, and there is an element of self irony on the part of the female side of this duel too, so that it is not a black-and-white agit-prop feminist text, but more of a gentle spoof of both protagonists, plus the shabby cleaner who goes by the name of Mrs Nahkurs, an Estonian word implying skin (and bones?) and tanning. The style and line-breaks continue throughout this 150-page novel.

There was an article a few days ago in the main Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter about Mare Kandre, announcing a recently produced television film by Johan von Sydow about her life and works.


The gentle mother-of-pearl light of evening fell in misty rays in through the barred windows of Dr Dreuf’s surgery,
(located on the exclusive Skoptophilia Street,
in the central part of the town of Trils).
It had been a long, tiring day,
filled, as usual, with consultations, analyses and bouts of hysteria,
(Yes, feelings, feelings, pure feelings and subjectivity)
and the good doctor,
the famous women’s analyst,
the renowned expert on women and all the perverted illusions, errant wanderings and slumbering lusts that vied for supremacy in her fragile body and brittle mind,
the man who had devoted his life to attempt to liberating woman from her unending mental inferiority,
a little dwarfish old codger wearing a huge pair of black-rimmed spectacles and a creased black suit,
now sat lost in thought at his enormous writing desk,
eyes closed,
carefully massaging his temples.
For Dr Dreuf,
the great man,
had a suspicion of a headache.
Which was perhaps not so surprising given all the emotional drivel he had had to hear for hours.
Maybe because he in every way loved his calling,
but sometimes,
when one pale woman, more neurotic than the previous one, stepped into the large dust-encrusted door and, lying on the couch would entrust him with her spiritual particulars, and there seemed no end to the caravan of those seeking help,
well, then things could become too much even for Dr Dreuf.
- Women, he now sighed, heavily, despairingly,
while he carefully ran the tips of his fingers over his brow and temples in a cack-handed attempt to soothe the pain,
as if it were mere sweat or dust.
- Women...
- Women...
- Women...
In times such as these he would ask himself whether he had not been foolhardy to embark upon this career of his.
Perhaps he should have stuck to entymology which had been his passion as a youth and to which he had devoted every spare moment,
catching exotic butterflies with a net,
pinning the living cabbage butterfly caterpillars with large, sharp pins,
killing stag beetles with ether,
the long-drawn-out agony which he used to eagerly observe through a magnifying glass...
But what’s done is done,
he had now started out along this road once and for all,
and what a rugged road it was!
A highly dangerous, almost unavoidable little path that wound its way right into the most impenetrable jungles that no enlightenment reached of its own accord;
the female psyche!
Yes, in truth, once inside you had to literally chop your way forward,
expecting the worst,
not lose your cool for one single moment or turn your back to or let yourself be seduced by the lovely voice of the analysand,
because, like a huldra she could inveigle you to into entering marches out of which you would never
by yourself,
find your way out.
No, this was nothing for the weak-willed!
The general public really should know what these fragile little twittering beings were in actual fact capable of by way of desires, urges and dark, suppressed passions.
And Dr Dreuf shuddered a deep and very long shudder at the all the things he had found, during his analysis sessions, inside the most attractive big sisters, mothers, maidens, girlfriends and seemingly quite harmless aunts -
The room in which he sat and shuddered as he massaged his aching temples was in fact,
despite his greatness as a scientist,
rather small and modest.
Through one of the barred windows, a dead, completely blackened fruit tree could be made out, and on the outer tip of one of the branches dangled a pathetic little blackened apple,
(It had hung there since time immemorial,
untouched and wizened).
In the next window,
the middle one,
stood a black, one-eared cat gazing out onto the street.
At first sight, you could think that the creature was alive, but in actual fact it was an old pet that had been stuffed, and which Dreuf had not had the heart to bury in the ground.
Shelves covered the walls,
from floor to ceiling.
These shelves were filed with a huge number of fat books,
all the works of Dreuf’s great mentor,
(may he rest in peace!)
Professor Popokoff.
An exposé of the true nature of woman!
A scientific study without parallel in the world of science -
Everything that had been said, was said, and could be said about the elusive nature of the essence of woman could be read in these volumes.
And on each occasion that he could not cope with a phenomenon,
(And this did not happen often)
he would consult the work of Professor Popokoff,
it had been invaluable to him in the practice of his profession over the years,
indeed, he did not really know how he would have coped without it.
Further to these objects, there was a large collection of glass jars in which wombs and ovaries, drenched in spirits, plus the odd female breast were preserved,
even an aborted fœtus of a girl was floating,
curled up defencelessly,
in such a jar of yellowed glass.
And everything in Dreuf’s stuffy little room was covered in dust;
every little object,
even the doctor himself,
(his abundant white hair and his ill-fitting black jacket)
were covered in a thick layer of greying dust.
Because he had strictly forbidden Mrs Nahkurs
(his cleaner)
to even so much as set foot in there with her chlorine-soaked cloth, her feather duster and all the other appurtenances of cleaning.
And like an optical illusion
(And this was really odd,
not one of his visitors every managed to understand the phenomenon)
the wall, windows and door, plus the writing desk, seemed to be slightly lopsided,
everything was leaning,
and whoever entered the room would grow dizzy and almost lose their balance
(Dreuf himself had, over the years, got used to it all and therefore moved with alacrity in there,
it was not until he emerged into the real world, onto streets and squares, that swaying and rocking would ensue for his part).
Apart from the enormous writing desk, behind which Dreuf now sat securely entrenched there was also,
by way of furniture,
the red plush couch, obligatory for every psychoanalyst,
a worn leather armchair,
a small round mahogany table,
and a little sideboard.


He put the book back on the shelf,
returned to his desk,
climbed up onto his chair,
a little irritated that he had not become any the wiser about this case –
– Yes, do go on.
He gripped his pen resolutely.
– What sort of feelings do you link with that time,
describe what you see,
down to the last detail!
The woman stared blankly in front of her..
It was obvious that she was now entering a state of changed consciousness,
and yet, a moment later she cried out,
in despair –
– No, it’s all gone black, doctor,
I don’t know,
I can’t do it!
And the cloud that was moments before about to form a scene in her mind’s eye evaporated all of a sudden and she covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
Dreuf’s eyes took on a contemptuous, tormented expression.
Not again!
A bout of hysteria must be avoided at all costs.
Calmly and objectively he therefore uttered –
– Calm yourself, calm yourself, my dear young lady,
start all over again, at your own speed,
and remember you are dealing here with an expert,
remember that all my professional life I have been studying the inner essence of woman and have read countless works about what she can and wants,
I know full well that you are all deeply ashamed that you have not been equipped with a male –
At this point he fell abruptly silent, right in mid-sentence and a dark flush spread across his face right up to both ears.
He searched within him for the most polite and considerate expression,
a word that would not awaken sexual urges within her.
Presently, he whispered rapidly, in a barely audible, very quiet voice –
– organs...
And then continued exactly as before –
– and that now, therefore, quite naturally,
feel lost, inferior, deprived, and so on,
but believe you me,
there are no grounds for this fear,
with me you can feel completely safe!
The woman was again lying with her arms at her side.
She was staring blankly ahead of her.
It was hard to tell whether the words had reached her at all.
– There we are, do go on now, where were we,
ah yes, in Paradise,
and are you all alone there,
describe everything you see and feel within you!


Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

ACE Cuts

Included in UK chancellor Alistair Darling's recent budget was a £4 million cut in its funding to Arts Council England for 2010/2011. The ACE has said that

we will not reduce our planned investment in the arts organisations we fund on a regular basis - many of whom have already planned against expected income in 2010/11. Instead we will reconsider our existing and planned new projects and look to find savings there.
Whether this will have an effect on the publication of new literary translations is anyone's guess, but since translation seems to occupy a low place on the list of the Council's priorities, it's not unlikely.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Prose Poem

While the grass grows, loneliness dies. Look: They are dancing, all the old friends with their doubtful prognoses, each with his skeleton, each with his inimitably crumpled-up longing. See this molehill, and come closer to the sky. While the grass grows, the pictures tear themselves free of the paper. See through this mirror with anything other than your own eyes. While the landscape listens, the grass grows.

Den Fynske Forårsudstilling 2009. Catalogue. Prose Poems by Laus Strandby Nielsen.

Poem translated from Danish by David McDuff

Mens græsset gror, dør ensomheden. Se: De danser, alle de gamle venner med deres tvivlsomme prognoser, hver med sit skelet, hver med sin uefterligneligt sammenkrøllede længsel. Se dette muldvarpeskud, og kom tættere på himlen. Mens græsset gror, river billederne sig løs fra papiret. Se med alt andet end dine egne øjne igennem dette spejl. Mens landskabet lytter, gror græsset.

Nationalism and the North - 2

I forgot to say that I also like and agree with the sentiments and opinions expressed in this passage from Tom Gallagher's HP post:
‘We have strong community relations in Scotland…’

This is moonshine and it is a perhaps a welcome sign of hubris that the SNP is ready to peddle such dope. Move away from the patriotic hype and a discerning visitor soon finds a small country with a great deal of anger that is directed into religious and quasi-religious rivalry (Orange versus Green nowhere stronger outside Ulster) and of course towards the English and some of the hated overlord’s symbols. To acknowledge this local dystopia involves spurning the Braveheart fantasy which is something that the SNP will never do so. Instead, it blithely paves the way for new inter-communal stand-offs by promoting a range of policies, beginning with state-funded Islamic schools, which are likely to increasingly isolate a currently quite-well-integrated Muslim community, from the rest of society.

‘…we are all working to build unity…’

This is the default position of all restrictive political movements which rely on suffocating conformity in order to prevail. Until recently the SNP was a byword for infighting and intrigue and unity of a sorts has descended as the opportunity to smash a feeble opposition and establish a dominance undreamt of a short time before, suddenly presents itself.

‘…we are all working to build unity…’

are revealing words. They indicate how impatient Alex Salmond, and those whom he has gathered around him are, with forms of pluralism involving searching debate and honest differences of opinion.

‘…the very last thing we need is people with no knowledge of Scotland spreading nastiness and smears’

These words encapsulate the self-righteous provincialism of the SNP. Mere foreigners, unless they drink from the fountain of nationalist purity, will never understand a country whose magnificent and complex history does not yield its secrets easily to outsiders. This kind of clap-trap has been pushed by ruling nationalists from Mussolini to Enver Hoxha and Kim Il-sung. In fact the Quilliam staffers almost certainly know far more about the consequences of crudely promoting religious precepts in ethnically-mixed parts of inner city Scotland than do SNP politicians who often just bother with these areas at election time.
It's the dimension of narrowness and intolerance described so well here within the context of Scottish Nationalism and militant Islamism that many well-meaning Nordic observers miss when they visit Scotland and believe that they're seeing a potential candidate for the Nordic community of nations.

See also: Nationalism and the North

Lars Huldén: a dialect poem

Lars Huldén (born 1926) is the grand old man of Finland-Swedish poetry. Born in the Ostrobothnian town of Jakobstad (Pietarsaari), he later became Professor of Nordic Literature at Helsinki University. He first published poetry in 1958 and has, by now, a large œuvre.

A 500-page selection of his poems over 50 years, entitled
Utförlig beskrivning av en bärplockares väg (Detailed Description of a Berry-Picker's Way) appeared in 2006.

One of his poetry collections
Heim / Hem (1977) is a parallel text set of 30 poems written in the Munsala dialect, with a translation into standard Swedish. This book does, of course, raise all the fraught translation questions, should someone want to translate the thirty poems into another language. But rather than agonise, I am simply going to translate one poem from the standard Swedish version, and allow the reader to marvel at the dialect traits unhindered. The reader will note how strong the dialect is, and also, that there is not a whiff of Finnish in the dialect, which is in fact nearer to Old Norse:
Ti arbeit i laag

Hä ä in lykkotå an kan arrbeit i laag
mä tem såm an höör ihåop mää.
Papp såm ä håssbond,
Mamm så ä mattmåor,
båånin tå di byri dåga ti naa,
gambäfåltji så läng ti
levär å årk.
Såm tå an höibärga
på i uutsjifft förr i väädin.
Mitt i daain kuna mattmåor kåma
peedand mä maatin.
Tå sesstist vi allihåop i ladun åsta äta.
Tå va vi allihåop.
Vi va vi tå.


Att arbeta tillsammans

Det är en lycka
då man kan arbeta tillsammans
med dem som man hör samman med.
Far som är husbonde,
mor som är matmor,
barnen när de börjar duga
till någonting,
de gamla så länge de
lever och orkar.
Såsom då man höbärgade
på ett utskifte förr i världen.
Mitt på dagen kunde matmor komma
cyklande med maten.
Då satte sig alla i ladan för att äta.
Då var vi allesammans.
Vi var vi då.


Working together

It's a joy
when you can work together
with those you belong to.
Father who's the master,
mother the missis,
the children when they start to be able
to do things,
the elderly as long as they
live and are able.
Like when you made the hay
in a back field in the olden days.
In the middle of the day the missis could come
cycling along with the food.
Then everyone would sit down in the barn to eat.
Then we were all together.
We were ourselves then.


Translated from dialect into Swedish by Lars Huldén; from Swedish into English by Eric Dickens

Bror Rönnholm: Two Prose Poems

The Mirror

When she disappeared, she left her image behind in the mirror, where it wilfully obscured the reflection, making it impossible to see yourself, something that simply added to his sadness and despair.

His strange cousin did, however, have a solution. She placed another mirror opposite, so that the image was multiplied in the familiar manner and started to blow her didgeridoo. This combination made the mirror vibrate strongly, so that the image was broken up into small flecks, which glided around the room for a while until they came together as butterflies and flew out through the balcony door, which stood open.

But the mirror was never the same again. Nowadays, it presents a thin and worn reflection, so that you can see straight through your own face into a severe and stony landscape, beautiful and eternally frozen.


The Voice

When she returned, her voice had aged by forty years. This was appreciated at the clinic where girls in crisis sought solace and security in this grandmother’s voice. But when face to face with her, many would grow confused. Could they place any trust in the smooth face and the gravelly voice, the sporty life of the cheeks and the drunken nights of the voice? Her eyes gave no clue; they were constantly flickering, people couldn’t remember their colour. She herself would waver, torn between disgust and pity. No one would have been surprised had she dressed in black and masked herself with kohl. But she continued to dress in red and wind her scarves three times around her slender neck. One radio station offered her a job as jazz presenter on a night programme, but she declined the offer. Can’t stand improvisation, is what she said.


Another of Bror Rönnholm's prose poems from the same collection is here.

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Nationalism and the North

Reading Tom Gallagher's account at Harry's Place of the (to me, almost surrealistically strange) rapprochement between Scotland's Nationalist Party and extreme Islamist groupings in Scottish society, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs:
Scotland is enjoying an elaborate cultural makeover. A new stereotypical collective identity is being unfurled. It involves repackaging poets, artists and musicians as troubadours for Nationalism as well as high-profile festivals in the winter months where public participation will be tirelessly urged irrespective of the Scottish weather, and Gaelic lettering and Saltire flags emblazoned on every conceivable public space.

Such cultural propaganda, when tried out in Ireland, was mercilessly lampooned by satirists like Flann O’Brien. But in Scotland our stand-up comics and acerbic columnists for a long time have only had the United States, the wicked bankers, and despoilers of the environment in their sights. So the SNP’s bid to have us all marching in step to the same patriotic tunes along rain-washed Scottish streets has a good chance of success.
This cultural campaign is not something that has appeared overnight, and it has roots which can be observed. A few years ago, after more than 30 years of absence from the country where I was raised and educated, though not born, I decided to accept an invitation to take part in some events in Scotland that were, at least in part, funded by an ambitious pan-Nordic project called Network North. The project aimed, in the words of the official brochure,

to further links between the Nordic countries and adjacent areas in the northwest of Europe, particularly Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. The project focused on the creation of a network of contacts and co-operative ventures in the fields of contemporary art and culture, including drama, folk music, music, film, literature and visual art.
Quite why the project targeted Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, to the exclusion of, say, England or the Netherlands (both equally, one might have thought, "adjacent areas", and a part of northern Europe) is still not clear to me, but at any rate it gave rise to some new ideas and meetings. One of those was a week in 2002 at the Arvon Foundation house at Moniack Mhor, in a picturesque setting on a hillside in Invernessshire. This was a residential seminar for Nordic, Scottish and Welsh poets and their English-language translators, among whom were the Finland-Swedish poet Gösta Ågren, the Norwegian poet Arne Rust, the Icelandic poet Thorarinn Eldjárn, the translator Bernard Scudder (who died in 2007), the Shetland poet Christine Da Luca and your truly. The week was certainly interesting. and some of the translation projects and workshops were probably unique (one of them involved a poem in Shetland dialect being translated into Welsh and Danish). The New Zealander Robyn Marsack of the Scottish Poetry Library, which organized the event, wrote an account of it here. But I was struck by some of the assumptions that seemed to underlie the proceedings - particularly the notion that there was some sort of link between Scotland's (or Shetland's?) aspirations to independence and the actual status of Nordic nations in the world today.

This sense of an extra-literary agenda was further reinforced by another Network North project I took part in, again hosted by the SPL, which involved the creation of a facing-text anthology of Finnish poetry, with translations into English and Scottish dialect. This time there was a definite sense of cultural parallelism - Finnish and Scottish poetry were somehow being seen as being related in a way that would not be true, for example, of Finnish and English poetry.

Although I was pleased to be invited to these events, and in some ways had looked forward to them as a kind of "homecoming", I remember finding it strange that at readings or simply in introductions I was usually presented as "the translator David McDuff from London". I'd have preferred to be introduced as "the Scottish translator David McDuff", or maybe just "the translator David McDuff", but found that wherever I went and whomever I spoke to, I was invariably seen as a foreigner "of Scottish parentage". This still seems odd to me, and it's one of the reasons why, apart from a visit to the St Andrews Poetry Festival with the Finnish poets Lauri Otonkoski and Anni Sumari in 2005, I haven't been back to Scotland again. Perhaps I was wrong in the assumptions I made at the time - but, having read Tom Gallagher, I'm not so sure that I was.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Mårten Westö - "Nine Days Without a Name"

Mårten Westö (born 1967) has published around ten books of poetry, prose and essays. His 1998 collection is entitled Nio dagar utan namn / Nine Days Without a Name. What follows below is the title suite. Some poems from this collection have previously been translated by David McDuff for Books From Finland 2/1999. As David points out there: "In his third collection, the Finland-Swedish poet Mårten Westö (born 1967) rides the buses and trams of his native Helsinki, contemplating silence, childhood and the visibility of things". I, Eric, have also published a few poems by Mårten Westö in the Canadian anthology of Scandinavian and Baltic poets, The Baltic Quintet, 2008.


Mårten Westö


A night in a half-empty bus
The painful monotony of the reflection
In the seat behind a
recruit reading Donald Duck, the moon
that tosses around sleeplessly, from side
to side. In the lit-up shell unquiet dreams
of dental visits, cystoscopes and
soporific lectures about the rôle of the subject
in it all. When I
wake up we are already there, but
I still hear her
voice, as if under
my own: “I can see you
in what always remains silent in you”


Slept sardines, thought
I awoke, heard
her, saw her through a battered
visor, fading slowly away,
copper clashed,
she whispered determinedly, went
with sound in her body, so unlike
her, shut the door took
everything with her, the disappearance
remains like writing, stains
on the sheets


Last night I walked past the undertaker’s
window lit up with piety.
A lone sample gravestone stood in the window
and my name was chiselled into it:
everything was as vivid as if it had
happened yesterday when I still existed
and she wished me dead.
Even the inscription had been formulated by her:
“Went into the world black-and-white, grew disappointed when
someone lost touch with him.”


I grow light as you grow dark
dark as you grow light

am woken up by the silence
as if it should say something

in my body something moving
ancient silver-white fish

and behind us
all those arms

reaching out for someone
resembling what we resemble


loss always arose suddenly
like the tide at Mont-Saint-Michel
heard nothing wandered haughtily
in and out of us with its sad patches
reminded us about something we would rather
not get involved in
places where there was no longer room for us
like childhood, dense
that you remembered when
the rain ploughed through your picture
and I for the last time heard you say
that we must save something
of the prospects we once had
like inside Beethoven’s Seventh
when someone reaches out to us
and we feel we could still have won


the embassy courtyard empty and deserted
like the coming centuries

the cat’s eyes like fires at the gate

the light on your naked body
still an undecipherable language.

hear myself whisper: tomorrow
tomorrow I shall carry you

the light of your face
as it once lit up

the unutterable darkness
that bears my name


I am saying it now, by way of your voice:
I was once another
who clung to the world without protection
like a torn pennant while the days
galloped away on their blinded chargers
in your absence the day grew light infinitely slowly
over the place I had got stuck, was pressed in
it was only the silence that said:
where I am not all languages cease
and when strength was at bursting point
when nothing else remained
your voice was suddenly
all that existed
and was left over


I blow my sight free,
my lungs empty
and the barely perceptible hammer blows
from the city brake the rhythm
slowly the human system of pipes ceases
to fill the world
joy forcing its way onwards
I will henceforth call pain it
doesn’t matter what I
call it When the first light
becomes visible I shall wander
with my face towards the city


for nine days I inhabited the world alone
now I think constantly of you

see you more clearly
in the shade of my palm

at the door the child with its satchel slung absently-mindedly over its shoulder
he stands there boundlessly, guarded by the forest

but I cannot think of summer, mummified
insects and lifelines that hold

want to go back

back to your
black rooms that

have the imprint of
all my hands

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Swedish Book Review 2009:1

The first issue of the Swedish Book Review for 2009 contains a variety of articles and came out just in time for the London Book Fair.

The first extract follows comments about translating Jonas Hassen Khemiri into English by translator Rachel Willson-Broyles. Some of the difficulties encountered involve his idiosyncratic use of compounds, some of which are neologisms.

David Lagercrantz has written a novel Syndafall i Wilmslow / Fall from Grace in Wilmslow about the Enigma code-breaking machine. Extract introduced and translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Tyst hav / Silent Seas is a book about overfishing, written by Swedish Green Party activist Isabella Lövin. Extract translated by Peter Linton.

Other extracts are from books by Fredrik Sjöberg, Maria Ernestam, Elin Wägner, plus an overview article, first published on the Eurozine, about recent Swedish books by DN editor Jonas Thente, intriguingly entitled Beyond Crime Fiction, Handbags and Designer Suits.

The Bookshelf section contains 15 short reviews of works by for instance Carina Burman, Theodor Kallifatides, Bo Carpelan, Per Wästberg and Robert Åsbacka.

The Diary

I recently discovered the website of the Icelandic poet, journalist, novelist and playwright Matthías Johannessen, who for 40 years was the editor of Iceland's main daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið. I met him and talked with him in the late 1970s. When I found the site I was surprised to find that there he has stored the entire enormous volume of his Diary, which he began in 1955 and has continued more or less without a break until the present day. For anyone wishing to learn about the history of Iceland in the 20th century and indeed about the history and culture of Iceland in general, this is a valuable resource. The site also contains poems, essays and interviews.

Recent posts to the Diary include a reflection on the historical, social and economic issues connected with Iceland's newfound aspiration to join the European Union, and an essay-review on a new book by the Norwegian-French magistrate Eva Joly, who was recently employed as a special adviser by the Icelandic government to investigate the possibility that white-collar crime may have played a part in the 2008–2009 Icelandic financial crisis.

The subjects in the Diary range far and wide, and cover not only Icelandic issues but also most aspects of international affairs (over the decades the diarist interviewed an astonishing number of well-known political leaders, writers and intellectuals as, for one reason or another, they passed through his country). Readers may find that the views expressed quite often don't tally with their own, but the texts are always clearly-written and informative, and create a unique picture of how the world can look from the top of the globe.

Your Love Is Infinite - 2


I pick flowers in the meadow. If I pick a very big bunch, I'll be able to decorate the whole house with flowers. Granny said that I could, before she went to the cowshed. Grandpa is in the cowshed, too, and I can play all by myself.

The whole big meadow is my playground!

I go into the long grass and lie down, and look at the sun. When I open my eyes, the world is yellow. I stroke my face and it is yellow too. And my hair. And my hands. And my feet.

I am like the sun.

I dig deep in the soil and come into being upwards. Slowly I come up from the soil in the form of a sunflower, rise above the stalks of grass, open my yellow arms and dance slowly, slowly I turn around like a flower, and the other flowers smile to me, nodding their heads approvingly. I am like the flowers, yellow, happy. I have a lot of friends, flowers.

Like a flower I dance a big circle around the meadow. Only the flowers are allowed to enter the circle. The flowers are good, scented with sun. The summer has made the flowers wise.

In my circle the flowers are able to grow into people. I will mix the right colours for them, give them advice if they come. But they don’t come. They just smile and go on swaying their light bodies, smile in a friendly way, but don’t want to come, want to stay far away from my circle.

The petals tremble above me. I dive into the clump of flowers and tear them from my face and head and feet. I claw the roots from deep in the ground and stuff them into my mouth. I grind the bitter-tasting pap in my teeth, and then a sharp spike of sand cuts a wound in my tongue.

The grass casts a black shadow over me. The sun has gone away, and there is no longer a smell of summer in me or the flowers. There's a bad taste in my mouth. The yellow dress is stained. Small soil-coloured rivers flow from my eyes to my cheeks and the neck opening of the dress. I lift the skirt of the dress and gather soil-sobs in my hands. The flowers, which I just whipped and killed, are sobbing in my hands, because the summer is only beginning and they must die.

I want to be punished. I want the flowers to come back from death and tear my hair, pinch me and mock me, tell me I am old and ugly and I will cry and they wll feel sorry for me and we will make an agreement and play at flower meadows again. We'll be a glorious flower meadow and I wll be the biggest and yellowest of all and the other flowers wll be small and pretty and happy.

But the flowers don’t come back, and neither does the sun. Granny comes from the cowshed. I stumble from the meadow into the yard towards her, try to climb into her arms, but the milk pails are in the way, clatter spitefully. Granny looks past me, sternly.

Only in the living room, when she sees the empty flower vases, does Granny remember me. She looks at me angrily and at once I start to explain that the flowers died and the sun went away, but Granny doesn’t listen, just sighs wearily and says that now Saara will get the birch.

The birch sounds horrible, like death. Fear mingles with the flood of tears, eats away at my cheeks and throat, does not end until I lie on my tummy on Granny’s knees. The birch rips my bare bottom. The floorboards of the living room come close, tempt me to stick out my tongue.

The sharp Smurf lemonade numbs the pain and the fear and I laugh when the matches fly out of my mouth with the spit. Granny beats harder and harder. The Smurf lemonade tastes sweeter and sweeter.

The grass and the flowers rise up from the pool of lemonade to tell me that now we are quits, and not to remember the past. We can play together again and I can be a big sunflower. I am happy.

When it’s over I hug Granny and say thank you Granny thank you Granny, again and again, until Granny gets cross and pushes the birch towards me, chases me out of the house and shouts after me that I must take the birch to the forest and bury it deep in the ground and put all the badness and wickedness in the same hole.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Your Love Is Infinite - 1

Saturday, 25 April 2009


And here's the Google Analytics graph...


With Joseph Brodsky and Jóhann Hjálmarsson in the garden of Jóhann's home in Reykjavík, Iceland, June 1978. I was staying with the novelist Ólafur Gunnarsson and his family at the time, and Joseph also stayed there during his visit. It's a long time ago now, but I still remember it clearly. Joseph played soccer with a group of well-wishers in a field at 2 in the morning - the sun was shining. The photo is from Morgunblaðið, and was sent to me recently by Sjón.

Nordic Haiku

For some reason which may be connected with a northern liking for taciturn concision, the modern Japanese verse form known as haiku is often encountered in the work of Nordic poets. Here are some Swedish examples. And here are some haiku by the Estonian poet Andres Ehin. The trick for the translator is to observe the 17-syllable rule (not always easy to follow when the poems migrate to English). I tried my hand at this poem from Pia Tafdrup's haiku collection Boomerang:

Tærsklen til døden:
Månemørkt indre rige
-- passagers lysflod.

The threshold of death:
Moon-dark inner kingdom
-- lightflood of passages.

No, it's definitely not as easy as it looks, and somehow the English versions never look quite as "compressed" as the originals.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Your Love Is Infinite - 1

In 2001 Finnish author Maria Peura (b. 1970) published her first novel, On rakkautes ääretön (Your Love Is Infinite, Tammi, 2001). To say that its subject matter was controversial at the time would be an understatement, and the book stirred controversy both within Finnish literary circles and in public opinion at large.

The German critic and translator Stefan Moster has characterized the novel as follows (my tr. from German):
She tells the story of a 6 year-old girl who becomes the object of sexual abuse. Peura is not content merely to depict the girl’s traumatic experience and the dreary, almost hermetically sealed environment in which she lives, but puts the emphasis on the reconstruction of the little girl’s inner life. The reader is left in no doubt about the damage to body and mind that is taking place. Yet in spite of the painful theme, a note of hope is also struck at the end: a way out of the traumatic spiral can be glimpsed.

Saara, the novel’s main character, is ordered into the care of her grandparents in a remote North Finnish village because her parents are unable to look after her any more. Her father has gone to Norway and her mother is fighting a drink problem. At Granny’s, Saara becomes a victim of her grandfather, a bitter old man who lives with his wife in a sterile marriage, forces Saara to play “games” in which he subjects the child to intolerable forms of abuse. Saara’s means of defence are not sufficient; she draws a circle in the sand and goes to stand in the middle of it: “There’s a border there that Grandpa mustn’t cross. Now let’s play according to my rules. Grandpa’s not allowed to come into the circle, my circle. Only I’m allowed to be in the circle.” But Grandpa repeatedly enters the circle and hurts the girl, who suffers and flees into her own inner world. There is no place that is safe.
The book is also remarkable in being written in a lyrical style that reflects and follows a child's thought-processes, with intevening passages in North Finnish dialect. What follows is a series of excerpts in translation, which hopefully may give readers something of the flavour of the work. As usual, there will be more than one blog post in this series.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


I draw a circle in the sand and go and stand in the middle of it. It has a border that Grandpa is not allowed to cross. Now we’ll play by my rules. Grandpa is not allowed to come into the circle, my circle. Only I'm allowed to be in the circle.

Grandpa likes me more than anything in the world. If I am kind to Grandpa, he will never desert me. He looks after me, Grandpa’s girl, and I promise always to be kind to Grandpa. But when I stand in the circle, Grandpa is not allowed to come inside it.

Grandpa knows the rules, but now he forgets to keep them. He crosses the line, steps inside my circle. I shout that Grandpa’s not allowed inside, but he doesn’t listen, no, no, he comes all the same, steps over me with his boots on, tramples the yellow sunflowers to death. Only blackness remains after Grandpa. Nothing but blackness.

The ground under Grandpa sobs. The tips of Grandpa’s boots dig deep wounds. The ground’s sandy covering is a rag, a circle rubbed deep into the skin. Blood flows onto Grandpa’s coat.

He kicks and laughs, crosses the border lots of times, digs with the tip of his boot, is bad, is bad too long. Less is not enough for Grandpa. He doesn’t go away. He never goes away.

I'll tell Mummy and Daddy. I will definitely, definitely tell them… As soon as they take me home again, I'll tell them about Grandpa and the tips of his boots and Grandpa will be made to feel ashamed and will have to apologize and… no, no, no… Grandpa is old. Old people must be forgiven. If I give Grandpa a row, bad things will happen to me. I am bad bad bad, but old people must be shown respect.

Yet I don’t respect Grandpa. Grandpa can go to hell. He can go to hell, no matter how angry Mummy gets. Mummy doesn’t want me home again. Mummy laughs a nasty laugh and says that I don’t know where hell is. I should go and find out if it’s the sort of place where old Grandpa would feel at home. And I should go quickly, because my words are hurting Mummy’s ears.

Mummy doesn’t hear me or see me and I pack my rucksack and slip out into the hallway and let the house spit me out from its insides. I run down the garden path to the main road. I stick up my thumb and the wind pulls me into the sky, to fly to Grandpa and Granny in hell.

From the side pocket of my rucksack Grandpa fishes out a letter in which Mummy says that Saara is going to live at Granny’s for a little while, at least until Mummy and Daddy have had the house repaired, and that Saara is an obedient girl who likes to please Grandpa and Granny. When Grandpa has read the letter, I ask him to give me back the rucksack, because there’s a Strawberry Trip in it, but Grandpa hangs the rucksack on the hatstand, so high that I can’t reach it.

I've kissed Grandpa, and I don’t want to go and sleep under his arm. As soon as I say NO to Grandpa, another voice inside my head screams YES. It’s Mummy’s voice and I obey Mummy.

I creep in between Grandpa and Granny, though not like Saara, but like a little hedgehog. I point my spikes outwards and curl myself up. I sleep curled up in a tight ball, until Grandpa’s snoring wakes me. Granny wakes up too, and stomps off with her duvet to the other room.

I am alone with Grandpa. The spikes around me melt away. I pretend I’m a hedgehog that is sleeping without any spikes, sleeping quietly in an underground vault. No one can hear. It sinks deeper and deeper inside the earth, and nothing is left of it. Not a scent, not a memory. Nothing. The hedgehog isn’t there. The hedgehog has vanished from around the heart, because the heart is pumping up and down.

The heart cuts into Grandpa’s sleep and he opens his mouth wide. Grandpa’s face is brown and wrinkled. He turns on his side and his face slides away. I press the heart to my lips with my fingers, tell it to be quiet. The heart bites me and a sharp squeal cuts the bedroom’s thick air.

Grandpa turns over. His face comes near. His eyes are closed, but I guess that he is awake, and Grandpa guesses that I'm awake. I suddenly grow new spikes, but they turn thin and flabby. Grandpa laughs at my hedgehog act and, to be on the safe side, I giggle a bit, too. Grandpa is old and his feelings are easily hurt. I put my hand in Grandpa’s rough hair and smooth it a little.

Grandpa's eyelids open. Little sparks glow in Grandpa’s eyes.

‘I’ll show you some games we can play in Granny’s house.’

I don’t want to play games. I gather spittle in my mouth. Perhaps Grandpa will fall asleep if I spit into his eyes and put out the sparks.

Grandpa senses my plan and pulls a mask over his eyes. He looks like an ugly pirate.

I get ready for my dream. I nestle nto the warm space left by Granny. The dream conjures up a salty sea. I take the form of a ship and a big white sail carries me from wave to wave. I sway in the sea’s embrace, until the wind dies down and the grandpa pirate takes hold of the ship, throws the anchor down to the sandy bottom and steps into the hold.

A hand presses my face into the pillow. I bite the pillow to shreds and shout with my mouth full of feathers that it hurts, hurts more than having my ears pierced, more than being sick, more than ever. I shout to the ship’s crew for help. I shout to them to throw me a lifeboat, but the feathers muffle my voice, and no one can hear me. I am alone, at Grandpa’s mercy.

Grandpa’s mercy hurts. I toss about there, until Grandpa loosens his grip and a bad, fusty smell spreads into the hold. I run to the side in order to breathe sea air. The grandpa pirate puffs close behind me, grabs me with slimy hands. I slip out of his grasp, leap into the lifeboat and start to row.

The wind gets up, makes the waves grow big. Grandpa’s ship sucks me closer and closer, back to the fusty smell. The strength goes out of my arms. The oars come loose from the boat, drift far into the sea. I think about Mummy’s nightdress. The pain spread into it, vanished, went away. I tell the nightdress to come now, wrap itself around me, take the pain away, cover up the pain.

The nightdress stays where it is. I swallow a sob deep inside me. After all, I'm big and strong. I’m not at all as weak and wretched as Grandpa, who takes off his pirate’s mask when the game is over and bursts into tears. I press the duvet into Grandpa’s face and the surf stays there.

‘You smell good,’ Grandpa sighs.

Grandpa is telling a lie. Grandpa's not allowed to say nice things about me. Grandpa must be quiet. I press my lips against Grandpa’s lips. Grandpa sticks his tongue out. I press my lips together and swallow sea water.

Grandpa’s rough hand scratches my tummy and thighs, lightly smooths my poppy, wipes the wounds away. Grandpa also strokes my hair and my eyes and my head and the sea wind blows in my face, until I fall into the warm waves of the dream, caressed by the sea. The salt smarts and burns from the deep. The shore is quite close. With a few kicks I could be there, in safety, but I don’t want to go.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Thursday, 23 April 2009

London Book Fair - subjective comments by a visitor

As David mentioned in an earlier posting here, the London Book Fair has been, and has now gone. I was there for varying lengths of time on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so I had a good look around, and not only at things Nordic.

The book fair is principally a market: buying and selling. It is hugely bustling and crowded. So it is good to book appointments ahead with specific individuals. Translators are always in a curious position, in that they are neither authors, nor publishers, nor literary agents. They fall between three stools (if that is physically possible). But with a little judicious planning, you can get an "audience" with publishers. Authors often speak at various events, often inconveniently held at some stand in the middle of the book fair, so people listening and people trying to get past have conflicting aims. The publishers lurk spider-like at the stands while the literary agents are a more ephemeral presence. And translators?

My goals this year were specific. First, I wanted to tell the Finns that I am improving my reading knowledge of Finnish and moving in the direction of seriously being able to translate from that language. Also that my re-integration with the Finland-Swedes at a literary level is advancing apace. And I want to expand into Norwegian, specifically nynorsk (aka New Norwegian, a written version of an amalgamation of various dialect traits). So I had a chat there with a friendly person from NORLA (the Norwegian literary promotional agency) and an equally friendly and helpful nynorsk publisher. A Norwegian literary agent was, alas, much more stand-offish. And I had a little business at the Estonian stand, as most of my recently published book-length translations are from that language. Plus appointments with British and American publishers.

The Nordic stands varied in size and scope, but both the Norwegians and Finns had substantial ones. (I never actually discovered the Danish one, I'm afraid!) The Norwegians and Finns did their business right there at the stand. The Swedes were in this strange, exclusive cordoned off area called the International Rights Centre. So their own stand in the open area was of minimal scope. This segregation hardly makes for joined up promotion, because if you have the display books, publishers and promotional organisations all together you have more joined up activity. There is a risk that you may get nuisances disturbing you, but most people attending book fairs are decent people who have the intuition to know when people are talking business, so as not to interfere.

The books on display are very useful for the browsing translator who is not absolutely up to date with the very latest authors and books. I also had a look at the German, Polish and other stands, to see what's going on there. When you can read several languages, you can even browse through the originals.

The drinkies dimension (termed: reception) can help people make new acquaintances. But I am not a dab hand at the ritual courtesies of gliding in and out of little huddles. You are expected to interrupt, but my upbringing makes me feel this is infradig. I attended three such gatherings, two Nordic, one Estonian.

The first of these was the annual Nordic reception near the stands. I did make a good contact with someone from a Finland-Swedish publishing house but in the main this event was rather exhausting. Badge-peering becomes a ritual, as sometimes the most innocuous-looking person turns out to be someone you've wanted to meet for years.

The second was the annual book presentation at the Estonian Embassy. This is a fairly informal gathering, and always interesting because the Estonian Ambassador himself is a historian and reads Robert Creeley. This year an Estonian publisher (who has herself translated Harry Potter, along with her daughter!) interviewed the publisher from the Norvik Press (London) and one from the Dalkey Archive Press (Illinois) about recently published books in English translation by Tammsaare, Unt, Ehin, and so on.

The third was a more formal reception at the Swedish Ambassador's residence in Portland Place, an elegant building on the inside, with much turquoise plasterwork, stucco, 18th century atmosphere, and old or reproduction furniture. Gustaf III would have felt at home there. To my surprise, I met an old university friend from about 30 years ago. In those days she was a student of English & American literature, but had recently taken up Norwegian. Both the Swedish Ambassador and the Swedish Cultural Attaché were friendly and humorous people, something of a pleasant surprise.

So, all in all, I had a good book fair. But I thank my lucky stars that I am not obliged to attend several such fairs every year, as publishers are doomed to do.

Far Out

Not long before her death in 2006 at the age of 56, the Norwegian-Sami literary critic and translator Nøste Kendzior wrote an essay about the translator's profession. Kendzior, who translated a large amount of fiction into Norwegian from other Nordic languages, especially Finnish, had an acute sense for the spirit of Nordic literature, and sought with dedication, hard work and dry humour to transcend the local rivalries that sometimes prevent Nordic writers from making a unified contribution to European literature as a whole. Translation into English may be important for authors who write in the relatively little-known languages of Scandinavia. But as Kendzior points out, the translation of Nordic literature into Nordic languages may have even more significance.


Being a translator is not a status profession. Translation, that art of the invisible, is carried out by persons whose name the reader never even notices. Most people apparently believe that literature – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the Donald Duck comics – just falls from heaven, ready-translated into their mother tongue. Few readers ever reflect that someone, someone or other, has taken the trouble to translate the books they read. And even fewer people ever consider that this anonymous someone-or-other has translated the book in a certain way, a way of his or her own, and that the book would have been quite different if it had been translated by someone else, or by the same translator at a different point in time. Not even literary critics consider this. The work of the translator is seldom mentioned in book reviews. If the translated book has an elegant style, it is the author who receives all the credit for it.
If there is any status connected with the translator’s profession, it must be found among those who translate from Greek, Italian, French – in short: those who translate literature from a refined culture.

Seen with Norwegian eyes, Finnish culture is not a refined one. Finland is one of Norway’s neighbours. Norway shares seven hundred kilometres of border with Finland. In spite of this, there is scarcely a country in Europe that Norwegians know less of than Finland. A journey to Finland is a journey in the wrong direction. Finland is a country for those with a special interest.
For on the one hand, while Finland is a little too exotic for Norwegians, on the other it is not exotic enough. Too exotic, because the language is considered incomprehensible and impossible to learn, and because the Finns are thought to obscure and unpredictable. And not exotic enough, because Finland is situated too close, too far to the north, and too far out.

Finland is associated with wilderness, hard life, wild conditions, isolation, primitive emotions and inexplicable actions (such as, for example, whipping oneself with a birch rod while sitting in a room that has the temperature of boiling water). One might be tempted to believe that most Norwegians view Finland and Finnish culture as something frightening that is best kept at a reassuring distance. What is more, until recently Finland belonged to a different world from the other countries of Scandinavia; Finland has been involved in things that were part of life behind the Iron Curtain. The fact that Finland today is famed for its pioneering work in technology and design, is a member of the EU (unlike Norway), and also uses the euro in such a sophisticated way as a means of payment, is not enough to eliminate Norwegians’ prejudices about Finland as an out-of-the-way, inaccessible and undeveloped country.

So the translation of Finnish literature has no status. For it is in no way connected with refinement.

Most people I come into contact with think I translate from Finnish because I have spoken the language since the cradle. I am from Finnmark, or Sameland, the most northerly part of Norway, and we who come from up here are descendants of Finnish migrants crossed with Norwegians, Sami, Russians and anyone else who came along.

But I never learned Finnish at home. Finnish and Sami were spoken behind closed doors; we children had to learn Norwegian, the only ‘real’ language. I probably started to learn Finnish because I was attracted by the mysterious and impenetrable, by what was different. It could have been Sami. But Sami was spoken in Norway, and Finnish was more strange and special; a language that belonged to another country and another world.

So I studied Finnish at the universities of Copenhagen, Helsinki and Oslo. In Oslo I majored in Finnish and specialized in the work of Marja-Liisa Vartio. For the past seven years I have made my living as a freelance journalist: I am primarily a translator, of Finnish, Danish, Finland-Swedish and Swedish literaure. But I am also an essayist, literary critic and commentator. In Norway I would never have been able to make a living solely as a translator of Finnish literature, even though I have very little competition.

Today I have translated about fifty works in all. One of them is Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä. As far I have been able to ascertain, that book (Seven Brothers) got one review. A Finnish bestseller in Norway is something I am still looking forward to, but authors like Annika Idström, Leena Lander and Rosa Liksom have had a fairly decent reception. Anja Snellman has also now been launched in Norway, and soon some books by Pirjo Hassinen will appear. My favourite author is Marja-Liisa Vartio, who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. I have translated her novel Hänen olivat linnut into Norwegian, and am now working on a translation of her poetry.
Not even my fellow translators associate my knowledge of Finnish with refinement. A Norwegian translator from Italian would roll his eyes in vexation if I were to betray a zero knowledge of Italian literature, film and history. The same rolling eyes would acquire a glassy blankness were I to mention Väinämöinen, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, or Pentti Saarikoski, and the word ‘Kalevala’ would be a cry in the wilderness.

I was looking for a different landscape. And of course I found it, just around the corner! That discovery has not given me high status in the world, but it has given me a couple of prizes, and also a state artist’s pension, at the minimum level. And sometimes I detect a small gleam of respectful curiosity in other people’s eyes: I translate peculiar literature written in an extremely complicated language by a barbaric people in a distant land beyond all civilization. Ergo, though I may not be refined, I am fearless, indeed – heroic.

translated from Norwegian by David McDuff

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Each to their own devices

While there's much admiration for e-books among the upper echelons of the publishing fraternity, there's apparently less enthusiasm for the devices that are used to read them, Catherine Neilan observes in The Bookseller:
John Makinson, chairman and c.e.o. of Penguin, described the current models available as "very conservative devices", which had been "designed for old people".

Out of Beta

The new Books from Finland website, which replaces the print version of the magazine, is now out of beta, and online. The editors write:
Our idea of what it is to read, and to read literature, has always been – and for many of us remains – bound up with the invention that made the development of western literature possible, the Gutenberg printing press and its successors.

In making this website, we have tried hard to fashion it as a place of repose as well as excitement, a location where the spirit and the imagination, as well as the intellect, can engage with what in the old days was called the printed word.
Apparently the intention is to publish new posts and articles every 7 days or so, which is quite a step up from the frequency that necessarily prevailed under the old quarterly print-based system. New material so far has included a dispatch from a Finnish TV journalist on "learning how to give and receive in the Russian way", though the report seems to focus on a bunch of nouveau-riche St Petersburg nightclubbers. Still, there's plenty of room for discussion there, and the BfF website comments section, though moderated, is open to all comers. There wasn't a comments section in the print-based version of the magazine...

Star Without Land - 5

‘I took the card. It would have seemed a bit odd to refuse it, now that they had made me their confidante. For I’d been the one who had asked if there was something wrong with the man... It had been something completely intuitive, that question. My reptilian brain must have had a reflex action...

‘I turned the card over and read: Andreas Falkenland, photographer. Then, without comment, I put it in my handbag.’

A wave of fog drifts over me as again I hear Rebecca say his full name... Andreas, my friend... An anxiety that is close to a sense of queasiness takes me unawares. My cerebrum begins to reflect: why?

She shrugs her shoulders and says in a low voice:

‘His address was in a block of flats on Gothersgade. This block of flats.’

‘Andreas lives two floors above me.’


‘When I saw you hesitating down there, I thought you might summon up some courage if we talked?’

‘I had no idea that Andreas had been in Barcelona. It’s ages since I’ve seen him. And Irene, too, for that matter. It takes me by surprise that Irene had followed him like a close girlfriend, even though I’m aware that they know each other.

Rebecca’s gaze fixes mine.

‘Now I really want to meet this Andreas Falkenland, but when I tried to ring the buzzer I quite rightly had my doubts, as you saw... The fact that I’m sitting here in your apartment, with someone I don’t know at all, is something I understand even less than my impulse to meet him.

‘When I got the visiting card on the plane, the woman said he wanted to photograph me. And he’s not just any photographer, she added...

‘But you must know him very well, since you live in the same block of flats?’

‘Yes, I know Andreas.’

Rebecca sends me a big smile, which I can’t possibly not return. A warm radiance wafts from her.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Star Without Land
Star Without Land - 2
Star Without Land - 3
Star Without Land - 4

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Prose Poem

A picture is on its way elsewhere at the very moment it comes into view. It lights a fire under the darkness that burns a hole in the head. – Whose head are we talking about? you ask, of course. – What do you think you’re looking out of? the picture answers. It is a picture, after all. It is time to prevaricate. Time to change direction. Time to see the difference between people and pictures. But the difference is also a picture.

Den Fynske Forårsudstilling 2009. Catalogue. Prose Poems by Laus Strandby Nielsen.

Poem translated from Danish by David McDuff

LBF - 2

The Bookseller notes a fact about the flow of visitors to this year's London Book Fair:
Many publishers and agents have noticed an absence of Americans and Australians at this year's LBF. Peter Straus of Rogers, Coleridge & White: "It's in a different key. Fewer people are taking longer journeys: Text and Allen & Unwin are coming from Australia, but other Australian publishers are not. With some of the bigger US companies, fewer editors are coming. I also haven't heard of many people auctioning huge books at the fair."

Despite absences from further afield, European presence in London appears to be booming with exchange rates named as a prime reason. Carole Blake of Blake Friedman said: "It's going crazy. We have completely full schedules with four of us taking appointments every 30 minutes."
It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in rights sales of Nordic books to UK publishers - though the true effect is likely to be felt in the other direction, one supposes.

Monday, 20 April 2009


Nordic Voices in Translation is at the London Book Fair, and posting may be light until it's over.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Star Without Land - 4

It strikes me as an odd merging of coincidences that she should be in my apartment. She doesn’t set boundaries the way most people do, it occurs to me. She has accepted the challenge of dropping in on me, doing so in the same way that she wants to meet Andreas. What makes her walk into other people’s lives like this? What is she looking for?

Then she straightens up and continues:

‘The man got back into action. Leaning forward at an angle, he began to tell me about the woman who was sitting between us, while she listened with a look of contentment.

‘She had been a photo model. I stared at the woman mutely as before, surprised that this thought had not occurred to me. She smiled at me and told me that her friend was a photographer.

‘Then, as far as was possible for a breath-taking model, she tried to make herself invisible again, and the man went on:

‘He had photographed the woman several times. He wasn’t really a fashion photographer. He didn’t have much time for the glamorous fashion magazines, but had been hired one day when another photographer failed to turn up. Now and then he stepped in like that to help a colleague out. His friendship with the woman had begun directly after the first photo session, which had taken place one September day, on a jetty, in a bitterly cold wind.

‘He and the stylist had been okay, but she had caught a chill from posing on the jetty with not enough clothes on. He’d felt he was to blame, because under the pressure of work he had ignored her protests. On the other hand, next day he had phoned her. He’d brought her some cold medicine and a bottle of decent brandy, and said he was sorry if he’d ordered her about – he wasn’t always good at spotting the different reactions models had to things, but he was anxious to make up for the callous way he’d treated her.

‘The invisible woman interrupted the conversation with loud laughter. She said that being a model she couldn’t consume more than about a thousand calories a day, so she hadn’t touched the brandy, but during the next few days he’d done his best to restore her to health. That was something she had not been able to resist.

‘They’d been together ever since, he said. Now and then they might not see each other for a while, but when they did they always had a good time together. Indeed, she gradually became one of the girlfriends to whom he could pour out his sorrows – in spite of the age difference between them.’

This gives me a twinge of pain, but I don’t allow it to be noticed.
His girlfriend was in a really tough profession, and that was why she was able to give him sympathy. If he had any problems, he went to her. Problems: I wonder what that word covered?’

‘Rebecca looks at me inquiringly. I choose to remain silent, and also wait before I say that I know Irene.

She goes on:

‘I remember stumbling over the word... His girlfriend was thinking of giving up her career as a model. The death of a very young colleague during a fashion show affected her deeply. While working for a pharmaceutical company for several years the woman had been involved in various vaccination programmes. In between photo-shoots she had waited in hotel rooms. There she had gone on the Internet and begun to find out about the kind of products the company was known for. She’d read about contagious diseases, the danger of infection, precautionary measures. She’d found it disturbing to gain an insight into these things, and gradually she’d been put in charge of various hygiene programmes and vaccination projects in some African villages.

‘It was nice to hear about the new direction that her life was taking, Sophia. I was immediately impressed by her, for a lot of girls are destroyed by their lives as models. I knew one girl who could only cope with the job on pills, and another who just tottered from one day to the next, her life fell totally to bits because of the way she was treated. It was intriguing, what the woman next to me on the plane was saying, but why was I being let in on it all?’

Rebecca takes her time, but I don’t hurry her, just fold my arms and go on listening.

‘I suddenly found it rather strange that I’d allowed myself to be caught up in the fates of these two people as I sat there at a height of 30,000 feet. I excused myself and went along to the toilet right at the back of the plane. I felt I needed to collect my thoughts before meeting Dino, so I stayed standing along there in the aisle for a long time.

‘As I was on my way back to my seat the landing was announced. I fastened my seatbelt and took the book out again in order to try to shake the other two off.

‘But now the woman was holding out a visiting card. She said Andreas had asked her to give it to me. Andreas!... The man actually had a name. That was more or less what it felt like.’

Rebecca gives a nervous snort.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Star Without Land
Star Without Land - 2
Star Without Land - 3

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Greenhouse

Anders Bodelsen: The Greenhouse

Twice a year, a little before and a little after midsummer, the sun would set directly behind the greenhouse. It looked as if someone had lit a fire over there. The greenhouse was in a neglected nursery a couple of gardens away. I saw it from my window when I was going to bed, and now and then I would creep out of bed again after we had said our goodnights to watch how the fire in the distance would gradually die down and the greenhouse would become dark like the rest of the nursery.

It was the farthest you could see from my window, and I didn’t know what lay beyond it. Even after darkness had fallen you could easily catch sight of the greenhouse, because the glass reflected and you saw something of the clouds as long as there was any light left.

The nursery was the only place we were not allowed to play in. We had included all the gardens along the street till the area was so big that it was almost impossible to finish a game of hide-and-seek. The one who was “it” might have his work cut out for most of an evening, and it was lonely and a little disquieting to begin counting with your eyes shut and to hear the others disappearing in all directions. By the count of a hundred there was not a sound or a movement to betray the fact that these gardens were full of children, and you might start thinking about puzzle pictures in old children’s comics where there was someone or something looking at you, although you couldn’t see it.

If we had been allowed to play in the abandoned nursery too, we would have had to completely restructure the whole game. But that was forbidden - strictly forbidden, in fact - and moreover there was a high wall round it. And throughout all the years in which we passed the time before going to bed in playing, with our space restricted on every side by something we only knew one side of – houses, hedges, sheds, garages – the nursery was simply this view from my window after bedtime with the glowing greenhouse between myself and the sun, while I heard the voices of my older friends who still had permission to stay up and play for some time after I had been put to bed.

But there came a time when I myself was one of the chosen ones who was always allowed to play after the others had been called in. And there even came a summer when playing with them no longer seemed the natural thing to do. It was a wonderful summer, the game was still good enough fun, and it was only afterwards that one thought there was really very little point to it. I knew the district now, the road to school, the road to the dancing, the road to the baths. But in between these roads there were unexplored stretches, and the nursery was one of them. From my window I was always catching sight of the sun directly behind the greenhouse, and I would be gripped by a strange sadness when it disappeared and all the long shadows in the nursery merged into twilight. And for the first time it became clear to me that sooner or later I had to venture over there, I had to try standing in the greenhouse when the sun framed it in just that way, utterly dazzling for a split second before it disappeared.

I was 12 that summer, and I had permission to stay up till 9 o’clock. There were between 10 and 15 of us who played together, and I was the eldest. But Inger from the house opposite was also nearly 12. We were the best at hiding because we had been doing it for so many years and we knew all the good places. One evening we both ran our separate ways to the same hiding-place, a wheelbarrow which had been upended against the garden wall on top of a compost-heap. One of the little ones was “it”, he was counting aloud and had almost reached 100. There was not a moment to lose, so I did something I had never done before: I climbed up onto the wheelbarrow.

It began to slide, and Inger held it for me while I swung myself up onto the wall of the nursery. I’m coming now, shouted the little lad from his homebase. I reached my hand down to Inger. “Come with me”, I whispered. “Where to?” she asked, as if she didn’t understand. “Up here!” I replied, grabbing hold of her arm and hauling her up while the wheelbarrow slid out from under us.

We sat there not very well hidden; in fact, where we sat we were not hidden at all. The little chap had already started checking the poor hiding-places right beside his homebase, and I can remember suddenly feeling sorry for him – why, I don’t know. He was the only person visible in the garden, he was going around all on his own and he didn’t want to stray too far from his “home”. He had not yet looked up properly, but at any moment he might do so and catch sight of us. There was nothing else to do but to jump down into the nursery. Obviously that was cheating but in a way we were already out of the game because we were sitting on the wall. I took Inger’s hand and we jumped simultaneously.

It immediately smelt a little different down in the nursery. Sweet and a bit colder, despite the sun. Apples from the year before and previous years had been left lying under the small, gnarled trees. Between the trees there were hotbeds with strange white stems in them, which in some places had broken the glass. The light was so low that we cast shadows like giants as we approached the greenhouse, careful not to tread on slugs and apples. It was less far to the greenhouse than I had thought, and it was a bit smaller than I had imagined. Closer to, we saw that it was rusty with lots of broken panes. I hadn’t been able to see that from my window. Leaning against the greenhouse were rusty garden tools, and around it ran a narrow path bordered by lavender. We went round the side and found a door in the gable-end.

“Shall we hide here?” Inger asked.

“Hide from whom?”

“Just hide”.

The door wouldn’t budge but we could just squeeze through. It was oppressively warm inside, as I had thought it would be. The greenhouse retained the warmth of the day with its smell of earth, tomatoes, chalk. Sweet and a little overpowering.

I really don’t think there had been anyone in the greenhouse that summer, and maybe not the summer before either, for the tomatoes had been allowed to run wild, the previous year’s tomatoes were lying like small black bulbs on the ground and the new tomatoes were still greenish-white now at midsummer and would surely never grow to a decent size. The tomato plants had pulled over the canes they were supposed to lean against, some of them had started to grow along the ground and their leaves were not greyish-green and sort of powdery, as they ought to have been, but completely white and flappy. The ground was covered in beetles, and the leaves and stems and the tomatoes growing along the ground had been gnawed. We looked around and held our breath a little because the air was so heavy.

“They’ll never find us here”, I said.

Inger seemed about to answer, but she just looked at me. I stepped away from her and looked around. She came slowly after me, and spoke right at my neck: “They definitely won’t find us if we lie down”.

“Lie down?”

“Just for a minute”.

She lay on her stomach between two rows of tomatoes. I looked at the greenhouse a bit more then I lay down beside her. “It’s the best hiding-place in the world”, she said, and took my hand. Our hands were dirty from clambering over the wall and trying to open the greenhouse-door, and they were warm. Just as she took my hand and I was thinking, so what? so what? the whole greenhouse began to shine. It was what I had seen from my window. The sun framed it, broadside-on, just before it disappeared. The red light filled every last pane that was still intact, and to look up was like looking at the sun through closed eyelids, seeing one’s own blood.

We rolled up against each other and a moment later we kissed with closed mouths. Inger had shut her eyes. I looked at her face, then I shut mine too. A little later we heard our names being called, far away. The game was over, they had to go in and they were shouting You can come out now. Inger’s body was like mine, and when my hand finally reached out to where I knew we would be different, it collided with hers on its way towards me.

Later still we heard them calling us in the other gardens. The game often ended like this because there were too many of us who had to go in, but it had never happened before that someone had not come when they were called. In the end there was only one person left calling, he kept it up for a long time and I tried to imagine him going round all the best hiding-places which he thought only he knew. Then he gave up too, and all was quiet.

Shortly after, we pulled away from each other and got up. The light in the panes had disappeared. We brushed the dust from our clothes and Inger removed a large beetle from her knee.

“We can always hide here”, she said.

Out in the nursery it had suddenly become twilight and the air was a little too sweet and wet. There were walls on every side and no wheelbarrow, and we felt lost until we found an apple-tree close to the wall. On the top of the wall we turned simultaneously and looked back. Then we jumped down into the garden we knew and did not look at each other again.

The greenhouse remained there for many years, and for many years I had the same room from which, twice a year, I could see the sun go down directly behind the greenhouse. But there came a time when I had to sit up late and keep the window shuttered in order to collect myself, and one summer the greenhouse was gone and a terrace of houses was built there, but before that the greenhouse seemed to have shrunk and all the panes were broken. Now the nurseries have moved further out of town and one mostly sees greenhouses when travelling on the train. They make me think of the one evening when I was actually in there. “We can always hide here”, said Inger, and I often think I should have taken her at her word.

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson