Friday, 29 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (II) - 1



The disintegration of the aesthetic ideals of classicism began when French symbolism embraced a new conception of beauty derived from a modern reality which existed at a great distance from harmony. Baudelaire claimed that beauty always consists of an eternal and immutable element. I would say of beauty that it is a dance on a knife-edge between the eternal and the mutable.

A particular conception of wholeness has survived far away from the idea of classical harmony, but even in a work of art which signals splitting or the simultaneous presence of several instances, a perfection must make itself valid. Brightly shining, beauty still flowers, and this in spite of the fact that art no longer takes it upon itself to stand guard over traditional values. If emptiness is not to conceal itself behind beauty, and deadly tedium not to lurk behind the good and the true, these phenomena must today have dimensions that are at least miraculous.

Of the beautiful Rilke says: Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen… Here beauty is connected with terror, because the perfect is static and unchangeable, and as such is an expression of death. The terrifying and unendurable experience of beauty and terror in combination is fundamental to this century, in which the lack of beauty is no less than it was in Baudelaire’s time.

If beauty has to meet an aesthetic need alone, it becomes slack, and the poetry narrow. The beauty lies in the formal devices poets use. Rilke’s angel is not beautiful, it is terrible, but the elegies are among the most beautiful things that one can read. And, like all beauty, they yield a resonance in the body.


The art that encounters resistance or is reproached for being ugly will undoubtedly be accepted later, when the work’s innate beauty will come through in even the most far-reaching experiments. The new and the different are seldom experienced as beautiful – and certainly not that kind of art which struggles against order, the art that expresses disharmony, norm-breaking, illness, abnormality or annihilation.

The conception of beauty is conditioned by a number of circumstances, including events in the field of science, e.g. in mathematics, the paradigm shift that has led to the revision of chaos theory. Just as chaos and order prove to be related, so beauty is unthinkable without its opposite. To yearn for pure beauty is to be two hundred years too late.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapter I can be accessed here.

Sagenhaftes Island

In 2011 Iceland will be the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in anticipation of the event Iceland's Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has opened a website with news about recently-published Icelandic books, together with presentations and background information.

The website appears in three languages: the Icelandic version possibly has the aptest title of the three − Sögueyjan Ísland (literally "Iceland, the Saga Island", though "Sögueyjan" could also be translated as "The Island of Fables", or "The Island of History"), while the German and English titles seem to owe more to the stylistic conventions of the tourist brochure: Sagenhaftes Island, and Fabulous Iceland.

The website offers an Author of the Month (currently Yrsa Sigurðardóttir), a Book of the Month (Steinar Bragi's Konur), and the slightly oddly-named "Podcast of the Month" − it's really an online video of a subtitled interview with Icelandic author Einar Kárason.

There is also news about an international translators' conference that was held in Reykjavík in April, and it's possible to subscribe to a newsletter giving information about further events and publications.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Lennart Sjögren: 2 Poems

Peel my heart clean
of doubt
and peel it clean of faith
you won’t find any core
in a body like this
peel my heart clean
until only a dried-up muscle
is left.


We find it hard to form
a notion of the dead
but at any rate they seem to be
considerably more alive than us.

On certain idle afternoons
when no one says anything
and no one dares to think
they come towards us
and they say to us
clearly and methodically
what we don’t dare to say

until we’ve woken up
and the breeze has stirred in the grass again

translated from Swedish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

In Other Words

The 24th Lahti Writers' Reunion will take place from June 14th to 16th. The theme of the meeting is summed up under the heading In Other Words, the idea being that if writers want to succeed, they need to learn the art of telling old stories in new words. Among the guests invited to take part this year are A.S. Byatt, Philippe Claudel, Marcel Cohen, Fflur Dafydd, Desmond Egan, Victor Erofeev, Carolyn Forché, Hannele Huovi, Riina Katajavuori, Jayne Anne Phillips and Lise Sinclair.

Books fron Finland has a (perhaps not completely up-to-date) presentation of the forthcoming event here.

Norwegian literary websites, events, organisations

Thanks to the Lillehammer Norwegian literary festival website, my attention has been drawn to a Norwegian online poetry magazine called Nypoesi. There is also a site called Forlaget Attåt, which has links to what is termed the Tekstallianse 2009. This website states (my tr.):
During the weekend of 21st and 22nd August, over 120 small presses from Scandinavia and beyond, festivals, magazines, organisations and networks will meet at Litteraturhuset (Oslo). Tekstallianse is a book fair and festival that aims to show the breadth and variety of small, medium-sized and more or less independent and idealistic players within the field of literature, music, the visual arts and theatre. Common to all exhibitors is the wish to establish an alternative to the cultural community represented by the larger publishing houses and newspaper editors.
A worthy aim. Let's see what it means in practice. One link here is to Litteraturhuset itself. This has a regular programme, a book café -- "Kafe Oslo" -- and a bookshop.

Another organisation is Norsk Forfattersentrum. From their website:
The Norwegian Writers' Centre" is an organization of Norwegian poets and fiction writers, founded in 1968 on the initiative of young Norwegian writers, in order to act as a linking body between writers and the general public. The Centre is not a writers’ union.
It is non-commercial. By granting an amount of 8 million NOK a year, the Ministry of Culture covers most of the operating costs. It
·works out its own arrangements and tours all over the country.

· keeps an office in Oslo and in 4 other cities (Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim, Tromsø).
Finally for this time, the website of the Norwegian PEN Club is here. This organisation awards the annual Ossietzky Prize that aims to promote freedom of expression.

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 3


Having thus grown up, young Kustaa of Salmelus had to arrange the funeral first of his mother and, very soon after, his father. One spring at the time of the melting ice his mother died, and his father in the autumn of the same year.

As soon as his mother died, Kustaa realized that, for the first time in his presence, life at Salmelus had suffered a nasty jolt, pushed in a new direction from which it would never return. And he could not say whether this change marked a rise or a fall; with the spring’s reviving blossom were mixed the gravity of death and the unexpected alteration of life. He knew only that what had happened was something more than a mere passing-away; the people who remained were not the same, not even in the beautiful light of the sun…

It was a strange summer. Kustaa was returning from taking the horses to pasture. In the midst of the familiar shimmering of the summer evening he gave an unpleasant start: gazing amiably at the house, he had forgotten that his father was alive, he was still alive. It was as if the young man’s loneliness came towards him through the pasture gate like some creature… Hilma, the young kitchen maid, sat by the corner post of the veranda daydreaming, her eyes on the horizon. In this there was nothing unusual: the family ate in the kitchen and the girl sat there in order to be ready to serve them, if something were needed at table. Seen superficially, hundreds of bright summer evenings are as like one another as the dice in a cup. But in one of the dice there is a great prize; imposing and breathtaking, like the threat of thunder at bedtime… Kustaa still had some way to go, straight across the courtyard, in order to reach the place where the girl was sitting. Slowly and very routinely, she could have got up and gone inside. But this she did not do. She continued to sit where she was, allowing her features peacefully to depict her beautiful, melancholy mood, as though with her languorous gaze she were demanding that the young man notice it. The young man, who had just lost his mother, found a great sweetness in the girl’s nature and gaze. He needed to sling the reins over the corner post of the veranda where she sat. He stretched across her shoulder and put them there… There they were that summer evening, Hilma and Kustaa, future companions in fate and parents of the children they would bring into the world together. For them that evening would not pass by being set aside.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Norwegian Festival of Literature, 26-31 May 2009

The Sigrid Undset Days of the Norsk Litteraturfestival have just started in Lillehammer today. The Norwegian website has an English section, with the programme available as a pdf document.

One of the guests this year is Sofi Oksanen, well-known on this blog, who will be appearing on Saturday, and talking about "The Failure of Feminism in Eastern Europe".

As I have only just found the website myself, I haven't much more to say. But the programme will no doubt interest many.

Salongen interviews translator Jyrki Kiiskinen

The Swedish literary blog Salongen is run by Bodil Zalesky and Jelena Selin from Berlin. They have written articles on a large number of authors, both Scandinavian and other.

Recently, they interviewed the Helsinki author, journalist and poetry translator Jyrki Kiiskinen, who translates into Finnish. He has previously been editor of the literary magazines Nuori Voima and Books From Finland. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

Question: Which language(s) do you translate from (and to)? How did you pick these specifically?

I only translate into Finnish, but from Swedish, English, French and Spanish. And I have joined various projects and translators' groups as a poet without knowing the original language involved. I have worked with someone who knew the language. In this way I have also translated from Latvian and Lithuanian.

Question: How do you receive your assignments? Do publishers contact you or what is the procedure?

Normally speaking, publishers are not too thrilled with my projects, they don't really want to publish poetry at all, so I only translate texts I really want to. And I also translate for the sake of my own poetry, I want to expand my own poetic style and learn new techniques. So I translate texts that are lacking within me. And once I've started working on a text, I fight to get it published somewhere.

Question: Is it important to be able to ask the author whose work you are translating questions?

Of course, as it is a natural way of diving into the universe of someone else and get to know the work you are working on. Discussions with the author can becoome very exciting. Asking questions of an author can be a good excuse to come into contact with another human being who has interesting things to say and knows what he is talking about. You can often obtain information more quickly than by consulting encyclopædias back home. And the latter activity is more boring.

Question: Which experiences and qualities is it important for a literary translator to have?

If we are talking about translating poetry, you have to be completely obsessed with language, look for pleasure as with a sweet in your mouth. But you must always return to the original text, once you start enjoying your own language. You should also have a passion about the differences between various languages and be interested in the boundaries between them, i.e. pursue various ways of structuring and viewing the world in these languages, the world which always stands beyond, in silence. You must also be systematic, methodical and yet be prepared to conduct wild experiments at the same time. And then return to the original text. So you have to be faithful and unfaithful, pedantic and wild, search for a precise meaning and be prepared to describe it on the terms of your own language.

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

The rest of the interview can be read in Swedish, here. Kiiskinen has translated, for instance, Octavio Paz, Peter Mickwitz and Göran Sonnevi. Salongen has previously interviewed literary translators Margareta Zetterström, Kristina Rotkirch, Janina Orlov, Katarina Warfinge, Lev Hrytsyuk and Hans Blomqvist. All these interviews can be found on the Salongen website.

Class acts

Hbl reports that Finland-Swedish publishers Schildts and Söderströms will each publish an anthology of writing on the subject of social class this autumn, with 19 contributors per book. "The main difference between the books seems to be that Söderströms will take a broader view and also include Finnish contributors, like Sauli Niinistö and Sofi Oksanen. The anthology will also be published in Finnish by Teos."

Bird's Milk

Skugga-Baldur is the title of a romantic novel by the Icelandic poet and author Sjón. Romantic novels are not so easy to come by in today's literary world, but Sjón has written a book which in its sensitivity to the strange twist and turns of human nature and the interaction of light and darkness can stand comparison with the spirit of the work of 18th and 19th century novelists and poets like Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A. Hoffman and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The book is set in 19th century Iceland, and describes the experiences of a young naturalist who rejects a life of wordly amusement when he takes in a mentally-handicapped girl to look after. It turns out that the local priest, Baldur Skuggason, has much to do with the girl's unhappy fate, and the novel traces the strange sequence of events that reveal him to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Victoria Cribb's translation of the novel (The Blue Fox) is first-rate. If you want to sample a chapter from the book, there's one here, though it appears under an earlier suggested title for the English version, Bird's Milk.


The spring issue of Norway's Vinduet magazine is out, and with it come questions: What is a poet? And is Shakespeare easier to read in Nynorsk?

Monday, 25 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 12


In the poem the limits of the unsayable are investigated. Not everything must be made visible, for when the mystery vanishes, obviousness and the one-dimensional begin. A poem's mystery should not be exchanged for a hard shell of something unapproachable, nor with unnecessary mysticism or chronic sentimentality. The hermetic, which alone shuts the poet in and keeps the reader out, is not desirable, but on one level poetry is always an oracle-like monologic discourse: the possible transformations of expression, all the many layers and structures that demand repeated readings. A good poem has an inborn character that calls for movement and continually steers towards greater understanding.


Where art is concerned I do not doubt for a moment that fidelity is a necessity. It is not imposed on me. I choose it myself as the only valid way of relating to poetry. It is a precondition in all seeking for a true artistic language, it is the condition for creation that steps beyond itself. Fidelity is an openness that obliges, but also a risk, for with it I stake everything.


After the poem: a violent exhaustion, but also an inexpressible relief that this something has found its way out. For a time, a great happiness... Or a hibernation-like state sets in, a physical condition in which all sense-impressions glance off or are neglected. If there was an element of something that growled like a beast of prey in the pre-articulation phase, now the beast scratches behind its ear again.


The condensed energy or trembling nervous state that exists before the words appear returns again for a time after the poem. I find myself indeed in a place of whose existence I could not possibly have had any idea before the poem, but am again hurled into fear and darkness, once again alone with what is greatest.


The insightful poet must be able to parody himself.


What decides if the poem is a successful poem? Time.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk-1
Over the Water I Walk-2
Over the Water I Walk-3
Over the Water I Walk-4
Over the Water I Walk-5
Over the Water I Walk-6
Over the Water I Walk-7
Over the Water I Walk-8
Over the Water I Walk-9
Over the Water I Walk-10
Over the Water I Walk-11

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 2



The Father

The death that summer morning of the lonely servant girl Silja, forgotten and left alone, was thus really the ending of that longer story whose beginning can be seen thirty years earlier, when Silja’s father Kustaa took possession of the hereditary manor of Salmelus. It was not a large manor, but the same family had held it for as long as anyone could remember, and at least since the year 1749, from which the oldest parish registers dated: that much was known. The reputation of the manor’s older masters was of course by then forgotten, but it seems that they were on the whole the best men of their small locality. The family’s finest strength reached its summit during Kustaa’s father’s tenure. It grew naturally; no one could point to any particular actions, good or bad, but the expression of an ever prouder dignity spoke from the gable windows of Salmelus Manor to those who toiled on the lower levels. There was even a peculiar dignity in the fact that at this time there was only one heir to the manor, who seemed to be thriving, however. Throughout his youth he was able to live as he wished. For him the whole manor was one large playground, which he explored, humming and smiling, all the way to adulthood. ‘The young master of Salmelus’ and many other things that were said him, caressed his ear and mind, but he did not meditate greatly upon their substance. His parents’ equable dignity brought him up without anyone noticing it; hardly anyone ever saw master or mistress counsel him, let alone punish him. In this way he grew up into a tall, smiling young man, who from his father had inherited a slight hump on his nose and from his mother the colour and look of his hair and eyes.

The parents probably nurtured many quiet hopes in respect of their son, but the same could not be said of the boy himself. Sometimes, when they happened to be talking about some other aspect of the world, his mother would try to present to him some of her opinions, but these attempts invariably ended in a mutual gentle bickering and joking in which the strong bonds of natural love could suddenly be glimpsed. The mother had a sense that her son was like herself, and when he saw this, the father felt a secret warmth of affection. Within the boy’s mind formed two fixed points between which the features of his character arched: on the one hand, a kind of unconscious decency and honesty, whose name he was not accustomed to hear spoken, and on the other, a strong feeling that Salmelus Manor was something that endured eternally and was independent of those who lived there, a place where all the events of life were as natural as breathing; a place which ruled people, and was not ruled by them.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff


Sunday, 24 May 2009

"Short stories don't sell"

The rubric of this post is an old prejudice that British publishers have never quite abandoned. Once upon a time, every respectable magazine in Britain and the USA would have its weekly short story, a piece of fiction intended to bring contrast to the mundanity of the news.

But in Britain today, as far as I can see, there is little appetite for new, contemporary short stories of a literary type in publications that are sold in mainstream bookshops. Even for stories written in English. And publishers tend to shy away from collections of stories by one author, unless this author already has a monumental reputation.

When you look at webpages such as this one, you can be impressed by the number of publications listed. But you should beware of long lists where apples, pears, plums and doughnuts are all lumped together with little discrimination. So translations, already at a disadvantage, are bound to suffer. On that list there are serious publications such as London Magazine, Chapman and Stand. But some publications have a drum to beat or axe to grind, and if you subtract those, you are left with far fewer. When you read that Your Cat Magazine and Your Dog Magazine publish stories, you begin to wonder what the level of literary sophistication is. I get the feeling that the Story Website is keener to get on board as many people as possible, as opposed to fostering the short story as a subtle literary genre, in the footsteps of Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and so on.

And Nordic translations. The Norwegian author Frode Grytten (whose work I will be discussing in another post) is one Nordic author whose translations into English reflect this rather depressing trend. Grytten has published many short stories (collected in one volume) in Norway, plus one crime novel. His novel was snapped up immediately in the current British crime wave; but only one of his 103 stories has appeared in English, and this was, curiously, from a book of interconnected stories, rather than a self-standing one.

Do contemporary Nordic short story authors have a "valid entry visa" to the UK? Are they not kept away from our shores by a vicious circle: never heard of him, therefore not interested.

Until the fad of publishing short stories in general magazines, or ones devoted exclusively to short stories, returns to Britain, will all the Nordic authors writing short stories, in effect, be shut out of Britain? What is the solution? How can short stories from Europe as a whole be popularised in Britain, so that they are regarded as normal works of literature, not things exclusively for the Readers' Digest or for sci-fi aficionados? Should the Arts Council do more in this area?

Surely, our age of haste and short attention spans means that commuters could read short stories just as happily as thick novels. Not everyone wants to have to carry around electronic equipment to read a book on the train or bus, when you could buy a book of stories that does not rely on the presence of electricity. You may be able to cram a hundred books into a reading device, but you can't read a hundred books at once, and a book of 25 short stories would also give the same pleasure as it did to people in previous epochs.

Crimes of Fiction

Those interested in developments in the world of Scandinavian crime fiction may like to follow the posts at — yes, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, a Minnesota, U.S.-based blog that tracks the latest news and gossip in the field. Recent items include discussion of an interview with Håkan Nesser, an account of a translators' panel at CrimeFest, the international crime writers' convention recently held in Bristol, U.K., and "a sad story in the Times about the bitter dispute over Stieg Larsson’s literary estate (and the rather outsized amount of money involved) between his all-but-married partner and his family). "

Although our interests here at Nordic Voices lie firmly in the direction of "serious" literature, we have no objection to the crime genre as such, which, as Håkan Nesser is quoted as saying, is universal: "people are people everywhere. And when it comes to important matters — e.g. good stories—we understand each other." However, Nesser's recent strictures regarding the poor quality of much contemporary crime writing are also relevant to the topic.

Hat tip: Kate's Book Blog

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 11


Where does the poem open? It opens where the unknown starts. If I only write about familiar material, I limit myself and present an obstacle to all the things that could be written meanwhile. New perceptions must always be able to come up behind me, impulses that bring me to an unpredictable place.


A poem must close. It has its own end built in to it, but must at the same time point beyond itself. It is only when the definitive move is made that the ending becomes visible. In what the definitive consists cannot be said, as each poem has its own move, which points towards closing.

While it is far from invariably possible to explain what started a poem, the decisive move can as a rule be made clear during or immediately after the work. Later it is probably forgotten, but the fact remains that beginning and the end must be in a supple relation to each other. A poem can be so short that it does not manage to develop, but can on the other hand run the risk of being so long that it loses precision or becomes diffuse.

A poem must stop in a convincing way, so that it can start in the reader.


The title of a poem functions as an orientation point. I don't remember numbers, they don't tell me anything. Number-blind, I stumble about in the dark. But a title is important, because the poem is recalled by it. On the other hand, titles should not signal too much. They should be more in the way of hints than titles which make the poem top-heavy. It’s a relief when a title gives itself, for usually it is the title that causes the greatest difficulties. This is especially true of book titles, which ought to be a miniature of the whole work. The strange thing about book titles is that they converse with one another. The title I gave my first book has had direct consequences for the others. Like names in a group of brothers and sisters.


Visible or invisible poles exist in my poems, but the number three is the magic one. It hides everywhere in their composition, and in the books' inner conversation.

Springtide and White Fever constitute two poles, while Bridge of Seconds became the third quantity, which could not have been devised without the preceding ones. Viewed like this, the three works are related to one another as thesis - antithesis - synthesis. The poem 'Moving sculpture' in Bridge of Seconds is a hidden poetics for the three books mentioned here: King, Queen and dauphin. The dauphin is an unexpected result, which again must mark off a new figure which lies outside the material that is given. A continuous dynamic praxis.

The figure three also plays on another motif. The poems do not merely articulate an I-you relation, a poet-reader relation: a third instance is present between the two.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk-1
Over the Water I Walk-2
Over the Water I Walk-3
Over the Water I Walk-4
Over the Water I Walk-5
Over the Water I Walk-6
Over the Water I Walk-7
Over the Water I Walk-8
Over the Water I Walk-9
Over the Water I Walk-10

Poetry - Britain and Scandinavia

Poetry features quite frequently on this blog, in translation of course. And most of what we translate here is contemporary poetry, i.e. what Nordic and Estonian poets are writing now, this century.

However, in mainstream cultural British discourse poetry appears to be an insecure recital of the names of Daffodil Wordsworth, Bi Shakespeare, Papist Donne and other poets who wrote centuries ago. Or they glide effortlessly over to a few contemporary bigshots like Bowell Motion, his mentor Parental Fuckup Larkin, Deathly Leamington Betjeman, Wife-Beater Hughes, and a few other terribly British names, regurgitated and -cycled ad nauseam. Plus a few Yanks, because they write in the same language as we do, to pad out the anthologies.

As well as the recital of names, there is the recital of poetry. Poetry appears to only come alive for Brits if read in a pub while hoi polloi are pushing past for drinks, chattering loudly about things banal and venal, while the poor versifier is straining to make herself heard.

I saw Griff Rhys Jones waxing wonderful about poesy the other night on TV, and now see in the Daily MP Exposograph an article by Simon Schama, also on poetry, linked in with the appearance of this latter guru next Tuesday, also on TV. But judging by what these two gents are spouting, you could not imagine that poetry exists beyond the saintlinesse of the English language, from Anglo-Saxon to rap. Nowhere would you even get an inkling that there is verse beyond Blighty, in the bowels of Europe.

Another nuttiness is when Brits oooh and aaah about the exotic species: the Woman Poet. Now we've got a Poet Laureate who is not only a woman, but also wants to swig the free port, and as a cunning linguist is maybe even prepared to tip the velvet. And Brits, who seem to have lost their compass regarding poetry, regard this as an-ever-so exotic-vibrant-exciting-novelatory mega-event.

What is so sad about the introversion of oh-so-many British readers is that they could discover perhaps hundreds of competent women poets if only they would cross the great water, as the I-Ching would have it, and look to the shores of Scandinavia and the Low Countries, plus Germany and France.

Many of the poets translated on this blog are women; some are even lesbian, or bi, or whatever. In Scandinavia, poetry is no longer the province of cigar-smoking bachelors in student clubs, as it may have been over there in the 19th century. In fact much good poetry is indeed written by women. Why are British publishers and readers so reluctant to have translated some of these women poets from Europe and beyond?

Why must English-only poets be tediously-endlessly promoted, as if poets are a home-grown species threatened with extinction, when there are already so many more in the many countries of Europe? It would do British poetry a world of good to have some cross-fertilisation with the Continentals. Cross-fertilisation implies two directions, not just for foreigners to copy great British models.

[Note: comments on this post are temporarily disabled]


Frans Emil Sillanpää (1888-1964) was one of Finland's best-known 20th century classic authors. In 1939 he received the Nobel Prize for "a profound understanding of the country people of his land, and the charming artistry with which he portrayed their way of life and their relation to nature."

In the world of Sillanpää's novels, man is only a part of the universe: nature is equally important, if not more so, and forms a unity with human beings under the energy-releasing force and guidance of the sun. Among authors whom Sillanpää read and learned from were Tolstoy, Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Hamsun and Spengler, and he was deeply influenced by the racial and polygenist biological theories of the German naturalist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel.

Although his political sympathies in the
Finnish Civil War of 1918 were with the victorious White side, Sillanpää was also acutely conscious of the suffering and horrors that the war had brought to Finland. By the late 1930s he had become a voice of cultural liberalism, and his former right-wing supporters turned against him. He was however, also viewed with suspicion by most of the Finnish left, who saw him as unreliable and reactionary. The award of the Nobel in 1939 was widely seen in the West as a gesture designed to give backing to General Mannerheim's stand against Stalin's Soviet Union in the same year, but in Nazi Germany the translations of Sillanpää's books were removed from sale in German stores when the author published a "Christmas Letter to the Dictators" Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, which was critical of all of them.

After Finland's defeat in the Second World War, Sillanpää turned to radio broadcasting. His regular radio talks had a large audience in Finland, and his Christmas sermons became a national institution.

Sillanpää's most famous work is
Ihmiset suviyössa (People in the Summer Night, 1934). The excerpts that follow (there will be a series of posts) are from the opening pages of another book written a few years earlier and published in 1931, the novel Silja, nuorena nukkunut eli vanhan sukupuun viimeinen vihanta (Silja. Fallen Asleep While Young, or the Last Green on an Old Family Tree). Page numbers are from Volume 5 of Kootut teokset (1988).


The life of Silja, a young and beautiful country girl, came to an end about a week after the days of St. John’s, while the summer was still in its younger half. Considering her position in society, she had a comparatively respectable death. Although she was a fatherless and motherless servant girl with no other relations who might secure her existence, and although for a time she had to be looked after by others, she had no need at all to resort to charity. Thus, her life, too, was saved from a rather innocent trace of ugliness. At Kierikka Manor, where she was serving at that time, there was a sauna room. There she was allowed to lodge, and there she was given her meals, the meagre size of which was perfectly justified, as she never finished them. This humane treatment in no way stemmed from any special love of humanity on the part of the master and mistress of Kierikka, but rather from a kind of carelessness; the house was on the whole rather badly run. It is possible, too, that Silja’s savings were also a factor that played a role. At any rate, she had good clothes, and they would of course be passed on to whoever looked after her. The mistress had already tried to borrow Silja’s clothes on occasion.

Silja took after her father in being extremely tidy by nature; she made that miserable hovel of a room a very pretty place. From there her feeble coughing could be heard through the ramshackle window all the way to the lawn in the courtyard, where Kierikka’s sallow-faced children spent their time and planned their games. It was one of the small details which, together with the grass and the flowers, formed a part of the life of the Kierikka courtyard that summer.

There, in the last of the time that remained to her, the girl was also able to experience the incomparable charm of solitude. Since, as is often the case with consumptives, her mood remained quite radiant until the end, the solitude of this early summer was an excellent remedy for her slightly excitable amorous feelings. She was lonely only with regard to human beings; sympathetic company - wordless, it is true, but all the more devoted for it - she had in abundance. The relative sunniness of the box-like room and the twittering of the swallows that nested in the entrance to the sauna gave her finer instincts excellent material for the creation of radiant and happy mental pictures. The terrible phantasms of death kept their distance until the end, and she hardly realized it was the death she had often heard about in life that was now coming to her. The arrival of death itself took place at a moment when the wordless charms of her surroundings were at their keenest and most powerful. It happened as the hour of five in the morning was approaching, the sovereign time of the sun and the swallows. Moreover, the rising day was a Sunday, and no detail of the surrounding world had yet disturbed it at that hour.

The life of man, viewed from the moment of death, is like a brief vision stopped in its tracks; it is a kind of symbol that awakens longing. And so that maiden lived for twenty-two years; she was born up there, some three leagues to the north, and during her life she logically moved down here to the south. From that incorporeal image which a death, once it has taken place, invariably conjures up as if into the air that surrounds it, from that image all the inessential features invariably fall away, so that that it might almost be said that in the illumination of that moment the images of all individual human fortunes are to some extent of equal value. In the image of that maiden – an image which at that moment on an early Sunday morning no one was really there to receive into consciousness – there was not much to fall away. From its secret, timeless beginning, throughout the days of her life the whole of her being had grown beautifully into place. Within resilient surfaces a pure, unbroken skin contained its own darkness, near which the inclining ear of one in love had heard the beating of a heart and his questing eye had seen the reflection of his gaze. The girl had not yet lived long enough to be much more than a person who smilingly carried out her fate. Everything that concerns Silja, who fell asleep in death in the sauna room of Kierikka, is now for the most part quite unimportant.

To be sure, from the distant moment of the girl’s birth there gleams a series of events in which natural destiny moves with a firmer grasp, as it had to arrange the fortunes of this dying family branch on a different basis for its final span of life. For Silja was the last person in her family. The dyings-out of families of this social rank do indeed pass unnoticed by anyone, but in them are repeated the same sorrowful outlines that characterize the more exalted cases.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Friday, 22 May 2009

Butterfly Valley

In January this year the leading Danish poet Inger Christensen (b. 1935) passed away. In its new spring issue, Danish Literary Magazine has published an excerpt from Inger Christensen's poem-requiem, Sommerfugledalen (Butterfly Valley, 1991) in Susanna Nied's English translation. The work consists of 15 sonnets, all of which follow the Italian rhyme scheme and the division into octave and sestet, and each new poem takes up where the last one left off. The fifteenth sonnet is the master sonnet, drawing all the earlier ones together, and suggesting new interpretations. Although Susanna Nied's versions don't attempt to capture the rhymes and other formal characteristics of the poems, they do give an idea of the conciseness and power of the originals.

The Unbook

The new Books from Finland WordPress-powered magazine/blog/website continues to grow and expand. In the latest batch of posts, features and articles, Finnish poet and literary critic Teemu Manninen explores the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing, which makes it possible for publishers and authors alike to keep their books in print independently of the vicissitudes of the book market. Indeed, using this new Web-based service, authors can bypass publishers altogether if they want to.

Getting one's own book out without the help of a commercial publisher used to be known as "vanity publishing", and was generally frowned on by authors. Nowadays, however,the "papernet" and "podism" have opened up new horizons -- minority genres like poetry can now find a way to reach readers without the constraints imposed by sales figures and publishers' desire to create a brand or image. And the trend has put new life into the old-fashioned "paper book", which many had thought might be dying.

Above all, POD is potentially interactive. Manninen describes the recent phenomenon of the "unbook":

The concept was invented by Jay Cross, an internet consultant known for his work on informal learning and systems thinking, and Dave Gray, the founder and chairman of XPLANE, a ‘visual thinking company’, although both imply that they are only describing practices which already exist.

Whereas a traditional book is published in editions whenever it gets revised (or it has sold out), an unbook is released in versions (1.0, 1.13, 2.0 etc) which are never finished but always open to feedback from readers. Both Cross and Gray have written books by bringing the readers along into the process of editing their content even before publication. As Gray says, ‘the dialogue is critically important to the development of the ideas, and now that I have tried this approach I can’t imagine doing a book any other way.’

Read it all.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Elias Bredsdorff: "Ærkedansk": 3

Some of Elias Bredsdorff's comments and strictures on modern Danish could apply equally well to English.

Is Danish a beautiful language, or is it, as some foreigners claim, a disease of the throat? Sometime last century, according to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, a little Dutch boy was sitting practising his Danish. His father interrupted him with the words: "Don't hiccup like that, boy, it's not good for your throat", to which the boy replied: "I'm not hiccuping, father, I'm speaking Danish".

But the question of beauty or ugliness is meaningless. Anyone who has heard Bodil Kjer or Erik Mørk reciting a Danish text will be in no doubt that Danish can be a very beautiful language. On the other hand, most Danes feel that Dutch is an unattractive language. But here, of course, the Dutch disagree!

Like most other living languages, Danish is a language in constant flux. Year after year Dansk Sprognævn (the Danish Language Commission) explains new words that have come into the language, either as neologisms or as loan-words.

Here are some examples of words which have entered the language in the course of the last 35 years: lommeregner (pocket-calculator), alternativkultur (alternative culture), nærbutik (local shop), bistandslov (social security law), ecu (common unit of monetary value in the EU), edb (electronic data capture), forbrugerklagenævn (consumer complaints commission), flyvebåd (hydrofoil), ellert (a small three-wheeled electric car), afrohår (Afro hair) and rotteræs (rat-race).

The Danish Language Commission explains when each individual word was first used. And I myself have the honour of having been the first to use the word kulturradikalisme (cultural radicalism). To quote from "Information" in the report of the Danish Language Commission: "It was Elias Bredsdorff who defined the concept in a heated debate in the summer of 1955, when he pointed to the unbroken line of descent from Georg Brandes' time to the Kulturkampf of the 30s".

Some of the new words are taken directly from English: "callgirl" (for luder, "cash" (for rede penge, "booke" (for bestille på forhand, "computer" (for datamaskine and "blender" (for a kitchen utensil [NB Danish word not given!]. We adopted English words in earlier times too, but not always in the meaning they had in English. What we in Danish call a speaker is an "announcer" in English, and in English a kasket (cap) has never been called a "sixpence".

Another loan from English is the increasing tendency nowadays - especially among the young - to use the word du in the sense of "one", i.e. where du in no way refers to the person one is talking to. That this is the case emerges clearly from this example which Jørn Lund quotes in one of his books:

"An elderly undersecretary asked his granddaughter to describe the internal design of the girls' changing-rooms at the Øbro swimming-pool, and received the following reply: "First you go in through a door, yeah? And then you come to a room with little lockers. You get changed there, yeah? And then you can go and have yourself a shower"."

Over the years there have been zealous guardians of the language, the so-called "purists", who have seen foreign loan-words as a threat to the purity of the Danish language. Personally speaking I do not share this point of view. But when it is a question of linguistic disagreements, people often become fanatical.

We saw this to a lesser degree in Denmark in the summer of 1985 during the so-called "mayonnaise war", when people reacted violently to a suggested change in the written language whereby certain foreign words, e.g. mayonnaise, would acquire a more Danish form.

More violent still was the war that raged after the Occupation over the issue of scrapping the initial capital letter of nouns. For many people it was almost a matter of life or death to preserve the capitals. Nowadays, however, only a very few people still use them.

One of the genuine threats to the Danish language is the linguistic laziness that leads to linguistic poverty. It is meaningless to say ik (no?), after every other sentence, and it is a rank bad habit to say lissom (for ligesom, "like") about everything (han er lissom lidt gammel, "he's, like, quite old").

In newspapers one sees journalists, who ought to know better, writing a sentence like this: Han hører til en af de største kunstnere "he belongs among one of the greatest artists", where the meaning is that he is one of the greatest artists, or that he belongs among the greatest artists.

The expression indtil flere "more" is a meaningless cliché. Flere is sufficient by itself. The combination både-og, unfortunately, is being gradually edged out both in the written and spoken language by både - men også (both - but also), e.g. han var både klog, men også forudseende (he was both intelligent but also far-sighted).

On the radio and TV one constantly hears the word premierminister (prime minister) pronounced as premiereminister, and the word vurdere (estimate) as vudere. Some people have a tendency to emphasize laudatory or derogatory expressions with the help of words like utrolig (unbelievable) or fantastisk (fantastic). It is not enough to say of someone that he is nice, or that he is very nice; this has to be beefed up forcefully and powerfully into "he's unbelievably nice" or "he's fantastically nice".

To me, "it's an unbelievably good book" is no more convincing than "it's a good book". For if everything is emphasized with the help of the word "unbelievable", the word itself is going to be devalued.

(to be continued)

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson

Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 1
Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 2

Laus Strandby Nielsen: Prose Poem

You throw a stick in the water, but it sinks to the bottom. You throw a stone that skims on the water before it sinks to the bottom. You find another stone, but see at once that it's not a stone. It is an internal organ in a relatively living creature. -- That's a lie! you say. And yes, it is, the stone is a stone, but the first stick that was the last was an internal organ inside the invisible dreaming monster you are struggling with. -- Was? Yes, precisely. The whole thing is a reconstruction. -- The whole thing? Yes, precisely. Why else would one be throwing sticks and stones in the water?

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

Poem translated from Danish by David McDuff

Prose Poem
Prose Poem

Hanna Klingenberg: "The Pearl"

Thirty years ago, I spent a happy year in Jakobstad, a small town on the coast of Ostrobothnia. Now, decades later, Hanna Klingenberg, a native of that town, has written a short story about the feel of the town. Little has changed in the three decades:

The Pearl

Hanna Klingenberg

The first days back in Jakobstad were always the worst. When I had been living for longer periods in larger cities I tended to forget how people behaved here. Where every street corner was charged with a sensitive memory. And where I couldn’t just glide past and wander about in my own thoughts but would be interrupted by some old figure of authority. The district nurse. My former classmate’s strict stepfather. My ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. They would pop up everywhere, in doorways, on viaducts, waving madly.

I preferred to drive through the centre first. Then I could whizz along the pedestrian precinct on a bicycle, towards somewhere far out of town. After that, I would perhaps dare to take a walk around.

In the library I caught sight of my old gym teacher. She was standing some stacks away and I immediately rushed up to her and gave her a long, heartfelt hug.

"Hej!" I said.
"Hej!" she replied.
"Long time no see!" I said.
"That’s for sure!" she said.
"How are you getting on?" I asked.
"Great!" she replied. "Nice it’s now summer."

Then we somehow slid apart. I walked along the stacks, studied the spines of books and gradually remembered that I never got more than seven out of ten in gymnastics. I had skived, not bothered to shower, been careless with dropping catches, letting the ball fly past me. And had I made a habit of hugging teachers? Even before, when I was a pupil? I can only remember hugging a teacher on one occasion, and it wasn’t me that hugged the teacher, but he hugged me. I was in the eighth form at the time, and my grandfather had just died. My physics teacher came up to me and lay his arm on my shoulder and offered his condolences. But went I think back to that hug I think mostly of the jumper which I happened to be wearing at the time. And this was in fact a man’s vest that I had bought at a jumble sale for one mark, and on which there was a rather strange text, criss-crossed right under the open neck. For men only was what it said. I remember all my sorrow about granddad disappearing for a short while, because I was wondering whether my physics teacher was really hugging me to console me. Or whether he had first spotted the text printed on my jumper.

Now my gym teacher and me bumped into each other again, by the art shelf. We looked kindly at each other and smiled slightly. I fixed my gaze on a book and read "Ernst Brillgren".

"Oh!" I exclaimed.
"What is it?" asked my gym teacher.
", I thought I read Brillgren, with and ‘r’," I laughed. "But it said Billgren, nonetheless. I’d read it wrong."

We slid apart again and I walked rapidly and determinedly towards the reading room. I sat down there and took out my green rough book. "Jakobstad is my pearl", is what I wrote in it.

"Pearls can be compared to myths spun / around crass truths. / Because the mussel spins its pearl / around something as tiny and insignificant as a grain of sand! / Am I the mussel that spins the myth around my Jakobstad? / Is the town really an insignificant grain of sand when it comes to it."

It ended up a crappy little poem. I wanted to stop writing immediately, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so, as I felt there was a man standing and staring at me. I had to carry on, though it was dreadful to be stared at when you were being creative.

"When I dreamt feverish nightmares in the Jakobstad of my childhood / I always dreamt about grains of sand. / It would all start when I took up something that was so big I didn’t understand how big it really was. / And if I did understand it, I would only get giddy. / When I realised that the big thing I’d got myself involved in was in fact very tiny - when I realised that I was in fact inside a very tiny grain of sand that was light brown and hexagonal - well, then I would always get a panic attack. / What was huge was in fact very tiny. / That’s what my Jakobstad feels like too. / Little and big at one and the same time."

I wrote till my cheeks glowed. In the corner of my eye I could see the man standing and staring at me, uninterruptedly, intensively. Now it no longer mattered what I’d written in my rough-book. All that was important now was to be seen to be writing.

"Jakobstad, you are my pearl. But if I am to wear pearls they shall be in the shape of earrings. And the earring will only hang from one ear. / If it were a necklace it would have to be broken in some way. Otherwise it would become too / ladylike and frumpish / for me. / When I was little I used to chew on a necklace when I was doing my homework. It helped my concentration."

The sentences grew too long to be poetry. And I wrote the last sentence so carelessly that my pen slipped beyond the rough-book. The last word ended up on the desk surface. I blushed when I noticed. Now, you could bet your life that the man in the corner of my eye would be standing there laughing. That was the end of our flirtation. I just had to look up, and when I did I noticed that there hadn’t been a man standing and staring at all. It was a rack of brochures!

In Jakobstad anything can gawp at you.

I left the reading room immediately and mooched about, wandering past everyone I met on the street. Deeply absorbed in my own thoughts. One of the boys I passed was one I had slept with. We merely greeted each other. I remembered a simile that the clergymen would make during confirmation classes. "If you share out all your slices of cake right, left and centre, you’ll have no cake left for your wedding night!" Mum had come up with something similar. This was about pearls, as it happened: "Every boy you sleep with gets one of your pearls. It’s no fun standing there with a broken necklace on your wedding night, later on." She had no doubt forgotten that I used to chew on pearl necklaces.

Things were beginning to get better now. On the town square I passed the boy who had spread the story that I had driven through the centre one evening with the handbrake on, so that you could hear the squealing and screeching all over town. All I actually did was sit at the steering wheel, look surprised, and wonder what was making the screeching noise. We had never greeted each other before, so we didn’t this time either.


The story first appeared in the Finland-Swedish literary periodical Horisont 1/2009.

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 10


At the times when I am preoccupied with a poem, I cannot be the person I would like to be. I wound and offend, I demand the impossible, or do things I later regret. I can see what I am doing, but cannot act differently. All my strength moves in one direction: towards the poem. All my passion is gathered in one single point.


Perhaps the poem needs me?


The poem 'Meditation Fountain' in Bridge of Seconds speaks of two forces that are present at every birth, a gathering and a spreading. Creation and destruction are aspects of the same process, and so destruction is an important element in art. Nothing comes into being without something else simultaneously being destroyed. Rejection and precision are deeply interconnected.

There is a paradox in the sense of being enriched after deleting, word by word, the thing that at one stage one tried to persuade oneself was a poem. It’s a happy experience to have written a good poem, but at least as happy a one to have avoided writing a bad poem..


'Poetry can be defined as a series of encounters which have chance as their fundamental law', Per Højholt writes in Cézanne's Method. The degree to which it is chance that determines the encounter can be debated. Is an external compulsion involved, or is it an inner necessity? Is it I who grasp chance - or does chance draw attention to itself? It is sometimes hard to decide where the borderline is between two such contradictory quantities as miracle and chance. Our birth may, for example, be said to be determined by a very predictable encounter, but why that particular ovum and that particular sperm cell and not one of the other millions of possible ones, and why that particular lovemaking that day between just those two people... Does the poem approach me or do I approach it, that is the question. Of course the process goes both ways, and it is a matter of indifference whether as a writer I am fertilized by Providence or chance. Holy ghost or ovulation – what does it matter, as long as a poem comes out of it...

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk-1
Over the Water I Walk-2
Over the Water I Walk-3
Over the Water I Walk-4
Over the Water I Walk-5
Over the Water I Walk-6
Over the Water I Walk-7
Over the Water I Walk-8
Over the Water I Walk-9

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Vikings in Chechnya

At Prague Watchdog, German Sadulayev speculates (in a way that's at once both serious and humorous) about the possible presence of the Vikings in 11th century Chechnya, and draws some striking historical analogies.

Shouting from Copenhagen

At the new Absinthe blog, U.S. expat writer and translator Thomas E. Kennedy contributes another of his Shouts from Copenhagen:
Here I can gaze across to a first floor apartment occupied more than 150 years ago by the father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard, across from that The White Lamb serving house, shelled by the British in 1807, under orders of the Duke of Wellington, the year it opened. Now, 202 years later, Wellington is dust in his grave and The White Lamb continues to serve golden pints.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Bridging the Gap - History and the Nordic World

I thought I'd continue out here in the open the discussion that started in the comments to Harry's Bredsdorff post. Eric wrote:
While nowadays I am more on the right in economic and social-cohesion terms, I still read the former Communist weekly Ny Tid, partly out of nostalgia, partly because of its good cultural coverage, and partly because it is always useful to read opposite views. When I was at UEA and in Åbo, the Communists I knew were almost painfully middle-class offspring. They'd never been within an armsbreath of a worker. But I admired their idealism. And I hope that we people that kick against the cultural pricks of bestsellerdom and xeno-ignorance in the UK can adopt an even-handed approach in political terms.
I have to admit that my political sympathies are mainly centre-right/libertarian. This, I think, is partly a result of the relatively long ime I spent during the 1970s and 80s -- after periods in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe -- trying to do something to lift the veils of wilful ignorance that surrounded the view of the Soviet Union then prevalent among Western democrats, most of whom were apparently unable to perceive the true nature of global Communism. It's also probably a result of the time I spent the United States during the same era, when the discussion of these issues had a different configuration from the one that characterized debate in the UK and Europe. Today, if I were still in the U.S. I suppose I would probably sympathize most with "right-wing Democrats" and "left-wing Republicans".

This political stance caused me some problems when I met writers and intellectuals in the Nordic countries, most of whom held views that were even more the to the left than those of their counterparts in Britain. On the other hand, I became aware that -- as Czeslaw Milosz pointed out in The Captive Mind -- totalitarian ideology has the power to enslave the minds of individuals who are otherwise decent and intelligent, and that behind the ideological enslavement and blindness often lie beauty, truth and honesty. That is particularly true of writers and poets, I think. In Finland, for example, I found some poets who, though they professed to be Communists, were writing poetry that would never be accepted in the framework of Soviet literary dogma, and was even far removed from anything could be called "left wing", or "politically committed".

It wasn't until I got to Estonia in the early 1990s that I began to meet writers and intellectuals from a Nordic cultural background who also had direct and personal experience of Soviet reality, and who because of that had managed to (even had to) bridge the gap between the personal and the public/political - much in the way that W.H. Auden had done in England and America decades earlier, though from a very different experiential base. These writers knew what Communism was and what it did to people, had felt its physically and mentally destructive force, which was similar to that of Nazi ideology and practice. Meeting these people was confirmation for me that even though in the rest of the Nordic world the influence of the Soviet threat and Soviet propaganda had put blinkers on many minds, there was a Nordic cultural reality that stood outside that limitation and beyond it.

I agree with Eric that the labels of "right" and "left" have become less meaningful since the fall of Communism - yet the old dichotomy remains, now mostly polarized around opposition to or support for the United States and its cultural and political role in spreading the values of liberty and democracy throughout the world. But also, for cultural and historical reasons, and probably because I'm British rather than European, the Nordic world has always seemed to me to stand somewhere between Europe amd America, and I guess I still see it as a kind of bridge between those two inwardly diverse but outwardly monolithic entities.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

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

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

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

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


Elias Bredsdorff :"Ærkedansk" - 2

In former times, when people in so-called "well-bred circles" turned up their noses at the Copenhagen dialect, their indignation was provoked both by the dialect of the socially inferior classes with the flat a, which became æ in words like gæde and Dænmark, and by the opposite tendency, i.e. the use of open a in words like traor instead of træer (trees). I still remember a song that Lisa Weel sang in the review "On the bottom" in 1932.

This song, which was written by Poul Henningsen, contains the following lyrics:

The embankments, the old streets, the green trees,
Let others see the beauty in all that.
The city, to me, is the people with the open a's.
And what do I care that there are green trees there.

Yet the theatre once spoke
The Danish language
Like a book.
Say hello to Herr Neindam from me.

We speak short and sweet.
Forcefully, tersely and fast,
Kiss the Copenhagen lingo from me!

They speak Fynsk and Lollands on the radio,
Speak Copenhagen, and then you'll get somewhere.

The broad, open clang
Of Copenhagen slang,
Just listen, man -
Give them all a kiss from me!

I got to know Poul Henningsen himself at the beginning of the thirties when, as a cultural commentator on Politiken, he was very involved with language problems in his determined struggle in favour of natural speech-forms and against the tendency to allow the pronunciation of words to be influenced by the spelling. In this context he attacked, in particular, radio-announcers.

He claimed the fact that more and more people were saying God dag instead of goda, which is the natural pronunciation, was due to radio-announcers' habit of constantly saying god aften instead of goaften. He raged against the growing tendency to think it was refined to pronounce the silent letters in words, so that more and more people were beginning to say købmand (grocer) instead of kømand and snedkermester (master carpenter) instead of snekermester. It's the semi-educated people who say Bredgade (Broad Street) and Købmagergade (Meat-Seller Street) instead of Bregade and Kømagergade, he maintained. Poul Henningsen won the support of many fellow-writers, who took his criticisms to their logical conclusion by introducing written forms which more accurately reflected pronunciation: simply omitting any misleading letters, so that for example they wrote osse in order to avoid the frightful pronunciation ouså (i.e. også, 'also').

It was osse a step in the right direction when the Language Reform made it officially acceptable to dispense with the silent d in the words ville (wished), kunne (could) and skulle (should).

I myself have suffered from someone, in their eagerness to speak correctly, inserting redundant silent letters into their pronunciation. In the word sølv (silver) the v is silent, and in the word guld (gold) the d is silent, but I have known people talk about sølv and guld. A maid, trying desperately to emulate her employers' bad habits, answered a phone-call for her mistress with the words: Ja, nu skal jeg kalve (Yes, I'll call her now).

I spent many years teaching Danish to English students and I would tell them that words like bliver, blev and blevet (stay, stayed and (has) stayed) should not be pronounced as they are spelt, but as blir, ble and bleet. My English students had learned that a d is normally silent after an n, and therefore they didn't find it hard to pronounce the word Handelsbanken properly. But when they saw the name of another bank, which was called Andelsbanken, they were inclined to make it rhyme with Handelsbanken and call it Annelsbanken.

I also had to teach them that the letter f is never pronounced in the little word which is spelt a-f, but this was complicated by the fact that the word is very different in contexts such as én af dem (one of them) and han faldt af (he fell off). In everyday speech the t in at is simply not pronounced. But in the sentence det er let at se (it's easy to see) it is pronounced å, and in the sentence han siger, at han kommer (he says he's coming), as a.

I have heard older people, while reading aloud, employing the pronunciation dig, sig and mig (you, one-/himself, me) with a sharp i sound: a pronunciation which some psalm-verses demand for the sake of the rhyme. While the authentic pronunciation of the word we spell h-a-v-d-e (had) is hade and the word l-a-g-d-e (laid) is la (with a long a), the same elderly individuals generally used the forms haude and laugde.

I taught my English students that the plural of noget (some) should be pronounced noen - Har du noen penge? (Do you have any money?), but when they were in Denmark they found that many Danes nevertheless pronounced the word as it is written: nogle (noule. It is confusing to foreigners that the word which is pronounced vær is spelt v-e-j-r (weather) - det er dejligt vejr (it's nice weather). Nor does the numeral seksten (sixteen) rhyme - as foreigners might think - with teksten (the text), but with gejsten (the ghost) - though without the stød (roughly, glottal stop).

(to be continued)

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson

Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 1

Monday, 18 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 9


While the draft of the poem is coming into being, I feel that I have been put outside of time, although that phase has its beginning and its end. The place I am in is forgotten, as is my identity. A state of seeking, almost weightless. Like a pure floating.


“Storm and stress” is often considered a virtue, but stands in contrast to meditation or absorption. If I am absorbed by the outside world all creation is rendered impossible, because in that case it is the world that uses me to act. In the process of the poem precisely the opposite becomes true: it is I who am the agent. A bombardment of impressions may be sometimes be of importance, but in the phase of writing the direction goes from inside to out.


All the handwritten revisions, the basic sensuous experience of moving a pencil or pen across the paper are incredibly important, as are the subsequent fair copies, because they have the character of being finished, and therefore call for corrections and improvements in a way that is different from the first hasty sketches. A rationalization of the process would not produce more good poems -- at most, it would give rise to a great many bad ones.

Between the individual sketches hours, days or weeks, sometimes months may lie. One can’t bully a poem, or it locks up and will not obey. Where a poem is concerned, it is not the writing down that takes time. On the other hand, the intervals between the productive phases can be of long duration. But during the time that the poem is resting, something happens. Or I am given new eyes to see with.


The material or the emotions may pile up, ideas and images grow out of proportion, the potential may assume dimensions which cannot possibly be of any benefit. There is nothing to be done except to overcome one's resistance and carry on. Poems demand will, a fact that conflicts, perhaps, with many an old myth, but the poem does not come into being with the wave of a magic wand. In a society, the will is one of the most invisible things – there it is always the finished result that counts, or the final product that is presented. But will, which is not to be confused with mechanical toil, apparently exists on a perfectly equal footing with other instincts, and should not be undervalued. Will and endurance may go very far in determining my fate, but they are not sufficient to create art. At most, these forces are a forward operating base.

Lastly, the exertion must not be detectable in the finished work. 'It's from diamonds like yours that I know the sweat they are silent about!' Per Højholt writes in The Moon's Gesture. A Sophus Claussen Identification.

Anyone can experience inspiration, but few have the courage and discipline to go further. It is above all here that the artist stands out from others, who let happy ideas evaporate the instant they are born. It is the stubbornness that is enigmatic, like the will to life. Where does the strength to go on have its source?

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk-1
Over the Water I Walk-2
Over the Water I Walk-3
Over the Water I Walk-4
Over the Water I Walk-5
Over the Water I Walk-6
Over the Water I Walk-7
Over the Water I Walk-8

Absent Friends

Further to the references to the late Stewart Oakley on the Eurovision Song Contest thread, here is a nice photo of Stewart (on right) and Tom Munch-Petersen (recently retired from UCL) which I took at the University Teachers of Scandinavian Studies conference held some years ago in Guildford (University of Surrey).

I got to know these two and many more SS academics from frequenting these conferences as an interested outsider. They let me tag along, in groupie fashion - cf. the old crack about a drummer being a guy who hangs out with musicians.


Elias Bredsdorff: "Ærkedansk". Twelve Essays from Glænø

Elias Bredsdorff (1912-2002) was a Danish scholar best known in the English-speaking world for his work on Hans Christian Andersen, whom he strove to portray not just as an amiable author of children's tales, but as a creative and poetic philosopher. He had a long-standing connection with the United Kingdom, having been a lecturer in Danish at University College London and at Cambridge, where he was made a fellow of Peterhouse. His association with this famously right-wing and traditionalist college, the nursery of many Conservative politicians, was particularly ironic, given Bredsdorff's life-long involvement in left-wing politics, which for a time led him to be a member of the Communist Party.

In about 1960 Bredsdorff and his wife bought a former smithy and attached dwelling-house on the island of Glænø, off Zealand, as their summer home. So when the head of the regional radio station asked Bredsdorff to give a series of talks, these were given the general title of Ærkedansk. Tolv essays fra Glænø (Arch-Danish. Twelve Essays from Glænø). The essays were published in book form in 1992.

In the introduction to the book, Bredsdorff explains that Ideen var at gå fra det lokale til det alment danske og - så vidt muligt - også at sætte emnet ind i det europæisk perspektiv (The idea was to go from the local to the generally Danish and - as far as possible - also to set the subject in its European perspective).

The concept is suitable Grundtvigian - the Danish bishop-educator advocated starting children off with local studies of their immediate environment, progressing to the surrounding county, the country, and then the wider world.

The individual essays cover such subjects as The Vikings, Folk Ballads, School, Language, H.C. Andersen, The Village, and Humour. They are very much the product of a Dane talking to fellow-Danes, and I do not believe they have ever been translated before.

What follows is the first part of Sproget (Language), a quirky reflection on the Danish language by one who knew it inside-out.

Danish is spoken everywhere in Denmark, but it is not the same Danish that is spoken throughout the country. Even in particular geographical locations one can hear differences in the speech of the local people. If a phonetician with the same skill in identifying people’s geographical origins that Professor Higgins had when, with a fair degree of accuracy, he was able to say what Eliza the flower-girl’s speech betrayed about her background .. if such a phonetician were to talk to all the inhabitants of Glænø he would soon discover that a certain proportion of the population speak an unadulterated South-West Zealand dialect, another group speak Standard Danish with distinct traces of the original Zealand dialect, another lot again speak a North Zealandic which betrays possible origins in the Gundsømagle area, and that there are some whose speech bears unmistakable signs of their having spent their childhood or youth on Funen or in Jutland. And finally, there would also be people with distinct reminders of Copenhagen in their speech. But Zealandic would of course be the dominant trait.

There is nothing remarkable about this. One would really have to go to remote country areas in Jutland or Funen to find a whole population without exception speaking the unadulterated regional dialect.

Language changes, partly because people move from one area to another and take their language with them; partly because of the influence of the electronic media, even if radio and TV now deserve some credit for giving the Danish dialects equal billing with the so-called “standard language”, which people in earlier times were inclined to perceive as “the language of educated Danes”. Now, the definition of “standard language” is a negative one: it is language which bears no trace of any form of local dialect.

I remember from my childhood that there were people who had a tendency to judge others’ character traits from the dialect they spoke.

People who spoke a pronounced Jutlandic dialect, especially West Jutlandic, were “solid Jutes”, genuine and reliable; but this in no way prevented a degree of scepticism about Jutland horse-dealers, about whom one knew that if they sold you a cow in Jesus’ name, you could be sure that it would have three teats!

Dwellers on Funen got the designation “unworried and jolly”, but the Zealanders were “slow and over-cautious”. The Copenhagen dialect, the speech of Grønnegade, was a “street-urchins’ language” which was looked on with disdain by cultivated people.

The idea of a connection between local dialects and character traits corresponded to some extent to the clichés in my geography books, that “the Finns are quick to reach for their knives”, the Spaniards are “warm-blooded” and the French “frivolous”.

Johannes V. Jensen, a Jutlander himself, once carried out an amusing literary experiment. Having first interpreted Hans Christian Andersen’s story “What Father does is always right” as a true story from Funen which could not have happened anywhere else in Denmark, he tried the experiment of telling the story as it would have sounded if it had instead taken place in Jutland.

Andersen’s story is about a farmer who takes a horse to market. On the way he exchanges the horse for a cow, which he exchanges for a sheep, a goat, a hen, until finally he returns with a sack of rotten apples. A couple of rich Englishmen he meets in a pub have a bet with him that when he returns home his wife will give him a thrashing, but the farmer maintains that he will be met with kisses rather than blows, and that his wife will say: “What Father does is always right”. And the story ends with the farmer winning the bet.

In his Jutlandic version of the story, Johannes V. Jensen had the farmer going to the market with a sack of rotten apples and returning with a horse. But the ending is quite different too, for the Jutlandic wife is sour and irritable and had been expecting that her husband would have done better all along the line. When at last he tells her that he palmed off a cow on a man and got a horse in its place, she says: “I thought you had come home with a team”. And with that she turned and went into the house. And what she had not found a way of expressing in words, her back said for her." Country folk will take for granted that et spand means a team.

But the inherent difficulty of the Danish language, even for an academic like Professor Hans Brix, was demonstrated by the latter in 1947 in a reference to Poul Reumert’s reading of the story of the Jutlandic farmer’s wife, when he wrote in Berlingske Tidende: “When she was shown the horse, she would have greatly preferred a bucket…”

Hans Brix, in other words, had not understood the difference between et spand (a team) and en spand (a bucket)!

(to be continued)

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson

The Reading Circle

In a Hbl column, the Helsinki journalist, writer and literary critic Pia Ingström writes about a cultural institution that's especially widespread among Finland's majority Finnish-speaking population - the book club, or reading circle. She says that a large part of her Finnish-speaking life (as a Finland-Swede, she also has a Swedish-speaking one) is spent in a circle of readers "whose members are authors, editors and translators. We eat and talk about our jobs if we have one, as well as about our children, grandchildren, husbands or pets. Also, each of us presents a book we've been reading, for purely personal or for professional reasons."

At the circle's last meeting, author Anita Konkka had been re-reading Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy's novel Helping Verbs of the Heart, and her view of the novel had been changed, she said, by the life experiences she had had in the intervening two decades. Pia writes that "I need my reading circle not for discovering new books, but old ones. It's lucky that there are people who read according to an order that is completely subjective, free from passing trends and fashions."

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 8


Sometimes I cannot gain access to the receptive space where I can forget everything, and the poem can be given birth, where I can form a shell around myself and be at peace. I may try to do so from many angles, but I will not succeed in finding the entrance to the room I know is there.


The process of the poem is a being-alone-with-oneself.


The poem sometimes begins in a dream-moment, of its own accord, or when two words collide and instantly set off a larger movement:

Between always and never
it is that things happen
in a breathless second
when one least expects it
the world changes.

Something that was not there before and contains a new being in itself, appears. Or the process may begin almost imperceptibly with a sound, a rhythm, a musical motif, a fragment of something almost forgotten or a misreading. Even the experience of absence may set language in motion.

A modern physicist would say that atoms have always existed, that something has always been given. Something is there, but whatever it is, it can be extremely diffuse. There exists a material, an amorphous structure, which by means of transformation is brought to take on a number of forms, but most importantly: poems are not created from nothing. Something is. Just as at birth we have the impressions of nine months already behind us.

The thing that was the poem’s original starting-point, and is often discarded, exists nonetheless as an invisible place, and has its special function in the poem.


Poems occupy themselves with the impossible, with the writing down that of which one cannot speak. The opposite to Wittgenstein's Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. But this is precisely the barrier that poetry seeks to cross, by writing out new universes. All that about which nothing final can be said, and which reveals new, unspoken aspects each time something is formulated. Poems set words free. They constantly move the limits of language, and yet are never able to say everything...

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk-1
Over the Water I Walk-2
Over the Water I Walk-3
Over the Water I Walk-4
Over the Water I Walk-5
Over the Water I Walk-6
Over the Water I Walk-7