Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 4

Sofia has a gentle, melodious voice, like the little bird she in fact is. But she can't sing. Not as if I could, either. Not as if I could.

I let her go her off. In any case, I need time to get dressed and get ready. This time, I really do want to look my best, wearing my brightest clothes. I want to get dressed up and do myself up for his sake, as a tribute to the power of love within me. I want to deck myself in colour and fragrance, the way you decorate a room, or a shrine. Sofia says I'm not natural. My hair is dyed, my face painted. Round my neck hang precious stones, feathers and talismans. I know I sometimes overdo it, but the hoarser my voice, the greater the urge to dress up.

My hands trembled while I made myself look beautiful. I checked Sofia, she was sitting there together with Andreas. I looked at him. You could see that he hadn't slept a wink all night; oh, those delicious shadows under his eyes where a night of worry had left their mark. He was pale, as if struck by the word of God, and the whole of his body was begging: bless me with Thy touch.

They talked about taking a walk in the woods, where the wild cherry trees grew.

My tongue, the tips of my fingers and my sex all ached with longing for his body, his warmth, his essence. I could hardly control myself, but I knew I would have to. It was Sofia he wanted.

Everything had been so much simpler when we were small. No, it wasn't easy. We were always told we shouldn't disturb, or not to be a nuisance to others, and on no account were we allowed to have tantrums. We also learnt that well-brought up folk ate what they were served, learnt to forgive people who hurt us, and to lend others their toys even if they got broken in the process.

Sofia found it easy to conform, but I could never learn how you were supposed to behave in furnished rooms. So I was given a corner to myself with paints and paper. It was me who invented all those pictures. All those brightly coloured paintings and the songs were mine too, me who had so many treasures to guard.

Sofia and me used to play a fantasy game, pretending we had moved to the woods and were building a house for ourselves out there without anyone else's help. And if we did have to be in contact with Civilisation, it would be Sofia who went and fetched things, since she was good at being liked.

But we had never reckoned with life becoming what it has. With architectural students coming by, with us unable to keep away from them. Every time it's just as painful.

Perhaps she's right; perhaps I ought to keep away. I could experience him through her. But I get into such a strange mood when I'm not allowed to be present. And she knows this too.

So I stepped outside and the wind blew straight into my face and glued my thin dress against my body. Heat waves don't make life any easier for me.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Nordic or not

Last week there was news that Greenland may soon become a sixth Nordic state. The new form of strengthened self-government for the autonomous country which at present exists within the Kingdom of Denmark apparently contains an "independence option" which can be exercised at a future date.

However, there are questions: would Greenland really be a "Nordic" state? The country's indigenous inhabitants are Inuits, related to other Inuit groups in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Language-wise there aren't any problems - although Greenlandic isn't an Indo-European tongue, neither is Finnish. But there are aspects of Greenland's history that cause some head-scratching: for example, in 1946 the United States offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100,000,000, but Denmark refused to sell. There is also the question of Erfalasorput, the national flag, which doesn't look very Nordic - no cross, but a Japanese-style circle/sun motif.

And what about literature? The list of Greenlandic authors doesn't seem to be a long one, and those who do exist are mainly poets not well known outside their native land. Magssanguaq Qujaukitsoq (b. 1977) has published one collection of poetry, Sisamanik teqeqqulik (The Four-Cornered One), which this year was Greenland's nomination for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and was consequently translated into Danish. Reviews were mixed, to say the least, however: in Politiken, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg was hard put to it to say a good word about the book, finding the poems lacking in literary quality and characterized by anti-consumerist and anti-colonial tub-thumping.

But perhaps the problem lies in the difficulty of translation? As Zangenberg pointed out, without a knowledge of Greenlandic, one has no way of knowing.

This seems a pity. If any of our readers can suggest some classic or contemporary Greenlandic writing in translation that might be suitable for our summer reading (the great sommarvila/sommerpause/kesätauko is almost upon us now), we would be pleased to hear about it.

See also: Modern Greenlandic Writing

Monday, 29 June 2009

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 3

This is, perhaps, a suitable time to expand a little on my views on men. There is often quite a contrast between mine and those of Sofia. She wants daily routine, whilst I want a party. My mode is that of excess. Fruit in my mouth, sap dripping, flesh without words, or words become flesh. I want banquets, thundering music, charged conversations, the spell of desire. There was a time when I wanted something superhuman, I dreamt of extraterrestrials, love, you understand, was something so rare for me that I believed it only existed on other planets. You could say that I just didn't believe that love was human. This meant that if I discovered a man who seemed to be filled with love, I would believe that he had come from another planet, the same one as I come from. Let us call it the Planet of Dreams for simplicity's sake. But the trouble with imaginary extraterrestrials like us is that we don't all come from the same planets, but from vastly different and widely scattered celestial bodies, all with their special and almost unchangeable customs.

If I didn't have Sofia, I don't know how I'd cope. It's her who does the shopping and drops in on our aunts. As for me, I paint pictures, listen to music, read books, philosophise and pine.

I've heard that it's not at all unusual for sisters to be very different. They divide up their characteristics, so to speak, just like a married couple: one is jealous, the other longs for freedom. One is silent, the other talkative. One flirtatious, the other aloof.

Back to the outdoor café. By the way, did I mention that they were eating waffles? How did I know? Sofia has that charming habit of getting a drop of cream at the corner of her mouth, just like a kitten.

Now he at last popped the question he had hardly dared utter, since he was already so deeply under the spell of Sofia that he could not the bear the thought of any pitfalls. You could see from the expression on his face how this encounter had pierced him to the core. He was the sort of person who could, without even knowing it, go around longing for something absolute. And for such people, an unexpected crush can feel like the sudden presence of God exists at last and is looking down on them with his gleaming eye. The only eye which emits light instead of absorbing it.
Seen and approved by God, a vessel for His power and determination, that is how people in love can feel.

In short: he asked her, full of fear and trembling, whether she would be spending her holidays alone.

And Sofia, that chunk of hypocrisy, says nothing and simply mutters something about that she has come here to get over a painful separation. And says it so mysteriously, so full of suffering, that he does not ask anything more.

But Sofia, you must have noticed that I am awake? Or were you so absorbed by him that you'd forgotten to check?

The little monkey! She's now gone and made a new date with him. Same time, same place, tomorrow morning!

And so she came home, cheeks aglow.
I had already got up and, despite my pounding headache, I had begun to paint one of my glowing portraits. Of him.

"Carmilla," she said, "can you manage to keep your distance just this once. Please! He means so much to me!"

"You know it won't work," is all I can say.

Just now, this morning, Sofia tried to sneak off while I was still asleep. But I woke up and saw her standing there, full of anticipation in her childish blue summer frock, a straw hat on her head.

"Does he actually know how old we are?" I asked her.

"Carmilla" she said again, admonishment in her voice, "just you keep out of it, at least for a while."

"Perhaps he'd like me," I say. "He seemed different to all the rest."

"Dare we take the risk?" she said. "You know how it always turns out."

"Yes," I reply. "But I don't know whether that depends on me or you."

"Anyway, you can hardly manage to speak nowadays," she ended. "You should lie down and rest."

True enough; my voice which used to be so beautiful is hardly more than a desperate whisper. Perhaps I have a lump in my throat.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3


I write, and draw a sparkling trail behind me: the Writing – ineradicable – where ‘I’ exist. My self is left behind, seeing differently from before. With each book my fate moves.


From the day when as a child I discovered a secret alphabet, a code that was mine, I gave up many of my earlier games, I lived in a different way. Both visibly and invisibly.


Individual words are not in themselves poetic, but if all goes well, words added to other words can produce poetry. It is not that the world must be poetic so that I can create poetry, but that I must be able to ascribe a value to words. The transformation into art takes place in words, and it is in concentration that the accumulation happens. It is here that the designated dimension is transformed into symbol or image-value, here that the syntax unfolds or is broken down, it is here that new words emerge and new rhythms, with their own pattern of pressures and tone-scales. In poetry tones and colours are set free, in poetry the words acquire a value beyond the everyday, here musicality and suggestion are very important qualities. And so for the reader, poetry first appears in the encounter with the poem.

Of itself, language is cold, the material is cold. By material I mean the sum of all the signs I use to write poems, but the material can be manipulated. It is I who make it warm and soft. Language is filled with my breathing, follows the movement of my body. Likewise, language is of itself sexless. It is only my noisy behaviour that makes it rise...

With its standard expressions, fixed idioms and figurative meanings language is not much different from a ruin which lays bare life’s transitory nature, its time and history. A concept like ‘eternity’ is static and dead, while poetic language points to the possibility of change.

Language is only language – and language should not be confused with things. I can’t write with the word ‘pen’. There is no agreement between the word and the thing, very rarely does the sound connect with the object. Whether I like it or not, I have to put up with the fact that a leaf is called: Leaf, a washtub: Washtub, and cream: Cream. Damn it, I wish I could have come up first with better words for the ones I find most impossible, the ones that billow like jellyfish in my mouth, but a word is a word and cannot be done away with.

Language has its geological layers. It contains several eras. I am not one of those who adhere to the idea that words have lost their value in a tragic way, or can only express vague reminiscences. The original meaning may have been lost, but one equally that is equally new and valid one can come into being. Language fluctuates. Obsolete expressions don’t necessarily need to be reactivated, but the innate potential of language will go on developing. Thus fresh nuances and fresh entities constantly emerge. So I’m not left with the last ruins of a language. I am filled with verbal visions, and continue to believe in the magic of language in poetry.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Translatology - 2

I've been reading Brian Harris's interesting paper on the origins of translatology (traductologie), the concept and discipline which he named and founded, and am left with two overriding initial impressions: one is that the term itself denotes something very simple - the idea and practice of "reflections on translation". The other is that the term "translation" itself covers a vast area of meaning, from the literal ("A process by which a spoken or written [or signed] utterance takes place in one [natural] language which is intended and presumed to convey the same meaning as a previously existing utterance in another [such] language") to the religious and the metaphysical. The author comments:
Whenever I address professional translators or translation teachers about Natural Translators, I have to preface it by explaining that what I mean by ‘translator’ is not what they understand by ‘translator’; it is because I am speaking in a different paradigm and describing a different object from the ones they are used to. If they do not accept the paradigm shift, they will not accept that what I am talking about is translation, nor even be interested in it.
See also in this blog: Translatology

00-tal - Finland-Swedish issue

The Swedish literary quarterly 00-tal has just published a Finland-Swedish issue. According to one claim on the internet, Finland-Swedish literature is often met almost with silence in Sweden. If this is indeed the case, it is a pity. Because two Finland-Swedish prose authors are publishing new novels this autumn.

This is significant because Finland-Swedish literature has always had more of a reputation as a literature where poets abound. Even short stories were part of the canon, but Finland-Swedes often used to complain that they had no real novelists. The situation has changed gradually over time, but it is nevertheless encouraging that Kjell Westö (pictured) and Monika Fagerholm will be adding Finland-Swedish novels to the pile this year. There will also be recent poetry by Tua Forsström.

Another interesting feature in this issue is a questionnaire where major Swedish authors are asked about their favourite Finland-Swedish writer. And Merete Mazzarella describes the breakthrough of radical prose.

See also in this blog: The book harvest

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 2

As you can well understand, I too have such a feeling. I therefore felt great sympathy with the young man, who also happened to be good-looking. And when it comes to the crunch, he wasn't all that young. He had just gone and admitted that he was thirty-four.

When I first homed in on them, he was sitting there talking about himself. He was the kind of young man who had tried all sorts of different jobs and training schemes, and was at present reading architecture.

"Can you picture the house of your dreams?" asked Sofia.

A good move there: avoiding having to reveal the fact she knew nothing about architecture. That she, in fact, thinks it is the dreariest of subjects. Without trying to be too nasty, I feel I ought to slip in the odd explanation about Sofia: she is interested in cosy evenings at home, watching videos and buying clothes. Now and again, she reads a book, preferably one with a happy ending. Her favourite colour is forget-me-not blue. She works in a day-nursery and her usual reply when someone asks her about her job is: "You feel so inadequate."

That was what she said to him too, and a sceptical look crossed his face. I could see what he was thinking by the look in his eyes. That her mere presence was enough to heal any wounds.

That is, then, Sofia's main asset: looking a certain way. Something similar to what geishas have to learn. Like them, she can also force herself to make conversation about any topic under the sun, even subjects she finds pretty dull. If she had met an agronomist, she would have asked him: "Can you picture the agriculture of your dreams?" and if it was a therapist, she would have said: "Can you picture the therapy of your dreams?"

If you were to ask Sofia what her own dreams were, the reply would be: finding a man to live a normal life with.

I have to say this: Sofia is merely a decoy. In the guise of a motionless swan she rests on the mirror-like surface of the water.

Back to the outdoor café and the ageless young man. Did I mention that his mouth was attractive? A mouth that can make you wild with desire, awakening that sinking feeling of painful covetousness inside you; lust that surges through you like a small earthquake? And his eyes, they had the gaze of someone who had been waiting for years. The languishing eyes of someone who has pined since the creation of the universe. Or rather, eyes which, on account of purely hereditary factors, happen to be of a certain shape, have a certain lustre. But what does lust care about that; it dreams its dreams all over the place.

As for Sofia, she was sitting with her head cocked to one side, looking cool in the heat, the heat wave. It was me who was sweating away here in this hot little house, knocked out by the thunderstorm in my head.

The young man, whose name was Andreas, revealed to Sofia that the house of his dreams stood out on a naze. With many windows, masses of weatherboarding and whitewashed stone. A house which breathed and sang, quiet but full of surprises.

"Well how strange!" exclaimed Sofia. "Just the sort of house I've always dreamt of!"

And she added the furnishings, the earthenware pottery, the bouquets of flowers, the stylish furniture and the ornaments, each with their individual stamp. All straight out of Femina weekly.

He smiled and told her about the Renaissance architect Alberti; something about a house of perfect proportions which in some way or other had been inspired by the spirit of God and thus had become a living being. Something about people as houses, and houses as people; I'm not entirely sure he himself quite understood what he was talking about, but Sofia's look of interest did not leave her face for one instant. In her time, she has listened to detailed descriptions of football matches, the plots of films, the history of Gnosticism, the pros and cons of Sweden joining the EU, evidence for the existence or non-existence of God, a review of idiosyncrasies of Finnish grammar, and how you should boil eggs in the proper manner; but Sofia has a very poor memory, which is often the case with those who have a one-track mind.

"A little habit of mine," said Andreas, "is to imagine people's homes and what they look like. Homes of the people I pass in the street - I imagine all those things with which such people can surround themselves. Here, a terraced house, there, a dreary bachelor flat, or a boudoir with red plush curtains."

I was beginning to think that this young man was really interesting.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Uku Masing - 100th anniversary

Uku Masing (1909-1985) spent his childhood in the Russian Empire, and after the age of thirty was again confined to the prison-house of the Soviet Union. His 100th anniversary is in August of this year, so he deserves a mention.

I was reminded of his existence when reading today's Eesti Päevaleht (one of the two leading Estonian dailies), when the paper's cultural correspondent Andres Laasik wrote an article about him and a new DVD documentary called Uku Masingu maastikud (Uku Masing's Landscapes; 2009; director Enn Säde). Three films have been made about him previously.

The article accentuates the fact that Masing lived in internal exile for years. He was a theologist, polyglot and poet, and his poetry was metaphysical, so the Soviet authorities frowned on it. During Estonian independence in the late 1930s he had become part of the poetry movement Arbujad (Soothsayers), who were brought together by Anglophile poet and translator Ants Oras, who was greatly influenced by T.S. Eliot. Other poets of this group included some that would become major Estonian poets such as Betti Alver, Bernard Kangro and Kerti Merilaas. During the 1930s, Masing studied Arabic and Ethiopian, as well as theology, at Tartu University and wrote an Estonian grammar of Hebrew during that decade.

During WWII, Masing and his wife helped a Jew avoid capture and supplied him with necessities, thus earning them the Vad Yashem title of Righteous Among Nations. Later on, he helped investigate war crimes committed at the Klooga Nazi concentration camp.

After WWII, and after contracting tuberculosis, Masing worked quietly to avoid drawing the attention of the Soviet authorities to himself. He nevertheless managed to translate the New Testament and other parts of the Bible into Estonian between 1974 and 1983 and wrote several theological books, one of which on Buddhism.

Swedish exile Estonian author and translator Peeter Puide, mentioned earlier on this blog, wrote a novel about Masing called Till Bajkal, inte längre (To Baikal, No Further - a quote from one of his poems; 1983).

I shall be translating some of Uku Masing's poems in due course. Many were first published in Estonian in exile publications in Canada and elsewhere, although Masing never went into exile himself.

There are English articles about Uku Masing in the context of Bible translation, plus Lauri Sommer's translations of two of his poems in the Spring 2009 issue of the Estonian Literary Magazine, but this is not yet available online. However, there are translations of two of Masing's other poems by Ivar Ivask and Küllike Saks here. And there is an article entitled Religious vision in modern poetry: Uku Masing by Vincent B. Leich here.

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 1

Inger Edelfeldt published a long short-story or short novella called An Uninhabitable House in her 1993 collection of stories called Den förunderliga kameleonten (The Wondrous Chameleon). I am posting my 1996 translation of this work in serial form; part one today. I translated the story, set on Gotland, about a decade before I myself visited the island. As you will see, the story hinges on the fact that two sisters, Carmilla (the narrator) and Sofia share the same soul or consciousness.


by Inger Edelfeldt

My sister and I were conjoined when we were tiny. We had grown in such a way that they could manage to separate us neatly without any great harm being done. The only part of us which remained a little unusual was that we appeared to be sharing the same soul, or consciousness or whatever they call it nowadays. In short: I am completely aware of everything she is thinking and vice-versa. I can even see out through her eyes and hear what she is hearing when we are apart. It's a little like a dream or seeing something in my mind's eye, but I always know when I have tuned in to her wavelength. She cannot escape. Nor can I, for that matter. On the other hand, we cannot influence each other's actions to any great extent, and have to make do with simply registering what the other is thinking and feeling. Sometimes I also pay short visits to the minds of strangers. It's quite simple really, once you get the hang of it.

It's me, Carmilla, who is writing this down; my sister, Sofia, is the more extroverted of the two.

It's about this young man; the young man who Sofia met in the café this morning, while I was still lying asleep at home with a migraine. I mean to say, I intended going to sleep but was in fact lying awake following what was going on. I couldn't actually go there myself, on account of my headache and the heat.

Anyway, Sofia and me have just gone and rented a house on Gotland, in Fridhem near Högklint. We never stay at one and the same place for any length of time. The air here is supposed to be good for you; they're supposed to have had a spa here once. Perhaps the sea air can cure all sorts of diseases, was what we thought.

"Carmilla, I'm going off to the outdoor café to drink some coffee while you're having your rest," said Sofia, and I thought I would be able to sleep undisturbed by worry, since there were only families with children and German tourists out there.

How wrong you can sometimes be! I woke up out of my daydreams to the image of a young man with a most attractive appearance. Sofia had, it seemed, already found an admirer, which is nothing new. You should have seen Sofia! She looked so young, even though she's over thirty. Or perhaps even older than that. Nothing appears to have left its mark on her. She has that sort of pristine beauty which makes men read a lifetime's worth of suppressed desires in her figure. They imagine themselves standing by some mysterious pool in the forest, bathed in gentle, attentive silence, they can smell the fragrance of a new white blossom in the twilight. Ah yes, they seem to hear a clear mating call, as from a herd of white, hornless soulfully staring cattle! There I go again, I really must try to get a grip on myself, I'm not really the type to start making fun of other people's desires. In short: she is to them the personification of truth, the answer to longing so childish and grand that they do not normally wish to acknowledge that it lurks within them. As in all those ballads of Swedish yore: Jungfrun gick till källan... the virgin went down to the well... Hon dansade en sommar... she danced one summer... Kristallen den fina, o crystal so delicate...

I could see all of this reflected in the eyes of the young man. And I saw a good deal else, too, as I lay there beneath the leaden crown of my migraine. I saw that he was one of those types of young men who think that they are old. Who have grown weary of acting the eternally scruffy student. People who bear a burden, almost as if they are pregnant with it, and wonder what they are to do with it, whom they can load it off onto. On his brow were those types of wrinkles you see on the forehead of a young man who believes he is bearing the whole of History within him. Feels himself to be prehistoric: his thoughts rooted somewhere at the birth of the universe. At the other end of his thoughts, this side of History, he now hovers, anchored by the long lifeline of thinking, like an astronaut floating outside his capsule. That isn't anything to joke about either. But it is a little odd, nevertheless; where does this feeling of having been around since the beginning of time come from? Could it be that something inside you continues from life to life. Or is it simply the sum total all the books you have read, all the paintings and films you have seen and all the music you have heard which gives you that feeling of psychic pregnancy?

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Friday, 26 June 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 8


Life had been a unity of three; when one was torn away, the other two moved apart and became lifeless. It could not go on as it had done, and even the manor house itself seemed desolate to a man who sensed the nearness of death. All that remained of the mistress was her portrait and her memory, with those solemn features that are invariably mutual to husband and wife, and are only perceived at moments of extreme distress. Little did it matter if he saw the morrow. In a deeper sense, no morrow was going to dawn for him in any case. His defeat was total, though almost no battle had been fought.

After this night had passed, the old master was grimmer than ever, and tight-lipped to the point of silence. While he moved about the place as earlier, he spoke so little that the men sometimes found it hard to guess what tasks they were meant to perform, for Kustaa was often as taciturn as his father. Curiously, although everyone knew what was amiss, not even those close to the events had anything to say about them. Kustaa’s visits to Hilma were common knowledge, but no one was able to summon up anger in their regard.

One day one of the cottage-dwellers broached the matter with the master when Kustaa and some other men were present. The old master said nothing at all, just gave a faint smile and looked at Kustaa. “What are your thoughts on the matter?” Kustaa flushed and smiled back, but as he did so an expression of helpless pain flickered across his face. “What can I say?...” He walked away, almost in tears.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Sirje Kiin and the "Letter of Forty Intellectuals"

For those who think that Iran is the only place where freedom of expression is disapproved of by the powers that be, have a heart for Sirje Kiin, growing up in Soviet Estonia during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980, the now famous “Letter of Forty Intellectuals” was signed by 40 Estonian writers and intellectuals complaining about the lack of press freedom, and hoping to preserve the Estonian language and culture. Their wish for it to appear in Pravda was ignored. And they were all ultimately interviewed by the KGB.

The extracts below come from Sirje Kiin's English-language website. The full story of her political biography can be read there.

Sirje Kiin (born 1949) published the autobiographical sketch below in the cultural album or almanac entitled Wellesto, which has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Nowadays she has become a poetry critic and lives in the United States.

My Political Biography (extracts from an essay)

In 1980 the political pressure of the Soviets became intolerable. I wrote in my diary of unendurable silence, in which it seemed like everything was alright, but deep inside tension was building. In October, flare-ups occurred in the schools against Russification of the school system. The Soviet militia responded to this misbehavior by beating the high school students who were involved. For some of us, this was the limit of our tolerance.

I was involved in writing a letter of protest and getting 40 well-known intellectuals to sign it. We did it in an attempt to protect those young people, as well as the Estonian language and culture, against Soviet repression. For two weeks there was feverish activity around our kitchen table. Sometimes we worked through the night, then collected signatures during the day. There were conversations with dozens of people, silences, refusals, disappointments, tensions, fights, new friends and the loss of some old ones, before the letter was actually sent by mail on the 28th of October. We rushed the process because there was a pressing need – we had already received threats from the KGB to search our house.

At a party meeting in the Writers’ Union, the leadership punished an older lady, a translator named Ita Saks, who was one of the 40 signers of the letter. In my fiery speech defending her, I used a statute of the communist party which said that every communist had a right to send letters to communist party newspapers.

During a recess in the meeting, the chairman of the Writers Union, Paul Kuusberg, invited me to an empty room and asked me strongly to stay silent. He asked why did I not sign this letter, if I was willing to defend it now in such fiery terms? I told him that only one person from each family signed the letter, because we were ready for the worst, for the signers to be arrested. My husband and I agreed that he would sign it so that I could stay home with our six year old son. “Then we should really punish you, too, because you were so deeply involved in writing the letter,” he said. “You had better be silent,” Kuusberg suggested, like he was my wise father. Other older communist writers Vladimir Beekman and Villem Gross accused me of being under the spell of strange enemy forces, an agent of some foreign ideology. When I tried to explain that it’s not right to punish a messenger for reporting a fire, Villem Gross said that you cannot quench a fire with gasoline from the CIA.

The actual text of the whole "Letter of Forty Intellectuals" itself is available here on the same website.

The translators on this occasion are Jüri Estam and Jaan Pennar

E-books in Scandinavia - 2

News from Sweden that print-on-demand publisher Publit is to develop a software-based e-book reader specifically for the Swedish book market. E-books have been slow to gain acceptance in Scandinavia, even though they have been discussed for ten years now, and Publit hopes to change this.

See also: E-books in Scandinavia

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Igor Kotjuh: "An Esseme on Nostalgia"

Igor Kotjuh has written what he terms "essemes". The word "esseme" has been created analogously to words such as "morpheme", "grapheme" and "sememe", to denote the smallest unit of an essay. Kotjuh’s three "essemes" are on the subjects of nostalgia, on chance, and on literature and the meaning of life. Here is the first of these, a poem in blank verse about the said subject:


I long for the pen and the piano keyboard, I long
for the moment, a dream, someone dear and never met.
I long for the rain in the sultriness of summer and for the sun
on a misty day, I long for peace within and grow angry
when time stagnates. I was born in the Soviet Union,
and I have seen how Estonia has become a daughter of Europe.
I do not know which childhood I should recall,
for that reason I dare not dream or make plans.

I dash out poems in Cyrillic, they are read in Karelia
in Finnish. My parents, as well as their
parents spoke Russian or Belarusian,
Estonian, Setu, or Ukrainian. Is that not a Babel?
If languages are a part of culture and a great asset
then our family is worth as least as much
as the nobility and should rub shoulders with bankers.
But in fact my father is a tractor-driver, my mother a seamstress.

Monotonous work gives a certain hue
to holidays: you look forward to them to for ages, but
they give rise to a hollow feeling, one of disappointment.
That is probably why I like broad terraces
by the hotels of nobles, where candles flicker
on the tables, from the speakers comes super disco, it is evening,
the rain has subsided, the floor and the chairs glitter from the water
the ceiling of the hall, and hopelessness remains in shadow.

Sadness and enthusiasm! And between them – nothing at all.
Like a sandwich without butter. The best choice for the poor.
And so we arrive at the start, at childhood, social
sorrows, politics, rights. At subsistence and health,
plans and dreams. At contradictions of the heart
and beyond. And it is hard, almost impossible to leave
this jumble unscathed, one’s own and that of others
in order to enter into another life.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

Out of stock

A sad story related by the Bookseller. The author of a "satirical travelogue" about the Orkney Islands has caused such outrage among their inhabitants that the book has had to be withdrawn from sale:

In Chucking It All: How Downshifting To A Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life Max Scratchmann describes the inhabitants as "staid, emotionally repressed drunks, stuck in the 1950s". The book was due out 11th June, but is shown as "out of stock" on Amazon.co.uk.

Finnish publishing news

Parnasso's Jarmo Papinniemi writes that Finland's third largest publisher, Tammi, has announced plans for drastic cutbacks in staff, while there is also speculation that another publisher, Gummerus, may be taken over by Tammi (=Bonnier) or WSOY (= Sanoma). One major reason for the changes appears to be the drop in sales of non-fiction: younger Finns especially find that they can locate most of the reference material they need online, through sources such as Google.

A note for the curious: Parnasso's post is headed with the (relatively new) Finnish online chat acronym KVG (Kato ,Vittu, Googlella).

See also in this blog: Changes at Teos.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2


Where violence begins, words have usually given up the fight long ago.


To produce language is among other things to acquire knowledge – and thinking can only pass through language, but no human being can ever be all-knowing, as knowledge does not stop anywhere.


Society needs the body that is able to work, and is not always interested in the self-conscious body that comes to language.

In the last twenty years, during which poetry has assiduously commented on language, language has lost much of its concrete quality. So often the mouth is an image of speaking, rarely of eating – or sex is linked with pleasure and orgasm, and only exceptionally with reproduction. And what has happened to physical work during this century? Work has not been eliminated, but rendered immaterial and intellectual. On every level the tangible has retreated before the intangible. Man’s association with matter is often replaced by programming, control by the images on a screen, the use of apparatuses or patches. Physical labour no longer produces reality – instead, cultural patterns have taken over this role in a hyperfunctional society where more and more people are becoming passive consumers of goods, ideologies and information.

The movement from the industrial culture to the information society has only just begun. We are faced with conditions so altered that language has hardly yet managed to create means of expression for them.


I do not own language, I borrow it. Many of us must share the same words, but the moment I write a poem, I make the alphabet my own.


In itself, a word is no more than a word. The words that once were flesh are now events in language, pure appearance without being. In the beginning was the word, but before that darkness. Darkness and uncertainty.


"Words are weightless, not because they are empty, but because of their eminent width," Løgstrup says.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Monday, 22 June 2009


As this is a translation blog, I'm wondering if someone who has actually studied the theory of translation - as distinct from the practice of it - as an academic subject (B.J., others?) would be prepared to come on here and explain just what the subject involves and entails. Most of us here are practicing translators or readers of translation rather than theorists, and I thought it might be interesting to hear from someone who has delved into the sociological and non-linguistic aspects of the activity that keeps us so busy. Also, if it could be put into a Nordic context, and given a literary angle, that would be additionally relevant.

In Wikipedia, for example, I read of the science of Cultural Translation, which "is a concept used in cultural studies to denote the process of transformation, linguistic or otherwise, in a given culture. The concept uses linguistic translation as a tool or metaphor in analysing the nature of transformation in cultures. For example, ethnography is considered a translated narrative of an abstract living culture."

I would be fascinated to know more about this, if anyone can explain it further. If not now, then later...

Translation via a third language, and the GULag

My Swedish is good, my Latvian somewhere between beginner's and lower intermediate level. After reading three books of Juris Kronbergs' poetry translations into Swedish, of poems by Vizma Belševica, Imants Ziedonis and Knuts Skujenieks, I once felt like translating some of Skujenieks' poems into English - without having an adequate knowledge of the source language to go it alone. But I did read the poems in the original, however imperfectly, alongside Kronbergs' Swedish translation; I have a decent Latvian-English dictionary.

This is one of those translation (translatology? translation studies?) questions that straddles theory and practice: is it legitimate to translate poetry, poetry especially, via a third language? And the question covers everything from not being able to read the source language at all (e.g. you can't even read the alphabet) to a situation such as mine, where I know the source language to an extent, but not well enough to cope on my own. Some people in this situation form a team with a translator from the source language, or with the author, as Fiona Sampson did with Jaan Kaplinski.

Why Knuts Skujenieks? I had already translated a book of stories and read novels by the Estonian Jaan Kross about what life was like in the Siberian labour camps. So I was on the same wavelength as Skujenieks, who had witnessed very similar scenes, but had turned them into poetry, rather than prose. Here's one of Skujenieks' poems. Was I right to bring it to English via Swedish, in lieu of any other method of liberating it from the GULag of language?



The dull, rancid light from a bulb
Hanging limply down from the ceiling.
And on our cheeks, our mouths
Forms a crucifix of black shadows.
Peace on Earth. It is Christmas now.
The nineteen hundred and sixty-sixth.
The solidity of prison. Good cheer to mankind.
People want to joke a bit now and again.
The black cross swings slowly,
Shuts out, writes and crosses over.
People want to joke a bit now and again,
Even the Redeemer wants to now and again,
Wishes you heavenly music,
Next to you verbal rape is being committed
In the dull, rancid light from the bulb
Your mother and your great-grandmother,
Hearing near sounds from afar,
When a bunch of keys torments at the door.
Never say the Saviour has no sense of humour!
Instead of a tree the bucket stands in the corner,
For a week not even the smell of chlorine.
Praise to the Lord in the highest,
Watching on duty too over the Earth!
Only the frozen window panes glimmer,
With the cheap glitter of childhood.
But beyond them... Let’s leave that for now.
For there again is the cross, the cross, the cross...
Hidden, saved, brought right up to the flesh
Makhorka shag portioned out like the wafer.
Pax vobiscum! The peace of the Lord be with you!
Peace be with them that own Nazereth,
The crib in Bethlehem and the little donkey,
Golgotha and the right-hand of the Lord!
Peace with all, only not with us.
The dull, rancid light from the bulb.
Blue harshness flows from our cigarettes.
Silence. Peace. Only not with us.
It goes through our eyes, our fists,
The way of the cross from Appia to Rome.

The Romans too knew how to joke...


Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Reading and Realism

From a Retired Publisher, in the Bookseller:
When I was a young rep in the mid 70's my sales manager told me that only 4% of the population of the UK ever went into a bookshop.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Kadri Kõusaar: "Free Rise" (excerpt)

We all have our translation failures, book excerpts we eagerly translate, only to find no publisher is interested. One of my failed projects in this respect is the second novel Vaba tõus (Free Rise) by the Estonian author and now film-maker Kadri Kõusaar (born 1980), a book that appeared in 2004. I didn't find her first novel particularly interesting, but liked her second one. I translated more than the statutory twenty pages and there was a synopsis, but alas, nothing came of this project. While still involved with the project, I wrote, back in 2004:

"Her literary models are writers such as Michel Houllebecq and Milan Kundera, and her website [now defunct] contains published articles about the Russian writers Nabokov, Pelevin, Dovlatov, as well as Sontag, Kureishi, Lorca, Neruda, Pessoa, plus film-makers such as Pedro Almodóvar and David Lynch. Kõusaar is not averse to mild provocation. She has appeared on several occasions on the covers of women's and popular magazines which she does as a deliberate tongue-in-cheek ploy to contrast her photogenic nature with her intellectual core. In late September 2004, Kadri Kõusaar began hosting her own lifestyle programme 'Mandolino' on Estonian television." [She subsequently gave up the honour, not being in agreement with the choice of interviewees.]

Kadri Kõusaar matriculated from the Tallinn English College secondary school in 2003 (an institution that taught subjects in English even in Soviet times!) and studied Spanish philology at Tartu University. But she has had her share of bad luck in the arts world. In 2007, her film Magnus was sent to Cannes, but the Estonian courts banned its distribution in Estonia on account of the personal nature of some of the film, too closely resembling what they interpreted as a libellous version of real life events. The court finally backed down in March 2009. But by then her chances at Cannes had passed by.

No legal problems are attached to the excerpt from Free Rise, reproduced below:

Part One - LIFE


It was perhaps the fourth night after Miroslav's death that I woke up at three. A raging hunger awoke me. A hunger which exploded inside me as if I had not eaten for days. And I liked this - I even liked it a lot because now I could at least think about something else besides Miroslav and death.

I put some spaghetti on the stove, heated up some tuna in olive oil and tomato purée, added a double dose of garlic, fresh basil and... Something else too. I even added something else.

But the taste was not from dreams. It wasn't right. I can't stand... imperfection. I simply can't. I had to have something perfect right away. I thought of making real hot chocolate. I boiled half a glass of milk with some cocoa powder, added cinnamon and Baileys... but something was still wrong.

Nothing for it but to make something simple and wholesome. Freshly squeezed orange juice with ginger - yes, that was always right. I picked three of the most beautiful blood oranges from the fruit basket and squeezed them, but I stumbled and the glass smashed to pieces. The red splashes on the white walls were...

I wiped the wall clean and staggered back to bed.

In the morning, I painted my lips the same orangey-red colour, put on a Prada which Miroslav had once given me and went to the funeral. Through the taxi window, I saw all the bellavital arches, baker's shops, well laid-out gardens - all as before but now so different.

My hunger for perfection and beauty had evaporated, all the arches and gardens seemed too beautiful. Suddenly I wanted something industrial, I wanted to be a machine.

"Hang on, hang on," said the taxi driver. "You are after all an actress. In this submarine with this transparent calypso... You've saved the world!"
"Yes," I replied. "I have been an actress. I changed and I wanted to change. But right now I want to be a machine. Be all the same and do all the same... And I want others to be the same too. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel."

The taxi-driver wound down the window and lit a cigarette.

"Please don't smoke," I said. "My perfume..."

The taxi-driver stubbed out his cigarette.

I made that scene up. Nothing like that ever happened. It could have happened but the reality was quite the opposite.

I was cooking all right as before. On the face of it, Miroslav's death didn't change anything at all. Everything was the same but I wanted it to be different. I wanted to change not only that surreal feeling inside, but everything else, too. I wanted to change and I wanted to be away: above and away, and I wanted others to change too. At the same time, I was in the clutches of a strange lethargy, not only me, but everything around me. I could, of course, have travelled away, but the point was to notice change in things that had always surrounded me. I wanted greatness - greatness and nobility, refined tragedy. I would have liked scenes like in "The Godfather": eyes of feverish flame, blood-red lips, impeccable black suits, empty cathedrals, Italian houses with turrets and balconies passing by through the tinted windows of the limousine; servants and especially their ebullient admiration and loyalty... I would have liked that throat-clutching feeling of innocence, Miroslav to have been a good mafioso who had been killed... by a sniper, while trying to make the world a better place as he sat with two old gentlemen at a table with a white tablecloth (in the background a bright green plain with cypresses). Hm, Hermes, my dream: the god of both robbers and thinking, the god of solutions. Miroslav was just taking a swig of Bellini - champagne, fine champagne with freshly squeezed peach juice when the bullet hit and bright red spots fell on the white tablecloth... like the stains of blood orange on the white wall.

But in reality - what happened in reality? The grey tones of everyday life - the sensitivity was there, but it was kind of mundane. Nothing exceptional. Maybe that was what disturbed me, that mundanity. I didn't want to identify with anything, I wanted a hero.

I went home, it was raining and the air was humid - what lecture had I just been attending? - wooden houses on both sides of the road did not make it a cosy suburb, simply a slum. Everything was dull and dirty, a car alarm was wailing. I opened the door, threw my coat on the hanger and wanted to make some tea. I had to throw the old tealeaves down the toilet, so I opened the bathroom door and...

... the next moment I checked mechanically to see if the keys and the mobile were still in the pocket of my jacket (strangely enough I didn't panic) and was outside again a second later. No, actually it all took two seconds. First I glanced at the mantelpiece. I was used to looking at it, registering it, and I wanted this to be the last I would remember of our flat. Ikebana, limes, oranges, apples, chopping board with ginger root, chopping board with cloves of garlic, jar of honey, stub of a candle, newspapers - one second. And the stairs which had once had the smell of my kindergarten (of semolina and games), but which now had the smell of exams - another second. By the third second I was already in the bar round the corner, ordering a tea. "If you find a corpse on the kitchen floor it's best to make yourself a nice cup of strong tea," someone once wrote. I remembered this as I was drinking mine. It brought about the first wave of panic - when I had read that sentence long ago, it never occurred to me that I would be learning the moral by personal experience.

"I'm never going back to that flat!" I said when the police, the ambulance and my parents arrived.

"I'm never going back to that flat!" For some reason, I felt the urge to repeat it.

"I'm never going back to that flat!"

"I'm never going back to that flat!"

Hm, it already felt like the game of a beautiful sentence.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

fs: Riga poems

The Estonian poet fs read several poems in my translation at a poetry event in Riga in 2004. Here are three of them:


we are all born in hospitals
long faded corridors
footsteps echo in the silence
the air is filled with the smell
of chlorine and medicines
the walls are steeped in sickness
our names are in the register
everything is under control
papers in the files
the files under lock and key
a guard at the entrance
today no one can get in
to see you
it's getting dark outside
behind the building the mortuary
get your feet off there
says the cleaner


these are not your hands, my dear
these are not your hands
turning the knobs of the radio
these are not your hands
that draw the curtains
that open the curtains
and aim a light in my face
these are not your hands
which press a gun into my hand
show me someone's picture
and push money into my pocket
these are not your warm hands
which touch my face
wake in the middle of the night
and lead in an unknown direction
these are cold hands that I feel
these are cruel hands
these are lifeless hands
that give life an aim



between the prison and the port
a nice view of the sea

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

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


No one has ever agreed that language ought to exist. For that, language is required.


The small child gurgles and rattles and chuckles, day by day making use of a larger part of the colour spectrum of language; the parents rejoice, and the game intensifies. There is no doubt that at the outset what is involved is a pleasurable and purely aesthetic satisfaction in the non-utilitarian play with sounds. The sounds are already there, and via the adults they are regulated into the language the child will speak. The pleasure need not necessarily disappear, but a noticeable alteration takes place when the aesthetic attitude is gradually replaced by the attachment of practical importance to a process which starts irrationally, and occurs regardless of the language that is to be learned.


No language can be called primitive, as it will always have a grammar and an order. And no language lacks beauty, even though that beauty may express itself in very different ways.


Language makes demands on me, it demands action. I can shape language, but it has already been shaping me for a long time. How many words for violence does language have? Language is not a means to something else. No, language does something to me: ‘I am a body that language touches.’ Each time I use language, a certain retroactive energy is involved.


Paradoxically, I must find my individuality in a language I have taken over. My language is my condition for living.


In language one travels without any safety equipment at all. Here the battle is for power, here self-worth and identity are at stake, here the strong may dominate the weak, here one may lie, one may edit reality at one’s discretion, manipulate, hide, block, talk without saying anything, and here art may continue to exploit every possibility or choose to defy the many forms of use or misuse. All dimensions are contained in language, from speech that is pure and clear to the lowest and dirtiest of speech, everything from true statements to delusion and illusion, the innocent and the dangerous. And here one may remain silent…

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Saturday, 20 June 2009


I confess I'd never heard of Swedish writer Fredrik Colting before I read this editorial in the New York Times.

The piece strikes me as rather odd. It seems to be arguing that there are certain characters who should be left alone. That is to say that writers might be able to write "fan fiction" or sequels/prequels based on some fictional characters but not others. Why is that?

I guess I don't get why writers shouldn't have the freedom to write about whatever -- and whomever -- they want. I understand issues of copyright, but I nevertheless don't see why writers shouldn't be able to find inspiration wherever it strikes, even in a copyrighted text.

I'd love to hear what others think about Colting, his work, and this issue.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Brecht At Night

Eric's translation of Estonian author Mati Unt's documentary novel about Bertolt Brecht's life in Finland will be published by Dalkey Archive Press on August 20. The book is already advertised on Amazon, and pre-orders can be taken there.


by Anni Sumari

Je suis le négro,
Je suis les réglos,
un jour un rigolo,
un jour un p’tit gigolo...


Can’t get rid of you.
Even in Africa you accompanied me
like some mascot.
You don’t take up much room (but all of it) –
Flying over Berlin hurt a little
because that is where you really live -
and then you were with me again
in unreality.

Your charm turned against me.
I can’t hate you even if I try.
A dark and massive silence landed with me
at Lagos airport, where there was a power cut.
Planes waiting like salmon in a stream,
their bellies full of passengers.
Planes shivering in the stream
like a union of water and electricity
preparing to spawn.
And that was how I arrived in
Black Africa.


‘Anni, give me five seconds of innocence!’
you said angrily. Five seconds of innocence?
In five seconds the coat hooks on the wall
reveal themselves as scorpions; the postman
as the village blackguard.

And the playful pilot boys who whiz low
in their white, unmarked light aircraft
to take a look at the only long, blond hair
on the West African coast – they are
hired assassins sent by the President of Togo
on the return flight after dumping
the corpses of opposition figures
in mid-ocean.

The entire coastline a deserted sandy beach,
an endless and hard-to-measure (because
constantly in motion) paradise that
like prepares for like.
I am sure that this century we will get
at least 20,000,000 white-haired American tourists
to lie on those sands, under the divine sun.
The developers are in their trenches. Monsieur Paul
is finishing his sixth whisky of the morning.
under the sun canopy. If you were here,
you would sometimes visit the barber’s
whose name is ‘Glory to God’,
buy cigarettes from the ‘Palace of Miracles’ kiosk.
Perhaps attend the ‘One God’ driving school,
and then you’d soon need the garage called ‘In Jesus’ Name’.
You see I told you not because
of beauty but of truth. Honestly
and truly, look at that restaurant’s
name: ‘Pay Now, Eat Later’.


The breakers rise out of a pale green mangle
and scoop the sand from under one’s feet,
throw themselves on each other, over and
over again, never turning round.
The seashells drag themselves ashore
after the ocean has sucked out their insides.
Crabs, even faster than Nikolai,
soft and transparent as
Scandinavian hair.
Death half putrefied.
In my face a mixture of saltwater and sand,
tears and sun lotion –
this is how I say goodbye to you.
Had to come to Africa for this.

In Africa I stopped crying.
On the Slave Coast, in Ouidah
Slave Port I just couldn’t cry any more
for lost love, a lover turned cold.
Part of the boatload took their own lives on the shore
by self-strangulation or eating dirt,
fearing they would be
eaten on being captured.

Driving by jeep through Cotonou –
the second most polluted city in the world
and the salty wind gave me a Rasta hairdo –
as the fishermen spent hours trying
to bring their canoes ashore through the surf, the storms –
I just couldn’t cry.

The two-metre high breakers, all-devouring,
striking the all-devouring sand of the shore
would take care of me in a couple of minutes
quickly and cleanly, no trace would remain,
the ocean would drown me in a couple of waves,
the sand would eat my bones, how could anyone
feel sorrow on these shores?

In a little while, there’s
nothing left of us, Nikolai.


In a regular wave-motion the bats dodge
round street lamps planted with regular lights.
An old man hobbles into the yard with his long thighs,
and nimbly squats to shit in front of our house,
his backside grey with dust.
I love you, it always occurs to me
when I least expect it. The old man’s hands
play, write your name absent-mindedly
in the sand, somewhere the ice is cracking.
Perhaps it would be better to love Bruce
Chatwin, author of The Viceroy of Ouidah,
Him I do not know at all, and besides he is
dead. No pain... Painless.


I just couldn’t cry any more.
The roadside poster campaign for
the child vaccination program.
A boy crosses the endless beach,
his legs crippled by polio. Now and then
he stops to rest on his pair of crutches.
Behind him walks a man whose teeth
are like a broken line of goose barnacles.
His skin smells permanently
of damp-stained bedclothes.
He leaves in the sand a torn-up letter
written in the blank space of a language lesson
hand-out: ‘Should I write you a letter,
say all those things you have heard before.’


In my blood, latent like malaria,
you may still break out even after several years.
I may call you from under my mosquito net.
Silicon plugs in my ears, drunk and
almost knocked flat by a sleeping pill,
for the moment I am safe from your influence.
But I can already hear the high-pitched whine,
and when I wake up in the morning
my face will be swollen with your bites.

Okay, I forgive you,
I even forgive the ocean for
unexpectedly overflowing on my towel and
tearing me by my hair into the tide
that never shows up when I wait for it
like Nikolai on dates, the ocean
that splatters the poor fishermen’s nets
full of smiling, head-sized jellyfish,
the sun before which hangs a grey
dust filter – the Harmattan –
Nikolai, like the African
cactus inevitably crushed
by a Finnish poet wandering
in the darkness, raising her bleeding,
pleading hands towards you.
The ocean, that needs my forgiveness
as much as Nikolai, as much as
the grains of sand that encrust my skin
and still remember the great mountains;
that drowns the heart attacks,
wipes out the after-effects, blows
the foam away from its skirts.

Blocked into a cul-de-sac a creature starts to grow
filling the whole labyrinth with its tentacles until
in some dimension of its own it finds the exit
from that Africa-shaped heart, the cloud,
the refugees fill the barges of the people smugglers.

Akó akó,” the boys sing in their croaking voices,
I see someone sweeping the sand.
They could wash the ocean too.
The waves suck and blow at the coastline,
rocking the booming shore as
tenderly as a well-balanced mother.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

fs: two poems

The Estonian poet fs always writes his abbreviated name in small case letters. The name is derived from his original pseudonym François Serpent, his real name being Indrek Mesikepp. Born in 1971, he is now an established member of the Estonian world of poetry. Although the pseudonyms and indeed posed photos, often with dyed hair, make one think of the cliché of the Poet, fs's actual poetry is sober, sometimes melancholy and embedded in everyday life. He is something of a follower of the accomplished Estonian poet Juhan Viiding (1948-1995).

The two poems translated below were published in parallel text, Estonian-Russian, in Igor Kotjuh's translation in the 3/2007 issue of the Russian-language literary magazine or almanac
Vozdushnyi zmei. Other Estonian poets translated for this issue included Jürgen Rooste, Aare Pilv, Doris Kareva and Elo Viiding.

dear Estonian people
good Russian people
don’t hand me over
let me wander a while longer
through the Kristiine shopping mall
in the homely light of the
Prisma food shop
over the slightly dirty
flagged floor
the red crisp packets
spotted socks
exotic fruit
several types of salad
pots and pans
Eric Clapton albums
onions and bread
beer and fags
don’t throw me out onto the street
let me do a few more rounds
it’s dark on the street
as soon as I end up there
my mobile will ring
a girl from Scotland
will be crying into the receiver
promising to kill herself
or ruin my life
she’s asking for a chance
to show me something beautiful
give me a chance
it would be beautiful
she wants to go out with me
she’s clearly a nut
dear Estonian people
good Russian people
don’t hand me over to her
let me mooch around the shop
this shop is my homeland
when attacked
everyone becomes a patriot



I got back from another town
it was late
my head and body ached
I had gone away ill
I had been ill there
and on returning was no better
I ended up watching telly
a film began and ran
and ended
a new film began
I tried to get up and switch off
but I fell asleep
woke up before the end
a large stadium
full of folks
a sniper was killing people
I lay there in bed
no it wasn’t the other way round
he was shooting
I lying there
always the same
yes always the same


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

Igor Kotjuh: four poems

One of the more interesting poets of the younger generation in Estonia is Igor Kotjuh. Although he writes most of his poetry in Russian, and is also a translator of Estonian poetry, he has published one collection written in Estonian, entitled Teises keeles (In a Second Language).

It is obvious that given the interaction, or lack thereof, of the two language communities there is a certain amount of tension between them. Kotjuh is one of the people in the field of culture who tries to bridge this gap. His surname could be spelt "Kotyukh", to follow the usual English transliteration of Russian and Ukrainian names. But as he is citizen of Estonia, his name has a fixed Roman alphabet spelling. Spelling can therefore be a cultural, even political, gesture.

Here are four poems from this collection, which was first published by the Tuum publishing house in 2007:


Everything has been written down, said, described.
With a polished iamb, trochee, dactyl,
amphibrach and anapest.
Cast in sestinas, sonnets,
blank verse and triolets.
Spiced with
masculine, feminine, full,
detached, attached,
paired (though not
in the bar) and cross-rhymes.
Furthermore a cæsura and enjamb-
ement.. Everything said already.

Postmodernism. A great resonance
in literature. A parade of names, a carpet
of quotations. The re-animation of classics,
the cobbling together of plain texts.
A paradise for lazy semioticists
and critics, making the supreme effort
to look down on other themes.

All those “compared with” and “linked to” --
as there wasn’t enough life to go round.
No intrigue. Where is the mousetrap?

Mixing, foregrounding,
appealing to history
and nostalgia –
with such you can start work as a DJ.

Maybe we too are dead,
and the XXI century is advancing in a dream.

Sunses and sunrises,
sensations, tales.

The living resonance is a parrot.
Throw him a word,
and he will repeat it
nimbly. Five times.

Or even more.

I’ve no desire to count them all
for I like the nightingale.



I’ve got the message!

A poet is free.

And that is why
in his poetry he is

(even though he has been
married for twenty years and has
seven kids).




There’s your mother-tongue
and another language.

But the person’s
the same.


There’s yesterday
and there’s poetry

Every poet is a human being.
Not vice-versa.


A person can have a command
of another language

in life or poetry.

from birth
or from later on in life.

This language is always
his eternal second.



A city spread over several islands,
on the north-western coast of Norway,
with a narrow sound like a trout’s
maw, receiving
barges and cruise liners. The streets
begin at the shore and lead to the shore.
A flock of balconies overlooks the sea.
A city of bright colours, for 20,000
people. During working hours
it is variegated here: shops, factories,
bars... But on Sundays
the city sleeps till lunchtime, the picture
dulls. And a few pensioners
drive back and forth in their expensive cars.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 7


Since then, decades have passed, a sufficiently long time for all that to have been forgotten — especially as only much later did those great events take place which, here as elsewhere, affected the house and its chattels… But that autumn this matter also awoke the interest of those insignificant folk who in their remote little corners and meandering byways were firmly attached to convention. And what made it all so unexpected was its background: the house and its chattels. The old women in their cottages felt almost importuned, as nothing could be said of an affair of this kind. It was a malign, foreboding disturbance that implicitly assailed the unconscious foundations of their lives. If a wild landowner’s son made a pass at a local girl one night and got into her bed, that was an event that enlivened the life of the village. The girl’s family would always be able to obtain upkeep for any child born of such a liaison. In the best case, a landowner would pay very handsomely indeed in order to stop the story spreading very far. But the old women’s intuition told them, with irritating clarity, that where Kustaa was concerned none of this applied.

This phase of Kustaa’s life is now long forgotten. Long ago, one after the other, the talkative old women were taken to the cemetery from their cottages in the forest, and are now completely and utterly forgotten where they lie in the grass-covered rows of graves. While it is possible that someone may still know and say that the former master of Salmelus, now deceased, married a girl from this or that cottage, the story no longer has anyone to tell it who knows what really happened.

That night the old master of Salmelus stayed awake until Kustaa came home. It was after midnight, about two in the morning. The son approached with cheerful steps, and the father needed to see and hear nothing more, for already he knew all.

The man who arrived at the old house in the moonlight probably gave no thought just then to the important changes his father and aunt had wrought in his absence. Of this the old master was well aware. He knew that if his son considered such distant matters at all he would probably be grateful to the two old people. Kustaa could be heard in his room, preparing to retire for the night. Although the sounds of his movements could be heard only faintly, there was something about them that said he was in a happy frame of mind. When the sounds died away, the old man felt that he was now alone and could at last reflect on the clumsy awkwardness of the arrangements he had made. Though not even to himself would he admit that he had bungled them.

When an old man sits up late in the small hours of the night thinking about such things, it does not bode well for him, especially if he arrives at no clear and firm decision that sets him free from brooding. His hold on life slackens and at the same time he begins to feel death tightening its grip. As he sat there very gravely in the silence of the small hours, the master of Salmelus remembered his deceased wife. Always before had felt that there were two of them to remember her, and that had made it all seem more intimate and easier to bear. But now it had suddenly acquired a different perspective. The left side of his chest jerked so cruelly that his pipe nearly fell from his hand. He quickly set the pipe aside and began to undress as if in a hurry to reach the place where he might have a long night’s sleep ahead of him.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6

Larry Silván: poems

The first sentence of Sven Willner's introduction to what, sadly, became the collected poetry of Larry Silván says it all: "Larry Silván var 21 år när han i august 1976 gick frivilligt in i döden". i.e. "Larry Silván was 21 years of age when he, in August 1976, chose to take his own life". Silván was a budding talent, but something went wrong. There are hints of schizophrenia. Nevertheless, he wrote quite a body of poems in his native Ekenäs before the perhaps inevitable end. Poems from the book appeared the next year in a collection simply entitled Larry Silván - Dikter:

native country

I am not a resident of Finland
I am not
a member of any fucking society
Finland and all
countries in the world can go to hell
I am
a child of the universe, a child of the sunset
I stand alone and see
my generation go astray in a
crazy labyrinth of machines and decisions
I see
my forest being annihilated by
a road that constantly becomes
ever wider and ever longer
a town that smells like shit
red lawn mowers that are
the pioneers of the new culture
Æsthetic beauty is promoted by
making animals extinct
Culture means
laughing at my generation
and locking it up in a madhouse



He had been in there for a fortnight
He'd been in there like this
and I can't describe it
But to break off
to Break Off
This is me is what I thought
my whole damned face
and I thought of going out again with the firewood
men suddenly noticed it


Ludde speaks about the revolution in Finland

What's wrong with Finland is that here
there are natural disasters far too rarely
said Ludde and I laughed
That's why the Finnish people are so introverted
That's why there is no real community
There is nothing that shakes people up
A big new war would be fine
Or maybe not that... but a revolution
Fucking hell how I'll laugh
the day there's a revolution
Think of all those people who are now
sitting around thinking of cuts
with their ridiculous problems
Imagine what a shock it'll be for
them when the communists suddenly take over
simply take everything from them
Everything will belong to the state and
they will be left empty-handed
Then they'll get a chance to think it all over
because they will no longer have anything to
to build up a crazy way of life around
Then they'll be forced to choose between
thinking and sinking

I forgot to ask what we would do if
there was a counter-revolution

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Tarjei Vesaas: a poem

Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) is best known for a series of novels set in the Norwegian countryside including The Ice Palace. He was also an accomplisehed poet. In 2000 a selection of his poems was published in English translation, translated by Roger Greenwald, entitled Through Naked Branches. Vesaas' poetry has a slightly mystical flavour.

Here is one of my own attempts at translating a poem of his:


By the long grey road
there is ash after a fire gone out
and signs of departure
in dust and heat.

That is all.
But the flame that burned
in the circle of the travellers
whirled only before the eye
in unextinguished longing.

They were travelling for a dream
and could give all,
and must go on in their searchings
and their unease,
and the bonfire burned on
in every edge of sight,
whilst new searchers dug in the ashes
and in the ground under the ashes,
and it is dream
that is happiness
for those journeying.


Translated from Norwegian (nynorsk) by Eric Dickens

Per Kirkeby: Poem

The green leaf
cries out in the black winter
granulated with muck and dirt
Miss Melancholy looks out of the window
displacements of silence
mirror image forebodings
The window’s unrolling light
loses its way but before that the bars make a cross

From Maletid, 1989

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (III) - 4


We live in the moment, but also act in relation to a historical time, just as in language we make use of a consciousness that is greater than ourselves. Each moment consists both of what is current and what is a product of the past, the eternally already-given. This synchronous time, these moments like echo chambers, are what the following lines seek to put into words:

There is not One body
but the body of the human family and the heavens’ depths
not One person’s isolated memory
but a kind of universal remembering
Just as the body of a woman who gives birth
always has a knowledge
thousands of years older than herself.

This stanza also says that it is language and history, not nature, that express the divine.


Time dimensions are one of the features that make up a poem. Poetry does not say: "seven years later she gave birth to a son." Poetry establishes another space, that of the moment, and therefore one cannot question it in the way that one can question prose. Poetry is a divine present tense.


A poem has an after-time. The poem’s images form after-images and after-sounds. What is easy to remember is the tone. The mental and emotional condition that accompanied the poem when it was read may be reconstructed or may manifest itself again. Lines may turn up unexpectedly and quite unannounced hours or days later – in the same surprising way as a dream may be recalled by something. There is a special freedom associated with unfolding inwardly in after-thoughts.

Very few works on poetics deal with the subject of this after-life. I am, among other things, what I have read over time. It does not disappear, but is deposited in me like a spiritual sediment. Thus, one can also speak of a time dimension that is different from one’s own.


It is not merely difficult but quite impossible to find the “point” of the story in one’s own personal time, as stories are manufactured contexts. The gaze of a third onlooker must determine the context to which the individual moment belongs. Kierkegaard formulated it wisely when he said that life must be understood backwards but lived forwards.


The Zeitgeist is as a rule rather fatuous. A shared and easily graspable magnitude expressed at the expense of complexity. A multiplicity of events reduced to a few clear ones in an attempt to stop and freeze the flow. The Zeitgeist is a historical, political and social phenomenon, but this does not mean that culture is timeless. Art collides with time, and by no means all works of art survive the collision. But there is also art that expresses yesterday, today and tomorrow.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (III) - 1
Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (III) - 2
Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (III) - 3

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I and II can be accessed here and here.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Crime Does Pay, At Least for Nordic Authors

I was recently browsing the bookshelves of my local Waterstone's. Let me add that my local bookstore is on a university campus, so I had heightened expectations. I thought that perhaps students in particular would be interested in a wide variety, in terms of both international voices and genre.

So I strolled the store, looking for Nordic authors. What I found was unsurprising, but disappointing nonetheless. I saw books by Swedish authors such as Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser, and Norwegians such as Jo Nesbø. In other words, crime novelists.

Where, I wondered, were the more literary authors? Even an old Nobel Prize-winner or two would have satisfied me. But alas. The only Nordic voices to be found were those of detectives.

Now, some people have said that the popularity of Nordic crime fiction is an excellent thing, since it might get readers interested in the Nordic cultures and languages, and thus, by extension, in other kinds of literatures. But I'm not seeing evidence of that. I don't see bookshelves at libraries or bookstores devoted to Nordic literature and I don't see Nordic authors highlighted in newspapers or book reviews. If Nordic writing is mentioned at all, it is in the context of crime fiction, and crime fiction only.

So what will it take to get people to people to want to learn more about Nordic literature and authors? I don't have an answer, but I long for the day when crime doesn't pay.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Meet the Germans

Meet the Germans is a website run by the Goethe Institute, and it seeks to explore "what is typical of Germany and German society." One of its blogs is dedicated to the subject of German-Finnish interaction, and in an extensive series of posts the Finland-based authors Thomas Lang and Ariane Grundies reflect on life in Finland as it's experienced by Germans. Judging from recent posts, much of the reflection concerns the topic of saunas, but there are also some insights into the difficulty of pinning down and classifying the Finnish national character:
Ich habe sehr unterschiedliche Dinge gehört: Der Finne sei so und er sei so und anders sei er auch. Er sei Heavy Metal, er sei Natur, er sei Technik, er sei Mökki ohne Strom und Wasser, er sei Mökki mit Wasser, aber ohne Strom, er sei überhaupt kein Mökki, er sei finnisches Design und ein bisschen unpraktisch, er sei zuverlässig, aber dabei ziemlich unzuverlässig und äußerst gesprächig, aber ganz schön still, er sei mehr Schwede, mehr Russland, er sei vor allem er selbst, unpolitisch politisch, stolz und selbstbewusst, doch voller Minderwertigkeitskomplexe, hilfsbereit und offen, er sei sehr schräg, aber ziemlich geradeheraus.
Interestingly, perhaps, the post notes that the Finns tend to describe themselves in terms of the usual clichés, while the Germans contradict them.

Monday, 15 June 2009

In Other Words - 2

The 24th Lahti Writers' Reunion got off to a rather soggy start, by all accounts. Hannu Marttila writes of a thunderstorm "which drove the writers indoors from the terrace and cut off the electricity for a short time. Now this morning (14th) the first session of the gathering was tested by damp and cold."

As sometimes happens at Lahti, the discussions so far appear to have been characterized by complaints -- about the decline in storytelling as a medium for children's literature, and about the dominance of Anglo-American writing in the international publishing world. However, as Jarmo Papinniemi notes with regard to the latter, "those present were also reminded that some cultures have always dominated others, beginning with the Roman Empire. The hegemonies don't go away, but are replaced by new ones."

See also: In Other Words

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 6


When the cottage came into view, he felt almost overwhelmed by life's superabundance. It was a summer weekday, and much had happened of late. It was, moreover, unusual for the only son of Salmelus Manor to be out there walking in his Sunday best. The road and the milestones seemed surprised at their approaching guest, but the face of the mistress revealed a certain joy of expectation: her eyes were as radiant as those of the old woman by the roadside. As luck would have it, Hilma was not at home.

‘I heard that Hilma has left us, and so I have come to see her.’

‘A house may not have two mistresses, that’s for sure.’ Humming quietly, Hilma’s mother made coffee and buns for the guest.

‘Hilma is not at home, then?’

‘No. Perhaps your journey has been in vain.’

‘She’s out in the back,’ the youngest sister said quickly. As he went down the steps to the cottage Kustaa felt as though he were calling on an envious neighbor. With smiling eyes and quiet strides he crossed the courtyard to the back room.

It was a small room, and through its old windows one could see nothing but the hop garden and beyond it the field and the lake. Of the rest of the village and its life there was no sign. In the green semi-darkness of that low-ceilinged retreat he found his Hilma. This was the same girl who had sat on the porch of Salmelus Manor that earlier day — and yet she was not the same. Here she was in her own world, her bosom throbbed unoppressed by fear, and the easy demands of modesty seemed sweet. Their love, which had hitherto known neither word nor deed, that night knew both… Kustaa of Salmelus — later to be Silja’s father — walked with smiling eyes all the ways of his life.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5