Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Susanne Jorn: poems



Most wonderfully lovely pomegranate tree.
Most wonderfully beautiful pomegranate.
Love’s pomegranate-red fruit.

Nothing more.


It is said
that pomegranates
cleanse the body
of hatred and jealousy.

If it is said
that poetry
is the breath of the soul
then pomegranates must
be love poems
all of them


Granada is the place
where many pomegranate trees grow.
Granada is the place
where the Alhambra palace is.

I got lost in the Alhambra.
suddenly stood
in the Alhambra’s secret chamber.

In one corner of the chamber I could sense
a man’s presence in the thick darkness.

I sat down in the opposite corner of the chamber
and whispered my secret to him.

Only then
could I
continue along
that fate-determined road.




In endless, deep minutes
of penetrable transparency
I’m united with my poems in koans

two ink-black daytime-owl-eyes
stare and stare and stare
straight through me

(from Andalusiske øjebliksbilleder i november, 2010)

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Monday, 24 January 2011

Mirjam Tuominen

I've posted a selection of my translations of poems from Mirjam Tuominen's 1954 collection Under jorden sjönk - here and here.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Russian land sales ban upsets Finland

On January 9, Russia’s President Medvedev signed a new decree which specifies border areas where foreign citizens are not allowed to purchase land. The areas include nearly all the regions of the Russian Federation bordering on Finland and Norway, all the way from Pechenga in northern Russia to the Gulf of Finland in the south (near Helsinki).

Finland has asked for an explanation of the new law, according to the Barents Observer, with foreign minister Alexander Stubb making an official representation to the Russian authorities, as quite a few Finns have already bought land in the areas that are now banned:
What will happen to those foreigners that already own land in this areas is highly uncertain. The Finnish Embassy in Moscow is examining the significance of the decree, reports Helsingin Sanomat.

- We stick to the principle of reciprocity as long as it is realistic and possible, says Alexander Stubb, interviewed by YLE.

- We’ll talk with Russian authorities about how this can be realised. If one can buy land here, then of course one should be able to buy land on the other side of the border as well, says Stubb.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Dark October

by Pia Tafdrup

To cross a strait
in a boat at night
   like my mother.
To cross a strait
at night in another cutter
   like my father.
To flee like growing crowds
                     of displaced persons.
The black water
          is open.
My mother without luggage, but wearing
layer upon layer of clothes,
crammed into the hold among many others,
down to her mother and sister
   with a hat to throw up in.
The order is for dead 
   until the boat is out of the harbour.
On the deck in the pitch darkness
follow my mother's father at sea
the voyage to Swedish territory
lashed to the mast
so as not to fall overboard.
No German patrols, only tugboats.
The black water
          is open.
Relatives are left behind —
friends   houses   belongings   a beloved country. 
To cross a strait
on a dark October night
with a fisherman and crew
who don’t know the exact route.
To try to find port
by sounding the depths,
try to find port with signals
from searchlights’ glare.
At last to dock at the right berth in Höganäs
shouted in by Swedish soldiers.
A way across the water      homecoming
with no home
        to what future?
Not to flee from oneself,
     but be allowed to be oneself.

translated from Danish by David McDuff


Issue 14 of Absinthe is out, with among other things an essay by Thomas E. Kennedy recalling his first acquaintance with Knut Hamsun's Hunger, after seeing Henning Carlsen's 1966 film of the novel:
The film led me to read an SAS Airline bilingual publication (Scandinavian Words 15) of the first chapter, written by Hamsun in the late 1880s and later expanded to the novel.
Kennedy compares Hamsun to Conrad, perceiving a journey to darkness at the heart of each author's work.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Solveig von Schoultz

I've put a selection of my translations of the poetry of Solveig von Schoultz (1907-1996) on Nordic Voices In Print - here, and here.

Two Poems

By Pia Tafdrup

With my lipstick
a poet from Cyprus is reading
her poems in Turkish.
A  woman asking
to borrow my lipstick
is one second
more overarching of borders
than driving from one country
  to another.
My lipstick now speaks
on her lips.
Suddenly I'm one kiss closer to
   her language.
With my lipstick
she is reading
a poem about a man
who is like a pendulum.
He sways        incessantly
between two women.
That could have been
   my life
my lipstick was reading poems about.
An arrow
would have kissed
the back of his neck.


I go led by sleepless nerve paths
  in front of my shadow,
traverse dense traffic, find
a passable path
go right, left,
cross bridges over streams
and fords,
reach a track I want to follow.
The straight path is not
  the shortest one.
The air is chilly and raw, the landscape
is lit by the earliest morning sun,
cold and heat proliferate
at once.
Now is the time, I go
lured by dreams
  where birds migrate.
Notice a sharp odour of plants
that grew once, 
hear sounds purring
of before.
   What does the road want of me?
Look out across the vast terrain
with its network of tracks and scents. 
is always there,
          like this a pupil opens.
The road changes pace, keeps me awake -
I branch, collect myself
on the map of the future
  a route
bound for uncertainty.

from Trækfuglens kompas, 2010

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Friday, 14 January 2011


I've just finished reading Lola Rogers' translation of Puhdistus (Purge), by Sofi Oksanen. It's a remarkable work - restless, vivid, articulate, emotional, violent, political - and I don't think there is anything quite like it in the rest of world literature. The only book remotely akin to it that I've come across before is a strange Estonian novel from 2004, which has a similar graphic reconstruction of Soviet reality. I think Sofi Oksanen's work does require a knowledge of Estonian and Soviet history if the reader is to understand the thinking, motivation and actions of the characters. One solitary niggling doubt I have is that while the book amounts to an extraordinary tribute to the Estonian people and their survival of decades of Soviet occupation, the characters themselves don't come across as very likeable human beings - but I believe that may be deliberate on the author's part. It's good to see Paul-Eerik Rummo's poetry quoted in the opening of each section.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Mistral and Sweden’s security

Ever since the announcement of the controversial Mistral arms deal between France and Russia on Christmas Eve 2010, the Swedish press has been publishing articles about the implications of the deal for Baltic security, and Sweden's security in particular. On January 7 Dagens Nyheter noted that concern about the sale of the Mistral assault ships to Russia was high because these helicopter carriers can be used for landing operations - presumably in the course of a military invasion. Bo Pellnäs, a Swedish defence analyst, commented that although the carriers will be based in Murmansk, they can be moved anywhere. This, against the background of reports that Russia is to increase its military expenditure by 60 percent, and last fall held its largest military exercise in the Baltic Sea since the 1980s, is giving rise to fears in Sweden that the country's security may  be compromised.

On January 5 a member of the Swedish parliament, Mikael Oscarsson, requested a statement from Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on what the deal means for the security of the Baltic Sea as a whole. Oscarsson also said that it was necessary to ask Russia about the purpose of the invasion capability, and that a tightening of Sweden's defence with Poland might be needed.

Now, in an interview published in the Swedish current affairs journal Världen idag (The World Today), Oscarsson says that his concerns are heightened by the internal political situation in Russia in the aftermath of the recent unsolved murders of journalists and the sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

"We need greater cooperation between Sweden, Poland and the Baltics, but we should also invite Russia to talks. I'm not one of those who say that the Russians are coming, but we cannot assume that anyone else will defend us. Therefore, we need to respond and ensure that we have a fleet that works."

In Poland, Polskie Radio has taken up Mikael Oscarsson's question, and there are reports that the military ties between Sweden and Poland may strengthen in response to Russia's investment in the new warships.

he U.S. think tank and news agency Stratfor's East Europe analyst Marko Papic says that just five days into the new year Mikael Oscarsson's question to Carl Bildt shows that the geopolitical map may be redrawn.

"The area of Sweden, Poland and Russia will be crucial for European security and political issues in 2011," he said in a statement.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Human Lot

Owen Witesman's translation of Kari Hotakainen's novel Ihmisen osa / The Human Lot is to be published by Christopher MacLehose/Quercus this year. From the book's blurb:
A writer buys a life from Salme Malmikunnas, an 80-year-old former yarn seller. You can get a lot for 7000 euros. Salme opens up and tells him everything the way she wants to remember it – the silence of her husband, Paavo, the accident that befell her daughter Helena, Maija’s marriage, and Pekka’s success in business. But will the author tell the story like they’d agreed? Can he resist the urge to write about subjects that are off limits? And is Salme telling the truth?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A review and a story

There's a review of Tarkovsky's Horses and Other Poems in Evergreen Review, and Ólafur Gunnarsson has a new short story in Mayday Magazine.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Keeping translations alive

The following is mainly related to translations of poetry, though some of it may also be applicable to certain kinds of translated fiction. For some time now – at least during the past decade – I’ve become aware that trying to sell poetry in the form of printed books is increasingly an uphill struggle, and some alternative means of reaching a readership may need to be found.

The struggle has always has been there – for example, when I worked at the UK’s Anvil Press Poetry during the 1980s the firm produced no more than 12-14 titles a year,approcimately half of which were translations, and the notion of making a profit was out of the question. Like Bloodaxe, Carcanet and several other specialist publishers, Anvil survived mainly because of the Arts Council grant it received each year, which accounted for most of its income. In the second part of the 1980s and into the 90s, Bloodaxe Books, under its committed director Neil Astley, took a more aggressive approach to poetry publishing, endeavouring to embrace a wider audience and reach out to readers who didn’t normally read poetry at all. This project had some success – although still heavily AC-funded, Bloodaxe did manage to operate as a normal business, comparable to mainstream London publishers of fiction. Bloodaxe’s poetry translation list was (and still is) impressive, including a wide range of titles and poets. But the new vigour didn’t last – by the 2000s, one was again uneasily aware that the Bloodaxe operation was under something of a strain, and in the early part of the decade many Bloodaxe authors and translators were informed that the unsold copies of their back titles would either be sold to them at a discount, or pulped.

The situation with other poetry publishers was not much better, or even worse. Carcanet, which in addition to original poetry and translations also published fiction, seems to have got by on the strength of its fiction list. The smaller houses like Arc and Dedalus were also in trouble, and in 2008 Dedalus had its Arts Council funding cut drastically. After a long campaign, that funding was restored in July last year, but in the present economic climate the future still remains uncertain. Book publishing is currently undergoing a crisis, and because of their minority appeal published poetry and poetry translation are the the first to be seriously affected.

So what’s to be done? My own feeling is that with the increasing power and presence of the Internet, poetry translators, poetry editors and poets should start to take matters into their own hands. Online and ebook publishing may not be to everyone’s taste – I know that my colleague Eric Dickens heartily dislikes it – but at least it’s a way of sending the work out into the world, and can even be a commercially viable method of sale and distribution. I’ve already started to scan and put online the contents of some of my older Bloodaxe titles – the copyright in those translations rests with me, and the volumes in which they appeared are now of out of print.

Nordic Voices in Print is my first attempt in this direction – it’s only a basic blog, and is devoted exclusively to the reprinting of my translations of Nordic literature and poetry, but in time I hope to develop the project further and extend it into the area of ebook publishing. Above all I think it’s important to avoid the ghettoization of translated literature that’s evident in certain US-based publishing concerns (they shall be nameless) which enjoy a high profile in the translation world at present. While they may once have been inspired by selfless motives, I believe that those publishers are really taking advantage of the ever-growing marginalization of translated work. Poets and translators beware.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Gunnar Björling

A selection of my translations of the poems of Gunnar Björling is now available on Nordic Voices in Print. These are essentially the same as the translations that appeared in the Bloodaxe Ice Around Our Lips anthology, with one or two minor edits.