Thursday 25 April 2024


My translation of Pia Tafdrup's Senses pentalogy (five-volume collection), on which I have been working with the author during the past few years, is now complete.

Friday 5 April 2024

The Critic

 by  Ólafur Gunnarsson 

(from the short story collection Herörin og fleiri sögur Forlagið 2023)

It is fair to say that he had been at my heels like a wolf since I started writing. It was not the bad reviews of my books of poetry, novels and short stories that bothered me the most, but the fact that  the man could never remember my name.

He had this to say about my first book of poems: "Bleak miniatures from Reykjavík nightlife. The author is set in clay.”

We first met at the publisher's Christmas party. I wanted to show that I harboured no ill feelings towards him, so I said hello and introduced myself. I could see no sign on his face that he knew who I was, even though he had led many people to show me sympathy after that bad review. 

My next work, two years later, was a five hundred-page novel about seafarers. I had been foolish enough to mention in an interview that I was writing the Independent People of the sea, and his response to the book was not positive: “The author has made it clear that he is writing a novel about seafarers inspired by Halldor Laxness’s rural chronicle, something that evades my comprehension. Of this it can only be said: unlike father, unlike son.”

And then he wrote a contemptuous full-page article. Yet it was the publisher's Christmas party, and I wanted to let the jerk know that he hadn't hurt me with the nasty stab in the back he had inflicted. He stood with his glass of white wine in the group of authors, giving a speech that I knew would be well received. I walked up to the group, offered my hand, and was about to introduce myself: Björn Örlygsson. However, he beat me to it and said, "Well, hello there, Gummi." The group chuckled, and I  retreated in embarrassment. The room around me misted over, and I staggered toward the exit to catch my breath and steady myself in the winter air. That is how those holidays went, and I no longer found any joy in my book about the seamen and their families. Some readers did praise me, but what pleasure was there in it when the wolf had already torn the heart from the book?

I began to keep track of what he produced. Sometimes he wrote provocative stuff but none of it was harsh. None of it approached the disgust he had let out about me. 

To my great astonishment the publishing house released a book by him, an anthology of Icelandic literature in which he was extensively involved. I wasn’t even mentioned in it. Presumably he didn't want to get his hands dirty. Another critic wrote a review of the anthology where he came to the conclusion that "Karl Kristjánsson's article on Laxness’s work is rubbish." I sang with joy! There, he got a taste of his own medicine. I walked around the city that day like the hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, crooning to myself far into the night:  “Rubbish, rubbish, the article on Laxness’s work is rubbish.”

It was time for the Christmas party, and I was looking forward to it. I was certain that Kalli the Critic, as he was known, would not dare to show up. But, lo and behold, the boor made his appearance. And he was in a good mood. I hesitated to greet him, thinking that the harsh criticism might have affected him, but that wasn't the case. He shook my hand and said, “Well, hello there, Gummi.” However, I could still see in his eyes that he knew who I was.

"My only joy was that his hand was cold, like a frozen haddock. It revealed his inner self. That he felt bad. 


Now nine years had passed. In these nine years, I had published five books, all of which had received positive reviews except from Kalli the Critic.

I decided to put everything into the writing of my next book and throw caution to the winds. What did I have to lose? The articles of my tormentor had had such an impact that my status with my publisher had been significantly weakened. I delivered a lengthy book in which I leaned towards the style of Joyce’s Ulysses. And the reception was instant. “It is a pleasure for me,” he wrote, “to make  the author of this novel feel it is a vain hope that the scribblers of our time can measure themselves against the great bards, Laxness last year, Joyce this time.”

So that was that. But during the time I worked on this book it was only by intensely training with weights that it was possible for me to calm my nerves because of the review I knew was coming. I could now bench press 124 kilos.

I went to the Christmas party again. I felt as though everyone was staring at me and whispering, and some of the staff of the publishing house didn't even bother to greet me. That's how it was for me with the people who published my books. I couldn't let it pass without going to greet the man. No one should suspect anything bad about me! And then he replied to my greeting with these words:  “Yes, hello there, dear Gummi.”

Dear Gummi.

“My name is Björn!” I shouted.  “I am Björn! And your article about Laxness’s work was rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish.” 

It cut to the quick, but none of the authors who witnessed this outburst dared to smile.

I know where you live!" I exclaimed. "Do you realise that I know where you live?"

He did not respond, and I stormed out of the party, my mind far away. I wandered through the streets of Reykjavik in the cold and dark until dawn.

Now spring has come, the birds are singing, and the verdict was delivered today. It states, among other things: "The accused was found guilty of assaulting the victim outside his home. The assailant attacked the victim and caused various injuries: facial injuries, as the assailant stomped on the victim's head. Bruises on the neck. Also, injuries to the chest. A finger dislocated from its joint. Fractures from repeated kicks to the side. After the assault the victim has suffered from severe depression and is afraid to leave his home due to a fear that the assailant is waiting for him. As a result, the court's decision is that the assailant should pay the victim two million kronur in compensation and serve a nine-month conditional sentence. Additionally, he must cover all the legal costs of his defender, one hundred and seventy thousand kronur, as well as the fees of the victim’s  lawyer, one hundred and sixty thousand."

The verdict was delivered today.

The critic was present, and for the first time he greeted me by my full name.

My right name.

Of course I am indifferent to this verdict. Regarding the judgment, the defendant has this to say: People should not write criticism if they are in poor physical shape. 

Wednesday 31 January 2024


by Ólafur Gunnarsson

for Andrei Tarkovsky

It is 1938. My sister Elisabeth is five years old. My own birth is ten years in the future. My sister is playing when her mother calls her and asks her to run an errand. What she is to buy is written on a piece of paper. While the shop assistant is gathering together what is written on the paper she sees a piece of chocolate costing 25 aurar behind the glass in the attendant’s desk. But she doesn’t risk buying without asking permission. She takes the paper bag home and gives it to her mother and asks permission to go buy the chocolate. But her mother refuses. She goes out to play some more but she cannot forget the chocolate, it looked so delicious. She goes for a second time but her mother refuses again.

     She is playing with a shovel and a bucket. The longing for the chocolate becomes an obsession, she goes again and again and begs for 25 aurar, but her mother becomes gradually more obstinate in accordance with her persistence. There is little or no money and Elisabeth must understand. She is big enough to understand such a thing. She is all of 5 years old.

     She is sitting on the sidewalk and shoveling sand into the bucket. It begins to rain. Although the street is not asphalted and the sidewalk has no paving, a sturdy row of stones separates the sidewalk from the street. She builds a dam by the curb. Water is pouring down the street and no matter how much sand she brings to her dam it always seeps through, the water always wins the battle. She longs for the chocolate more than ever.

     Suddenly she sees a man walking down the street. He is holding some chocolate in a white wrapper. He lifts her io his arms and puts his cheek to hers. She leans her cheek toward him. Her cheek is cold from the rain and her hair is wet. The man is me. Her brother. I am dreaming but she doesn’t know that. I am not aware of that either because I am sleeping, a man now well into his seventies, but she has been dead a long time.   

The Catholic Priest

  by  Ólafur Gunnarsson 

(from the short story collection Herörin og fleiri sögur Forlagið 2023)

He had arrived at church half an hour before mass was due to begin, to listen to those who needed to confess in order to receive forgiveness of their sins. A couple was waiting, he had often listened to their complaints and didn't expect any big news, it was only in films that people asked for forgiveness for murders. He sighed inwardly.

The man's name was Leifur, the woman’s Ragna. Leifur rose to his feet in the first pew as soon as the priest appeared before the altar. Ragna continued to sit in the pew and wait. Leifur and the priest shook hands, walked to the confessional and sat down. The priest put a stole over his shoulders and waited patiently to hear what was on Leifur’s mind. Leifur straightened himself in his seat, crossed himself and cleared his throat. He was a tall and lanky man with black-rimmed glasses; the glasses made his eyes look bigger. The priest waited for a while, the man stared at the floor, his hair was thinning. 

“How long is it since your last confession?" asked the priest.

“About six months, I'm not sure.”

They waited in silence until the priest asked: “And what is on your mind?”

“I am envious. I’m a furniture maker. My friend and colleague established his own workshop. Everything has turned to gold in his hands. He is rolling in money. He owns a mansion, a fancy car, and everything one could possibly think of. The couple spend half the year abroad on vacations. He owns a house in Spain. I can't for the life of me understand why God distributes wealth so unevenly.”

The priest felt like saying that God was not a cooperative society, but he refrained. The only thing that occurred to him to remark was: "We don't know why some people are rich and others are poor.” Jesus said, "The poor will always be among you."

"I’m not saying that I’m poor; I just sometimes resent the fact that I’m not rich like so many other people are.”

 The priest continued to bide his time.

"And then there are the women," said Leifur. "My sister-in-law, for example. I can't stop thinking about her. And sometimes it seems like she's flirting with me. But that's probably just foolishness. She's probably just being kind. But I dream about her. And they’re not ordinary dreams. I dream that I am sleeping with her."

“But has anything like that happened?”


“Then you must try to stop thinking about her.”

“I have. But as I said, she comes to me in dreams.”

“God doesn't blame you for your dreams. Have no fear.”

The priest thought to himself: the same small matters as usual, and now he will begin to talk about his wife and their squabbles. 

 "I got angry with my wife the other day,” said Leifur.“Our grandchildren were visiting, and I wanted them to eat at mealtime, but she let them go and made  them sandwiches twenty minutes before we were due to sit down and have dinner.

“I was making the dinner. And it got on my nerves when the kids had no appetite. Our daughter has separated from her husband; they have three children. They didn't make any effort to keep the marriage going. That’s how it is. I would have got divorced several times if I had given up on the relationship right away.”

"God wants spouses to show each other love and compassion. Remember your wife in your prayers. Then there will be great rejoicing in heaven. In addition, you should say ten Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and contemplate the suffering of Christ on the Cross.” The priest raised his hand and said, “I absolve you of your sins. God has forgiven you. Go in peace.”

Leifur stood up and walked out. Well, thought the priest. What will his wife have to say? Will it still get on her nerves that he allows himself a shot glass of brandy with his coffee while he watches the evening news? I must remember to pray for him.

He saw that someone touched the confessional door, and Ragna came in. She was a well-dressed woman, with no grey in her black hair, cut straight across her forehead. Her hair was so dark that her face appeared pale. She had a determined demeanour. She sat down, composed herself in the chair, and crossed herself. 

"How long is it since you last confessed?" asked the priest.

 "I think it's eight months," said Ragna.

The priest waited expectantly for her to confess her sins.

"It's my husband. We have constant rows. We were at dinner with the grandchildren, and when they didn't behave properly and politely at the table, he lost his temper. What kind of behaviour is that? The poor children are practically fatherless. They are separated, my daughter and Ari. He was downright mean to Ásta, and that’s why I think Leifur should be kind to the children. Little Anna began to cry and said: ‘Grandad is mean.’

Now she will turn to the glass of brandy, thought the priest.

"I almost wish he had had a glass of brandy before dinner, then he would have been in a better mood. He can never forgive himself for not establishing a furniture factory with his friends a quarter of a century ago. He claims it's my fault, that I didn't want to mortgage the apartment, when it was he himself who didn't dare. But this nightly drinking of brandy has to stop. Both my sons and I have attended family therapy at AA to try to figure out how we can help him. But he dismisses it all and continues to drink. And if I see someone handsome on TV, like Richard Gere, and comment, he gets jealous. It's ridiculous."

"One shot glass of brandy in the evening can hardly be considered a major sin," thought the priest. She has only talked about Leifur's shortcomings and has not mentioned her own sins.

 "Is there anything else?" asked the priest.

"I haven't really done anything except complain about my husband. Maybe I think too much about his faults and don't appreciate his worth. Perhaps that's what I should ask God to forgive me for?"

Well, that caught me by surprise, thought the priest. I won't press her further. The Mass is about to begin.

The priest raised his right hand and said, "I absolve you of your sins. In addition, you must say ten Hail Marys and the same number of Our Fathers as penance. Go in peace. God has forgiven your sins."

Ragna stood up. The priest removed the stole from round his neck and followed her out of the confessional. No one else had arrived for Mass. The priest sang the Mass and received the body of Christ himself.

Leifur and Ragna approached him, and he administered the Holy Eucharist to them both.They walked along the length of the church and exited. The priest returned the chalice with the host to the tabernacle. When he turned round, he noticed that someone had entered the church. Now, who is this? thought the priest, not recalling having seen this person before. He walked toward the stranger as he approached the centre of the church floor. When he got closer, he saw that the man, swollen and red-faced, was intoxicated. 

"What can I do for you?" asked the priest.

"I had to get to the church," said the man. "I had to talk to someone."

"And are you Catholic?" asked the priest, somewhat cautious. The man leaned on a pew for support.

"No, do I have to be Catholic to come here?"

“It might be better for you to talk to your own parish priest."

"I have no idea who that is. I haven't been to church since I was confirmed."

How do I get rid of this drunkard? thought the priest.

"Can't you just listen to me for a moment?" said the intoxicated man, leaning on a pew for support. He was unsteady on his feet.

"Yes, you are welcome," said the priest. "But I don't have much time. Let's sit here in the front, by the altar.”  I just hope it's not marital issues, he thought.

They walked to the front of the church and sat down.

 "Well, what is it that you want to talk about?"

"I'm just came from abroad," said the man. "I'm an airline pilot. I've mostly been working here and there around the world but not at home. I was with Cargolux for many years, and the ace pilot Steini Flug is a good friend of mine. He fought in the Second World War. I worked for a firm that took on the task of flying weapons for the U.S. military to Iraq. I came to the highway they called "The Road to Hell." Thousands of people were killed as they fled on that road. Their lungs burst as the cluster bombs swallowed all the oxygen. I will never forget the man who sat at the window of his in his car. He was like a pile of salt in human form. If anyone had touched him, he would have turned into a heap. His teeth gaped in his face. That was all that was still human about him. And I had been involved in flying weapons to Iraq. I had been involved in killing these people. Can God forgive something like that? Or will I go straight to hell when I croak?”

The pilot looked at the priest. It was a long time since the priest had seen someone in such anguish. He empathised with the man.

 "God is loving, and His mercy fills the earth. If you repent, He will surely forgive you."

 "And can you grant me forgiveness? I've heard that a Catholic priest can do that."

“Unfortunately, I cannot grant you forgiveness for your sins. I do not have the authority since you are not Catholic. But I will pray for you."

 He looked at the man; nothing could be read from the man’s expression.

"Is there no way you can grant me forgiveness? Can't you do something for me? Can't you make an exception?"

"Unfortunately, I cannot. But as I said, I will pray for you. God knows the hearts of people and recognises when one who has committed a sin truly repents. Go in peace and trust in Jesus."


He stood up, and the pilot rose with difficulty. He crossed himself awkwardly before the altar.

They walked on. The pilot bade farewell with a handshake and walked away carefully along the ice on the lawn of Landakotstun into the darkness. 

The priest watched him go. Perhaps I should have made an exception? he thought. What did Christ do when the woman touched the hem of his garment so that his strength failed? He said, "I was not sent for you." The woman replied: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. “Then Jesus answered and said unto her, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”

translated by David McDuff

Thursday 9 March 2023

The elf and the Erdgeist

Älvan och jordanden. En biografi om Mirjam Tuominen och Torsten Korsström

Tuva Korsström

Schildts & Söderströms 2018

Tuva Korsström’s loving yet hyper-aware analysis of her parents, their work and their marriage combines several literary genres. In essence the volume is an autobiographical essay that expands into a double biography. While the story contains a wealth of psychological and material detail concerning its protagonists, it is dominated by a central perspective: the third view provided by its author, the quiet observer who emerged from it and who later researched and recorded it all, both from documents and from personal memory. 

As one critic has noted, the marriage of Mirjam Tuominen (1913-1967) and Torsten Korsström (1909-1964) ‘lasted [in practice] only a little longer than the Winter and Continuation War. In it, the daughters Kyra and Tuva were born.’ The marriage reflects the social turmoil and political contradictions of the war years in Finland, a state pf dissension that official Finland later tried to suppress and was clearly a major factor contributing to  Mirjam Tuominen’s existential and personal torment. The book’s calm exploration makes sense of the internal and external conflicts, and the reader gains a unique acquaintance with Mirjam Tuominen’s writing – a body of work that vividly and painfully forms an essential part not only of Finland’s literature, but also of its history. 

Wednesday 8 February 2023

The voice of twilight

Skymningens röst: dikter av Stagnelius, Lenngren och Bremer 

Listen to the album on your preferred music service  

 Today, the internationally hailed Swedish trio ro.t releases their second album Skymningens röst: dikter av Stagnelius, Lenngren och Bremer. After debuting in 2020 with Drömmarnas garn: dikter av Harriet Löwenhjelm, from which the songs Dalens dimmor, Nu så dansa denna världens barn and Beatrice-Aurore reached far beyond Sweden's borders, in the past year ro.t has drawn attention to, among other things, their song based on the Swedish nineteenth-century poet Emilie Björkstén's poem Allt har sin tid, which in November was picked up by Spotify's playlist Classical New Releases with 674,000 followers around the world.

 On the new album Skymningens röst: dikter av Stagnelius, Lenngren och Bremer, ro.t successfully continues their work in the musical borderland between classical music and folk presenting songs, composed by the singer Rebecka O'Nils, based on poetry mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Even though ro.t works with poems that they perform in the original language of Swedish, they have been especially noticed abroad, where they today have a growing audience on several continents. In addition to their own productions, ro.t also participates in the international project Nordic Source, to which they have contributed an English version of the poet Karin Boye's Yes, Of Course It Hurts. 

 On their new album, ro.t focuses on older Swedish poetry. The latest single I blomman, i solen, Amanda jag ser is, for example, based on a poem by the poet and writer Erik Johan Stagnelius, who died 200 years ago. Several poets who have contributed lyrics to the album are forgotten, female poets who are getting a chance to be rediscovered. In addition to two poems by Anna Maria Lenngren (one of the most famous poets in the history of Sweden and one of the few 18th-century Swedish poets who are still commonly read), there are also texts by Emilie Björkstén, Thekla Knös and Ulrica Carolina Widström as well as a poem by the famous Swedish women's rights activist Fredrika Bremer. 

 “I started composing when William and I were invited to perform an interpretation of Gustaf Fröding at William's grandfather's funeral,” says Rebecka. “I started by setting lyrics by the poet and prose writer Dan Andersson to music, but was very quickly drawn to poems by Stagnelius and Anna Maria Lenngren. Partly because they are both so rhythmic and bound in their way of dictating, which lends itself to setting music, but I was also drawn to them because of their content.” 

“Lenngren has a sour, intelligent tone in her poetry that I thought stood out very much when I read anthologies of Swedish poetry. Stagnelius has a purely ingenious way of expressing interesting themes such as mythology and the longing for death. In connection with setting them to music, I also discovered Emilie Björkstén, Finland’s national poet Runeberg's mistress, the upper-class lady Thekla Knös, and Ulrica Carolina Widström's Erotic Songs, whose poem Sång till natten I had read already in junior high school. I thought Oscar Levertin's poem Maj had a wonderful dreamy content and a rhythmic tone, almost like an old Swedish schlager. I then found Fredrika Bremer's fantastic poem Jag känner dig when I was looking for older poetry about love.” “All these compositions feel connected through the time in which they were written, during the 18th and 19th centuries, but also in a tonal language.” 

 ro.t Rebecka O'Nils (vocals) Jenny Klefbom (vocals, flute) William Bülow O'Nils (guitar, vocals). 

The album also features Hubert Hjertling (double bass) and Henry Klefbom (tramp organ, Hammond organ and piano) Music: Rebecca O'Nils Producer: Henry Klefbom ro.t Skymningens röst: dikter av Stagnelius, Lenngren och Bremer [COMEDIA] Distribution: The Orchard

Friday 6 January 2023


Edmund Prestwich has reviewed my translation of Tua Forsström's Anteckningar. Among other things he writes:
Memories and images are presented in a way that’s both vivid and spare, with an emphasis on elemental or elementary natural phenomena that can be evoked in very few words... Each image or memory fragment shines both in its own light and in the shifting play of light from those around it. As the book proceeds, the focus of attention broadens to include more generalised meditations on love and loss, the beauty and fragility of life and our relations to the natural world, but Vanessa’s death remains at its heart.

Swedish books online

As a side note on the accessibility of Swedish texts, I have found that it's possible to download Swedish ebooks from Adlibris via Google Books/ My Library. For example, both of the titles mentioned in my previous post (Drabbad av renhet and Blandade kort) can be purchased this way for a very reasonable price in GBP. 

And of course, there is always the excellent Litteraturbanken

Tuesday 3 January 2023

A Reflection

Something that occurred to me a few years ago when working on my new translation of Karin Boye’s 1940 novel Kallocain (Penguin Classics, 2019) was how essential a number of comparatively neglected books are to the formation of a picture of the rise of literary modernism in Sweden. For example, Margit Abenius’s extensive biography of her close friend Karin Boye, Drabbad av renhet (1950), has now effectively been replaced by a new account of the poet’s life which appeared in 2017 – yet in spite of its undoubted defects, Abenius’s work gives a truer and more existential portrayal of its subject, and is saturated in the literary, philosophical and psychological movements of its era. Another such book is Gunnar Ekelöf’s Blandade kort (1957), which in addition to being a kind of fragmented autobiography and self-analysis (with a heartfelt essay on Boye and Kallocain) is also an aesthetic and artistic manifesto. Neither work has yet appeared in English translation.

Thursday 28 July 2022

Moomin features in anti-Finland propaganda on Moscow streets

A Russian campaign against pending NATO members Finland and Sweden appears to be a continuation of similar propaganda seen in the Russian capital last May, when Astrid Lindgren was accused of having been a Nazi.

The Finnish Internet has not been slow to come with some appropriately barbed responses, e.g.

Sunday 24 July 2022

Björling aloud

 With thanks to Ian Giles. 


The Ny dansk poesi / New Danish Poetry exhibition at Galleri Tom Christoffersen, Skindergade 5,  Copenhagen is now extended until August 18, the gallery reports. The accompanying anthology, edited by Thorsten Dennerline, contains work by several new Danish poets in my translation, including Caspar Eric, Signe Gjessing, Cecilie Lind, Lea Marie Løppenthin and Rasmus Nikolajsen. Susanne Jorn has written the introduction, and there's a concluding essay by Anne-Marie Mai. 

Saturday 23 July 2022


Spuyten Duyvil of NYC have published my translation of Susanne Jorn's Andalusiske øjebliksbilleder i November/Andalusian Snapshots in November. This is really a collaborative venture, and the book is bilingual, with facing Danish and English texts. 

From dark mood

to light mood

Pastel yellow Photosensitivity

Saturday 9 October 2021

Translators' meeting

An interesting afternoon at a Zoom meeting of FELT, the Finnish-English literary translators association or cooperative. There was much detailed discussion of issues involving contracts, fees, and the like. I am still slightly concerned about the suepicion with which some evidently continue to regard those who choose to specialise in less well remunerated, less commercial areas like poetry. While it's true that everyone needs to put food on the table, it's a fact that many writers and translators, particularly in the early years of their career, manage to get by on very little. And there should be no moral stigma in that.

Friday 16 July 2021

Hjálmar Jónsson: Selected Poems reviewed

The book has been reviewed in the journal Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. An excerpt:
Though his work is still widely read in Iceland, Hjálmar is less well-known outside of the country than many other poets of his era, most of whom were educated in Copenhagen and were closely associated with Icelandic Romanticism and the independence movement (e.g. Jónas Hallgrímsson, Matthías Jochumsson, and Benedikt Gröndal). The publication of Hjálmar’s poetry in English translation thus offers hope that more poets from the nineteenth and early-twentieth century well-known within Iceland but less so outside of the country (e.g. Sigurður Breiðfjörð, Ólöf Sigurðardóttir, and Unnur ‘Hulda’ Benediktsdóttir Bjarklind) will have the opportunity to find their own English readership. Hjálmar Jónsson’s Selected Poems introduces readers to the work of a remarkable Icelandic poet in a well-executed translation, but the volume also helps to advance a richer image of Iceland’s vast and varied literary history.

Sunday 13 June 2021

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Coming Up


Titles to look forward to from Bloodaxe Books in March

Maria Stepanova (trs Sasha Dugdale): War of the Beasts and the Animals (PBS Translation Choice)
Pia Tafdrup (trs David McDuff): The Taste of Steel / The Smell of Snow
Seán Ó Ríordáin (trs Greg Delanty): Apathy Is Out: Selected Poems (Irish-English dual language edition)

All these titles will be available direct from Bloodaxe Books in March.

Thursday 14 January 2021

Friday 13 November 2020

New Swedish Writing in English

The theme of the new issue of Swedish Book Review (now re-conceived exclusively as an online publication) is Emerging Voices in Swedish Literature, with work by Pooneh Rohi, Kayo Mpoyi, Adrian Perera, Balsam Karam and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz. There are also reviews of new titles, including poetry with Burcu Sahin's Broderier (Embroideries) - also featured in an earlier post here

The editors of the new site are to be congratulated on its pleasing and variegated design.

Saturday 10 October 2020

Away from introspection

An interesting and thought-provoking interview with Estonian poet Elo Viiding in the current issue of ELM (Estonian Literary Magazine), with reflections on poetry and the poet's task that times have echoes of earlier Nordic voices including, perhaps, Ekelöf, and even Tranströmer:

Recently I've been distancing more and more from introspection as beneficial. Instead of psychoanalysis, I'm more interested in how a person can realistically act for the good of someone with fewer opportunities, be those spiritual, intellectual or material. Not society -- that's too narrow a concept; society is made up of kindred thinkers who generally thumb their nose at others -- but rather to do good for those who suffer from abandonment, socially in a certain sense, instead of delving into yourself (and even into ideas). I'm striving to do that in this phase of my life.

In general, a varied and colourful issue of the magazine -- it's now one of the best English-language literary journals in the Nordic region, at times reminiscent of the now sadly dormant Books from Finland, but more often with a viewpoint and energy of its own, and quite unlike anything currently around in the U.K. or America. There's also a quiet tribute to the life and work of Estonian literary translator Eric Dickens.

Friday 7 August 2020

Thursday 16 July 2020

Kallocain Audiobook

The audiobook of my translation of Kallocain is now available from Audible, in a reading by Danish actor Claes Bang. 

Also from Amazon.

Thursday 25 June 2020

The Smell of Snow

Me reading my translations of 'Ånd', 'Prana' and 'Rimtåge' from Pia Tafdrup's LUGTEN AF SNE.

Friday 19 June 2020

Over the Water

I'm working on the translation of this book again, after an interval of just over twenty years. It's important for an inward understanding of Pia Tafdrup's poetry, and looks both backwards and forwards across her career as a poet. 

A poem has its own logic and integrity. In one sense or another it demands to be whole. The Greek word σῠ́ντᾰξῐς means order or composition. An immanent need for order will therefore be associated with crystalline form –  even though it sometimes conflicts with the content. My poems want light. In yearning for calm, insight and beauty. The work of the poem is an unconscious demand that an inner connection be created within it, where each word will have its place, like the atom in the crystal.

Friday 22 May 2020

Kross and Translators

A beautifully produced issue of ELM, the Estonian Literary Magazine, just arrived. Some interesting content, all available online, including interviews with Dutch translators of Jaan Kross, who have their own refreshingly non-academic views on literary translation:

There are many theories of translation, but from what I’ve heard, translators mostly shrug them off in practice and just keep going as they were. Is there any theory of translation or simply a translator’s creed that you hold dear? Did translating Kross put it to the test in any way?
FvN: I’m no theoretician, but I believe the practical summary of translating is an eternal question phrased by the poet and translator Martinus Nijhoff, whom the Netherlands’ most prestigious translation award is named after: “In what kind of Dutch would a foreigner have written their book if they were Dutch and have relied upon in terms of their conceptual form?” One must always keep that question in mind.
JN: Just like Frans, I’m no theoretician. Apart from a few courses on translating Russian literature, I also do not have much formal education in literary translation. I think I learned most while translating The Man Who Spoke Snakish in 2014, for which I received funding and practical help (a mentorship) from the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Since Frans was the only active translator from Estonian at that time, and was more experienced, he served as my mentor. He taught me many things, but most of all, I learned to be more precise. I remember him saying, “What is lost in your first version (or first ‘working’ translation) is most likely lost forever.” I always have that sentence in the back of my mind when I’m translating. And, needless to say, it’s a very important lesson when you’re translating the work and the style of a writer like Jaan Kross.

Monday 18 May 2020

Gaelic and Norse

In the fifth month of Scots Gaelic, a periodic reminder of the Norse and Nordic influence on the language, words that have a familiar ring to them: an-diugh, bràthair, màthair, athair, uinneag, coineanach, bòrd, bàta, stiùir, trosg, bròg, gàrradh, margaidh, sgillinn, and many more.

Thursday 30 April 2020

Kallocain Audiobook

News from Penguin that there's to be an audiobook recording of my translation of Karin Boye's KALLOCAIN, scheduled for release in July.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Coronavirus Constructions

At Literary Hub, Siri Hustvedt writes about Reading in a Pandemic:
I had headache, body aches, chills, cough, chest constriction but no fever. I was in bed for a week and then the symptoms lingered. I recovered. There were no tests so I don’t know if it was Covid-19 or something else, but Boccaccio’s book, which I have long loved, haunted me as I lay in bed, and I returned to it.


Norvik Press has some excerpts from new translations of Hagar Olsson's Chitambo (tr. Sarah Death) and Karin Boye's Crisis (tr. Amanda Doxtater)

The publisher notes:
In many countries, the lockdown continues. We are thinking of you all.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Sheep View 2

Also on the theme of Faroese writing, there's an extensive dual-language anthology of contemporary Faroese poetry in a special issue of the online literary magazine PLUME. The poets include Daniella Louisa Andreasen, Sissal Kampmann, Vónbjørt Vang, Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen, Guðrið Helmsdal and Tóroddur Poulsen, and the translations are by Randi Ward.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Sheep View

William Heinesen (1900-1991) is probably still the best-known Faroese writer internationally - perhaps because he wrote in Danish, and perhaps also because of the English translations by W. Glyn Jones. Yet there is a considerable body of Faroese literature written in the Faroese language, most of which still awaits international recognition. On the British Library's European Studies blog, Pardaad Chamsaz writes about a collection of books of modern Faroese writing the Library has recently acquired, noting the problems encountered by Faroese authors in making their work known and read abroad:
It is safe to say that Faroese writers have a difficult task to become known beyond their shores. As the Faroese nominee for the 2020 Nordic Council Literature Prize, Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen, writes, ‘only a half-dozen or so can make a living off their writing. And in order to do that, a writer has to be translated into a bigger language, but publishing houses in other countries do not want to spend money on some book from the Faroe Islands.

Saturday 18 April 2020

The Bat Effect

by Pia Tafdrup

We have learned that a wing-beat
from a butterfly on one
side of the globe
can cause a storm
on the other,

we now also know that a virus
has transmitted itself
from a bat to a human
at a market in Wuhan,
the sick person’s coughing has spread
a swirl of Covid-19 to the rest of the world
without discriminating
between gender, ethnicity or religion.

A storm of corona, a storm of infection,
tiny particles like invading parasites
in living cells
induce coughing, fever, difficulty
with breathing,
lead to slow suffocation.

Suspected cases are quarantined, the rest of us
forced into a time-warped community
where we have in common
each being confined to our homes,
unless at high risk
we’re performing essential tasks.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Day 16

My translation of Pia Tafdrup's poem 'På alle sprog' (from the Bloodaxe volume Salamander Sun and Other Poems) was chosen for Day 16 of National Poetry Month here in the UK.

Saturday 22 February 2020


There's an interesting review of my Penguin Classics translation of Karin Boye's dystopian novel Kallocain with a number of perceptive comments on the book itself, at Shiny New Books:
The slightly ambiguous ending did leave me wondering what future there was for humanity and whether the race would escape from its claustrophobic control; I guess only time would tell, in the same way as it’s hard to tell know how we will come through the present difficult phase of our planet’s history where certain elements are so busy dehumanising those whom they perceive to be different.

Saturday 21 December 2019

The Taste of Steel and The Smell of Snow

My translation of Pia Tafdrup's collections SMAGEN AF STÅL (2014) and LUGTEN AF SNE (2016) is scheduled for publication as a single volume by Bloodaxe Books in November 2020:

Thursday 5 December 2019

Friday 4 October 2019


Burcu Sahin’s debut collection Broderier [Embroideries] (Bonniers, 2019) is a book about the relation between language and reality. In her delicate but severely crafted poems she weaves the fabric of her world into a verbal tapestry that is not only a record of her personal experience and memory but also a shared testimony, a voice that she gives to women whom society has rendered silent. It is also a remarkable addition to the steadily growing body of work by poets for whom Sweden is a base, but not necessarily a home:  they include such names as Athena Farrokhzad, Yolanda Aurora Bohm Ramirez, Annamarija Todorov, Johannes Anyuru and Felicia Mulinari.

The reality that underlies the poems is not a cheerful one. It is a place of exile and exclusion, of exploitation and unrewarded toil, of social and linguistic isolation, of racism, alienation and anomie. Språket är inte glömt/ men raderna är brutna (The language is not forgotten/but the lines are broken) reads one of the early poems in the collection, and in their bare, sparse outlines and arching fragments the poems themselves reflect this statement. At time there is a danger that the link between language and reality may be lost altogether:  det finns ingen försoning i verkligheten/ kanske i dikten/ det finns ingen försoning i dikten/ kanske i verkligheten (there is no reconciliation in reality / perhaps in the poem / there is no reconciliation in the poem / perhaps in reality) is the warning that runs through much of the volume.

In an early essay, Sahin writes of the political nature of poetry:

För mig är poesin alltid politisk. Det litterära rummet och skrivandet undflyr inte de samhälleliga normerna och strukturerna, utan är en del av att reproducera bilder, berättelser och människor. Litteraturen återspeglar inte bara ”verkligheten”, utan återskapar den på nytt.

For me poetry is always political. Literary space and writing do not escape social norms and structures, but are a part of the reproduction of images, stories and people. Literature does not just reflect “reality” but recreates it anew.

(Poesins politiska kraft, Rummet, 2014)

The book’s political dimension is reflected in its structure, which in turn relates back to social reality: the metaphorical juxtaposition of ‘stitches’ and poems persists throughout the six sections, and the fragmentary  and arduous nature of the working women’s daily lives appears in the isolation and fractured appearance of the lines on the printed page. There is a constant play on the words söm (seam) and sömn (sleep), and thematic devices of this kind are skilfully interwoven in the text.

A great deal of the anger in the poems is directed at the brokenness of the social surroundings, the inadequacy of language and the careless way in which generations are severed from each other, when the traditional roles of mother and child are reversed:

det finns inget ord
för ett barn
som bär
på sin mor

there is no word
for a child
that carries
its mother

The experience of exile and the task of establishing a life in a new and unfamiliar country is encountered in the learning of words:

med kluven tunga lär vi oss
  bokstävernas uttal

with a cleft tongue we learn
          the language
          the letters’ pronunciation

But the acquisition of new words and gestures is accompanied by a raw sense of vulnerability as an outsider and by a resentment of intrusion:

vi lär oss plocka
  andras blickar
  från våra ansikten

we learn to pluck
          the gazes of others
          from our faces

The poet is not alone – she stands with her mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, in a strange new world where objects and words have lost much of their connection, and where human relations are restricted and determined by the need to survive by backbreaking toil. The hidden world of the textile sweatshops is invoked in cinematic flashes:

ni lever bland meterlånga gardiner
huvuddukar med rosenmotiv
skira överkast               persikofärgat siden

ni lever som skuggor      morgonens skuggor
händerna som försörjer maskineriet

you live among metre-length curtains
headscarves with rose motifs
flimsy bedspreads.    peach-coloured silk

you live like shadows   the morning’s shadows
the hands that feed the machinery

Contrasted with the mechanised and alienated environment of exile is the world of tradition, of roots and family. In the poems this is centred on the theme of motherhood, and the image of the mothers and grandmothers. There is humour here, and tenderness, mixed with irony: våra mödrar syr / vårdar andras mödrar (our mothers sew / take care of others’ mothers), the first poem in the ‘Night Shift’ section begins.

Although the poems are phrased with the techniques and stylistic features of modernism, they are also direct, down-to-earth statements about real and lived experience. The poet speaks for whole generations of uprooted people, surveys the world that is partly their own and partly given to them, and praises the richness of their inborn and self-creating culture in the face of an uncomprehending and largely hostile environment. But the future is bleak, and does not hold out much hope for the prospects for social integration and harmony in a West that is rapidly changing, conscious of guilt, but still fettered by its history of domination and injustice:

det som finns är en öppen hand
som aldrig slutar ge

det som läggs i våra händer
 ska tas ifrån oss igen

what exists is an open hand
that never stops giving

what is placed in our hands
will be taken from us again

Sahin’s is an original and uncompromising poetic voice, and one looks forward to following her development in future collections.