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

Thursday, 20 May 2021


REC  by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen. S&S Helsinki 2020. 645p.

The book is well-written, shows clear signs of methodical planning and organisation, and has a pleasing uniformity of style and language. However, it is badly over-extended, especially in the middle sections, and would probably have benefited from thorough editing and cutting. On the other hand, the characterisation is fairly minimal, and there is a sense that the main protagonists don’t really develop from the two-dimensional figures presented in the early pages. The revelation of the narrator’s true identity at the book’s conclusion seems more like an afterthought than an integral part of the story. 

Works about nihilism and the ways in which it can be accommodated within a modern world-view have become common in post-1945 international fiction, drama and cinema.  Ever since Vladimir and Estragon met near the tree in 1953, the wait for a man named Godot has dragged on, until now we may expect it to continue at least for another millennium or two. The novels of writers like Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace have lent the wait a vividness and immediacy that satisfies a demand for quick sensation, and the meeting with nothingness seems to have become a contemporary pastime. 

Marisha Rasi-Koskinen’s novel fits perfectly into this nexus of works: its narrator’s insistence that “the stories of others matter to us only insofar as they help us build our own” mirrors the self-regard that underlies a great deal of contemporary writing, and its movement derives from the genre of the computer game. Here the problems of existence are presented less in terms of human suffering than as aesthetic constructs and calculations for the reader to analyse, compare and admire. 

In 1957 Camus spoke of “the error of those who in an excess of despair… have rushed into the nihilism of the era.” Though he pleaded for understanding of that error, he nonetheless allied himself with those “who  have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” 

Much as I would like to feel such reassurance, I am not convinced that this novel, with its elaborate facades of invented pain, assists that open fight. 

David McDuff, 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.

Sunday, 25 August 2019


by Laus Strandby Nielsen

There are no clouds over Plovdiv
today. They all followed Orpheus

down to the dark where they were late
for the concert. What should they do?

The door to the music was closed. Or-
pheus, Orpheus himself sounded like

an echo you could hear but faintly.
There was scarcely room for them

all in this uppermost part of the under-
world in which they had landed, just

like a flock of desperate refugees
before a bristling barbed wire fence,

so did they huddle together not knowing
inside from out. Here the transformation

took place: the clouds flowed like water
down to the underworld, making chaos

and mud. For a long time, Orpheus kept
his singing head above the hazardous

mud, but his mouth was filled,
his eyes and ears, and when at last

through the mud he heard the beloved’s
whisper like a strangely bubbling sound,

it was too late. Too late is the not
so cheerful motto of this story.

Der er ingen skyer over Plovdiv
i dag. De fulgte alle efter Orpheus

ned i mørket hvor de kom for sent
til koncerten. Hvad skulle de gøre?

Døren til musikken var lukket. Or-
pheus, selveste Orpheus lød som

et ekko man kun svagt kunne høre.
Der var næsten ikke plads til dem

alle i denne øverste del af under-
verdenen hvor de var havnet, ganske

som en flok fortvivlede flygtninge
foran et hegn af flænsende pigtråd,

sådan trykkede de sig sammen og
vidste hverken ud eller ind. Her skete

forvandlingen: skyerne flød som vand
ned i underverdenen, skabende kaos

og mudder. Længe holdt Orpheus sit
syngende hoved oven over det farlige

mudder, men hans mund blev fyldt op,
hans øjne og ører, og da han til sidst

gennem mudderet hørte den elskedes
hvisken som en underligt boblende lyd,

da var det for sent. For sent er det ikke
så muntre motto for denne fortælling.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

from Laus Strandby Nielsen: -- og andre steder, Asger Schnacks Forlag, 2019