Monday 29 January 2024

About Dostoyevsky

The Tax ID

 by Ólafur Gunnarsson

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

I started a wholesale business to make money. That was my only purpose, making money and more money. But sometimes it didn’t work out as expected, one thing or another came up. Like for example when I imported a whole container of jeans that I had acquired in England at a good price. I had thought of selling them to Hagkaup and making a nice profit. But when it came to it, they said they had jeans for sale at a price that was better than the wholesale price I was offering. So there I was, sitting on this pile of jeans that I didn’t know what to do with. An acquaintance of mine suggested holding a Christmas bazaar in the stock room,  but that was out of the question. There is nothing to be gained from these infernal bazaars. Don’t mention bazaars when I’m within earshot.

I have gone bankrupt five times, but I have always been able to save myself by moving the business to a new tax ID. But when it came to the sixth time, the people at the Tax Office refused to accept the "ID number drift", as it’s called. This did not look good. The debt collectors were just as empty-handed as they had been the previous day. There wasn't much going on at the company, except for what people call junk. A pile of worthless junk that no one had bothered to take from me. All kinds of gewgaws and trash that were the leftovers from a quarter of a century’s trade in giftware. That sort of product had free markup.

I talked to my acquaintance, the one who had suggested that I open a bazaar in the stockroom and asked him to guarantee a loan I was going to take in order to sort things out. But he refused outright, said he would never get his wife's consent, their house was registered in her name. It was the same with my house, it was also in my wife's name. - Well, what should I do? I asked.

 He leaned in flatly and said: “The only time I ever made any real money was when I went to Nigeria and sold junk from the back of a Land Rover jeep to the people there. You should do it, man, just take all the stuff to Africa, you'll have it made. The Nigerian is sold on trinkets. In Iceland they are landfill, but in Nigeria they are gold.”

 I said goodbye and got into my car. I was about to lose my temper at this ridiculous suggestion, but I controlled myself and went home. We had established a system, my wife and I, that if I was the one knocking on the door, I would ring six short rings. Then she would know that it wasn't the disconnectors from the electric company. Until now, she had refused to go and apply for a sixth social security number for me. I have never met a more honest person, to tell you the truth. I simply have to confess that when I sat down in the kitchen, I realized what a bad situation we were in. She would have to allow me to mortgage the house. She listened to me in silence and put on a haughty expression as if this did not concern her. Perhaps it wasn't strange, I'd gone through it many times. I told her what my acquaintance had said and then I burst into tears. I had hoped that the crying would soften her heart, but she only said: “Excellent proposal on his part. I think you should talk to that fellow Alfred on the corner here. His airline is going bankrupt. I'm sure he will fly you and all that crap to Africa if you ask him nicely. There are some great business geniuses living on this street.”

 I sat at the kitchen table for a while after she had started watching TV. I was so tired and lethargic that I couldn't think of anything. But suddenly I felt as if someone said: “This is not such a crazy idea at all, Guðjón. What harm would it do to mention the matter to Alfred?”

 If my acquaintance had told the truth, which I had no reason to doubt, then I had riches in Africa in my old stockroom. I looked at the clock, it was only ten, I looked out of the kitchen window, there was still a light on at Alfred's. I got up and crossed the divide. I knocked on the door six times casually as if to let them know I wasn't some damn disconnector. Silla, his wife, opened the door. “Silla,” I said.” Is Alli at home?”

“Yes, he’s sitting in the living room watching TV.”

 “Can I have a word with him?”

  “Yes, of course.”

Going ahead of me, she announced: “Alli, you have a visitor: Guðjón Gunnarsson is here to see you.”

Alli received me with good nature. “What can I do for you, Guðjón?”

I waited for Silla to leave the room. Then I said: “How is business going?”

Alli’s reaction to this told me that I could not have chosen a worse topic of conversation

 “ It’s no good. No one can compete with the big airlines. Cargolux has cornered the market. I imagine how I ever thought of starting this,” said Alli, laughing at himself.

“Have you been to Africa?”

“Yes, I went there a few times very long ago. I flew food and medicine to Biafra in 1970.”

“That's good to hear,” I said. “Would you be willing to fly there with goods for me?”

“Where in Africa?” Alli asked, assessing me with caution, I could see it in his face.

“Nigeria,” I said. I made no mention of going to sell the trinkets to the people there.

“And what’s the merchandise? Have you been paid yet?”

 “No, but I’m expecting a transfer. However. until then, Hjálmar Arason is going to help me. He’s a branch manager at Íslandsbanki up in Skagi.”

“I’ll fly when I get paid for it,” said Alli.

The very next morning I called Hjálmar. We were old classmates from the business school at Flensburg.

 He agreed to lend me a million kronur on favourable terms. It was enough to get us airborne.

I lost no time in calling Alli. He told me that the plane was parked out at Reykjavík Airport. It was an old Hercules transporter that he had bought from the army. I called Grétar, my son, and updated him on the situation. He promised to show up with a pal of his. When I reached Sundagarðar I contacted a delivery driver who had often driven for me. Grétar and his friend arrived shortly after, hardworking men. I called Alli and he said he would be out on the runway at ten. There was plenty to do throughout the day, what with loading the truck and driving the product out to the airfield. It's amazing how much merchandise can be accumulated in a quarter of a century. There was bronze tableware, plaster parrots, plastic toys, cars, swords and top hats, cardigans ... I don’t need to go on listing it, it was all good stuff if you found the right buyer. It took well into the evening to load the plane. I transferred eight hundred thousand to Alli. After that, we had no trouble flying to Nigeria. Before we left, I bought a couple of bottles of white wine, just to calm my nerves. Alli arrived with a co-pilot.

When we were in the air, I could scarcely believe that we had taken off. I found a place at the back of the plane, on a mattress that had been stored there. In the pile there was a plastic rocking horse, a present for my son Grétar, somehow it had gotten tangled up with the other stuff, had been in storage inside a warehouse. It stared at me with a dumb expression. After all this, I was completely exhausted, so I fell asleep. I had a horrible dream, I dreamed I was sitting in an armchair in my underwear, and here and there a vein had been opened on my thighs and calves so that in many places the blood flowed directly onto the floor.

I was paralysed with fear, but I didn't know why I was so afraid. However, it soon became clear, for all of a sudden a whole pack of rats came and started licking the blood. I woke up and let out a scream of terror. I knew what these rats meant, they were my fellow members of the Lions and Kiwanis clubs, my colleagues and friends, wholesalers who had tried to take away my dealerships when my businesses went bust. And I had thought these people were my friends. But the dream showed me what an illusion that was.

It was cold down there in the bowels of the plane during the ten hours it took to fly to Nigeria. Having rented an entire plane, I felt empowered. I clambered up to the cockpit, but there wasn’t much to see except an endless cloud floor, if such a poetic expression may be used. The noise of the engines was terrible. I had to shout to be heard. – We’re halfway there, Alli shouted back.

Alli was an old Africa hand, all the way back to the Biafran war, as I mentioned.  I had left my watch on the bedside table at home, so I was no longer able to follow the passage of time. I didn't go back to asleep again as I lay on the mattress, but made sure merely to doze.  I had no appetite for another dream with rats and leeches and ravens and other unholy things.

Well, the plane finally landed at Lagos, we had arrived in Nigeria. As soon as we landed I surveyed the mountain of goods and thought: I must be crazy. But now the goods must be sold. I also had to have money for fuel so we could fly home.

An airport employee walked in front of the plane and showed Alli where to park. Then Alli turned off the engines. The co-pilot opened the door and the heat poured in. The door at the rear was opened and a group of  blacks talking quickly entered the cabin. They were border guards and customs officers, they spoke excellent English and wanted to know what our mission was. Alli looked at me. I said: “We’ve come from Iceland to do business with you here in Nigeria.” What kind of business? they wanted to know. “We have various products,” I said. And now they began to talk rather rapidly among themselves, until finally the one who was leading them said: “We have to confiscate some of your goods before we can let you into the country.” I opened a box here and there, I took out a plaster parrot and showed it to them, they were greatly impressed and muttered to each other in their own language. After some negotiation, they got five boxes of various trinkets. It didn't matter, there was plenty on offer.

So now it was up to me to sell the cargo. I had no idea how to go about it. But I straightened my tie and disembarked. We were at a large airport, and around the runway there were trees wilting in the heat. The world was waiting for me there, at the gallop. But that's how it is in business, you never know what will happen next, the only thing that matters is making money and making more money. I asked one of the guys where it would be best to apply, and he said: “My cousin knows a man who is a merchant.”

He took me into town to meet this uncle of his, who contacted the merchant. This was like a fairy tale, the man entered the plane, I was like one possessed, never in all my life have I been so madly persuasive as a salesman. I demonstrated the goods, I thumped a golden angel, “Give me a price,” I shouted. “Give me a good price!” I had once heard this sales pitch from a street vendor when I was in Paris buying cosmetics.

We spent the whole day exploring the mountain. At last we reached an agreement: forty thousand dollars! I could not believe my luck, though Alli told me later that it wasn't luck, but sheer pure genius.

But the man did not have ready cash, he had to transfer the money electronically. I went with him and we completed that part of the plan. The funds were transferred to my account at home in Skagi. Then the plane was emptied. Many hands joined together as one.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Nigeria. I had sometimes heard that Nigerians were tricky and deceitful, and that it was not even safe to sell them stockfish, but that was not my experience, I sing the praises of this nation. Alli and his co-pilot got ready for take-off. In ten hours  time we would be home and then I could put my feet on the ground and get back to business. I felt there was no limit to what I could do.

I got in behind the lads in the cockpit, the plane climbed slowly and bitingly into the sky, I had the transfer receipt in my breast pocket, what power!

We had been flying for about two hours when Alli suddenly said: “For God’s sake, guys, we forgot to fill up with fuel.”

“We,” I said, “you mean you.”

“Okay then, I forgot”, said Alli.

Here was proof of what always happened when I was doing business: something came up.

“You don't forget something like that,” I said. “It just doesn't happen.”

 “It completely slipped my mind,” said Alli, “but in my long career this has never happened before. I’ve flown twenty thousand flight hours!”

“You just need to turn around and get fuel,” I said. “ It's that simple.”

“It's not possible,” said Alli. “We don't have enough fuel to fly back to Nigeria. We’ll have to sort this some other way.”

“Where are we now?” I asked.

“We’re over Liberia,” said Alli, “and that’s where we’ll be forced to land.”

“Have you lost your marbles?” I said. “Didn't you watch the TV news the night before I came to see you? There’s just been a revolution in Liberia. We can't land there.”

I saw before me the former president of Liberia, Samuel Doe, kneeling before the new one, Prince Johnson, who was sitting on the throne. Two fellows were cutting off the ears of Samuel Doe, who was crying for mercy. There was no mercy to be had. They made him eat his ears. A third fellow fanned Prince Johnson with a fan.

“We can't land in Liberia,” I said. “There’s nothing but savages and cannibals there.”

“But we’ll have to land there anyway,” said Alli. “ Or else die. I’ve always had a bad feeling about this trip,” he added.

We were directed to the airport via the radio. That was the last straw.

Alli turned off the engines and an enormous silence descended, what was going to happen now?  I went forward to the cockpit and looked out the window. I saw a jeep heading towards us from the airport tower. As the jeep approached and stopped under the nose of the Hercules, I knew we were in serious trouble. There were three men in the jeep and they were beckoning and pointing. There was nothing to do but open the door of the plane and see what these savages wanted.

I went to the back of the cabin, the side door was opened, the steps were lowered and then we could see them, they all wore belts across their chests, holding AK-47 assault rifles and looking at us silently and menacingly.

“What you want in Liberia?” asked the man in charge.

“Need gasoline,’ said Alli.

It turned out that we could get jet fuel from these guys.  Alli and I went down to the runway to negotiate with them, while the co-pilot remained inside the plane with the fear of death on him.  It transpired that they wanted exactly the same amount in dollars that I had sold for in Nigeria, which was many times too much.

“What shall we do?” I said.

“You’ll have to go with them and make a transfer,” said Alli. To the man in charge he said  “Do you have a bank account, do you have a phone?”  The savage, the one with a spear through his nose, said: “We have a phone and we have a bank account, let's go.”

And there was no one else to go but me.

I got into the jeep. While we were on our way to the airport tower, I imagined the former president of the country  having his ears cut off no matter how much the man cried and was in pain, and I thought: If they treat the president like this, what will they do with an insignificant little Icelander like me?

The only thing that could be done was to call Hjálmar at Íslandsbanki in Akranes and ask him to take care of this transfer.

We entered to office at the terminal building where they gave me an account number, and now it was simply a question of transferring all the profits from the trip into the account of these bandits. I was back at ground zero again. It overwhelmed me like the night back home when my wife refused me permission to mortgage the house. And I cried like a baby. “What’s the matter?” they asked.

I said it like it was, it was a lease and if they kept it all my wife would divorce me. I had never spoken a truer word. They talked to each other and finally the man in charge said: “Mister, I am not an evil man. I don't want you to lose your wife. Let's say thirty thousand dollars.”

I was lucky enough to have Hjálmar's phone number in a notebook in my breast pocket, so I called and waited and waited and waited, while it rang. Would he answer, it was midnight back home in Iceland. At last it was answered, and a child's voice said: “Yes?”

‘Is your dad at home?”

“He’s asleep,” said the child.

“Would you wake him up and tell him it's urgent?”

There was a long silence, and then a sleepy Hjálmar came on the line. I was quick to update him on the situation. He would need to go to the bank and transfer thirty thousand dollars. I was in Liberia and if it wasn’t done I would be killed.

I took stock of the three revolutionaries, and  to judge by their looks it was quite likely to happen.

“I'll do it immediately,” Hjálmar said. “Gaui, you are quite incredible,” he added. “Quite incredible!”

I sat there in the office for about an hour chatting with the Liberians. We chatted about home and family, the usual things. I was very careful not to mention the revolution. One of them made a call, apparently to his bank, the transaction had gone through.

They drove me back out to the plane, filled it with fuel, and I was glad when we took off,  there was no danger of me revisiting this country any time soon.

We flew home, and I had ten thousand dollars in the bank. There is something I ought to add. Rarely have I been as happy as when the plane touched down at Reykjavík Airport. With the ten thousand dollars I had left, I was able to get back on my feet. I started a new company with a new tax number, I became a large scale exporter to Nigeria, got filthy rich and came to an agreement with my wife. I managed to sell there all the jeans that Hagkaup didn't care about. And because of the stockfish, I was eventually made Nigerian consul in Iceland.

That's why I say: never give up, always make more and more money, for to tell you the truth, that is the only thing that counts.

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.