Thursday, 29 November 2018

Mirjam Tuominen - Short Prose

The Collected Short Stories (Samlade noveller) of Mirjam Tuominen (1913-1967) are published in a new two-volume edition by Modernista in Stockholm. There is an introductory essay by the critic and translator Daniel Pedersen.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

North and South

An insightful passage from an early chapter of Professor Dr. Susanne Popp's wonderful new biography of the German composer Max Reger:
Ganz von Riemann auf die deutsche Tradition eingeschworen, lehnte er das Fremde und Andersartige — in seinen Augen die Trivialität und Melodiösität „zweifelhaften Charakters" — der als apostrophierten Oper ab und prognostizierte ihr ein baldiges Verschwinden. Wie eingeschränkt „deutsch" sein Verständnis war, zeigt ein Vergleich mit dem gleichzeitigen Urteil von Jean Sibelius, das Toni Mäkelä überliefert: „Cavalleria rusticana ist auch sehr stark national, und viele Passagen kann nur ein Sizilianer verstehen. Wie Du weißt, hat das Naive eine wichtige Funktion in ihrer Musik. Wir Nordländer neigen mehr zum ,Kontemplativen'. Aber wenn wir es schaffen, unser Philosophieren loszuwerden, können auch wir Begabungen produzieren."


For the time being I've put my 1973 Mandel'shtam translations here.

Like Annensky, Mandel'shtam was spiritually and psychologically rooted in St Petersburg -- the city named Pietari in Finnish, and at one time in many respects a cultural and economic region of Finland.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018


It’s remarkable that although two full-length biographies of Karin Boye now exist (Margit Abenius --Drabbad av renhet [1950) and Johan Svedjedal -- Den nya dagen gryr [2017]), neither has yet been published in English translation. It often increasingly seems that when it comes to the Nordic countries the interest of UK/US publishers lies almost exclusively in the direction of light fiction and fantasy, with much less attention given to the skönlitteratur that is the primary token of the Nordic presence in the European cultural heritage.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Islands of Truth

Two cinematic studies of the Utøya massacre of 2011 - Paul Greengrass's 22 July and Erik Poppe's Utøya. Of the two, the latter is unquestionably the more powerful and fully achieved.

22 July begins as a pseudo-documentary, with a re-enactment of some of the horrific events of that day - first, we see the mass murderer preparing explosives at a remote farm in the country. Then, the arrival of the children and teenagers for the Labour Party AUF youth camp on the island of Utøya. After that, the sequence proceeds to unfold: the bomb explosion in Regeringskvartalet, the arrival of Breivik, dressed as a police officer, his shooting of the camp leader and island hostess, and then his hour-an-half rampage around the island, killing and maiming.

The film then turns into a procedural, with reconstructions of the interrogation of Breivik, his statements to the police and court, and an exposition of some of his far-right and Islamophobic ideas. These are set in contrast to the experience of Viljar, a survivor who has suffered terrible and life-threatening injuries, but is gradually recovering and trying to make sense of what has happened to him and to others.

While the story of Viljar is moving and inspiring, for the viewer it's hard to see why the retelling of the story of Breivik (masterfully played by Anders Danielsen Lie) is necessary - it merely serves to put the sociopath on a pedestal, and subtly changes one's perspective on the first part of the movie, which in retrospect becomes something akin to a historical re-enactment - surely not the director's primary intention. For what pretends to be a fact-based account there are curious and major omissions. These include any reference to the absence of a police response during the massacre, and to the help that was given by local residents, who picked up many survivors in small boats - for some reason we never see them in the movie. Perhaps one of the reasons why one reviewer characterised the movie as searing but shallow.

Utøya approaches the subject from quite a different angle. While the movie is almost exclusively a re-enactment, the manner in which this is achieved stands in marked contrast to the Greengrass production. Instead of a blow-by-blow or shot-by-shot docudrama account we get an inner, subjective sense of how it felt to be a victim of Breivik's terrorism. 18 year-old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) moves through the hour and a half of shootings in an almost dreamlike fashion, terrified yet at the same time filled with deep compassion for the victims she encounters around her, and with anxiety for the fate of her sister from whom she becomes separated at an early stage in the massacre. With the exception of one brief, nightmarish moment we never see the gunman himself - all we hear is the seemingly endless litany of gunfire, now in the distance, now shatteringly close and deafening.

Utøya doesn't sermonise or preach - in a simple, direct way it puts the events in context: this is the result of a far-right extremist's thoughts and actions. What dominates inside this contextual frame is not ideology but the human experience of living under tyranny and terror - the kind of terror that fanatics like Breivik would like to impose on us, the people of the free world.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

ELM - Autumn 2018 issue

The autumn 2018 issue of Estonian Literary Magazine is out - excerpts can be read on the magazine's website.


The painter and poet Holger Drachmann was born on October 9th, 1849. Drachmann was among the first artists who travelled to Skagen and he was a prominent member of the artists’ colony. Since 1917 a literary prize, the Drachmannlegatet, has been awarded on Drachmann’s birthday. This year's laureate is the Danish poet Susanne Jorn (b. 1944). As has been the case in recent years, the Plesner Galleries at Skagens Museum will be the venue for a celebration of this year’s laureate on October 19th.

The Ride Towards Now

Schildts & Söderströms of Helsinki have published Ritten mot nuet (The Ride Towards Now) the 26th volume of poetry by the Finland-Swedish Ostrobothnian poet Gösta Ågren (b. 1936).


Poesin är berättelsen om
meningen med vårt liv:
tillvaron, inte händelserna;
rösterna, inte orden.

Och rytmen, inte sorgen,
fastän varje rad så tydligt
döljer den, och varje dikt
utgör ett avsked.


Poetry is the story of 
the meaning of our lives: 
the being, not the events; 
the voices, not the words.

And the rhythm, not the sorrow, 
although every line so clearly
hides it, and every poem
constitutes a farewell.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Friday, 7 September 2018

A Tour Through the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Gösta Ågren


History is thought, a
pattern that conceals the
true story, where
the swallow grows bloody
from flying through the
murky bombast and
facts stand like a higher
race above the souls'
morasses, and the annals
challenge in vain. The object
of this wild conversation is
the community, a magic behemoth,
a togetherness with no other shield
against the fire than ashes.


The sunrise resembles
a religious idea; so
helpless is our existence.
Sometimes the sparse death
thickens to war. Then
the names sink away in
their own mass. Outside
society awaits bondage,
where the slaves' sick hearts
at last pound themselves
apart. But in here the freedom has shrunk to
decrees, and words are now so
clear, they signify only
sound. The silence is silenced
by music, but here
too you must


God is a simplification
and the word soul says plainly
that human beings are only
symbolic, as if
there were houses without
emptiness. Alas,
nothing is compensated
in the eternal accounts. The
murdered are chosen,
the whipped still
burn. A rival overturned
Theagenes' victory statue, and came
finally first to the finish, crushed
beneath its weight.

Spiritual laws

That which is limitless cannot
be seen. It surrounds you
with its emptiness, which
slowly dissolves you like
a carnivorous flower
its prey. Only the quest
sustains you. Without
ideals no one can keep

their memories pure. Without
certainty and actions
the laws of matter take
over and turn
this wild event
into something lost.


Love is a message
from the skin. Hands
begin to long for their meaning.
A story awaits, but
the one who has nothing
to lose does not dare
to losing that,
too. Only the one who has everything
to gain, is not afraid
of his courage. He has been
pitiable. Now
he turns
against himself. The heart pounds
like a helpless child,
but he writes his
bad poems. They cry
as wordless
cranes cry
in spring.


Words of command
remain like a direction
in the silence. We must
obey or refuse
to obey. There is
no choice.
When words are clumsy
and hesitant like unfamiliar
footsteps on parquet,
they say something. When
they are handsome as enemies
they hide something. Do not
play with them: they are
laden. Only
friendly words say
nothing special.
They contain only
friendly words.


Between the high years we glimpse
the ocean. Yet we must
arrange our life in a line,
for the present is merely something
constant; everything else
changes. We have control
of memories and plans,
two branches without a trunk,
but both require courage, great
as fear, and the steady
rhythm of the heart, that does not
constitute a symbol but is
a gymnast in the world of
the senses, whose only routine
consists in keeping the powerful
tree running.


Heroism is a state
of cruelty, the hawk's sudden
line towards earth. Then all
that is cowardly risks fading, as though
history were something different
from life, and the days merely
sand beneath the weight of years.
But when the hero flees to the deed,
beside himself with contempt, trembling
like an engine with fear,
cowardice protects the seed as though
it were a sensitive emotion
in the sea of weeds, and thereby
keeps the escape route open for
the true route.

The oversoul

The soul is a daydream
outside our name, a garden
for the god, where mind
and will hysterically
degrade. Afterwards, the present
is too big; we dare not
fall asleep. Who can sleep
with a god in his soul,
an oversoul, that uses
us to be, and is itself
free? We should be operated on,
but no knife cuts him
apart, and never will
the spiritual heal
its victims. We ourselves


The circle has no centre:
it is a demented cell
that swallows everything, even
the emptiness that assails
feelings and days,
and the forgetfulness that
preserves everything. For
the essayist the circle is

life, but for the poet only
a horizon without habitations,
where people conceal themselves
by being, and the everyday
is inscrutable as a ritual,
the meaninglessness
a strange

The intellect

The intellect is a room without
years and walls. You have to imagine
them. Well-worn footprints
point to principles, but
they are old now, prisons
waiting for their prey.
You have to go as
a stranger would go
into your brain and there
declare all the accumulated
commands invalid and expand
it to a lifetime without
the altar, a chapel where
you can think as though
everything was sacred.


How could decorative
messages compete with
Altmira's bulls? They stand
in the darkness, sketches

of the body's drama. Art
is magic, but the light
in the museums glows as if
they had nothing

to hide, and the young
rebel against rules
as if form possessed
meaning. When the artist

fought the pictorial creature
in faltering torchlight
he was wild and pure
as arrogance. The journey

was towards the inner creature,
his real strength.,
that waited for him,
patient as his shadow.

The poet

The seventeenth century was everywhere
but some still escaped
as though they were
in disguise, and only
needed to think in a
hitherto unknown way
in order to become empty
and pure as strangers.

In their poems form protected
many weak
lines, but suddenly
a verse could vibrate,
desperate as a wing
seeking its bird.


What we leave undone
is a part of our action.
Without the dreamed ship
the bark boat would capsize.
Without all that we merely
pass by we would never
get there. Even
the boredom is laden

with existence. Its emptiness
is only a form of
patience. The work
waits like an adversary,
and the footsteps begin
to point again.


The events are small, but
the chains endless. There is
a wildness in every name,
an I that wants to go and leave
the shackles behind. But flight

too is only a link:
the chain cannot be broken.
Where you go, into the latent,
you always meet
the same figure.


Long ago people saw
that seriousness threatens small talk,
and began to smile the silence
away. Many

also sought protection in
phrases, but phrases
are words, and cannot
be revoked. At last

fellowship became sheer
politeness. They understood
finally how important
it is.


A giver tries to grow
greater, not with the help of
the recipients' gratitude
but by diminishing them

with his gifts. Fame
or beauty work in the same
way, even if all they give
is their aura! When

a gift has permeated
the inscrutable defence
and reached the entrails' warm
hatred, the recipient

convinces only by making
his face and voice
manage on their own.
He himself goes. His back

is stiff as a shield
and his clothes do not hide him,
they reveal him. At
the roadside another back

sprouts when wings unfold.
It shimmers like blue
metal. Only the beetle is
its own present.


The cattle's language has only
one word. They think with its
meaning, an older and
wilder pilgrimage than ours:
it can only continue
and the goal is the beginning.

October burns like
a palace. Fate is larger
than in May, all darkness
higher. We approach
the lower, ruling
layers, where conversations

are dark chambers,
the arguments without other logic
than their existence, and the bodies
simplified to pilgrims while
the cries merge to become
a single word.


The word power means
violence. The words of the laws
are not symbols but
real. In the ruins of Ctesiphon
the state remains, a rainbow
of concrete. We are

masses; we have no
other choice. When we seekingly
look around us, we meet
only Medusa's poor,
cold gaze, but turned to stone

we still manage to think
our dream, the only finished thing
in the crude sketch
in which we live.

Nominalist and Realist

Whoever denies the real
confirms its power. Revolt
is hard. Whoever affirms
reality drains it
if death encounters no resistance
it is merely a clump of dust
where we slowly gather.
With theories as wings
we fly with no other
direction than away. But here
on the tenth line I begin
to hesitate. The denier has
perceived that if everything exists,
nothing else exists;
the affirmer says deep withiin
that perbaps everything
is something else.

New England Reformers

There is an indifference,
empty and dead as strict
demeanour. It surrounds us,
a pain relief, which those
people who fight apparently
refuse. Yet they are
totally dependent on this
poverty. Without it

reality would
conquer them with its
limitless masses, where
the individual is only
a throat, turned
towards their teeth.

A resumé

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote
his two volumes of essays
in order to become calm. Thoughts
are an unease that seeks rhythm.
They must be turned into waves
through the opinions; if
they harden to principles
they will be broken
apart on the shore's
reality. They are not
incorporeal: the metaphors
make hem visible, brutal
as walls or gentle
as sleepy hands,
but every time we sense
that the description
is incomplete.

From Dikter utan land, Schildts & Söderströms, 2015

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Thursday, 6 September 2018


This is just another of our occasional brief reviews of SELTA, the Swedish-English Literary Translators Association. Actually, there isn't much to report this time: the group seems to be fairly stable as regards membership numbers, though its practical work and activity seem to be dominated by a rather small and tightly-knit network of members who know one another and are colleagues. There's also a noticeable age factor: again the small network appears to be composed of younger members, while the wider membership is rather older and takes little part in the group activity - this is noticeable with regard to meetings, where many of the older members no longer attend.

It's good that there is an organisation like SELTA, bringing some order to the potential chaos of publishers, editors, agents, agencies, translators and contracts - but it doesn't seem quite the same as it was in the 1980s and 90s, when it was more than a network, functioning as a forum for ideas and reflections on contemporary and classical Swedish-language literature. In fact, it feels as though the literary element may have receded quite a bit in recent times. Perhaps, however, the role is still fulfilled by Swedish Book Review, though again there's a sense of a rather restricted network in charge of its editorial functions.

It's to be hoped that SELTA will continue to evolve. The founding of a sister organisation DELT is an interesting development: this blog has always advocated the forming of a pan-Nordic translators' association, and will go on doing so. Perhaps at some point SELTA and DELT will merge!

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Stand Magazine

Stand 14.1

Not a specifically Nordic topic, but it's encouraging to see that Stand Magazine continues to publish work in translation, as well as much contemporary British and North American writing. Stand is where a number of the translations and essays of Göran Printz-Påhlson first saw the light, as well as some of the early English versions of the poems of Tomas Tranströmer. The magazine began publication in 1952 - it's wonderful that it has survived to the present day.

Hat tip: Neil Astley

Tracks from My Album

Anni Sumari 
Tracks from my Album 
Translated by David McDuff and Sarka Hantula

Anni Sumari was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1965, and studied literature and media/communication studies at the University of Helsinki. She is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including Selected Poems (2006), The Years Above the Waters (2003), Train Play (2001), Sinerian (2000), and Measure and Quantity (1998), for which she won the Finnish National Broadcasting Company's Dancing Bear Prize for best poetry book of the year. She also received an artist's grant from the Finnish Ministry of Culture for 2004-2006. She is active in translation and editing, and her works have been translated into 24 languages including English, German, French, Swedish, Danish, Belorussian, Serbian, Macedonian and Italian,  Slovene and Hebrew. She was shortlisted for the Runeberg Prize, and in 2016 was elected Best International Poet of the Year by World Poets Quarterly Magazine (Multilingual) and the editorial department of Chinese Poetry Abroad). She was the first Finn to receive this meritorious award. She is a member of the Board of the Finnish PEN Center. She recently received an artist's grant from the Finnish Ministry of Culture for 2007-2011, and has edited and translated a book called Odin's Steed: The Scandinavian Myths, which has just come out in Finnish. She is the co-editor of The Other Side of Landscape, published by Slope. 

Anni Sumari's poems have been translated into English by David McDuff.

The sky, Swiss air space, December

We slide on the tray of noon,
we ski, we slalom on the expanse of the clouds.
On the plane’s wing it says: Do not step
outside this area,
I would never dream of it, I promise you,
anyway it’s cold out there, -65°C.
The snot runs, what joy
to be able to pick an anthrax sample
from one’s nose, I long for you! even
in the deep frost I can’t
concentrate on what is,
be where I am.
We are 

unquestionably at an altitude
of at least 11,880 metres.
That cloud is tall
for its age, the hairs on its crown
touch the angels of heaven. So
at night it’s the starry sky,
one must be thankful for that,
if on top of everything else one wasn’t
thankful, what would happen then?
Europe lies under an eiderdown
weary of those things that come
from the sky, from the blue, the bolts
the ribs of the clouds slamming down
into the divine comedy. 

Be quiet, be quiet, encyclopaedia.
The concepts burn your ears
as you don’t know what is behind them,
gratitude, freedom, love. Innocence
is a white house and an empty bottle,
are you wiser now. From above the rural landscape
is a threadbare suede coat
a moth-eaten stuffed reindeer, what else is
missing from this picture. The shadows of
the trails of jet planes ticking
over it. 

The earth’s face has always been hidden by plants
and encrusted with bivalves. Is it any wonder
that some of them were preserved, perpetuated
in stone or resin, marble, softness.
But is it possible
that even one portion of spaghetti Bolognese
will be preserved in any circumstances?
The mountains grow bearskin,
then turn to cinders,
the romantic beaches grow fossilized,
the messages vanish from the answering machine,
but the most haphazard one of the most tender things
preserves its form, remains, moves minds,
is put on display, receives its value by chance,
a nucleus of meaning. 

The granite flickers.
A human being wants to know
his exact location, approximately
by rule of thumb
the bedrock, and how long
a finger can be held in the candle flame
before it burns –
and if there is stone underneath
is there also stone on top? and what
meteor would fall
on my head, if I lived long enough? and
have I already lived beyond the moment when
I ought to have died?
and will I push my head
through the grey granite
even in the graveyard. 

But here is a surface 
which will not be breached: the horizon.
You can freely choose
an arbitrary point
anywhere on the globe,
and you will notice that all
gazes finally turn there.
Before that, however, they perform
an inconceivably complex
figure-dance at the fourth dimension
of the system of coordinates. 

Through the oval window
I watch us reach our goal.
I am not touched at all.
In the sunlight, seen from above,
the cities are broken mirrors
in which your memories
are distorted in reflection.
You clench your fist
you caress the emptiness.
The dead would do well
to weep for the living
and not the other way round

 translated from Finnish by David McDuff