Musings on Saami poetry – part two
Authors of the Week: Sweden
To translate oneself is an act of survival
You ought to survive, or you will die.
Ii mihkkege danne leat summal geavvan.
How does a language heal?
The heteroglossia of contemporary Saami poetry is both a defining characteristic of a literature that defies preconceived, Western notions of what poetry is and should be in order to be valid, and a decolonial response to decades of fierce assimilation politics aimed at stripping the Saami of their languages.
In this essay, we posit that Saami writers, whether they want to or not, are forced constantly to consider what it means to be or not to be writing in an endangered indigenous language, and that this choice, in turn, has been implicitly linked to Western ideas of authenticity from the outset. In addition, Saami poets are constantly being told that their art is intrinsically political, and thus primarily gestural, but, to quote the Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘problematizing the indigenous is a Western obsession’.
Since the early 1900s, Saami writers have repeatedly argued against stereotypical depictions of our people and, in a certain sense, of our autonomy which acknowledges our own worldview and languages. This is true both of poets and others. In 1920, the Ume Saami agitator Karin Stenberg stated that we, as Saami, ‘do not want to be seen as guinea pigs,’ echoing Elsa Laula, who sixteen years earlier pointed out that the Swedish state had gone so far as to deny the Saami ‘our right to exist.’
Despite a literary void in the wake of the 1920s, due to decades of fierce assimilation politics throughout Sápmi, these arguments found a new audience at the beginning of the 1970s, in particular through the newly founded ČSV movement which argued for Saami self-determination, clearly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. ČSV started both as a political and as a literary movement that sought to revitalise not only our languages but our culture as well, ‘functioning as a process of awakening and of the formation of a common [Saami] identity.’
In 1972, one of the movement’s founders, Anders Guttormsen, said of ČSV, that the letters ‘mean nothing on their own […] they do not translate as ‘life’ in Saami, but they can give life to so many things if they’re being interpreted correctly.’
Čájet Sámi Vuoiŋŋa.
Show Saami Spirit.
Is it possible to show Saami spirit through the medium of a colonial language?
Čohkke Sámiid Vuitui.
Gather the Saami and lead them to victory.
Is this theorised victory problematic to a Western mindset because it gives the subaltern agency where the majority previously has afforded it none?
Saami literature is far too often dismissed as peripheral, and Sápmi itself is either envisioned as stagnant, or peculiarly picturesque by the majority. This statement is easily backed up by the fact that ethnographic books about the Saami, written by self-appointed experts on our culture and well-meaning tourists alike, heavily outnumber actual books by Saami writers. Thankfully, contemporary Saami writers and poets have long fought against this, and they often redefine the very borders of our culture, by challenging preconceived notions of ‘Saaminess’ and what a Saami can or cannot write about.
While written Saami poetry in many ways can be said to function as a natural extension of yoiking, contemporary Saami poetry is at the same time characterised by an oftentimes postmodern approach to language and literature. Not only that; where Western poets may have been easily defined as belonging to a certain literary period or style, Saami poets have a tendency to fuse different styles and techniques in order to create something that is both uniquely Saami, and at the same time both global and local in its outlook.
Indeed, Saami poets like Inger-Mari Aikio, Sigbjørn Skåden, Rönn-Lisa Zakrisson and Timimie Märak try their hand today at haikus, free verse and strict metric lines, drawing upon the style of Shakespeare, Milton and Matsuo Bashō alike, in order to write about everything from miners’ protests and language loss to oral sex and stage fright.
Or, to quote Sigbjørn Skåden, ‘Lord, please, if I have to puke / keep my Saami clothes clean at least!’
To weave oneself back and forth between tongues is both a blessing and a curse.
To write in a language often predicted to disappear, long before your own bones have been laid to rest, does something to you.
Language is both art and identity.
It functions as a basic mode of communication as much as a powerful tool of subversion. To paraphrase the Saami poet Paulus Utsi; a language can both be ensnared and used to ensnare others.
Contemporary Saami poets approach the issue of language in a number of different ways. This is partly because of the symbolic value speaking a Saami language has earned in Sápmi, both as a way to assert and express a sense of Saaminess, and partly because the choice to write or not to write in a Saami language continues to be seen as a highly political one.
To some poets, like the North Saami artist, artivist and writer Niillas Holmberg, writing in a Saami language is the undisputed norm. To him, writing in North Saami constitutes an act of both self-love and resistance.
At the same time, Holmberg is acutely aware of the importance placed upon colonial majority languages, as tools of assimilation and as ways of reaching a wider audience. In Assimilašuvdna Blues, he questions this unequal relationship between a colonised people and its colonisers, by pointing out the ways in which the educational systems throughout Sápmi historically have functioned as willing and active perpetrators of a cultural and linguistic genocide, going as far as to ask ‘if school is really the solution / if you have the assimilation blues?’
Throughout his writing, Holmberg frequently returns to the issue of language, both as a mode of communication and as a way to assert his own Saami identity from within. On the one hand, he criticises the state policies that have rendered his and other Saami languages critically endangered – ‘what can I say / to you who tend gardens / making a flowerbed of my mouth / ready for the big sleep’. On the other, he does not shy away from uneasy questions of personal responsibility, asking if the writing of a piece called ‘assimilation blues’, by virtue of giving it an English name, would not also be a form of assimilation in itself, betraying his fidelity to his mother tongue.
To overcome these issues, Holmberg, alongside many other Saami writers, has turned to self-translations that border on rewriting and re-imagining Saami thoughts through the medium of the majority language.
Some poets, like Juvvá Pittja, even make us question the difference between a translation and an interpretation.
On the one hand, Juvvá Pittjá tends to offer fairly literal translations of his poems, produced in close relationship with his grandmother, the renowned poet Inghilda Tapio. Thus, when he asks ‘manne du álbmot oažžu duolbmut /mu álbmoga,’ the Swedish translation resists the urge to rephrase or explain, and instead comes across as rather plain. In many cases, however, such as in the Swedish translation of the poem ‘Beaivvaš vel rattis’, his verse-translations work just as much as poems in their own right, for instance through the clever use of rhyming schemes and alliteration, thereby transcending the limitations of one language to give voice to a similar, yet slightly different thought in another language.
Translation, at its core, both entails and ultimately demands transformation. Not only that, a translation constitutes a series of biased, subjective choices, and as such nothing is ever truly objectively speaking translatable.
To many Saami writers, the loss of language within our own community, continues to be one of the key issues that affect their style of writing. In Iŋgos Máhte Iŋgá’s poem ‘Sáme nissonolbmot’, which functions both as a critique of colonialism, Western patriarchal definitions of womanhood, and lateral violence, this becomes clear when the Saami identity of several of the women described is questioned because they do ‘not have / the right accent’ or, even if they ‘want […] to be a Saami / [… they do] not speak the language.’
Today, the majority of Saami literature written in Saami languages remains untranslated. A precious few writers have managed to find an international audience, and most of them have chosen to write their prose in Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish, rather than in a Saami language. It may then come as a surprise that a large number of contemporary Saami poets actively oppose translation into a majority language. One of them is the poet Helga West, who has said that her poetry collection Gádden muohttaga vielgadin was too personal for her, too concerned with a Saami response to an intercultural divorce, to allow it to be translated into or rewritten in Finnish. To this day, the poems remain largely untranslated, and when translations have been produced, they have been made in close collaboration with the poet herself.
The choice not to translate oneself also speaks to a certain sense amongst contemporary poets that the Saami voice finds itself in a dangerous position where outsiders still try to co-opt and redefine what it means to be a Saami. Thus, by not translating oneself, these writers maintain a sense of power and control over their work, which has often been denied Saami artists, writers and musicians in the past.
Other poets have started a conscious shift from translating themselves into rewriting themselves. Rather than offering up a translation of a poem that was originally written in a Saami language, they write their own versions of the poem in the majority language instead. One could, of course, argue that this strips the reader of the potential to fully engage with a poem’s linguistic ambiguity, but as the majority of readers, whether Saami or not, do not read Saami, we argue that, at a time when more and more people want to engage with Saami stories for numerous different reasons, this decolonial approach to translation is a sound and, in many ways, necessary one.
Having said that, whether contemporary Saami poets continue to write and rewrite their own poems in different languages, or end up working with translators to reach a wider audience, one thing is certain – the future of Saami literature is bright.
 Elsa Lindholm Blind, from ‘Polar Zoo’. Bágojda Báddnum – Beroende av Ord, 2022, edited by Anne Wuolab and Anna H Degerman. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Sigbjørn Skåden, from ‘Notahta 1’. Beležke kralja čevljarjev, 2016.
 Linnéa Axelsson, p. 601, from Ædnan, 2018. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Linda Tuhiwai Smith, p. 91, Decolonizing Methodologies, 1999.
 Karin Stenberg, p. 25, from Dat läh mijen situd! Det är vår vilja! En vädjan till den svenska nationen från samefolket, 1920. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Elsa Laula, p. 5, Inför Lif eller Död: Sanningsord i de lappska förhållandena, 1904. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Johan Klemet Hætta Kalstad, p. 48, ‘ČSV – sámi nationalisttaid dahje sámenašuvnna
doaimmalaččaid muitun’. Sámi dieđalaš áigečála 1/2013, 2013.
 Anders Guttormsen, from ‘Samer, bruk ČSV!’. Ságat (28. 9. 1972). Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Sigbjørn Skåden, from ‘Backstage, Sámi Grand Prix’. Prekariáhta lávlla, 2009. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Niillas Holmberg, from ‘Assimilašuvdna blues’. Assimilašuvdna blues, 2014.
 Niillas Holmberg, from ‘Indigenous Manifesto’. The Way Back, 2016.
 Niillas Holmberg, cf. ‘meinasin kirjoittaa …’ Jos itseni pelastan itseltäni, 2015.
 Juvvá Pittja: duođain in dieđe – vet verkligen inte, p. 113, 2018.
 Inga Ravna Eira (Iŋgos Mahté Iŋgá), from ‘sáme nissonolbmot’. INGA RAVNA EIRA – Poems in Sámi, Norwegian and English, translated by Inga Ravna Eira and Kari Wattne.
Johan Sandberg McGuinne
Johan Sandberg McGuinne is a South Saami and Scottish Gaelic poet, traditional yoik singer, writer, literary scholar and language activist. He works as a teacher and translator in Lïkssjuo (Lycksele), Swedish Sápmi, where he is also based. He is currently serving as the president of Bágo Čálliid Siebrie, the Saami Writers’ Association in Sweden, and as the Regional Representative for Sápmi in the Swedish Writers’ Union. In addition, he is a member of the Swedish Library Council, which serves as an expert body and advisor to the board of the Swedish Writers’ Union on library matters.
Photo by by Carl-Johan Utsi
Anne Wuolab is a North Saami author, translator, teacher, duojár and journalist. She is based in Njieriev-vuömmie (Norrbäck), Swedish Sápmi, and has been instrumental in the foundation of several Saami institutions and magazines in both Sweden and Norway, such as Bágo Čálliid Siebrie and the feminist magazine Gába. She is currently serving as the president of Tjállegoahte, the Saami Writers’ Centre in Jåhkåmåhkke. In addition, she works as a lecturer at the Master’s Programme in Literary Translation to and from Saami languages at HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design in Gothenburg.
Photo by Carl-Johan Utsi