Author of the Week / 21 April 2024

Some tendencies in Swedish translated poetry

Author of the Week: Sweden

In his article Some Tendencies in Swedish Contemporary Poetry, published recently here on Versopolis Review, critic Björn Kohlström shows how the recurring poetry debates in Sweden seem to deal with either the incomprehensibility of poetry or ‘the alignments that occur when so many debutants have studied at one of the country’s prestigious writing schools.’ On the lines of Kohlström’s own conclusion, I have never been particularly worried about contemporary Swedish poetry being too aligned, and one of the main reasons for that is that poetry written in other languages is still translated into Swedish and thanks to that supplying other perspectives.

One of the most-quoted lines about translation in Sweden must be that of writer Birgitta Trotzig, who in a speech published in the magazine Dialoger (Dialogues) in 1995, said that ‘translations are simply – to put it bluntly – half our national literature’. As in many smaller languages and cultures, translation has a long history in Swedish literature, something which Nils Håkanson, translator and head of Svenskt översättarlexikon (a digital register of Swedish translators) examined at length and popularised in his book Dolda gudar (Hidden Gods), published by Nirstedt/litteratur, and awarded the August Prize for best non-fiction book in 2021.

Even if it is true that translation has received more attention in recent years, I haven’t seen anyone trying to analyse what taking a statement such as Trotzig’s seriously could entail. One could of course simply observe that around a half of all books published in Swedish are translations from other languages, but I think translator Lars Kleberg was more to the point when he noted in Dagens Nyheter in late 1995 that Trotzig probably had the qualitative aspect in mind: ‘Translations are thus also Swedish literature, literature in Swedish.’

Interpreted in that sense the quote also kind of dissolves itself, as the idea of translations being a part of another language’s national literature inherently challenges the very idea of ‘national literature’. Trotzig also mentions in her speech that what is considered a national literature is mostly relevant when it comes to ‘material language affiliation’ – the very core of literature that moves beyond language barriers. Therefore, we find ourselves amidst several global literatures, all moving in and out of each other, and I would like to give a few examples here of how poetry written in other languages has moved into Swedish literature, as well as show how this has affected and broadened the Swedish poetry scene.

The most important body of translated poetry in Sweden in several decades is without any doubt the work of the Mexican-born Jewish poet Gloria Gervitz. In the 1970’s she started writing a long poem, Migraciones, that deals with universal themes such as migration and memory. It was mostly written in Spanish with Yiddish words and phrases interspersed, and for the rest of her life Gervitz expanded and revised her magnum opus. Even though the poem has been translated into several languages the circulation and fame it has received in Sweden is unparalleled.

In 2009 poets and translators Ulf Eriksson and Magnus William-Olsson published their translation of Migraciones, Migrationer with Wahlström & Widstrand, and this translation was followed by another translation by poet and translator Hanna Nordenhök in 2018 and yet another by Hanna Nordenhök and her fellow poet and translator Gabriel Itkes-Sznap in 2022, both published with Rámus.

When Gervitz passed away in April 2022 two obituaries in Swedish newspapers pinpointed the impact she had had on Swedish poetry. In Göteborgs-Posten, poet and teacher Fredrik Nyberg noted that her importance for younger writers was increasing during the 2010s, and that what especially attracted them about her work was on one hand her topics such as migration and on the other her challenging the very concept of what a poetry collection is and can be. Nyberg concluded that she ‘influenced and helped transform the newer poetry in Sweden’.

In Dagens Nyheter Gabriel Itkes-Sznap noted that she and her poetry was well-received by a younger generation of Swedish poets, especially those with family stories about migration, or, as poet Burcu Şahin writes in her afterword to the 2022 edition: ‘It came to fill a void for poets, that, like the poem, had travelled without really arriving, and was moving between different languages.’ Gervitz’s influence can be seen in works by several Swedish poets, including Itkes-Sznap and Şahin, her impact on Swedish poetry in the 2010’s and early 2020’s has yet to be more thoroughly examined.

This example could also shed light on the development of poetry publishing in Sweden over the past fifteen years. On the occasion of their 125th anniversary in 2009, publishing house Wahlström & Widstrand launched a new series of international poetry, where the first Swedish edition of Migrationer was one of the first books to be published. Magnus William-Olsson, the initiator for the series, hoped that this would reverse the trend of major publishers putting out hardly any translated contemporary poetry.

Sadly, this reversal did not last for very long, and today the situation for translated poetry at major publishing houses is many times worse. In 2022 Svenska Förläggareföreningen, an organization for professional Swedish publishers, published a report called Skilda världar (Worlds apart), written by literature sociologists Ann Steiner, Jerry Määttä and Karl Berglund, about the state of quality literature in Sweden today. The main conclusion of the report is that quality literature is mainly published by either the largest publishing houses or the small presses, less by the publishers in the mid-section of the field, and the different conditions under which they operate have led to a very polarised market.

The report does not separate genres, and only deals with translations casually, but if one looked at translated poetry specifically, I’m convinced that a different picture would emerge. Whereas Albert Bonniers and Norstedts, the two largest publishing houses, still publish Swedish poetry, poetry in translation is almost completely absent from their catalogues today. Even if one included the third biggest publishing house, Natur & Kultur, as well as their imprint Weyler, and Albert Bonniers’ imprint Wahlström & Widstrand, the picture would still stand, possibly even stronger.

It bears pointing out here that the problem in 2009, according to William-Olsson, was that the major publishing houses did not publish contemporary translated poetry, whereas today they do neither this nor do they publish poetry classics in translation. I can think of a few rare exceptions – a large volume of Paul Celan’s poetry (trans. Anders Olsson) published by Albert Bonniers in 2020 and Seamus Heaney’s poems (trans. Tommy Olsson) published by Natur & Kultur in 2022.

However, this does not mean that translated poetry is unavailable in Swedish, but that one must turn to smaller presses such as Ellerströms, Rámus, Nirstedt/litteratur and 20TAL to find it. Furthermore, one could ask whether the polarisation in quality literature in general is even worse in poetry, since the responsibility for bringing translated poetry onto the Swedish book market at the moment lies almost exclusively on smaller presses and is largely dependent upon support from institutions around the world and the Swedish Arts Council.

One of those presses is Ellerströms, the most well-known poetry publisher in Sweden, with a relatively long list of translated poetry titles each year. In the past years they have published translated poetry by poets as diverse as Mallarmé (trans. Axel Englund), Audre Lorde (trans. Athena Farrokhzad), Bernadette Mayer (trans. Niclas Nilsson) and contemporary Norwegian poet Tone Hødnebø (trans. Kristoffer Appelvik Lax).

When it comes to translated poetry’s impact on Swedish poetry, one of the books from Ellerströms’ 2024 spring list is of particular interest, namely the Palestinian poet Somaya El Sousis’ En flöjt av mörker (A Flute of the Dark). El Sousi fled Gaza in 2019 and spent a few years as a resident writer with the ICORN network, based in Norway, where she still resides. She debuted as a poet in 1998, and has since published five poetry books in Arabic.

The translation of En flöjt av mörker, as described in the afterword by poet and translator Hanna Hallgren, was a long collaborative process that started with Hallgren and El Sousi working together on translations in 2011. Hallgren and poet and translator Jenny Tunedal worked with El Sousi via Messenger a few years later, mostly with English as a working language. Anna Jansson, translator from Arabic to Swedish, finally translated the book in 2020, and Hallgren worked on the manuscript until En flöjt av mörker was published in 2024.

I recognise this somewhat complicated method from other poetry translation projects I have heard about through the years, many of which have contributed valuable interpretations of poetry from languages that otherwise would have been less represented in Swedish. The method has an advantage that may not be apparent at first, something that Hallgren refers to as ‘life’ rather than ‘writing’, and El Sousi describes thus: ‘We paused our work many times, and through everything that happened along the way we learnt more about ourselves, our friendship and how unpredictable life is. In my book I write about the details of love and life.’

And this is precisely what El Sousi does. Her poetry is ardent and provides an insight into both the power of love and the power of poetry, and I sincerely wish that En flöjt av mörker will have as much impact on Swedish poetry as Gervitz Migrationer and many other translated works, today and in the future.

All quotes are translated by the author


Helena Fagertun

Helena Fagertun is a Swedish writer, translator and freelance editor. She has translated writers such as Kate Zambreno, Julie Otsuka and Shirley Jackson.


Photo by Pirjo Holmström