European studies blog

13 posts from April 2014

30 April 2014

On translations and laughter

In a double guest post for European Literature Night, Belgian author Dimitri Verhulst reflects on having his work translated, and translator David Colmer considers the role of humour in translating Verhulst’s work.

On Translations and Foreign Countries

When it comes to translations I can hardly complain: ever since the Germans bought the translation rights to my Problemski Hotel in 2003, every book of mine to appear has been followed by a translation. The tally is up to almost 30 languages. As I’m a Dutch-speaking Belgian author, I have been welcomed abroad more than once as a Dutchman, sometimes as a Fleming, sometimes as a Belgian, which amuses me. I’m a Belgian writer who lives in Sweden and is published in Amsterdam with Dutch as my magnificent raw material, but I don’t need a passport. My nationality is literature: I might not have been born there, but it is definitely where I will die. And if literature transcends anything, it’s borders.

Photograph of Dimitri Verhulst sitting at a typewriter in a fieldDimitri Verhulst

I’m not going to feign modesty. Of course it would be fabulous if my work was automatically stocked by the airport bookshops of say, Stockholm and New York. A large number of translations is not the same as international recognition. Many times I have been translated and published abroad out of love, by publishers who realised that I probably wouldn’t earn them much money, but believed that my work should be made available. That’s fantastic and much more than I ever hoped for when posting off my first manuscript.

Compared to my other books, my novel Godverdomse dagen op een godverdomse bol (‘Shithouse Days on a Shithouse Planet’, Amsterdam, 2008; shelfmark YF.2011.a.10875), which I myself love, is relatively untranslated. Perhaps because it’s too literary. Or because it’s considered subversive. Or because it’s controversial to certain religions. Despite all that, it’s been translated into Farsi and smuggled into Iran by brave people who are passionate about literature. I can’t imagine anything more moving: people who still believe in books so deeply they are willing to risk prison or worse for them. The discrepancy with cultures that virtually ignore translations is enormous. But complaining? No, I don’t do that. I don’t have the right. I know that here and there on this Earth the reading lamps still burn brightly. And I kiss both my hands and my feet – if my stomach muscles cooperate – for having been translated more often than some of my literary idols.
As long as there are cultures that continue to believe in literature as a universal language, there will be translations. And as for those who are content to stick to their own increasingly folkloristic national letters, I can only wish them a good massage, seeing as extended navel-gazing gives you terrible neck-ache.

Dimitri Verhulst (Translation: David Colmer)

Laughing at The Misfortunates

I know that laughter in the workplace is not always a good thing. Especially if you’re self-employed. Sometimes it’s even a sign of a vakidioot*, to use an excellent Dutch word. I remember a friend of mine decades ago, a news cameraman, guffawing loudly at the TV news, but when I ran in to ask what had happened, expecting a ludicrous politician or a monumental blunder, something like a freeway exit that forms a full circle, he could only say, “That shot was out of focus!”

So yes, slaving away in the isolation of my tiny translation den, proceeding sluggishly through book after book, word after interminable word, I should be wary of amusement and always remember that it’s profoundly relative and that I, as one of the galley slaves of literature, am easily tickled, that my constant dictionary-pounding and synonym-slotting has numbed my critical facilities and turned me into a desperate creature, all too willing to see the funny side of a typo or endorse my authors’ feeblest attempts, and yet... but still...

Cover of 'The Misfortunates' with a picture of tiny human figures on a broken bottleAfter translating four of Dimitri Verhulst’s books and long excerpts from as many others, he still manages to surprise me with his ability to find humour in the grimmest and most unlikely situations and his fearlessness, not just in the face of political correctness, but also when ignoring the arbiters of conventional taste. (See for example this review of his novel De helaasheid der dingen / The Misfortunates) Verhulst can be hilarious but he also knows that sometimes the best joke is a bad joke. And at the same time he combines his humour with warmth, tragedy, social criticism, politic agitation and, dare I say it, love for his characters.

No surprise then that one of the greatest challenges when translating his writing is trying to make the humour work in English, struggling to get the timing of the punchlines just right, balancing sentences that only shine when they’re teetering on the brink,  finding equivalents for the puns, no matter how bad (good) they might be. And sitting here in the solitude of my translation den, sometimes there is an immediate reward and I hear myself laughing, not just first time round as a reader, but guffawing again, loudly, as I type the translation, a vakidioot after all.

David Colmer

* Pronounced almost exactly like an English four-letter word that starts with F, “vak” means “trade” or “profession”. “Idioot” means, unsurprisingly, “idiot”.  Together they form vakidioot, which is not a professional idiot, but more an idiotic professional, someone who is so narrowly preoccupied with their specialisation they have lost touch with the world at large.

Dimitri Verhulst’s  De helaasheid der dingen (Amsterdam 2006 ; YF.2006.a.19900) is published in David Colmer’s translation by Portobello Books as The Misfortunates (London, 2012; YK.2012.a.23657).

28 April 2014

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Serbian National Poetry: a Bicentenary

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864), was a Serbian philologist and a reformer of the Serbian literary language.

Portrait of Vuk Stefanovic KaradzicVuk Stefanović Karadžić (picture from Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of Karadžić’s Мала простонароднЬа славено-сербска пєснарица (‘Simple little Serbian-Slavonic song book’, Vienna, 1814;  1461.e.17.) and of a Писменица сербскога іезика (‘Serbian grammar book’) . 2014 is also marks the 150th anniversary of his death in Vienna in 1864. The forthcoming Balkan Day seminar at the British Library on 13 June 2014 will highlight the cultural achievements and the legacy of this great reformer.

Two hundred years ago Karadžić began a revolutionary reform which gave the Serbian nation a standardised literary language, a complete 30-character Serbian Cyrillic alphabet and revised orthography which included the six new characters of the Serbian alphabet (Ђ, Ј, Љ, Њ, Ћ and Џ). Another of Karadžić’s lasting achievements was his life-long collection and publication of traditional Serbian national literature, especially Serbian national poetry. Over the course of 50 years Karadžić published several editions of selected Serbian national poetry, the first three volumes in Leipzig in 1823-24 (of which the library has volumes one and two; 1064.h.26-27.), and a definitive five-volume edition published in Vienna in 1841-65 (11585.f.11.; volume five was published posthumously by Karadžić’s widow).  The Serbian state acquired Karadžić’s large archive, and has continued to publish his papers to the present day. 

Before Karadžić’s reforms, Serbian literature was written in Church Slavonic from the Middle Ages, then in the mid-18th century in Russo-Slavonic, and later in Slavonic-Serbian (slavenoserpski, a mix of the national spoken language and Russo-Slavonic). Although supported by the Church and the State, these languages were not easily understandable by the ordinary Serbian people who communicated in their own national language. It was this everyday spoken language that produced the traditional national literature that formed the basis for Karadžić’s reforms. Karadžić thus created a new literature and a new literary language breaking all ties with the establishment which remained furious and hostile in Karadžić’s lifetime to the new alphabet, orthography and language. The last remaining restrictions on Karadžić’s alphabet and orthography were lifted only after his death.

Karadžić was not only an ideologist and supporter of the language reform but an active contributor to the creation of the new literary language. In 1818 Karadžić produced a Serbian dictionary, a central text of the contemporary Serbian language.    

Title-page in Serbian, German and Latin of Karadžić's Serbian dictionaryKaradžić’s Serbian dictionary, Српски рјечник (Vienna, 1818) 12976.r.6.

This Serbian dictionary was the first book printed in the new alphabet according to the new orthography. Here Karadžić executed to perfection the main principle of a phonetic orthography, Adelung’s dictum ‘write as you speak’: Karadžić introduced 30 letters representing 30 sounds in the Serbian literary language, and in the dictionary he published over 26,000 words as he remembered them. This was a trilingual Serbian-German-Latin dictionary produced in collaboration with Bartholomäus (Jernej in Slovene) Kopitar who was Karadžić’s teacher and the mind behind his literary and linguistic reforms, and it was Kopitar who encouraged Karadžić to collect and preserve Serbian traditional national poetry, tales and proverbs. Kopitar, who was an assistant keeper in the Imperial Library in Vienna, introduced Karadžić’s work to Jacob Grimm  and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who introduced and promoted Serbian national poetry in Europe.

The entries in the Serbian dictionary represented all the genres of the national oral tradition, and some entries had an encyclopaedic, ethnographic or historiographical format and character.  

Entry for 'Marriage' in Karadžić's dictionary
The opening above shows the entry for marriage (женидба in Serbian) and describes in great detail the marriage ceremony and customs in Serbia.

Another important cornerstone in the development of the Serbian literary language and literature was Karadžić’s translation of the New Testament in 1847. The British Library holds an 1868 edition of the Bible in Djura Daničić’s translation of the Old Testament and Karadžić’s translation of the New Testament into Serbian (3061.e.4.).

French text of the Programme of the Karadžić Centenary Festival, in a decorative borderProgramme of the Karadžić Centenary Festival. 1851.c.10.(68)

This centenary placard printed in French and Serbian on the occasion of Karadžić’s jubilee, celebrations in Belgrade in 1888, was presented to the British Museum Library on 13 October 1888. The British Library holds a significant collection of over 250 titles by Karadžić from 1814 to 1864 in the first and subsequent editions, in the original and in translation, and in reprints and facsimile editions. The collection has been developed over the period of 173 years from the first acquisition (the Serbian dictionary in 1841) to Serbian fairy tales, acquired in 2013. There are also  works about Karadžić in all major languages, together with books in Serbian and other South Slavonic languages. The library is acquiring the  full set of Karadžić’s collected works in 32 volumes (Belgrade, 1965- , X.0989/612; four volumes are still to be published), which includes a bibliography by Karadžić scholar Golub Dobrašinović. Karadžić’s 1867 book Живот и обичаји народа српскога (‘Life and customs of the Serbian people’) is freely available in digital format  from the British Library (the printed copy is at shelfmark 010127.c.28.).  

To mark the bicentenary of the birth of Karadžić, the British Library held an exhibition Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1787-1864, from 26 June to 27 September 1987.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-Eastern European Collections


Digitised texts:

Copies of Karadžić’s works cited above are available in digital format in The Matica Srpska Digital Library:
Simple little Serbian-Slavonic song book
A Serbian grammar book
Serbian dictionary
Serbian New Testament

Biography and criticism:

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Wuk's Stephanowitsch kleine serbische Grammatik verdeutscht und mit einer Vorrede von J. Grimm. Nebst Bemerkungen über die neueste Auffassung länger Heldenlieder ... von J. S. Vater. Leipzig (Berlin, 1824) 628.g.23.

Ljubomir Stojanović, Život i rad Vuka Stefanovića Karadžića. Belgrade : Makarije, 1924. X.902/107.

Duncan Wilson, The life and times of Vuk Stefanović Karadzić, 1787-1864. Literacy, literature, and national independence in Serbia. (Oxford, 1970)  X.989/6017.

Vera Bojić, Jacob Grimm und Vuk Karadžić: ein Vergleich ihrer Sprachauffassungen und ihre Zusammenarbeit auf dem Gebiet der serbischen Grammatik. (Munich, 1977. 11879.aa.2/106

Sprache, Literatur, Folklore bei Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. Beiträge zu einem internationalen Symposium, Göttingen, 8.-13. Februar 1987. Herausgegeben von Reinhard Lauer. (Wiesbaden, 1988) X.0950/210(13).

Vuk Karadžić im europäischen Kontext. Beiträge des internationalen wissenschaftlichen Symposiums der Vuk Karadžić-Jacob Grimm-Gesellschaft am 19. und 20. November 1987, Frankfurt am Main. Herausgegeben von Wilfried Potthoff. (Heidelberg, 1990) YA.1994.a.5100.


Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Volkslieder der Serben. Metrisch übersetzt und historisch eingeleitet von Talvj (Halle, 1825) 1570/5587 ;  (2nd ed. Halle,1835. 1064.h.29.)

Народне Српске Пјесме = Servian Popular Poetry, translated by John Bowring. (London, 1827) 2286.a.1.

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Chants populaires des Serviens ... traduits ... par Mme. E. Voïart. (Paris, 1834) 11585.e.19.

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Volksmärchen der Serben. ... Ins Deutsche übersetzt .... Mit einer Vorrede von Jacob Grimm. Nebst einem Anhange von mehr als tausend serbischen Sprichwörtern. (Berlin, 1854) 12431.c.20.

Serbian Folk Songs, Fairy Tales, and Proverbs. (London , [1917]) 12430.e.34.

Songs of the Serbian people. From the collections of Vuk Karadžić. Translated and edited by Milne Holton and Vasa D. Mihailovich. (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1997) YK.1999.a.1659.

Serbian fairy tales ... selected, translated and introduced by Jelena Ćurčić ... (London, 2013) YK.2014.a.7619.

25 April 2014

On tour with a translation

In an earlier guest post for European Literature Night, we heard from one of the translators of Antoine Laurain’s  The President’s Hat. This was Laurain’s  first novel to be published in English and was among the first batch of Gallic Books titles sold in the United States by Consortium. It was one of twelve titles chosen by a panel of independent booksellers for the ABA Indies Introduce Debut Authors promotion in Fall 2013 and Antoine was invited to appear at bookstores across the country. Here he  describes his experience of that tour.

When I wrote Le Chapeau de Mitterrand I thought perhaps it might find a readership in France, and indeed this proved to be the case. A year later, another story began...

A few weeks after Gallic Books released The President’s Hat in the UK in March 2013, the fantastic feedback from British readers gave reason to believe that my very French story – which takes place in 1980s Paris in the days of François Mitterrand’s presidency – might appeal to a whole new audience. It seemed the ‘fairytale’ dimension, humour and optimism of the story could also work in another language. And not just any language, but the most widely spoken language in the world.

It was around this time that Jane Aitken and her team began to discuss the possibility of taking The President’s Hat on a tour of the USA. As American independent booksellers got behind the book, the three cities on the itinerary quickly grew to ten! From San Francisco to Boston by way of LA, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York... Like a presidential candidate on the campaign trail, I set off to meet my novel in bookstores across the country for much of September 2013. I gave talks (in English, if you please, and without forgetting to throw in the customary joke), answered questions and signed many, many books. I think the last Frenchman to embark on a tour of this scale must have been Maurice Chevalier! Indeed my French publisher, Flammarion, said as much just last week: ‘I’ve never known any of our authors to do a US book tour ... apart from Michel Houellebecq, of course.’

A copy of 'The President's Hat' outside the White House in Washington D.C.

The President’s Hat visits another President’s house.

One of the most memorable and surprisingly moving aspects of the trip was hearing my American readers pronounce the names of my characters : ‘When Daniel Mercier takes the hat ... talking about Fanny Marquant ... My favourite character is the nose, Pierre Aslan ... Do men like Bernard Lavallière still exist in France?’ There was something amazing about hearing the names I had come up with at my desk in Paris two years earlier pronounced in an American accent! I kept telling myself I was going to wake up one morning and find myself back home with the novel still unfinished and the idea of promoting it in the USA nothing but a dream. But it really was happening. This fairytale for grown-ups had worked its magic once again.

I sometimes have a look online and am thrilled to find that new reviews are still appearing regularly from both sides of the Atlantic. I’m delighted to have been able to bring a little happiness to readers I never imagined I could reach. I’m grateful to the team at Gallic Books and to my British and American readers for making all of this possible.

You can see Antoine’s photo diary of his tour here.

Antoine Laurain standing in front of a map of the USAAntoine Laurain with a map of the USA

23 April 2014

Whose Shakespeare?

In the film Star Trek VI, a Klingon ambassador claims that Shakespeare can only be appreciated ‘in the original Klingon’. This is a clever reference to the way in which many countries have adopted Shakespeare’s works as their own but, since the imaginary Klingons have the kind of militaristic society and guttural language often associated with Germany in Anglo-American popular culture, I suspect that the scriptwriters had Germany particularly in mind, for few nations have claimed ownership of Shakespeare as enthusiastically as the Germans. Since the  late 18th century German writers have shown an admiration sometimes bordering on idolatry for Shakespeare’s work, and it is often claimed that his plays are more frequently performed in Germany than Britain (although this statistic no doubt owes something to Germany’s larger number of flourishing provincial theatres).

What one critic described as ‘Shakespearomania’  really took off in the 1770s when the young writers of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ embraced Shakespeare’s ‘naturalness’ and freedom from strict Aristotelian unities as a contrast to the French classical drama then upheld as an ideal. These angry young men may have taken their understanding of Shakespearean freedom to extremes, but the interest in his work which they aroused was influential and survived after they had burned themselves out or settled into less wild literary pursuits.

The torch was taken up by the Romantics. Like the ‘Stürmer und Dränger’, they admired the truth to nature they found in Shakespeare, but they also began to engage more seriously and critically with his works and to try and improve on the available translations. It was a group of writers associated with German Romanticism – August Wilhelm Schlegel, Ludwig and Dorothea Tieck and Wolf Heinrich von Baudissin – who created what became the classic German translation of Shakespeare.

Ludwig Tieck represents the two main strands of 19th-century German Shakespeare reception: a creative, emotional response and an academic interest. As a writer he admired and was influenced by Shakespeare’s work, and his involvement in the translation was driven by the desire for a high-quality German version of the plays for reading and performance. But he also took a scholarly approach, researching Shakespeare’s world and the theatre of his age, and travelling to England in 1817 to pursue his studies. The visit included meetings with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a significant mediator of German literature in England, and the two men later corresponded. 

Portrait of Ludwig TieckLudwig Tieck, from the frontispiece of Ludwig Tieck’s sämmtliche Werke (Paris, 1837) RB.23.b.864

The British Museum Library bought a number of books from the sale of Tieck’s library in 1849, among them an edition of Shakespeare’s works with Tieck’s handwritten annotations. Most of these were made not in the plays themselves but in the preliminary volumes which contain studies of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage; this is Tieck the critical scholar at work rather than Tieck the romantic author reading for aesthetic pleasure. His copious comments are difficult to read, but he often appears to take issue with the critical opinions expressed and sometimes simply expresses his disapproval with an exclamation mark or a comment like ‘Unsinn!’ (‘nonsense!’). 

Pages of a commentary on Shakespeare's plays, with Tieck's handwritten annotationsManuscript notes by Tieck in vol. 2 of The Plays of William Shakspeare. With the corrections and illustrations of various commentators. (Basel, 1799-1802) C.134.dd.1.

As the 19th century continued, Shakespeare flourished in Germany, both in performance and as a subject of academic study, and came to be regarded as Germany’s ‘third classic poet’ alongside Goethe and Schiller. In 1903 the German critic Theodor Eichhoff entitled his study of the Bard Unser Shakespeare (‘Our Shakespeare’), and just over a decade later, with Germans encouraged to boycott foreign culture after the outbreak of the First World War, the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann claimed an exception for Shakespeare, declaring that ‘[Shakespeare’s] soul has become one with ours … Germany is the land where he truly lives’. Unsurprisingly this drew furious responses from Britain.

But this is to start moving beyond the period of our survey of Anglo-German relations, and besides, the use of literature for national propaganda in time of war is not the best way to consider the significance of Shakespeare in the wider world. After all, the British should be proud rather than defensive when their national poet transcends national boundaries so triumphantly that even a race of fictional aliens wants to claim him! And if we want a happier image of the ‘German Shakespeare’, how about Tieck enthusiastically engaging with the plays and their criticism, and discussing them with Coleridge? If we want to ask ‘Whose Shakespeare?’  there are many possible answers from all over the world, and ‘Tieck’s Shakespeare’ is among the most positive of them.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading

Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Dramatische Dichtungen nebst einer Abhandlung über die Shakespearo-Manie (Frankfurt am Main, 1827) 1343.d.3

Theodor Eichhoff, Unser Shakespeare. Beiträge zu einer wissenschaftlichen Shakespeare-Kritik. (Halle, 1903) 011765.h.32.

Gerhart Hauptmann, ‘Deutschland und Shakespeare’, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Jahrgang 51 (1914), pp. vii-xii. Ac.9423/5.

Hansjürgen Blinn, Der deutsche Shakespeare = The German Shakespeare : eine annotierte Bibliographie zur Shakespeare-Rezeption des deutschsprachigen Kulturraums (Berlin, 1993) 2725.g.2308

Roger Paulin, The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914: Native Literature and Foreign Genius (Hildesheim, 2003) YD.2005.a.2139

Geoffrey West, ‘Buying at Auction: Building the British Museum Library’s Collections in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century’, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (ed.) Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections (London, 2009), pp. 341-352. YC.2010.a.1356 [For information on books from Tieck’s library now in the BL]

Edwin H. Zeydel, Ludwig Tieck and England: a Study in Literary Relations of Germany and England During the Early Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1931)


21 April 2014

‘Church, not Chocolate’: Easter eggs in Eastern Europe

The British are not, it must be said, especially inventive when it comes to Easter egg traditions. Possibly the most ancient of these is the Lancashire custom of ‘pace-egging’ (‘pace’  deriving from the Latin Pascha, not an allusion to the speed with which the decorated eggs roll down the hill in Avenham Park, Preston, where crowds still gather on Easter Sunday to watch the ritual). The Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere houses a collection of elaborately decorated eggs which the poet (or more probably Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson) prepared for young John, Dora and William junior.  Originally these eggs were wrapped in onion-skins and boiled to give the shell a rich golden marbled colour which, sadly, would have been ruined when they were rolled to see whose would go furthest without cracking. Now, unfortunately, this tradition, like that of the ‘pace-eggers’ with their disguises and blackened faces, performing a mumming play in return for eggs or funds to purchase them, has largely died out, though those eager to hear the original ‘pace-egg’ song can do so through various versions in the British Library’s sound archives.

Elsewhere in Europe, though, things are very different. The sumptuous creations of Carl Fabergé for the Russian Imperial court are famous, but in confecting these masterpieces in jewels, pearls and fine enamelling he was continuing a much older tradition found not only in Russia but in Ukraine and throughout Central Europe. Nor were eggs the only items decorated at Easter; in Northern Europe, as in Bohemia, birch or pussy-willow boughs were gathered and festooned with ribbons and feathers for use in playful switching rituals which originated in much older fertility rites and Christian penitential practices, a tradition still observed on ‘Whipping Monday’ in the Czech Republic, where the boys who run from house to house with their pomlázky  are rewarded with Easter eggs from the girls (who take revenge by dousing them with water the following day).

Over the years the methods used to decorate these eggs have become increasingly complex and  sophisticated. Those wishing to experiment for themselves can consult Marie Brahová’s České kraslice  (‘Czech Easter eggs’; Prague, 1993: BL shelfmark YA.2002.a.1656), which gives illustrated instructions on how to achieve striking effects with batik, beads and relief as well as the more familiar techniques of painting, etching patterns with a nail on a fine coat of wax or paint, or even the use of humble mud or clay, readily available in even the poorest village. As well as flowers and abstract patterns, favourite motifs included pictures of Christ and the saints, or views of local scenes, as in the splendid collection of the Moravské museum in Brno, described in Eva Večerková’s Kraslice (Brno, 1989; X.0410.137).

In Ukraine the decorated eggs, painted with equally intricate designs, are carried in baskets to church to be blessed by the priest, together with the traditional kulich, a rich fruited bread which, like the eggs, represents the return to feasting after the strictures of the Lenten fast, A Ukrainian decorated egg with a red-and black pattern an an image of a horsewhen Orthodox believers abstain not only from meat and sweet things but from dairy produce of any kind. Here the eggs are covered with detailed geometrical motifs echoing those of the red and black cross-stitched embroideries on the cloths with which the baskets are draped, as well as with stylized images of birds, fish and animals (right) reflecting the pre-Christian animistic beliefs of the ancient Slavonic peoples as well as the rural way of life. Colourful photographs of these may be seen in O. H. Solomchenko’s Pysanky Ukraïns’kyckh Karpat  (‘Pisankas of the Ukrainian Carpathians’, Uzhgorod, 2002; YA.2003.b.1092).

Easter, a season of rejoicing and reconciliation, is also a time to remember the traditions which unite the peoples of East and West, however we may celebrate, and to admire the wealth of invention which brings such beauty within the reach of the poorest peasant. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor of China with his artificial nightingale, the Tsars with their elaborate Fabergé eggs were no richer than the humblest of their subjects who were proud to possess examples of such fine workmanship created with the resources of Nature itself.

Susan Halstead Curator, Czech and Slovak Studies

 bowl of Ukrainian decorated eggs on a traditionally embroidered clothUkrainian decorated eggs

17 April 2014

What price freedom? An author’s thoughts

In a guest post for European Literature Night, featured author Jonas T. Bengtsson from Denmark muses on society and freedom, concepts which inform his latest novel.

Has anybody ever met society? Shaken hands with society, yelled at society. Gone on a three day bender with society, or made sweet love to society?

Coming from the cold north one of the themes that so often pops up when books are being discussed or reviewed is the author’s take on society. Or criticism towards society. Like the author’s main job is to scrutinize society, thinly veiled and in a slightly more entertaining way than an angry letter to a newspaper.

A friend asked me if he should sell his apartment, his small boat, his car. If I thought that was the right thing to do. He and his girlfriend were considering travelling the world for as long as the money would last. 

I asked him to stay put. When they returned from Goa or Vegas or the Australian outback they would feel just as constricted and unfree as before the trip. They would continue life in much the same way as they had done previously.

 I asked him to find freedom where he was. By realizing that where he was in life was a choice. And that if there was anything he wanted to change he should probably just do it. Everything he did would come with a price, and if he wasn’t willing to pay it, that would be a choice as well.

So why this rant?

Cover of ;'A Fairy Tale' with an image of two figures on the back of a giant frogIn my latest novel A Fairy Tale I write about a father who couldn’t care less about society. Or put in a different way, he is not at all concerned about changing it. He knows that freedom is not something that will be granted him by anybody else. It is something he has to take for him self.  So what is the price for freedom, and is it too high?

A Fairy Tale was originally published as Et eventyr in Copenhagen in 2011 (British Library shelfmark YF.2013.a.5667). The translation is published by House of Anansi Press. The British Library also holds Jonas T. Bengtsson’s first novel Aminas breve (‘Amina’s Letters’, Copenhagen, 2005; YF.2006.a.28994).

16 April 2014

Crime Scene Investigation: Dateline Seville 1776

The success of the US TV show ‘Crime Scene Investigation’, telling the exploits of a super-cool team of forensic scientists, has had the happy consequence of encouraging applications to study science at university. On the downside, juries in America are now asked to state whether they watch the series, as it has led to unrealistically high expectations of what information CSI technology can actually retrieve.

In modern Spain, the Civil Guard, once described by Lorca as having souls of patent leather (to match their helmets: ‘Con el alma de charol vienen por la carretera …’, Romance de la Guardia Civil), has moved with the democratic and technocratic times, and CSI is handled by a department of the Civil Guard, the Servicio de Criminalística.

In earlier days, when CSI was in its infancy, the best an officer investigating (for example) a case of lycanthropy could hope for was that the werewolf, once returned to human form, would retain injuries sustained while in canine state.

By the eighteenth century, science had moved on, as witness this item:

Discurso medico de las señales que distinguen al Hombre verdadero Ahogado del Sumergido en las Aguas despues de muerto; y modo mas verosimil de encontrar el motivo de su muerte. Con algunas advertencias en favor de los que pueden ser socorridos: sacadas de los mejores Autores. Por D. Christoval Nieto de Piña  ...  [Medical discourse on the signs which distinguish the true drowned man from the man submerged in water after death; and the most convincing method of finding the cause of death. With some notes in the cause of those who can be revived, taken out of the best authors.] (Seville, 1776) RB.23.a.34568.

You probably don’t need telling that the key is the presence or absence of water in the lungs.

Nieto de Piña (1717-post 1790), of the Royal Medical Society of Seville, is known for opposing the new science of inoculation, advocating isolation hospitals instead. He also wrote in 1788 an article on the dangers of keeping liquours in lead containers. And another of his publications was again on a forensic topic: Instruccion medica para discernir, si el feto muerto, lo ha sido dentro, o fuera, del utero (Seville, 1781) [Medical instruction to determine whether a dead foetus has died in or out of the womb].

And finally. Please note: the ‘blood stain’ on the wrapper of our copy, affecting the title page, was there when we bought it. But we’re working on it ...

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

Title-page of 'Discurso medico...' with an unidentified stain on the flyleafNieto de Piña's Discurso medico... With bloodstain?


14 April 2014

ELN and the red shoes

In a guest post for European Literature Night 2014, ELN’S presenter and chair of the judges, the journalist Rosie Goldsmith, recalls its birth 6 years ago.

It’s not that I’m possessive or anything but I do feel a sense of ownership – and motherly pride! - as far as European Literature Night  is concerned. I was there at its birth, witnessed its first faltering baby steps and am now watching it walk tall.  From the day it was born, in May 2009 in the Conference Centre of the British Library, ELN has been an unmissable annual event and has nurtured a community of people who love good European literature in English. ELN is today a focal point for writers, translators, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and cultural organizations who know that without ELN we would be missing out on some of the best writing from our European continent. (Yes, the UK is part of Europe!)

Dear ELN, you know how parents often embarrass their children by saying, ‘I remember when you were born…’? Well, here goes:

‘Dear ELN, you’ve had a big devoted family with you from the day you were born. There’s your godfather Jeremy O’Sullivan, Cultural Attaché European Commission Representation in the UK; godmother Janet Zmroczek, Head of European Studies at the British Library, and Jon Fawcett, BL’s Senior Events Officer (the world’s best ever time-keeper); ELN London’s founding father, the Director of the Czech Centre Ladislav Pflimpfl (winner of the best un-prononceable ELN name), and from the start, always there to hold your hand, Renata Clark of the Czech Centre and all your very generous uncles and aunts from the British Council and Arts Council England. Without them you wouldn’t be who you are today.

‘Dear ELN, I can’t quite remember how I got involved – something to do with the BBC and red shoes? - but I was thrust out on stage every year to interview all your famous friends. Then, as news of your good behaviour spread, we enlisted the expertise of Daniel Hahn from the British Centre for Literary Translation and Rachel Cooke of The Observer newspaper (to assist with your development) and Sarah Sanders and Sharmilla Beezmohun of Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions to – how shall I put it? – knock you into shape. Your family has grown.  Your admirers have grown. You are a 6 year old prodigy. Today everybody wants to know you, to be in your gang.’

Ok, the red shoes; the BBC: an explanation. I’d been a presenter and producer on BBC Radio 4 for 20 years. I love the BBC, I really do (travelled the world; presented flagship programmes like Front Row, Open Book, Crossing Continents and A World In Your Ear), but I wanted more. Maybe it was greed? Global domination? I was angry. Angry about the neglect of foreign fiction in the UK. I’d already reported on revolutions across Germany and Eastern Europe. It was clear to me that we needed another revolution, to improve the standing of quality international fiction in the UK. Also, at the BBC, I had a serious problem: I love red shoes and red lipstick and they just didn’t work on radio (I tried). So, ELN and the British Library gave me a home. 
A pair of red patent shoes and matching handbagELN chairing essentials: red shoes and handbag

2009, Year One, was a blur. Did I interview ten authors without a break? Was it eight? Was that possible? Were there ten readings? I recall that the French spoke in French (in spite of strict instructions) and the Romanians read out a whole 25-minute short story (although, read by the brilliant Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca and written by Nobel Prize-touted Mircea Cărtărescu, we forgave them). ‘Marathon’ was the word. Poor Jon Fawcett was having kittens.

But call me ‘bohemian’ (please do!), I still love the literary-salon-like marathon-madness of European Literature Night. And for this our 6th year, if I say so myself, we happy band of judges have chosen six truly major league literary players from across the continent. To be on stage interviewing stars like Julia Franck (Germany), Antoine Laurain (France), Diego Marani (Italy), Witold Szablowski (Poland), Jonas T. Bengtsson (Denmark) and Dimitri Verhulst (Belgium) is my idea of literary heaven.

As chair of the ELN judges, event presenter and curator (until Sarah and Sharmilla came along and rescued me), I’m extremely aware of how important ELN is, but also how we need to continue to support our precious prodigy. Sadly, there’s still huge ignorance and hostility towards international arts and literature in the playground of our national life.

2014 will be an ELN-year-to-remember. Each of our fabulous authors is famous ‘back home’ and I vow will wow Britain too - or I’ll eat my red shoes!

You can find more blog posts by Rosie Goldsmith about European literature at

Rosie Goldsmith and Jordi Punti on stage at the British LibraryRosie Goldsmith interviewing Catalan author Jordi Punti at European Literature Night 2013

11 April 2014

‘Schirmer’s Children’: a German theatre troop

 On 30 September 1806 the German printer Johann Benjamin Gottlieb Vogel (d. 1832) in Poland Street, Oxford Street, printed a ‘Plan for a subscription for a choice manuscript collection of music: containing the most celebrated compositions of the first masters on the continent, arranged and partly originally composed for the piano-forte or the harp, by Mr. Wœlfl’. Behind this initiative stood one Friedrich Schirmer, who, we are informed, ‘intends, before his return to Germany, a periodical publication of a choice manuscript collection of the best modern German music’.

Cover of Schirmer’s choice manuscript collection of music with the title in an oval frame on a marbled backgroundThe first issue of Schirmer’s choice manuscript collection of music (London, 1806) British Library f.65.s.

Only two issues of the arrangements by Joseph Wölfl (1773-1812) saw the light of day, but Schirmer had already made his mark the previous year: as the Plan points out, he was ‘late proprietor and manager of the German Theatre in London’ - surely the first such initiative in the British capital.

Schirmer, who had arrived in England in 1804, had obtained a licence to present a season of ‘musical and dramatical interludes in the German language’ under the name ‘German Theatre’ to start on 22 June 1805 at the Sans Souci Theatre off Leicester Fields. The core of Schirmer’s troupe comprised members of his own family, including his wife, daughter and son. Shortly after the opening, ‘Schirmer’s Children’ (‘die Schirmerschen Kinder’) gave a command performance for the court at Windsor (Frogmore), where they performed the operetta Unschuld und Liebe, oder das geraubte Lämmchen (‘Innocence and love, or the stolen lamb’) with music apparently adapted from a score by Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804). They were, by all accounts, a success.

The opening of a German-speaking theatre in London is the subject of a number of rather breathless reports by the London-based German journalist J. C. Hüttner. English reviews of their performances suggested that all but Schirmer’s daughter were talented singers. A review of the comic opera Die drei Freier (‘The three suitors’) remarked that Miss Schirmer has a ‘good figure, but sings ill [...] the rest all sang well & they keep time most inimitably’. Schirmer’s season continued for about a year, a not unrespectable period for a foreign-language music theatre troop with a limited repertoire.

Most of the pieces performed by Schirmer’s Children were printed for sale during the performances, though very few copies have survived. We are lucky to have a copy in the British Library of The three suitors, or like loves like. A musical farce, in one act (some of it on blue paper). This was printed by Vogel ‘and sold at the playhouse, Leicester Place, Leicester Square’ in 1805.

Bilingual German and English title page of 'Die Drei Freier = The Three Suitors'Die drei Freier ; oder, Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gern ... = The three suitors, or, Like loves Like. ...  (London, 1805). 1343.d.10.

Graham Jefcoate, Nijmegen/Chiang Mai


J. C. Hüttner, London und Paris, (Weimar, 1798- ) vol. 16, 1805, pp. 3-12. P.P.4689.

Michael Kassler, The music trade in Georgian England.  (Aldershot, 2011), pp 460, 485.   YC.2011.a.10792

Frederick Burwick, Playing to the crowd: London popular theatre, 1780-1830. (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 21.  YC.2012.a.21614

09 April 2014

Who or what were ‘the Vikings’?

Interest in ‘the Vikings’ seems boundless, and the current Vikings exhibition at the British Museum makes the subject particularly topical. Googling ‘Viking’ produces forty-seven million hits –  though most of them may be for computer games or brand names  –  and a search on our catalogue under vernacular forms of the term produces over 250 titles in Scandinavian languages and thousands more in English, with dozens of the latter published this year already in the BL catalogue. Beyond that narrow focus, however, the holdings of the British Library are very rich in printed materials, from the 16th century to date, relating to pre-Christian Scandinavia.

A recent article in the Evening Standard by the great medievalist David Dumville aimed to counter the ‘revisionist’ and ‘politically correct’ views that have “covered up the crimes of a bloody era” during the past half-century. He admitted that “Vikings are in general not coterminous with Scandinavians” yet capitalised the word as if it were an ethnic label – as misleading as using ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Cossack’ to describe the entire cultures of the USA or Russia, from their art forms and technology to their political systems and modes of warfare. The ancient Scandinavians’ name for themselves was ‘Northmen’ and for their language and culture ‘Norse’ (norrœn).  

Of the two Old Norse nouns víkingr (m.) and víking (f.), the first meant ‘pirate or sea-rover’ (OED),  the second an overseas plundering expedition. Their etymology is contested but related to the noun vík, ‘bay’, or the verb víkja, ‘to turn away’ etc., referring either to people from a bay area  –  such as the Vik region around the Oslofjord (though its inhabitants were called víkverjar, not víkingar)  –  or to those who ‘set out’ on raiding voyages. But such ‘vikings’ formed only a fraction of the Norse peoples.  Overseas trading voyages had been undertaken long before then, for instance by the peaceful  ‘farbönder’ of Gotland, while the fact that travel by boat was so much faster than overland was the basic reason why so many Norse groups lived near and moved around on water. Will scholars ever agree to stop using the over-worked term ‘viking’?   

Woodcut illustration of five men carrying a boat laden with weaponsCarelian raiders. Illustration from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus  Septentrionalibus, bk 11, ch. 7 (Rome, 1555)   152.e.9.

The causes of the increase in overseas raiding around 800 were both external and internal. The main external one was the expansion of the Carolingian empire, its threatening proximity provoking aggressive reactions. The major internal factor was technological, the rapid development of open-sea sailing ships at that time.  (The best surviving examples are the beautiful Gokstad and Oseberg vessels  –  displayed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.)  Another was the breakdown of a centuries-old social system in increasingly violent power struggles among the elites that eventually reduced the number of kingdoms in Scandinavia from dozens to the three still existing ones.  

Photograph of a Viking ship in a museumOseberg ship, built around 820, buried 834, now in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo (Picture by Daderot from  Wikimedia Commons)

An aggressive warrior ethos – already vividly described in the Old English Beowulf  poem, preserved in the British Library – saw raiding and pillaging as a perfectly honourable pursuit, enriching the participants. Change came only with the adoption of continental Christianity and feudalism, which no longer permitted unprovoked attacks on co-religionists. When the neighbouring Slavic, Finno-Ugrian and Baltic peoples likewise converted, the now christianised Norse elites  –  after a short period of ‘crusading’ around the Baltic  –  simply ran out of legitimate targets.  

Peter Hogg, former Head of Scandinavian Collections

Recommended reading:

Stefan Brink and Neil Price (eds), The Viking world (London, 2008) YC.2009.b.524

Gareth Williams, Vikings: life and legend (London, 2014) Catalogue of the British Museum exhibition

Saga  book of the Viking Society for Northern Research (London,  1892-  )  Ac.9939; volumes over three years old are also available online at

Proceedings of the Viking Congresses (quadrennial since 1950). Volumes catalogued separately. See also:

Viking and Medieval Scandinavia  (Turnhout,  2005-  )  9236.374400