19 May 2020
Esperanto can be described as the language of hope, peace, and solidarity as Professor Renato Corsetti, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto has discussed in his previous posts for the European Studies blog. Hope remains the governing principle, as the name of the language attests (espero in Esperanto).
Driven by hope for enhancing linguistic diversity, dedicated Esperantists have been translating minority language literatures into Esperanto, ranging from local stories to epic poems.
Local stories of the Pyrenees are featured in Christian Lavarenne’s translations from Occitan: Kvar mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneoj and Mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneo (Balagué, 1998; YF.2019.a.18502 and YF.2019.a.18517).
Portrait of Federic Mistral from La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988) YF.2011.a.10850. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
The gem of classic Provençal literature, Mirèio by Federic Mistral was translated into Esperanto (Mirejo) by Paul Champion and Eugène Noël in 1909. At the time Mistral was still active and Esperanto was still a new language.
Mistral’s other masterpiece, the pensive Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants (Paris 1897; 11498.b.64.), translated into Esperanto as La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988; YF.2011.a.10850) by Rajmundo Laval or Valo has a particular resonance for us now as it tells the story of the end of an era.
Cover of Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants
Cover of La poemo de Rodano. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
While the title implies the poem is about the river Rhône, it is actually about the river’s people, the bargemen, the Coundriéulen (Provençal), Condrillots (French). Fitting to a monumental opus, the bargemen are portrayed in the opening stanza as giants who can only be described by the beauty and strength of their natural environment, the river, the sun and the trees:
From Lyons at the blush of early dawn
The bargemen, masters of the Rhône, depart,
A robust band and brave, the Condrillots.
Upright upon their crafts of planks of fir,
The tan of sun and glint from glassy wave
Their visages have bronzed as with gold.
And in that day colossuses they were,
Big, corpulent, and strong as living oaks,
And moving beams about as we would straws.
Translation: K. Katzner
First stanza of the Esperanto translation of Le Poème du Rhône. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.
The beginning, however, foreshadows the end: the strength of these natural giants succumbs to a new era’s unnatural giants, the steamboats of industrialisation. It is a tragic story not only of the lovers on board but also for lovers of the past. Although the bargemen lose their barge, hauling horses and people on board, they keep their dignity. After an epic journey, literally and metaphorically, we can see them on the shore, saying not a word about their loss, but moving forward. A digitised copy of the original Provençal and French text is available via Project Gutenberg.
Mistral was more than a storyteller. His ambition was to revitalise Provençal, the language of southern France, particularly Provence. With his magnificent poetry Mistral connected the rough 19th-century bargemen and the better-known refined Provençal singers, the troubadours of the 12th and 14th centuries, and expressed his hope that the language would thrive, whoever its speakers came to be.
The Troubadours of the 12th-14th centuries were the best-known Provençal singers. Image from J.B.M. Challamel, La France et les Français à travers les siècles (Paris, 1882.) 9226.m.1.
Today the surviving variants of Occitan and Provençal are designated as ‘definitely’ and ‘severely’ endangered languages according to UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
Maps of Occitan (above) and Provençal (below) dialects speaking regions (yellow: definitely endangered; orange: severely endangered) UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 © UNESCO
Inter-generational transmission is the most prominent of the nine factors considered in the designation.
Definitely endangered means ‘children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home’.
Severely endangered refers to a language which is ‘spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves’.
Keeping a language alive can take many forms, even in translation. For example, Jomo (Jean-Marc Leclerq), a French Esperantist promotes Occitan in songs.
The British Library’s Esperanto collection contains works translated from over 50 languages, including some in anthologies. The most translated languages, not surprisingly, are the larger ones: English, Russian, French, German and Polish, followed by Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Dutch and Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Croatian, Serbian, Danish, and Romanian. The list is indicative of the languages spoken by the most active Esperantists. However, within the collection a special corpus is dedicated to translations of minority language literatures including Occitan, Provencal, Basque, Walloon, and Welsh.
In addition to books, Esperanto journals, most importantly Literatura Mondo (1922-1949; ZF.9.b.266), La Nica Literatura Revuo (1955-1962; ZF.9.a.7040) and Beletra Almanako (2007- ; ZF.9.a.7847) have also regularly published translations, both poetry and prose, from various languages.
Etnismo, an international organisation with an online newsletter, connects Esperantists who are interested in minority issues including minority languages.
Translators of minority and endangered language literatures into Esperanto often publish dictionaries as well. These are either embedded in the translated book as addendum or constitute stand-alone titles, for example: Basque-Esperanto dictionary (Bilbao, 2015; YF.2016.a.2481), and Catalan-Esperanto dictionary (Barcelona, 2014; YF.2015.a.22072).
So, why is it important to translate endangered language literature into Esperanto? By raising awareness of endangered languages and making their literature accessible to a larger readership through translations, Esperantists promote linguistic diversity. As Professor Renato Corsetti explains: ‘Esperantists think that all languages, large and small, are equally valuable, and Esperanto wants to contribute to the revitalization of all languages.’
Andrea Deri, Cataloguer
With contributions from:
Olga Kerziouk, former Curator, British Library Esperanto Collections
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics, La Sapienza University Rome, Former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto
We would like to thank Professor Corsetti for his generous assistance in acquiring images from La poemo del Rodano from the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, and Candide Simard and Phil Hatfield for their helpful suggestions.
Moseley, Christopher (ed.), Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. (Paris, 2010).
Reinhard Haupenthal, La unuaj libroj de Schleyer (1880) kaj de Zamenhof (1887): pri la lanĉo de du plan-lingvoj (Schliengen, 2000) YF.2008.a.12642
15 May 2020
As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) has launched a fairytale-inspired campaign called #LoveOverVirus. Members of the theatre company, as well as a number of famous figures including Stephen Fry and Juliet Stevenson, are reading extracts from their favourite fairytales and short stories every evening at 6pm until the end of May. In addition, BFT has opened up its archive to stream 24 productions between April and June. Each show can be accessed for 24 hours and English subtitles are available for performances in Russian and Belarusian. The theatre company is banned in Belarus; its co-founding artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, came to the UK as political refugees in 2010, and rehearse its underground performances in Minsk via Skype.
Stephen Fry’s contribution to the Love Over Virus project is a reading of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. First published in 1888, the tale is part of Wilde’s collection of short stories for children and adults, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (a free digitised copy is available to download from Project Gutenburg). Influenced by traditional fairytales, the seemingly whimsical stories offer an astute social commentary on Victorian society, depicting poverty, suffering and cruelty, but also love, kindness and sacrifice.
Cover of Shchasʹlivy Prynts (The Happy Prince) translated by L. Khvalʹko (Watenstadt, 1947) 12256.dd.8.
The title-story from the collection, The Happy Prince, similarly aimed to bring solace to children and adults when it was translated into Belarusian as part of Displaced Persons (DP) camp publishing activities in 1947. At the end of the Second World War, approximately 11 million people had been displaced from their home countries, with seven million in Allied-occupied Germany. They included concentration camp survivors, and former forced labourers and prisoners of war. DP camps were set up in Western Germany, Austria and Italy, and largely organised by nationality.
During the German occupation of Belarus between 1941 and 1944, approximately 380,000 Belarusians were deported to Germany as labourers. Thousands more subsequently fled the returning Soviet regime in 1944 (Silitski and Zaprudnik, pp. 135–136). Following the end of the war, Belarusian refugees lived in DP camps throughout Western Germany before they were resettled.
This translation of The Happy Prince (Shchasʹ livy Prynts in Belarusian) was reproduced from a typewritten copy and translated from the English by L. Khvalʹko. The text is accompanied by simple yet powerful pen and ink illustrations throughout. It was published in a camp in Watenstedt in the British zone (now incorporated into the city of Salzgitter) in Lower Saxony, Germany, by the Belarusian Relief Committee (Belaruski dapamahovy Kamitėt).
Photograph of a series of buildings at the A1 Heerte displaced persons camp in the Salzgitter region of Germany, 1946. Museums Victoria Collections [Accessed 11 May 2020]
Salzgitter had been the site of Reichswerke Hermann Göring, a state-owned iron and steel complex that used slave labour during the war. Prisoners were housed in concentration camps in the area. After the war, DP camps were established for the some 37,000 (mostly Polish) displaced persons in the city (Neumann, p. 28). Many DP camps were set up on the sites of former German concentration camps and conditions were extremely difficult. Nevertheless, political, educational, religious and cultural activities, including publishing, flourished.
The British Library holds a handful of other Belarusian publications produced in Watenstedt between 1946 and 1948. These include a collection of poems by Maksim Bahdanovich, considered to be one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature (011586.pp.27.); a religious book ‘for the Belarusian family and school’ (4385.c.13.); and copies of the periodical Shliakham zhytsʹtsia (P.P.7615.yh.). To find more items published in Watenstedt, search by place of publication in our online catalogue in Cyrillic and using transliteration. The Library also has a growing collection of other DP camp publications in Belarusian and a number of other languages, including Russian, Yiddish, Latvian, Ukrainian and Polish.
Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Further reading and references:
Jan-Hinnerk Antons, “Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany: Parallel Societies in a Hostile Environment.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 49, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 92–114
Marc Buggeln, Slave Labour in Nazi Concentration Camps, translated by Paul Cohen (Oxford, 2014). YC.2016.a.2083
Klaus Neumann, Shifting Memories: the Nazi past in the new Germany (Ann Arbor, 2000). YC.2001.a.17690
Vitali Silitski and Jan Zaprudnik, The A to Z of Belarus (Lanham, MD., 2010).
23 April 2020
Cover of Swallows and Floating Horses (details below)
Frisian is the language closest related to English. As the old saying goes: ‘Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese’. In Frisian this reads as ‘Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, etc.’
Otherwise Frisian and English are each other’s opposites. For a long time, Frisian was scarcely written down. Over the centuries it has stubbornly refused to die out, but it has changed with the times and is as strong now as ever. It is now the second official language of the Netherlands.
The above image is from Swallows and Floating Horses: An Anthology of Frisian Literature (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark), published last year by Francis Boutle as part of their series ‘Lesser Used Languages of Europe’. It covers 1,000 years of Frisian poetry and prose, in English and Frisian. In February 2019 at UCL it was presented to the British public, with Frisian poet Tsead Bruinja, currently Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, performing some of his poems. You can read and listen to his poem, ‘Gers dat Alfêst Laket’ (Grass that’s Started Laughing) from Swallows and Floating Horses here.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
Cover of Sovremennaia literatura narodov Rossii. Poeziia. Antologiia (Moscow, 2017). YF.2019.b.1108
In 2017, the well-known Moscow publishing house OGI (The United Humanitarian Publishing House) published a really unique book – an anthology of poetry in 57 minority languages spoken in the Russian Federation in original languages and Russian translations (BL YF.2019.b.1108). The editor of the volume was Maksim Amelin, himself a poet, translator, publisher and literary critic. In the foreword to the book, it is compared to an encyclopaedia of living national languages, cultures and worldviews. Here you can see several pages of this book and read poems (alongside their translations into Russian) by:
- Anisa Kettunen, who writes in Finnish. Although 5.4 million people in the world are native speakers of Finnish, it is a minority language in the Russian Federation, where we see permanent decrease in the use of the Finnish as a native language.
- Pimagomed Aslanov and Giulbika Omarova, whose poetry represents 129,000 speakers of the Tabasaran language from the Lezghin group of the Nakh-Dagestan language family. Apparently, this is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
- Georgii Tsvetkov and Radmira Bogdanova – two poets who use for their creative expression the North Russian dialect of the Romani language. 128,000 people speak the Romani language in Russia.
- Brontoi Bediurov, who in his native Altai language created a ritual verse on the spring worship to the Holy mountain Babyrgan.Altai,
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
Cover of People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg (details below)
Livonian (līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ), currently spoken by around 20 people (three of them poets!), is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages. For centuries it was spoken in fishing villages along the Livonian Coast of Latvia. Unlike Latvian, which is a Baltic language, Livonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family and is related to Estonian, Finnish and Karelian. Even though the last native speaker of Livonian is thought to have died in 2013, there is a sustained interest in Livonian language and culture. In 2018 the University of Latvia Livonian Institute, the first research institution solely focused on the history, culture and language of Livonia, was established. In May 2019 the Institute’s director Valts Ernštreits, who is also a poet writing in Latvian and Livonian, took part in the European Literature Night: Poetry and Performance event held at the British Library. The poem below comes from Ernštreits’ first bilingual (Livonian and English) collection of Livonian poetry People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg, translated by Ryan Van Winkle and Ernštreits (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark).
Siz ku kievād virgõbõd
tallõ vied allõ maggõnd līndõd,
nänt tūrgõd āt vel kažžizt,
nänt ēļ um vel kardõ,
nänt kēļ um vel ȭnõz ja vȭrõz.
Ku kivīd virgõbõd, paļļõd ja ōgizt,
ne nūzõbõd ilzõ jõugõst ja viedstõ, ja mūldast,
lougõ ja sitkõ,
addõŗi murdõs ja
kējid jālgad sil akkõs.
Nänt kēļ neku nänt eņtš sidām
vel um vizā, lǟlam ja tijā;
amād sõnād āt ūd,
set set sindõn,
set pimdõmst ulzõ tunnõd;
abbõrz sieldõm kūoŗ nēḑi katāb.
Kievād, ku lūomõd ja liestād,
pūošõd ja neitsõd
āt īdlimist jagdõd
līndõd ja kivīd rõkāndõbõd
missõn jūŗi äb ūo
äb ka tutkāmt.
In spring, birds wake
from their underwater slumber,
their feathers damp,
voices cracked and croaking
in an empty, foreign language.
Stones, naked and grey, rise up
from the sand, soil, sea – stubborn
and heavy – breaking ploughs,
getting under your feet.
Their rocky tongues,
just like their hearts, are cold
heavy and hollow. Their words;
of darkness, swaddled
in a thin, eggshell light.
In spring, when beasts and fish
and all the young men
and all the young women
get dispersed fairly and evenly
throughout the coast,
the birds and stones
speak their rootless language,
with no beginning, no end.
Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections
José María Iparraguirre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Basque, or Euskara, is a pre-Indo-European language spoken today in four provinces of Spain and three in France on both sides of the Western Pyrenees. It is an ‘isolate’, i.e. it is unrelated to any language group. Attempts have been made to find connections between Basque and an extraordinary variety of languages, living and dead. However, only the surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language of S.W. Gaul, have revealed any meaningful coincidences.
Greater centralization after the Revolution weakened regional identity in France and minority languages suffered in consequence. In northern Spain, the fueros (local laws) were abolished in 1876. Paradoxically, Basque culture and language underwent a renaissance that lasted until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Use of the Basque language was forbidden under Franco, but it continued to be studied, initially clandestinely. Today, speakers of Basque number about 850,000. Its future is brightest in the Autonomous Community of Euskadi in Spain where it has co-official status. It is much less so in Navarra, where its status is more complex. The language is at greatest risk in the French Basque Country.
Poetry has always been a vital strand of literature in Basque. Indeed, the first book printed in the language was a collection of poems, Linguae vasconum primitiae (Bordeaux, 1545), by a parish priest, Bernart Etxepare. A feature of Basque verse, today and in the past, has been oral poetry. One of the most famous poems in the language, Jose Maria Iparragirre’s Gernikako arbola (c. 1853), is composed to a popular dance rhythm. Dedicated to the tree of Gernika, the ancient oak that symbolized the rights of the people of Bizkaia, it has become a de facto anthem of the Basque people and their aspirations. Iparragirre (1820-81) had himself been a defender of the fueros and he forms an indirect link to the cultural movement that grew up after their suppression.
The poem has 12 stanzas. We quote here the first in its original dialect spelling, as the whole poem can readily be found online:
Eman ta zabaltzazu
The Tree of Guernica
among the Basques;
Give and deliver
the fruit unto the world.
We adore you,
Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Collections
Luis de Castresana, Vida y obra de Iparraguirre. Seguida de la obra completa, original euskera y versión castellana, del autor del Gernikako Arbola (Bilbao, 1971). X.981/3103.
Nick Gardner, Basque in education, In the Basque Autonomous Community (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2000) YA.2002.a.39245.
Luis Villasante, Historia de la literatura vasca, 2nd ed. rev. ([Oñate], 1979). BL HLR 899.92
22 April 2020
For this blog, the first of a mini series in collaboration with our Americas and Oceania collections colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction (BL ELD.DS.463137), edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published last year (the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in our collections…
Cover of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, The Sun, My Father, translated by Harald Gaski, Lars Nordström, and Ralph Salisbury (Guovdageaidnu, 1997), YA.2001.a.9397
Spoken in Sápmi, the Sámi languages are part of the Uralic language family. As of August 2019, and the approval of an official Pite Sámi orthography, eight of the nine Sámi languages have written standards. That said, Sámi poetry is tied much more to an oral tradition, at the heart of which is the “joik” form of song. The joik is often dedicated to a person, animal, place, a landscape and its mode of expression is to evoke its subject directly and not to speak about it. The first Sámi poet to win the Nordic Council Literature Prize was Nils-Aslak Valkeapää for his Beaivi, áhčážan (‘The Sun, my Father’) (YA.1994.b.2494), a title referring to the myth that the Sámi are the children of the Sun. Written in North Sámi, the illustrated meditation on ‘everything of which humans form a part’ (Heith), connects us to nature fundamentally:
go das lea orron
eanan lea earálágán
when you have lived there
seen the sun
the land is different
when you know
(From Valkeapää’, The Sun, my Father)
Valkeapää’s unpunctuated, short-lined flow moves us through the poem as if the voice is taking the reader on the very wander it imagines. It is well worth listening to Valekapää sing the lyrics. Contemporary Sámi poetry is thriving, and McCabe’s anthology points us towards a poem by Synnøve Persen, and we have recently acquired a range of titles from leading Sámi voices such as Persen, Inga Ravna Eira, Maren Uthaug, and Rauni Magga Lukkari, to name a few.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
A 30 year-old La Villemarqué transcribing a song. Engraving by Ernest Boyer, half-brother of the poet Brizeux, 1845, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Before the revival movements of the 19th and early 20th century, most literature in Breton consisted of religious writings. This revival had been first generated by the publication and international success of La Villemarqué's Barzaz Breiz (‘Songs and Ballads of Brittany’; 20010.ff.45.), the foundation of Brittany's literary renaissance.
Our collections present a good selection of Breton poets, from War poet Yann-Ber Kalloc’h (1888 –1917) to Pierre-Jakez Helias (1914-1995). Born on the island of Groix, near Quimper, Kalloc’h was the son of a fisherman. Taking the name of Bard Bleimor (‘Sea Wolf’), Kalloc’h described himself as ‘not in the least bit French’ and wrote in autonomist and regionalist reviews and publications. His most famous work is the posthumous collection of poems, Ar en deulin, published by his friend Pierre Mocaer in 1925 (1963 parallel text edition at X.989/21387). This collection includes the famous poem ‘Me ’zo Ganet kreiz ar e mor’ (‘I was born in the middle of the sea’), which can also be found in Minhoarheu ha dareu. Sourires et pleurs. Poésies de Bretagne (Quimper, 1926; 10657.b.36.).
A major literary figure in Brittany (and in the whole of France) in the second half of the 20th century, Pêr-Jakez Helias directed a weekly radio programme in the Breton language and co-founded a summer festival which became the Festival de Cornouaille. Helias’s poetry includes two collections in Breton, Ar mên du (‘The Black Stone’; Brest, 1974; PP.4881.sdp.[niv.47/48.]) and An tremen-buhez ( ‘The Pastime’; Brest, 1979; X.950/1993). The Breton language itself is an important theme in his work: ‘Breton speaker that I am, my heritage lies on my tongue’.
The Library also has a collection of literary magazine Al Liamm (P.901/1500), first published in 1946. Many modern Breton authors have contributed to the magazine with poems, short stories, essays, and songs.
It is interesting to note another trend in later Breton poetry: Haikus. Contemporary Breton poets have taken to this art form, and seem particularly keen on experimenting, as in Paol Keineg’s 35 haiku (Morlaix, 1978; X.907/20940) and the recent Breton/Japanese haikus by singer and musician Alan Stivell, Amzer (2015; BL 1CD0378512)
And if you want to delve into the Breton language a bit more, we have also digitized the 1744 Dictionnaire françois-breton ou françois-celtique du dialecte de Vannes!
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Cover of Valzhyna Mort, Epidemiia ruzhau (2017). Awaiting shelfmark.
Belarusian is one of the two official languages of Belarus (the other is Russian), yet it is estimated that only around 10% of the population use it in everyday life.
In 1971, the first anthology of Belarusian poetry in English, Like Water, Like Fire (1971; X.981/2398.), was published as part of a UNESCO series of books aimed at highlighting literature in lesser-known languages. It contained works by 41 authors, from Francišak Bahuševič to Larysa Hienijuš and Maxim Tank, which were translated by the poet and translator Vera Rich.
Although still relatively little known outside of Belarus and the Belarusian diaspora, contemporary Belarusian poetry is thriving. In his 2015 book, Spring Shoots: Young Belarusian Poets in the Early Twenty-First Century (YC.2017.a.1460), Arnold McMillin introduces 40 poets born in or after 1980 and loosely connects them through common themes present in their poetry, including the use and defence of language, historical heritage, protest at alienation and repression, and religion.
One stand-out poet who does not feature in Spring Shoots (but is instead included in McMillin’s earlier work as a ‘poet of the future’) is the US-based Valzhyna Mort, who writes in both Belarusian and English. The British Library recently acquired Mort’s collection, Epidemiia ruzhau (‘Rose Pandemic’), which explores the themes of war and displacement, music and gardens, language and earth. In an article published on the website of Cornell University’s English Department, where Mort is a professor, she observes that, ‘The landscape of Belarus is burdened by silence, by the unverbalized history of war and colonization’ and describes the collection as ‘trying to untie the nerves of silence.’
Mort features on http://litradio.by/, an archive of audio recordings featuring writers, poets and translators reading their work and one of the many projects set up by Belarusian PEN Centre aimed at fostering and promoting Belarusian literature.
You can read and listen to Valzhyna Mort’s poem ‘Belarusian I’ (‘Belaruskaia mova I’) from Factory of Tears (Port Townsend, Wash., 2008; YD.2009.a.3260), which is included in McCabe’s anthology, here.
Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here.
Harald Gaski, ‘Song, Poetry and Images in Writing: Sami Literature’, Nordlit 15 (1), 2011, pp. 33-54.
20 April 2020
Over thirty years ago, it might have been possible to say that the Faroes were only on the radar of ‘ornithologists, folklorists, epidemiologists even […] But among the anthropologists, “excursionists” par excellence, the Faroes are practically unknown’ (Wylie). Now, with the help of publicity ventures like the viral Google Sheepview campaign, the Faroes are comparatively well-trodden by the average off-the-beaten-track traveller. The Islands now also boast a reputation for fine-dining and, in the political sphere, are fast attracting ‘strong interest from the world’s most powerful states’, along with other North Atlantic territories. But, where’s Faroese literature in all this?
Map of The Faroes from Lucas Jacobsen Debes, Færoæ & Færoa reserata. Det er: Færøernis oc Færøeske Indbyggeris Beskrivelse (Copenhagen, 1673), 980.d.11.
The British Library has recently acquired nearly around 80 modern Faroese publications, mostly literary fiction, to ensure we continue to represent the global literary landscape, especially now given the recent prominence of the Faroes. Writers represented in that selection include Carl Jóhan Jensen, Jóanes Nielsen, Tóroddur Poulsen, Hanus Kamban, and Jens Pauli Heinesen.
It is safe to say that Faroese writers have a difficult task to become known beyond their shores. As the Faroese nominee for the 2020 Nordic Council Literature Prize, Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen, writes, ‘only a half-dozen or so can make a living off their writing. And in order to do that, a writer has to be translated into a bigger language, but publishing houses in other countries do not want to spend money on some book from the Faroe Islands.’
The capital city, Tórshavn, from Joseph Russel Jeaffreson’s The Faroe Islands (London, 1898) 10280.i.1.
Marni Rasmussen’s award winning Ikki fyrr enn tá (Not until then) is available at the library (YF.2020.a.207) along with another 11 of his works, mostly poetry collections. He also co-edits the literary journal Vencil, which, thanks to the translations of Marita Thomsen, put out an English-language issue for the first ever Faroe Islands stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. One legacy of that initial promotional step-change was the FarLit organisation, which has since been devoted to promoting awareness of Faroese literature internationally.
Whaling in the Faroes, from Jeaffreson (above)
The belatedness of this international orientation has a lot to do with the relative novelty of not only a Faroese literary culture but also of a standardized Faroese written language. The first Faroese novel is traced back to 1909 and Regin í Líð’s (Rasmus Rasmussen) Bábelstornið (Tower of Babel) and the first poetry collection, J. H. O. Djurhuus’s Yrkingar (‘Poems’) followed in 1914 (X.900/2189., 1961 edition). The library also holds a copy of Regin í Líð’s 1910 Plantulæra, which is the first Faroese botany textbook (X.319/2657.)
Stamp from 2004, one of ten commissioned in honour of J. H. O. Djurhuus’s poems, designed by Anker Eli Petersen. This one depicts the Return of Nolsoyar Páll, the Faroese national hero. (Public Domain)
The Faroese language established an orthography courtesy of Venceslaus Ulricus Hammershaimb in 1846, with the help of many philologists engaged in the linguistic independence of the Islands as part of a broader claim to self-determination. That did not immediately spark a wave of literary expression in the Faroese language, however. In many ways, the creation of a Faroese written language reinforced the separate domains in which people used Danish and Faroese. As Wylie writes, ‘In 1846 the Faroes acquired a written language in which little was written. At about the same time, they attained a “national” identity even as they were reduced to a Danish province’.
Cover of Jeaffreson (above)
Yet, that does not mean Faroese culture was until recently an un-literary one, in fact quite the opposite. Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen admits ‘the legacy of our written literature, with only 5,000 published works, only goes back a hundred years or so’, but underlines the fact that ‘our oral literary tradition, which encompasses ballads, legends, and myths, is ancient and so just as significant to us.’ There are four different of oral literature: kvædir (famous heroic ballads), tættir (satiric ballads), both verse forms; and ævintyr (folktales) and sagnir (legends with a more matter-of-fact tone, often addressing local characters and stories), both prose. This oral tradition cannot simply be seen as a phase along the path to a twentieth century written literary culture but should be understood as the fundamental basis of a distinct Faroese culture. It was the ‘institutionalized telling of tales [that] insured the survival of Faroese as a literary language’ (Wylie).
First Page of Andrew James Symington’s Pen and Pencil Sketches of Faröe and Iceland (London, 1862), BL 10281.b.18.
It is no coincidence that the first major published works in the Faroese language were collections of kvædir. Of course, these heroic ballads were collected and reproduced in even earlier publications, but these editions were rendered in Latin or Danish. Even before Hammershaimb’s orthography, there are examples of Faroese stories in the native language. Hans Christian Lyngbye’s Færoiske Qvæder om Sigurd Fofnersbane og hans Æt (Randers, 1822; 1462.h.7.) is a parallel Faroese-Danish edition of possibly the most popular kvædi about Sigurd (Siegfried) the dragon-slayer and was published as early as 1822, making it the earliest Faroese book. Ten years later, Johan Henrik Schrøter, already integral to Lyngbye’s kvædir book, published the first Faroese translation of the Icelandic saga about the Christianization of the Faroe Islanders, the Færeyinga Saga (590.h.23). Both of these are available to read online thanks to the Google Books digitisation project.
First page of Schrøter’s trilingual Icelandic-Faroese-Danish edition of the Færeyinga Saga
According to Wylie it was the 1890s that brought the works that would help catalyse the Faroese literary tradition. Hammershaimb’s Færøsk Anthologi (1891) and Jakob Jakobsen’s Færøsk Folkesagn (1896) (both at Ac.9057) ‘were not just scholarly exercises […] They were also specifically Faroese cultural monuments, grounding modern Faroese culture in written recollections of traditional life […] their appearance was exceedingly timely; for by the 1890s, memorializing the past was felt to be an urgent task, especially, perhaps, in [the capital city of] Tórshavn’. The creation of foundational Faroese editions of local literary history, much like the earlier examples of National Romanticism across Europe, went hand-in-hand with a renewed sense of nationhood, accelerated by the industrialization and urbanization of society in the 1880s.
We shouldn’t forget that, alongside the local development of a written literary tradition, the Faroes have captured the imagination of those beyond and many early texts present in the British Library collections mention the Islands. The Icelandic scholar, Arngrímur Jónsson, points to the many sheep on the Faroes in both his Brevis Commentarius de Islandia (1593) (572.b.2.) and Crymogæa (1610) (151.c.24.), noting that it is the sheep (før or fær in Old Norse) that give the Islands their name. The first comprehensive history and geography, Færoæ & Færoa reserata, was published by Lucas Jacobsen Debes in 1673, and, again, is available online. Debes’ account was of enough interest to an English audience for it to be translated three years later under its full title, Færoæ & Færoa reserata, that is, A description of the islands & inhabitants of Foeroe being seventeen islands subject to the King of Denmark, lying under 62 deg. 10 min. of North latitude: wherein several secrets of nature are brought to light […] (London, 1676; 980.d.12). The 19th century also saw a rise in travel literature to the North Atlantic, along with publications associated with scientific expeditions in the region, such as Charles Frederic Martin’s Voyages de la Commission Scientifique du Nord, en Scandinavie, en Laponie, au Spitzberg et aux Feröe (10281.g.7-16.).
Title Page from Debes’ Færoæ & Færoa reserata
The Faroes’ literary traditions are therefore both long-established and yet still novel; they are also both local and yet inextricably tied to Denmark and the wider world. These tensions have defined the distinctiveness of Faroese literature. Trygvi Danielsen, also known as the Faroese rapper Silvurdrongur (‘The Silver Kid’) and the most recent recipient of the Ebba Award, touches on the novelty of Faroese when he describes his practice as orðsangur, or wordsong, and how his writing ‘focuses towards the language itself, playing with words, rearranging, reinventing, reinvigorating, re-examining the language and how we use it’. This is no doubt possible in many languages but perhaps there is something in the artist’s proximity to the comparatively recent construction of a Faroese written language that allows a certain freedom of linguistic creativity. Danielsen’s collection of poetry, fiction and music, The Absent Silver King (2013), was also recently acquired by the library and is currently awaiting cataloguing.
William Heinesen (left) and Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen in 1918. (Public Domain)
The second tension, between the local and the national, the Faroese- and the Danishness of society, is best encapsulated in the most significant Faroese literary figure, William Heinesen. Marni Rasmussen credits Heinesen as the inventor of Magic Realism and his pioneering style found an international audience, along with his contemporary best-selling compatriot Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen. Many of Heinesen’s novels have recently been translated into English by W. Glyn Jones and published by Dedalus Books. Both authors were able to inspire the interest of twentieth century readers in the Faroe Islands, however, precisely because both wrote in Danish. In fact, it is well-known that Heinesen made sure he was not considered for the Nobel Prize in 1981, about which rumours were circulating, for the very reason that it would have taken attention away from independent Faroese culture. In a curious way, the long-standing official Danishness—in the realms of politics, religion, law— enabled the sustenance of a Faroese vernacular culture, and Heinesen’s literature is testament to that tension. As Wylie has it, ‘Denmark, on the one hand, and the land and the sea, on the other […] like all rural peoples, the Faroese have found themselves looking two ways at once’. Or, in Heinesen’s paean to all small nations at the beginning of De fortabte spillemænd (The Lost Musicians):
Far out in the radiant ocean glinting like quicksilver there lies a solitary little lead-coloured land. The tiny rocky shore is to the vast ocean just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall. But seen beneath a magnifying glass, this grain is nevertheless a whole world.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Johan Henrik Schrøter, Faereyinga Saga eller Faeröboernes Historie i den Islandske Grundtext med Faeröisk og Dansk oversaettelse (Copenhagen, 1832), 590.h.23
Jakob Jakobsen, Færøsk Sagnhistorie (Tórshavn, 1904), 11826.q.13.
Jens Christian Svabo, Indberetninger fra en Reise i Færøe 1781 og 1782 (Copenhagen, 1959), 10109.v.9.
J. H. O. Djurhuus, Yrkingar (Tórshavn, 1961), X.900/2189.
Varðin : føroyskt tíðarskrift. [Literary Journal] (Tórshavn, 1921-), complete holdings at P.901/404
William Heinesen, De fortabte spillemænd (second edition, Copenhagen, 1954), 012557.k.11., English translation by W. Glyn Jones (Dedalus Books, 2017), ELD.DS.164233
Christian Matras, Føroysk-dansk orðabók [First comprehensive Faroese-Danish Dictionary] (Tórshavn, 1927-28), 12995.bb.16.
Jonathan Wylie, The Faroe Islands: interpretations of history (Lexington, KY, 1987), Document Supply 87/15819
Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen, Ikki fyrr enn tá (Vestmanna, 2019), YF.2020.a.207
‘Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen Spoke to Us About the Imaginative Potency of Faroese Literature’, Culture Trip (2 August 2017), https://theculturetrip.com/europe/faroe-islands/articles/oddfridur-marni-rasmussen-spoke-to-us-about-the-imaginative-potency-of-faroese-literature/, accessed 16 April 2020
‘Meet the Faroese Rapper Spitting Into a Sea of Cliches’, Culture Trip (24 November 2017), https://theculturetrip.com/europe/faroe-islands/articles/meet-the-faroese-rapper-spitting-into-a-sea-of-cliches/, accessed 16 April 2020