Elodie Rose Barnes reviews Sissal Kampmann’s Faroese poetry collection, Darkening/Myrking, and speaks to translator Marita Thomsen about translating Kampmann’s work, Faroese weather, gender in language, and reading translated texts.
Sometimes I get a feeling / that we sit on opposite shores of / the ocean / with the black sun / between us.
Love, longing, yearning. The ‘black sun’ of an eclipse; darkness and light in weather, emotions, experiences. The moon and the sun. The ocean that comes in between them, and how to find home in a world full of contrasts. These are the themes of Sissal Kampmann’s collection of Faroese poetry – universal stories told in the Faroese tradition of ballads and wandering narratives, evocative poems that are rich in imagery and island culture. Darkening / Myrking is the first bilingual Faroese–English publication of a work of Faroese literature, in a wonderfully sensitive translation by Marita Thomsen.
The poems in Darkening inhabit a space of contrasts: between the natural world and the human world, between the isolation of rural living and the loneliness of the city, between the ‘brightest night’ and the ‘darkest day’. A sea and its tides roll in between them. There is no crossing it except in the imagination, and with the rain and sun that are just as much universal experiences as the love that also lies between these places, always ‘on the other shore’. There is love as sensuality and transformation, and the newness of being immersed – ‘We ventured into uncharted waters, / as ever / without warning, / only directions / from life’s shore’ – and there is also love as pain, longing, separation. These are not poems that interrogate, or ask questions. Rather they delicately explore all these different meanings of the single word, ‘love’, and the possibilities of finding a home in love when there are so many different places to settle.
Within the poems, the presence of the weather looms large. ‘I suddenly feel like lighting candles / outside in the wind, / which is constantly rising…A low pressure system engulfs the country.’ But rather than simply being a theme, the elements become almost like beings. They are identities that shape lives and emotions, that twine themselves around this love story until they are inseparable from it like ivy around an oak tree: ‘I hear warm / pregnant September drops / form little puddles / in your mouth, / and of course / I want to drain them / so the words won’t drown / with you.’ And, of course, there is the ‘black sun’ of the eclipse, which forms the lens through which these different worlds of love are seen and explored. ‘A thousand black suns / glisten and glitter / in your eyes / tonight’.
Sometimes, the contrasting spaces of the poems jar and merge. Even the world of the metropole cannot escape nature altogether, and the black sun is omnipresent: ‘the black sun has risen over / the city / that sprawls shimmering under / quivering bare trees / with roots latched onto / the origin of time / a few metres below the asphalt.’ In these lines a new space is created, one that takes us deep into the shadow side of love, to the yearning and longing and the distance in between two people. ‘Chaos reigns / on the dark side of the black sun…’. This chaos demands order, a clarifying, a purification, and it is the moon that ‘lets its magic power / shower the world / as cleansing ash…’
The poems are heavily influenced by the tradition of Faroese ballads. Sometimes hundreds of verses long, these were told purely through song and dance, through voice and rhythmic footwork, and there is this same kind of rhythm throughout Darkening. There are no long lines and no titles. The poems are separate and yet roll effortlessly into each other, weaving and looping around, moving away only to meet again a few pages later. Words and sounds are repeated over and over again, and with the Faroese text alongside the English, it’s possible to see this pulse in the original even without speaking the language. Some poetry collections come together as a journey: Darkening is not so much a journey as a beating heart that breathes its way into different directions, different spaces. It feels alive.
In this interview, Elodie Barnes speaks to the translator of Myrking / Darkening, Marita Thomsen. Marita is a translator and conference interpreter from the Faroe Islands, who now lives in Keele in the UK. In her interpreting role she works from Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish and French, mainly for the European Parliament and various other international bodies, and she satisfies her love of stories through translating Faroese literature into English.
How did the Darkening project come about?
It was the brainchild of Clive Boutle from Francis Boutle publishers, who specialise in lesser-used languages of Europe. He wanted to publish some Faroese poetry as part of their bilingual poetry series – but he wanted it to be a new body of work, preferably by a female author. He already had Sissal Kampmann in mind after seeing her at a poetry reading in London a few years earlier. I became involved after a co-ordinator from Faroese literary agency FarLit put me in touch with Clive, and he asked to me to translate.
Did you work very closely with Sissal during the translation process?
We were in touch quite frequently, simply because of the logistics. The work was commissioned and we were working to a tight deadline, and so the book hadn’t been completed when I started translating it. Sissal would send over poems in batches as she finished them. It was quite different, because it meant that I had no idea what I was working towards. I remember one day receiving a poem and thinking that it was the end, because it seemed to close the circle of the previous poems so well, and then being very surprised a few weeks later when I received another batch! But it made it very interesting and exciting to do.
Like most Faroese authors, Sissal has some grasp of English and so was able to read enough of the translation to comment, and to ask questions if she didn’t understand a particular word choice, for example. But I think the thing that we spent the longest time discussing was the title of the book. In Faroese ‘myrking’ means ‘eclipse’, but thanks to Stephanie Meyer we didn’t feel that we could use that! A lot of thought went into it, and eventually we came up with ‘Darkening’ – because of course an eclipse is a darkening, and it is a text with both light and darkness in it. It also mirrors that structure of the Faroese word, with the ‘-ing’ ending.
It seemed like you mirrored her structure, in terms of line breaks and so on, quite closely throughout the translation. Was that intentional, or was it the way the language fell into place, or perhaps a mixture of both?
I did, partly because it was possible to do so without the poems losing any of their elegance, but also because I think the original rhythm matters and I like to mirror that as closely as I can. It’s why I often consciously choose Germanic English words over Latin ones in poetry translations: they have a similarity in structure. Of course, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes it doesn’t feel natural. I’ve translated another Faroese author, Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs, and in some of her poetry, where she draws on her background in healthcare, Latin words also fit quite well.
I also think that perhaps because Faroese is a small language, and I am Faroese, I feel more of an obligation to stay as true as possible to the original and to take as few liberties as possible, while still of course making it elegant and accessible.
It made a real difference to me as a reader having the two languages side by side – even though, obviously, I couldn’t understand one of them! It enriched it, somehow, being able to see things like the similarities in structure, and the repetition of certain words throughout the text.
As a translator it’s actually quite daunting: you’re completely exposed! But having the Faroese anchors it, I think, and brings an extra layer of context even for readers who don’t speak it. I suppose you could argue both for and against – it also anchors the poetry in its ‘otherness’ – but then why would you want to pretend that it isn’t Faroese?
Especially with a work like this – it’s so culturally different, and I certainly didn’t want to escape that! It’s brought something from the Faroe Islands to me that I would never have otherwise had the chance to read.
It’s quite a responsibility. If you’ve translated one book from Faroese into English, that’s quite a large chunk of what’s out there! Certainly there will always be things that are lost in translation, and things that are added. I try not to think too much that I’m translating a culture, as such, but there are obviously culturally specific elements within every text. For example, in Darkening, I feel very much as if there is a tension between the natural world of the Faroe Islands and the ‘metropole’, which I automatically read as Copenhagen. “The other shore” of the poems, to me, is very probably Denmark, but that’s never explicit in the text and so there’s no way of spelling it out in English. It may never cross people’s minds if they don’t know Faroese history – but then maybe it doesn’t have to. There’s also our preoccupation with with the light and weather! It seems like an obsession to others – even to the British – but in the Faroe Islands the seasons and changing weather have a real impact on your life, and literally what you can and cannot do with your day. By extension it has a huge influence on your state of mind, and it does feature heavily in a lot of Faroese literature, including Darkening.
In the introduction to Darkening, you talk about the ballad and chain dance tradition of the Faroe Islands, and its influence on the poems. It’s clear when you read it that the poetry has a very looping style. Was that challenging to reproduce in English?
Yes, because English doesn’t tolerate repetition in the same way as Faroese. Faroese is a language with a lot of polysemy. One word can mean a thousand things, which is fantastic, especially in poetry as it gives so many layers. But it does mean that, when you’re translating it, you have to make what can sometimes be a difficult choice, because the direct translation in English doesn’t have quite the same meaning. Sometimes it feels as if I’m killing the word by translating it! In this case, I was often having to decide whether it was worth repeating a word in English to preserve the style, or whether it would be one repetition too many and would make it clunky. It was also challenging because I felt the repetition was deliberate. It was a product of Sissal’s style and, I imagine, traditional influences, not just an accident of the language. I often wrote down all the synonyms I could think of as I was drafting the translation, and then went back later to pin it down. Sometimes it’s not evident immediately which one works best. I read it aloud, many times over. Perhaps because this is good practice, perhaps because my first encounter with poetry was through oral ballads and skjaldur – for me poetry belongs up in the air, not just pinned to a page.
The other challenge that I found with this particular work was that Faroese is a gendered language. The sun is feminine, for example, and the moon is masculine. Obviously, as Darkening is based so heavily on light and dark and the eclipse, that was quite significant. There is a very definite sense of masculinity and femininity; there is the sense of a male character and a female character, and it’s a story of love and yearning, but that is reinforced greatly in the original because of the gendering of the language. There was no real way of doing that in English; I had to rely on the imagery. I think that if this were to be translated into Spanish, for example, it would be very difficult because in that language the sun is masculine and the moon is feminine. It would make them completely different characters.
Faroese is a language that’s very much based on an oral tradition, and it’s only relatively recently that it’s had a written form. Obviously all languages are still evolving, but perhaps with Faroese it’s more obvious – does that bring its own challenges when it comes to translation?
Well, one aspect is that you will often find that you perhaps need at least some understanding of Danish in order to translate from Faroese, because of the linguistic and cultural influence of Danish on Faroese. This is true in terms of simply understanding loan words or references, but also as a means to recognize code-switching with its political undertones and its effect on style and narrative. Faroese authors will also borrow words, song lines, phrases etc. from Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish, because Faroese culture has been very open to and permeated by regional cultural influences. Nowadays, of course, there is also English, particularly in YA fiction. I don’t recall it applying to this translation, but when working into English you also have to be able to recognize when an English word used in Faroese can be kept as it is and when that use of English really wouldn’t work in an actual English text.
The main challenge I find with Faroese literature is that the spoken language is quite different to the written language. I’m not an expert by any means, but I don’t think the written language has evolved as organically as, say, English. Effectively, in the nineteenth century, someone sat down and said that Faroese should be written down like this. It was partly an exercise in nationalism and partly to preserve the language, and many of the first things to be written down were transcripts of medieval ballads. At that time they looked very much towards Icelandic and Old Norse. Now, it feels like the written form can be a little stilted and arcane compared to the spoken form, but it’s also interesting because it’s a language that you can see evolve in real time. Obviously all languages are evolving, but it’s rare that words are thought about so carefully. In Faroese, for example, a computer is called ‘telda’, which comes from the verb ‘telja’ meaning to count. There was deliberation and thought, and a consideration by the language board of what to call this new invention. There had to be – the word ‘computer’ couldn’t simply be adapted, as in most Nordic languages, because it would be clunky to conjugate. It can be a challenge, because sometimes things which are everyday and modern can come across as archaic once they’re pinned down on a piece of paper, and as a translator you have to convey those things in an English that is natural and modern. You have to really consider the setting and meaning alongside the words themselves.
Some older people, though, still prefer to read in Danish. Danish was the language of instruction in schools, and for almost everything official, up until the end of World War Two and Faroese was very much a home language. My great grandmother would write cards and letters in phonetic Faroese because, even though it was her mother tongue and main language in every sense, she was never taught to write it. My grandmother will write Faroese, but her version is more influenced by Danish. I grew up almost entirely in Faroese, but having spent my adult life abroad, I am very aware of new words and usages when I go back.
It seems like the Faroe Islands have a thriving literary scene.
Very much so. Based on statistics from 2017 and 2018 around 200 titles are published in Faroese every year. Half are translations, half original titles. Just under half of the original titles are fiction, of these around 10 are children’s books.
The main body of literature available in Faroese are translations, mostly from Nordic, Anglo, and Germanic languages, with fewer works from, say, French or Spanish. Much of the world’s great literature is now in Faroese. A Room of One’s Own, for example, was recently translated – so it’s also an exercise in catching up. But a lot is translated contemporaneously, and that’s a conscious effort to make sure that people read in Faroese rather than Danish.
Do you read much work in translation yourself?
I used to – I grew up reading books that had been translated, making no distinction, so for me it’s never been something I’ve consciously sought out! Most things I read as a child had been translated into either Faroese or Danish. Now, though, if I see something that’s been translated from Nordic languages or Spanish, I try and read the original – not because I don’t think the translation will be any good, but because I can so why not?! But I love Primo Levi, which obviously I’ve read in translation to English as I don’t speak Italian, and also José Saramago. I also enjoyed The November Boy [by Bernat Manciet, translated by James Thomas], which is also published by Francis Boutle. That inspired me for my own translation work because it deliberately kept so much of the foreign-ness. Quite a number of original terms were not translated, and it did add something for me. It made me think that perhaps that’s something I should do more of with some of my own work.
Sissal Kampmann’s Darkening/Myrking: Poems in Faroese, translated by Marita Thomsen and published by Francis Boutle Publishers, is available to purchase now. To order the book, click here.
This interview was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to thank Marita Thomsen and Francis Boutle Publishers for allowing us to publish this interview.