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Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning review

LATEST REVIEW

Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning

(Hidden Gods: About Everything That Doesn’t Get Lost in a Translation)

by Nils Håkanson
reviewed by Fiona Graham

It’s hard to imagine a book about literary translation garnering the most prestigious national award for non-fiction in any English-speaking country, as Dolda gudar has done in Sweden. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, translated books have been estimated at a mere three per cent or so of all books published. The figure reflects two aspects of culture in the English-speaking world: one positive (the abundance of writers in all genres working in English, including authors for whom English is a second language), and one negative (the self-satisfied insularity which, pace the pioneering independent presses that seek out literature in other languages, continues to afflict much of the ‘Anglosphere’).

Naturally enough, the situation is different in Sweden, although, as we shall see, Håkanson shows there are no grounds for complacency. The Swedish novelist Birgitta Trotzig once described literary translations as ‘half of our national literature’. While it would be hard to verify this statement – what counts as ‘national literature’ and at what point in time do you measure it? – it’s clear that translated works account for a far more significant proportion of the overall book market in Sweden (and the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland) than in the English-speaking world. This has long been the case.

Consequently, Dolda gudar is much more than a study of literary translation: it is also, in part, a social, cultural and literary history of Sweden. The book’s nine chapters alternate between exploring the history of translation into Swedish over five eras (the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Sweden’s ‘great power’ era, the eighteenth century, the industrial age, and the present day), and examining the general theoretical issues that arise in literary translation. Presenting all this material concisely in a form accessible to the general reader is a huge challenge, but one that Håkanson carries off with panache.

The introductory chapter looks at some of the basic features of translation. While the traditional Muslim stance is that translations of the Koran lack the status of the original Arabic text, being regarded as ‘cover versions’, Christians see translations of the Bible as having the same validity as the original. Yet literary translations are both necessarily different from the source text and, where several exist, from one another. Håkanson illustrates this with two contrasting translations from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and three surprisingly different renditions of a key passage from The Hobbit – aka variously Hobbiten eller bort och hem igen, Bilbo – en hobbits äventyr, or Hompen, eller En resa dit och tillbaks igen. (As for the doughty hobbit’s name, that varies in these Swedish translations from ‘Bilbo Secker’ to ‘Bilbo Bagger’ and even ‘Bimbo Backlin’.) Both the Dostoevsky and the Tolkien translations reveal how the first-ever translator felt able to take more liberties with the text; when Walborg Hedberg translated Crime and Punishment for the first time, its author was not considered to be a stylist or thinker of note, and for Tore Zetterholm, the first Swedish translator of The Hobbit, Tolkien was just another unknown English author. Judgements of these authors’ merits have changed over the years, and subsequent translations have paid closer attention to the stylistic features of the originals. This shows that while the original text is invariable, translations are more ‘organic’ and subject to change over time.

It’s impossible, in a short review like this one, to do justice to Håkanson’s scholarly history of Swedish literary translation. but a few general points can be singled out. In medieval times, religious texts accounted for the lion’s share of translations. These were often essentially paraphrases, it being incumbent on the translator to clarify the correct interpretation of Holy Writ for non-scholars reading it in the vernacular. The translators of the first five books of the Bible, for instance, are known as the Penteukparafrastikern, the ‘paraphrasers of the Pentateuch’. Another category of literature much translated in the Middle Ages was chivalric or courtly literature, such as the Eufemiavisorna (a collection of romances). It was not considered important for courtly romances to adhere closely to the source text; regardless of what form the original took, the translations were often in knittelvers, based on rhyming couplets that were easy to recite aloud.  

The translation of the New Testament in 1526 and King Gustav Vasa’s Bible in 1541 marked the emergence of modern Swedish. Disseminated thanks to the new printing press, they were key to the Swedish Reformation. Other religious texts appearing in translation included prayer books, hymns and a sort of handbook on how to identify the work of the Devil, Bock aff dyäffwlsens frästilse (The Book of Diabolical Temptation) – the first book ever printed in Swedish (1495). Sweden’s first ever translator regius (royal translator), Ericus Benedicti Schroderus (1570s-1647), translated a vast array of writings ranging from James VI of Scotland’s treatise on government to etiquette guides and historical works. German was the main language from which he worked.

In the eighteenth century, the novel made its entrance, with works such as Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe, plus a plethora of swashbuckling tales of lesser merit. The nineteenth century saw a rise in the prestige of the novel: but as the cult of the novelist as genius emerged, those who translated such works were increasingly downgraded to a poorly paid, anonymous ‘cultural proletariat’. In the industrial era, literary translators – many of them now women, ‘översättande fruntimmer’ in the belittling parlance of the day – often churned out several novels a year for a pittance.

The twentieth century saw attempts to improve the economic standing and professional status of translators in Sweden. A key moment was the establishment in 1953 of a professional association, Svenska översättarförbundet, driven by the energetic literary translator Elsa Thulin. It was not until the end of the century, however, that a short-lived academic programme for the training of literary translators was set up, at Södertörns högskola: Gothenburg’s Valand Academy has now taken over this function.  

In the last chapter, Håkanson looks at contemporary literary translation in Sweden and concludes that overall quality is higher than ever before. At the same time, he notes that the output of Swedish publishers is extremely biased towards Anglo-American culture: in fact, translations from languages other than English (or Danish and Norwegian) are mostly viewed as necessarily difficult and intellectual. (In the English-speaking world, this tends to be the case for nearly all translated literary works.) A more general concern, Håkanson suggests, is that literature has ceased to provide the shared frame of reference a society needs for its members to communicate with each other at any level above the extremely basic. There is no longer any canon of classics familiar to most people. This comfortless conclusion leaves the English-speaking reader pondering whether literary culture is on the wane in Scandinavia only, or whether Håkanson has put his finger on a more universal phenomenon.

Nils Håkanson in blue blazer in front of woodland backdrop
Nils Håkanson. Photo: Severus Tenenbaum.
About

Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning

Nirstedt/litteratur, 2021

357 pages

Foreign rights: Nirstedt/litteratur; Sebes & Bisseling

Nils Håkanson is a research editor for Svenskt översättarlexikon (the Swedish Dictionary of Translators), a literary translator (working mainly from Russian), a publisher (Ruin förlag), and a novelist.

"You don’t believe in war. Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?"

LATEST FEATURE

‘You don’t believe in war. Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?’

by Anna-Lena Laurén

translated by D.E. Hurford

For some fifteen years, Anna-Lena Laurén’s reporting from Russia and the former Soviet Union has combined wide-ranging political insight and analytical skill, and a fascination with everyday life and the ability to depict it vividly, readably, and with an ear for dialogue.

Her career has encompassed working as a news correspondent in both her native Finland and in Sweden, working for the public service broadcaster YLE and the broadsheets (currently Dagens Nyheter in Sweden and Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland) as well as publishing six books on topics such as Ukraine, the Caucasus and life in Russia, among others. She was Journalist of the Year in Finland in 2021, and nominated for Sweden’s Grand Journalist Prize in 2021.

In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, we are grateful to re-publish this insightful piece written by Anna-Lena Laurén on the eve of the war, originally published in Dagens Nyheter on 22 February.

D. E. Hurford’s translation of an extract from Anna-Lena Lauren’s latest book The Velvet Dictatorship is also published in SBR 2022:1.

Ukrainian flag against dark background
Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

 

‘You don’t believe in war. Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?’

In my attic in Pargas there’s an old confectionery tin. Inside it are the letters my grandparents wrote to each other in autumn 1939 – the same autumn the Winter War broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union.

My grandad was in Helsinki, working as a lawyer. Granny was at home taking care of the farm, and had just had her first child – my dad.

The letters have a familiar, everyday tone to them. In one letter, my granny tells my grandad off for not eating enough; when she sees him next she doesn’t want him to be as skinny as he was the last time. In another, she comments in passing: ‘We can’t seriously believe there’ll be a war’.

There were tough negotiations going on between Finland and the Soviet Union in autumn 1939. The Soviet Union had already forced Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to sign mutual assistance treaties, and Soviet bases were established in all three Baltic countries.

A death sentence for independence.

Finland was next in line, and Helsinki had drawn its conclusions. It was ’No’ to Soviet bases. ’No’ to redrawing the border.

Stalin thought the Finns were stubborn, obstinate, and incapable of understanding what was best for them. In his memoirs of the period, Juho Kusti Paasikivi, then chief negotiator (and later president) wrote that Stalin at one point lost his composure and exclaimed:

‘This is going nowhere!’

The government in Helsinki, following the lead of foreign minister Eljas Erkko, was convinced there wouldn’t be a war; the Russians were bluffing.

Paasikivi, on the other hand, was convinced there was an imminent risk of war. As early as the start of August 1939, he wrote to the finance minister Väinö Tanner:

‘You don’t believe in war. You just say "The world cannot be so insane." You’ve lived through everything that’s happened this century – how can you say such a thing? Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?’

You don’t believe in war. You just say ‘The world cannot be so insane.’ You’ve lived through everything that’s happened this century – how can you say such a thing? Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?

To the very last, Erkko was convinced there would be no attack – even though the Russians were mobilising at the border and anti-Finland propaganda in the Soviet Union was becoming more intense.

On 26 November, Moscow claimed that four Soviet soldiers had been killed by Finnish shell fire in the village of Mainila. Two days later, three Finnish border guards were kidnapped and accused of having attempted to attack the Soviet Union. On 30 November, the Soviet Union attacked Finland.

The sequence of events has so many similarities with the current situation between Russia and Ukraine that you almost do a double take. That doesn’t mean it’s the same situation. What I recognise, though, is the conviction that war cannot happen – that the world cannot be that insane.

My granny didn’t want to believe there would be a war in 1939 either. When I travelled around Ukraine last week, few of the people I met thought the Russians would invade. Since then, Putin has recognised the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. Now he’ll militarise them to the teeth.

He’s carried out a carefully planned extortion campaign and the result is two banana republics. That can hardly be what he originally had in mind.

In autumn 1939, Finland tried to negotiate right up to the end, even after the Soviet leadership stopped responding to attempts at contact. Emmanuel Macron did all he could to convince Putin to back down. On Twitter, Jan Eliasson, an experienced diplomat, pointed out when you’re trying to avert a catastrophe, diplomacy shouldn’t be thought of as a concession.

People who try to negotiate don’t deserve ridicule. But the West can’t sell out on Ukraine’s independence, which is the only thing Putin wants. The best case scenario is that we are now facing a long period of instability; the worst case scenario – war.

This column was first published on 22 February in Dagens Nyheter, who hold all rights to the text.

Book cover of The Velvet Dictatorship
About

Anna-Lena Laurén

We are grateful to Anna-Lena Laurén and Dagens Nyheter for granting permission to publish this translated article.

An extract from Sammetsdiktaturen in D. E. Hurford's translation was published in SBR 2022:1. A review of the book can be found in SBR 2021:2.

Anna-Lena Laurén was named Finland’s Journalist of the Year in 2021 for her unique contribution to journalism about Russia. She also received Sweden’s Stylist of the Year award in 2020. Reviews of her previous works have appeared in SBR 2014:2 and SBR 2016:1.

D.E. Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. She lives in Belgium.

One day, some life: a day in the life of a subtitler

LATEST FEATURE

One day, some life

A day in the life of subtitler Alexander Keiller

What’s involved in subtitling? What gets subtitled, and how has the emergence of streaming services affected demand? In this look at day-to-day life in the world of subtitling, Alexander Keiller tackles these questions and gives a glimpse into the changing shape of the industry.

Just need to save my subtitles as a .pac file and then deliver the file by email… Phew, made my deadline!

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When I stumbled into this industry in London in the early 90s, we used clunky beige computers with real 8-inch floppy disks and VHS tapes. Subtitles were delivered by motorcycle couriers to playout centres near Heathrow airport. Even then, the fact that there existed dedicated subtitling software was extraordinarily advanced compared to methods used even up to the 90s for some television programming – subtitles were typed out on white paper, photographed, and then cued out live on television. Very laborious and not particularly satisfying for the viewer.

LED projector on table in red light
Photo by Alex Litvin on Unsplash

 

The first film that was subtitled into another language and not with the intertitles of the silent era was Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, which was shown in French in 1929 – two years after it was first released. Perhaps it was due to the unique nature of The Jazz Singer, which was a silent film apart from the musical sequences, but it is surprising that the French opted for this route; France, Germany, Italy, and Spain had made the decision to dub talkies because they had a bigger theatrical network and could afford the expense of dubbing. Perhaps it was to allow French audiences the pleasure of listening to and understanding the first synchronised words on film, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin’ yet.’ In any event, The Jazz Singer heralded the talkies and led to the development of two post-production industries – subtitling and dubbing.

So, what’s all this got to do with me sitting in a room in Paris translating films from Swedish to English? Well, with the increased content and number of streaming platforms, demand for subtitles has never been as high and turnaround times have shrunk as a result. In the 90s and 2000s, I would often work with production companies before the film was made, translating the script into English so that they could find international financing partners. Then, when the film had been shot, I would get an initial rough cut to subtitle for the same financiers and finally the finished film to subtitle for the festival circuit. I would generally be given around ten to fourteen days to subtitle the film, discuss the translation with the director or the producer, and finish everything up – and I’d get the chance to come back to the translation and make revisions for the final cut. Quite comfortable, really. I haven’t had easy deadlines like that for some years now.

We now consume more media than at any time in history. We have a plethora of digital streaming channels to choose from: Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Paramount Plus, Discovery+, etc. Not to mention national TV and streaming on offer wherever you happen to be. All this content needs to be localised and/or made accessible for audiences. And the content industry is set to grow by 25% in three years.

Last year I received a call from a Danish company that had a catalogue of 120 Swedish feature films, from the 30s to the 80s, to subtitle into English for Netflix. They had one and a half months to do it. In the end, because there are so few subtitlers from Swedish to English, the deadline was extended to three months. I’m sure they had to use some Swedish subtitlers to complete the job, with native English proofreaders ensuring the language was okay. I translated 14 films in three months for them, on top of other work from regular clients. It was an exhausting marathon and I’m sure some of the translation decisions I took under pressure would have warranted more reflection, but it was a pleasure to work on films such as Falsk som vatten (False as Water), Misshandlingen (The Assault), Det kom en gäst (A Guest is Coming) or Kära släkten (Dear Relatives), to name a few. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

We now consume more media than at any time in history... The content industry is set to grow by 25% in three years.

Nowadays, the type of content Swedish to English subtitlers receive is no longer limited to just feature films or documentaries. Film has become an essential tool for corporate marketing and communication, so there’s a lot more corporate work than ever before. Game shows and television entertainment are subtitled for TV markets or as entries to international awards shows. Online learning platforms have also entered the fray. But the big change is also the number of series that we’re asked to do. With Netflix and other platforms putting more money into local productions than ever before in their efforts to woo local customers, we’re seeing more and more requests for series.

There are a few challenges with this. We receive scripts which are pre-production scripts where most of the dialogue has been changed during production and the order of scenes swapped around. The sound quality is not optimal as it’s not the final sound mix and often actors don’t enunciate clearly, so it’s sometimes difficult to make out dialogue. We receive up to four WIPs or works-in-progress  per episode as a digital file, often with just a few days to do each version. The initial translation has to be done quickly, the subtitles are then sent to the production company who suggest changes (if any), then we receive new WIPs as and when the editors have finished. The WIP is a rough cut of the episode that is often shown to directors, financiers or producers and may change substantially between the first and final versions – it is mostly a visual edit with occasional new overdubs, or voice-over rewrites for each new version.  Often, we don’t have great visibility of when we might receive a new WIP and accept other jobs in the interim, then panic when one drops unexpectedly on top of other deadlines. What’s the issue, you might ask? Surely it’s just looking through the new version? Well, the editor may have tightened up scenes or moved scenes around meaning that you have to re-time all the subtitles and not simply do a general offset. There are very poor cut and paste options available in subtitling software for reordering subtitles if scenes have been moved around, so it’s quite fiddly and time-consuming work. Finally, series are often done by two or three translators doing one or more episodes each. It can sometimes be tricky ensuring that the language and terminology remain consistent throughout the series when deadlines are so pressing.

Another, more insidious, difficulty is that most Swedes think that they understand English very well, which can lead to some unnecessary debates around the use of words that they aren’t familiar with. I’ve been asked to choose simpler words so that audiences with a lesser grasp of English can understand, or to use a turn of phrase that is more American and familiar to audiences more exposed to American content. You put your diplomat’s hat on and you try to stand your ground.

So, what does a typical day of subtitling look like? Firstly, I have to say that I’ve been struggling to find a balance between being stuck in front of a screen and living a healthier life – something I suspect I’m not alone in. When things come down to the wire, it’s not unknown for me to be in front of a screen for over ten hours at a stretch (with the occasional herbal tea break). Of course, this is not a sustainable way to conduct your life, so I’m learning to make changes. Saying no is one of them.

Last week, I delivered the subtitles to the fifth episode of a new series for Netflix, a dramatized account of the creation of Spotify told from the viewpoint of various key players – a sort of cross between The Social Network and Rashomon. I did a ‘motkoll’, that is, I checked the subtitles of a colleague’s episode of The Sandhamn Murders. I subtitled an in-house film for Deloitte. I re-cued and checked subtitles against the second WIP of the same episode of the Spotify series, and I started work on a new series about Oski Rosenberg, a young Swedish skateboarder. So, a pretty varied week, but that’s not so uncommon. I expect next week will also be fairly similar in its breadth of content.

As a freelancer, giving yourself time off or trying to work ‘normal’ hours in the week or not work on the weekends is a real challenge. We’re all faced with this. Of course, many office-bound employees envy the freedom of deciding when or where you want to work. It really is a luxury that technology has gifted us, being able to work from anywhere with an internet connection. When the second lockdown was announced in Paris, my wife and I escaped to Sweden to stay in my father’s house by the sea. He wasn’t there over the winter, and we didn’t want to spend another lockdown in a flat (we’d sorely missed getting out in nature during the first lockdown). We ended up staying in Sweden for almost six months.

In the early 90s when I first started encountered the world of subtitling, I’d never have imagined I’d be able to one day download digital media from any location in the world, and that I’d be able to subtitle on a laptop. Those clunky beige desktops with their 8-inch floppy disks and VHS tapes are now very happily a distant memory.

shining LED projector on table against red background
Photo by Alex Litvin on Unsplash.
about

Alexander Keiller

Alexander Keiller is a Paris-based subtitler and translator.

Förintelsens Barn review

Book cover of Förintelsens barn
LATEST REVIEW

Förintelsens Barn

(Children of the Holocaust)

by Margit Silberstein
reviewed by Karin Filipsson

Two remnants from the war; my parents, were starting over. From where? From scratch? How can you do that? With only a blank page, a family tree with only the trunk left, all the branches brutally cut off?’  Förintelsens Barn tells the story of Margit Silberstein’s parents’ escape from the Holocaust through excerpts from their love letters, woven together with Silberstein’s own experience of navigating her Jewish heritage growing up in postwar Swedish society. It is a beautifully written memoir using detailed precision and simple, yet emotionally rich, language to convey the particular experience of inheriting a mixed bag of love, hope, survivor’s guilt and despair.

Since the early 1990s there has been an ongoing, and sometimes controversial, discourse in Sweden which entails revisiting the historical narrative of Sweden’s role during World War II. Maria-Pia Boëthius’ Heder och Samvete (Honor and Conscience, 1991) was an important early investigation of this time in Swedish history. Some recent noteworthy works on the subject are Elisabeth Åsbrink’s And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain (published in English translation in 2020) and 1947: When Now Begins (published in English translation in 2017). This discussion has particular relevance in light of the last decade’s increasingly heated debate about immigrants and refugees in Scandinavia.

Margit Silberstein is a Swedish journalist who has previously published En marsch mot avgrunden - socialdemokratins svarta år (Marching towards the Abyss - Social Democracy’s Dark Years) with Tommy Möller (2013). Förintelsens Barn, her first memoir, has the potential to follow the success of Swedish journalist and author Göran Rosenberg’s memoir A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012), which has been translated into nine languages.

Silberstein’s memoir beautifully weaves together the poetic love story of her parents, who were forced apart during the war, with her own coming-of-age story as the child of Jewish refugees who wanted nothing more than for her and her brother to fit into Swedish culture while simultaneously cherishing her heritage and fulfilling all of her parents’ dreams of a happy, prosperous future in their new home country; Sweden. My brother and I became their salvation, we gave their lives meaning and they loved us beyond everything. Is being the object of this sort of all-encompassing love always a good thing? It might give you self-esteem but it comes with a devastating sense of guilt.’

Förintelsens Barn is a story about surviving the unthinkable and how to carry on this legacy of hope tainted by wild despair; being the child of survivors. Silberstein’s finely crafted narrative conveys her parents’ wondrous love story, which shines through the pages even in the depictions of horrific despair and paralyzing fear. It’s a story about two remnants of human beings who are shaped by their destiny, and about how this destiny carries on to the next generation, and the next one, as well.

It is also a story about belonging and not belonging, believing and not believing, hoping when there is no hope, but still carrying on. ‘I created my own manual for childish and inconsistent integration, based on my parents’ instructions: don’t stand out, but don’t forget who you are either.’

Margit Silberstein with woodland background
Margit Silberstein. Photo: Stefan Tell.
About

Förintelsens Barn

Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2021

191 pages

Foreign rights: the author

Margit Silberstein is a Swedish journalist and political commentator. The memoir Förintelsens barn is her second book.

Vit melankoli: En analys av en nation i kris review

book cover of Vit Melankoli
LATEST REVIEW

Vit melankoli: En analys av en nation i kris

(White Melancholy: An Analysis of a Nation in Crisis)

by Catrin Lundström and Tobias Hübinette
reviewed by Karin Filipsson

‘During 2015, the year of the so-called refugee crisis, nearly 163,000 people were seeking asylum in Sweden. In the autumn of 2015, the crisis culminated when hundreds of thousands of refugees literally walked through Europe with Germany and Sweden as their main destinations. Within a couple of months approximately 80,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, 35,000 of whom were unaccompanied youths and children, mainly from civil war-stricken Syria and crumbling Afghanistan.’  In Vit melankoli (White Melancholy), Catrin Lundström and Tobias Hübinette, both well-known Swedish scholars within migration and race studies, describe the current sociopolitical climate in Sweden. Through a historical lens, they outline and discuss how Sweden has evolved from a homogenous, white country to a supposedly ‘color blind’ postwar society, and, most recently, to today’s situation of ‘white melancholy’, defined by a loss of national identity.

Vit melankoli is a cohesive and useful analysis of the history of Swedish society through the lens of whiteness theory (a discourse based on critical race theory that argues that whiteness is a constructed concept and the centric standard to which racial minorities are compared), showing how this relates to class, gender and the evolution of Sweden as a country from the start of the 20th century until today. The book comprises four chapters: ‘How did we even get here?’, ‘White purity. The forming of a white Sweden, 1905-1968 (phase 1)’, ‘White solidarity. The construction of the good Sweden, 1968-2001 (phase 2)’, and ‘White melancholy. A nation in a crisis. 2001- (phase 3)’. It ends with a short seven-page section, titled ‘The old whiteness and the new Swedishness’.

Throughout this groundbreaking work within race and cultural studies, the authors define and dissect Swedish society in relation to the rest of the world and explain Sweden’s particular challenges with regard to race, whiteness and migration as well as gender issues. The book’s perspective is wide and holistic while at the same time homing in on the specific struggles of a small nation. Vit melankoli covers and discusses significant concepts of the evolution of the Swedish welfare state such as assimilation, colonialism, adoption, immigration, colorblindness, segregation and anti-globalization. The title of the book reflects the authors’ current diagnosis of Sweden as suffering from the loss of self-identification with a sense of goodness based on its connection, historically, between whiteness and solidarity. Consequently, there is a sense of loss of ‘the old (white) Sweden,’ as the country is facing a new reality and the need to recreate its national identity as less homogenous and more diverse.

The authors end their book with an expression of their wish for the future of Sweden: ‘Thus, our hope for the future is that there will be a new transition period which dissolves the current regressive and destructive situation that defines this time of white melancholy - a condition which may most accurately be described as a white psychosis.’ Vit melankoli, a well-written and accessible work, is both useful for scholars and students and a valuable and fascinating read for anybody with an interest in topics regarding Sweden and Scandinavia in relation to immigration, race/whiteness and cultural/political studies.

Tobias Hübinette and Catrin Lundström.
About

Vit melankoli: En analys av en nation i kris

Makadam Förlag, 2021

104 pages

Foreign rights: the authors.

Tobias Hübinette’s publications include Adopterad: En bok om Sveriges sista rasdebatt (2021), Att skriva om svenskheten (2017) and Ras och vithet (anthology, 2017). Catrin Lundström is the author of Vit migration: Kön,vithet och privilegier i transnationella migrationsprocesser (2017) and Svenska latinas: Ras, klass och kön i svenskhetens geografi (2007).

Modernitetens kritiska samvete. En samhällsvetenskap som gör nytta review

Book cover of Modernitetens Kritiska Samvete
LATEST REVIEW

Modernitetens kritiska samvete. En samhällsvetenskap som gör nytta

(The Critical Conscience of Modernity: A social science that is useful)

by Olof Hallonsten
reviewed by John Gilmour

Under the descriptive chapter headings of Critical, Qualitative, Consequence-neutral, Demanding, and Constructive, Hallonsten expertly guides the reader though the maze of social science development. This book is dense – but not demanding, as Hallonsten has taken great care to communicate unfamiliar concepts and methods clearly.  So, the book is both a defence of and a handbook about social science. If you don’t know your Kuhn from your Durkheim, Hallonsten has expertly compressed the essentials in this short volume.

His starting point is to relate social science to today’s world and, as the title suggests, position it as an intellectual framework for the critical scrutiny of those features of modern, democratic Western societies that may potentially militate against the common good. He points out the limitations of social science and rejects comparisons with ‘hard’ science, i.e. the STEM disciplines, which advance our current well-being and modernity. Hallonsten asks us to accept that inexact social science methodologies are incompatible with ‘hard’ science. When researching human behaviour, the subject can answer back, thereby advancing understanding but at the same time making research conclusions permanently provisional; consequently, the social sciences can rarely if ever provide conclusive solutions to problematic issues.  One example is the ongoing ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ debate concerning the development of human characteristics.

If ‘hard’ science delivers concrete, identifiable results, what then do the less exact (and less exacting, some argue) social sciences provide? Here, while the STEM subjects give us physical benefits such as energy capture, Hallonsten also asks us to accept that despite their evident inexactitude and rolling theoretical development, the social sciences ‘remain relevant’ as the only reliable critical commentary of modern society, its institutions, groups and behaviours, thanks to their methodological approaches and academic rigour. Social science nevertheless remains a ‘toolbox’ without packaged solutions. This brings the field into the frontline of today’s political disputes and culture wars, making it a target for all sides.

Social science should be ‘consequence-neutral’, i.e. findings must be supported by exacting research, but should not back contested positions. One example in Britain is the study of ‘institutional racism’ on educational outcomes of black pupils and students, when social sciences are catapulted into the arena of public discourse. Hallonsten demonstrates clearly how creeping ‘academic capitalism’ and safe-space sanctuary to exclude uncomfortable issues are extending political and corporate control of social sciences which are largely university-based. Funding preferences for ‘solution-thinking’ and providing binary answers disadvantage social sciences, a field which, Hallonsten argues, relies on disturbing the status quo – an activity that is never popular in any institution with vested interests.

Social sciences funding risks competition from ‘hard’ science when applications are assessed quantitatively with a preference for early results and ‘knowledge transfer.’ When Hallonsten proposes that social sciences’ unique appeal is ‘modernity’s critical conscience’, that will resonate with funders with all the attraction of a hair shirt on a sensitive skin. The problem is that the considered language of this field appears to lack the cutting edge so favoured by less ethical and less impartial disciplines. In the increasing hoopla of academic self-promotion, practitioners holding out the prospect of ‘organised scepticism’ may not attract the funding decisionmakers.

Hallonsten is also concerned about the proliferation of increasingly irrelevant and poor-quality research chasing publication in order to boost the author’s ranking in the quantitative measurements which are now used by academic institutions to award staff resources and/or promotion and to attract students.

Yet what else stands between our freedom of thought and action and the forces of business and politics that increasingly threaten them, apart from the social sciences? Do we want a world where the unaccountable monster of Google harvests our data without our knowledge or conscious consent and insidiously infiltrates our academic institutions, where Amazon can determine our consumer choice by eliminating targeted competitors, and where social media propagate fake news and campaigns of abuse while claiming not to be responsible? Bystanding Western politicians have lost control of the tax base that funds our democratic institutions, including the welfare state, to these architects of abuse, enabling them to spend on vanity projects such as ‘space research’ and their own cryogenic immortality – while education, welfare and health are starved of resources. This is indeed a society that requires a ‘critical conscience’, and Hallonsten’s book should be required reading for all politicians and academic leaders.

Olof Hallonsten. Photo: Kennet Ruona.
About

Modernitetens kritiska samvete. En samhällsvetenskap som gör nytta.

Santérus, 2021

267 pages

Foreign rights: Santérus förlag

Olof Hallonsten is Associate Professor of Sociology at Lund University's School of Economics and Management. His other books include The Campaign. How a European Big Science facility ended up on the peripheral farmlands of Southern Sweden (Arkiv Academic Press, 2020), and Big Science Transformed. Science, Politics and Organization in Europe and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Inifrån Sápmi: Vittnesmål från stulet land review

Book cover Inifrån Sápmi
LATEST REVIEW

Inifrån Sápmi: Vittnesmål från stulet land

(Sápmi from the Inside: Testimonies from Stolen Land)

by various authors, edited by Patricia Fjellgren and Malin Nord
reviewed by Fiona Graham

Valleys embedded between massive peaks, rivers rushing forth with a furious primordial force, the vivid contrasts of seasonal costume changes, broad mires that can swallow you up entirely […] just who are we to rule over this marvellous landscape, formed long before there was anyone to remember its beginning: the everlasting mountains, the star-sprinkled lakes, the forests that give protection, the rivers’ thunder. We are subordinate to all of this. We own nothing, not even our own time here.

Singer-songwriter Sofia Jannok’s yoik to the landscape of Sápmi (the homeland of the Sámi people) voices one of the main themes of this timely anthology of memoirs, opinion pieces, poetry and short stories: the traditional Sámi view that humans are an integral part of nature and must live in harmony with it. It is a view reflected by the subtitle Vittnesmål från stulet land (‘Testimonies from Stolen Land’). In recent centuries, the Sámi people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland and north-western Russia have been displaced from much of their ancestral homeland, so that it could be put to uses deemed more ‘productive’, notably farming, hydroelectric power, and mining. This has often led to conflicts involving the nation states, majority society, and Sámi communities.

Land has been ‘stolen’ in two senses: the indigenous Sámi have lost the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods in certain areas, and in some cases the land has been despoiled. This remains a burning issue. A current example is Beowulf Mining’s plan to open an iron mine on Sámi pastureland near Jokkmokk, Norrbotten, as reported in the Guardian on 11 February 2022 (‘Greta Thunberg condemns UK firm’s plans for iron mine on Sami land’).

The history of the Sámi, as shown by Anna-Lill Drugge’s useful overview, has been plagued by colonisation. One result has been the imposition by the state of administrative structures that fail to take account of Sámi people’s wishes and needs. This is the subject of Elin Anna Labba’s article about samebyar, which are both administrative districts and associations of reindeer herders. Since relatively few Sámi people now live from reindeer herding, and because it is difficult to join these associations, they have all too often proven divisive. Labba quotes researcher Malin Brännström as follows: ‘It sometimes feels like the way Europeans drew colonial borders in Africa. In a Swedish context, there’s a need to draw clear lines on a map […] Yet reindeer husbandry is incredibly flexible, by nature; it depends on weather, wind, who comes down to the winter pastures and who doesn’t.’ As Labba pointedly remarks, the word sameby – which misleadingly suggests something organic, a ‘Sámi village’ – has no natural equivalent in the Sámi languages.

Language, and specifically multilingualism on the one hand and language shift on the other, is another of the anthology’s key themes, and the link with colonisation is clear. Lea Simma writes of learning Swedish almost like a foreign language. She would stammer when obliged to speak it, and, after a long day at school, came out with, ‘I don’t understand how Swedes can speak Swedish all day. My tongue is worn out.’ Inga Marja Steinfjell writes of switching between Norwegian, North Sámi and South Sámi in different family constellations. Ann-Helén Laestadius and Elin Anna Labba explore the discomfort of not fully mastering the language or languages you feel closest to. Laestadius, with a Sámi mother and a father who speaks Meänkieli (a variant of Finnish, spoken in Tornedalen), learned to speak neither language fully as a child. Labba writes movingly of the continuing struggle to make the language she loves best fully hers:

jag vill hålla kvar Gárasavvondialektens rum
dit jag inte fick komma
kan jag en dag hålla i språket, jag också
ömt lägga det mot bröstet som mitt nyfödda barn
se dörrar gläntas
efterlängtade fjäll ta form

I want to keep that room where they speak the Karesuando dialect
the room I wasn’t allowed into
will I too be able to embrace the language one day,
lay it tenderly at my breast like my newborn child
glimpse the fells I yearn for
through doors now slightly ajar

Several contributions address the legacy of racism against the Sámi. Proponents of the pseudo-scientific theories of race current between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century regarded the nomadic Sámi as a primitive people who would ultimately disappear, in line with the theories of social Darwinism. Herman Lundborg, head of Sweden’s State Institute for Racial Biology, travelled around Sápmi in the 1920s and 1930s taking skull measurements of Sámi people and photographing them like zoological specimens. In ‘Baksidan av ett släktfotografi’ (Reverse of a family photo), Lis-Mari Hjortfors voices her indignation at the realisation that her grandmother’s family were made to take part in this pseudo-scientific project whose aim was to classify ‘races’ with a view to keeping them separate. Discrimination remains even today, as detailed by Patricia Fjellgren in ‘Racismens koreografi’ (The Choreography of Racism), and Anna Elin Labba in her chilling poem about the malicious slaughter of a child’s reindeer calf (a theme that also runs through Ann-Helén Laestadius’s novel Stöld (Stolen)).

The variety of the contributions to the anthology raises the question of its target readership. In a podium discussion at the Gothenburg Book Fair, editor Patricia Fjellgren pointed out that the historical articles are useful not just to the non-Sámi majority, but also to Sámi people who have never had the opportunity to study their own history in Swedish schools. Ann-Helén Laestadius noted the importance of representing Sámi people in a way younger readers, in particular, can identify with. For anyone with an interest in the literature, arts, culture, and socio-political situation of national minorities, particularly indigenous peoples, the anthology is a rich source of inspiration.

Finally, there is a universal message in the late Paulus Utsi’s poems about the place of humans in the natural world. We would do well to reflect on our individual insignificance and the vastness of nature. As Sofia Jannok says, ‘We own nothing, not even our own time here.’

Vårt liv

Vårt liv
är som ett skidspår
på den vita vidden
som snöstormen sopar igen
redan i gryningens början.

Our life

Our life
is like ski tracks
in the white expanse:
swept away by the snowstorm
at early dawn.

From: Giela Gielain (1980). Original language: North Sámi.

Two women in coats looking into camera in front of an open field.
Patricia Fjellgren and Malin Nord. Photo: Karin Lenke.
About

Inifrån Sápmi:Vittnesmål från stulet land

Verbal förlag, 2021, 263 pages

Foreign rights: Verbal förlag

The excerpts quoted in this review were translated by Fiona Graham (from Swedish).

Patricia Fjellgren received the Swedish Language Council’s Minority Language Prize in 2017 for her work on the revitalisation of Sweden’s Sámi languages. Malin Nord is active in the Swedish Writers’ Union’s Sámi Literature Council. She is the author of Stilla havet (2012) and Barmark (2017).

Elin Anna Labba’s Herrarna satte oss hit was reviewed in SBR 2020:1-2. An excerpt appeared in Fiona Graham’s translation in SBR 2021:1. Ann-Helén Laestadius’s Stöld was reviewed in SBR 2021:2.

Babetta extract

LATEST TRANSLATION

from Babetta

by Nina Wähä

translated by Sarah Death

When Lou invites Katja to stay in the sun-drenched French chateau she shares with famous cinematographer Renaud, Katja jumps at the chance. She and Lou have been best friends since high school, but over the past fifteen years their lives have taken very different trajectories, ever since Lou was plucked from obscurity to star in the internationally acclaimed film Babetta.

Initially their relationship seems unchanged, and Katja settles into the lap of luxury, observing her hosts’ lives with an almost voyeuristic fascination. But as the summer wears on she finds herself increasingly party to their secrets, and the power imbalances in her and Lou’s friendship are brought into sharper relief. The shadow of Babetta hangs over them both.

Following the commercial and critical success of 2019’s family drama Testamente (Testament), Babetta is a suggestive psychological drama that explores the complexities of friendship and the various roles we play in life. This passage, taken from the start of the novel, introduces Katja and Lou’s relationship, and the dynamic that charges the events of the novel.

Nina Wähä in white shirt with head on hand
Nina Wähä. Photo: Kajsa Göransson.

 

from Babetta

What is friendship?
            Is it a platonic love relationship?
            Is it an elective sibling relationship?

It can probably be all of that, but there is a dimension of friendship that is more all-embracing than any sibling or love relationship, one that feels almost cannibal-like at times. Surely a friend must be the only one you can love so much and so absolutely that it sometimes feels as if you have to eat each other up before you can be satisfied?
            I have only once felt it burning inside me that way, this crazy flame of friendship, and for that friend I would have done anything at all, without asking a single question. And I know, I know, she would have done the same for me.

            This is a story about that friendship.

I

She calls and I come. That’s how it is. That’s how it has always been. She asks me and I do as she says.
            ‘Come here.’
            Yes, I’m coming. Oh God, I’m coming.

Her skin, golden. She’s lying on her back alongside the pool, one hand in the water, gently stroking it, the water, over and over again. Her stomach concave, in a black triangle bikini. Everything about her body is perfect. Long legs, perfectly smooth, breasts flatteringly small. I could watch her for any length of time. Her face, her body, her hair. When she turns her attention on you, you feel it so distinctly, as if the sun is suddenly emerging from behind a cloud, or a spotlight has been switched on. She has that effect on people. The Lou effect. The one that helps you land a leading part in a major international film at the age of just nineteen. The one that means all doors are open to you.
            Standing beside her and seeing it happen, it’s impossible to look away.

Her skin, it had such a grey tinge in the winter months. Until she learnt to use spray tan. Until she learnt to go to the solarium, but only once a week. It was one of the many make-up girls who taught her that. Go more often and your skin would age. Irreversibly. Always careful with the SPF. Of course. This is one of those truths that mark you out, indicate who you are, what place you have in the hierarchy, and where your allegiance lies.
            She has constructed her persona around being the kind of person who most definitely never does anything just for the acknowledgment. Acknowledgment builds on a need in each individual person. Work, on the other hand, builds on a conviction that you are meant for something greater, something beyond the body, something more important. The important thing for her has always been work. The process and the work, always in focus. So disciplined. ‘It’s the only way to get anywhere.’ And the duality of wanting to get somewhere, yet absolutely not wanting to be a climber. Because success is not important. Well, that’s easy enough to say if you are someone who has pulled it off.

It was a major film. In every way. There’s no ignoring the fact. No one can take that from her. Babetta was seen by millions of people, all over the world; the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival and a number of Oscars, including for Cinematography and Set Design, (it was nominated for Best Film but didn’t win), and in Sweden it was shown at every cinema and got top rating in all the papers, everywhere. Everybody was talking about it. Every door was suddenly open to her. There’s no denying that. Whatever one thinks of the film today, it is legendary.

Babetta is about a girl employed as a servant by the Széchenyi family in the household of the young count, István Széchenyi, on the family estate in the province of Gyór-Moson-Sopon, the Hungarian part of the Austrian Empire, in the early nineteenth century. Lou played the main part. It was her first international role. That is, she had made short films in London during her summer course at film school there, and we filmed our interrailing trip, but this was her first proper film role, internationally. The one that was to change everything.
            People seemed so surprised, I mean in the media and so on, and people who didn’t know her. I knew it came as no surprise to her. It didn’t happen by chance.

‘All my life I’ve been preparing for this,’ she told me. We were sitting in the park, Björn’s Garden, it was late at night, or first thing in the morning, we’d come back via the bakery on Tjärhovsgatan after closing time at Kvarnen, how did we get into the nightclub when we were only nineteen, it was for that very reason, our youth, our age, still unspoilt, the spotlight.
            We sat there with the fresh bun the size of a frisbee, passing it to and fro between us. She broke off careful little pieces, mouse-sized bites, before she handed it back to me. I had a good appetite and ate most of it. I couldn’t stop myself in those days. Didn’t realise that it was demanded of me. Had no self-restraint. Not like her. How can she say all my life? I thought. It hasn’t even started yet. That was the way it felt to me. As if my life hadn’t started. But I really had no self-discipline, no perspective. I still thought it was enough to do things in the right order, and there was no hurry, and life was infinitely long and that I had all the time in the world. I was so stupid. Not like Lou.
            Because you have to be smart, too. Being gifted isn’t enough. If you want to get anywhere, you have to make plans. Next week she was off to London to start on the pre-production. Hair and make-up tests. Costume fittings. Voice coaching. Personal trainer. Rehearsals (though those were fairly secondary, the director was very domineering and would control his actors like puppets) and ballet training with a teacher from the Royal Ballet Company in London. The production company rang several times a day, as it had been doing ever since it became clear that she had got the part. I would sit beside her, or in the same room, on the same rug, and see her get to her feet and pace up and down along the waterfront, out at Långholmen. I could see from her body language that she was captivating, even on the phone, and in English. The Lou effect was translatable, and could even be conveyed along telephone wires.

In June we had graduated from high school. The theatre specialism at Södra Latin. And there was me thinking life was about to begin. How wrong I was. How dumb.

II

We are best friends. Have been for so long that I can’t even remember how it started. How do relationships start? A love affair, that’s an easier relationship to put a date on, there’s a clear before and after. After the first kiss. After it all ends. But friendship? It creeps up on you.
            We found ourselves in the same class at high school. I remember being so happy, that I’d got onto the best theatre course in town, it was proof that I was somebody, or could be. Was that even important to me, back then? I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything of the start of term, the nervy first days, the schoolyard, the classrooms, nothing. I don’t remember the others in the class, and I don’t remember Lou either. But in that way people make friends when they’re little more than children, we made friends and from then on it was the two of us. All through high school. And into infinity.
            We did everything together. I didn’t think about it then, but now I’ve started feeling a sense of shame, I tell nobody, try not to dwell on it. But sometimes the thoughts come anyway, although I don’t want them to.
            Like the fact that it’s weird to shower together when you aren’t together. Weird to sleep over at each other’s houses quite so often. Always to sleep in the same bed. To sleep naked in the same bed, more or less, just wearing T-shirts, no underwear. It’s weird to find boyfriends who also have to be best friends for it to work. To eat from the same plate, use the same fork, the same glass, share the same sandwich. To talk on the phone, last thing at night before you fall asleep, first thing in the morning, before school. To finish each other’s sentences. We were like a single organism. People said we were so alike. ‘You must be sisters.’ It made me so proud. Now I feel ashamed. Not that I’m ashamed of our friendship. Or of her. There’s something so unreflecting about that closeness, that vulnerability, in believing friendship can be all of that. It can’t. It can’t, can it?

It's been almost fifteen years since Babetta. We’ve stayed in touch; we’re best friends, after all. Don’t meet up as often, of course. She’s worked and travelled and worked and travelled and I’ve stayed here. Applied to drama college, every year, every city. Seen Stockholm change, seen it so clearly because I’ve stayed here. Stayed here as an obstacle to development. To modernisation.
            When did we last speak on the phone, see each other? It must have been at least a year ago. And now she’s called me. Now, fifteen years later, asked me to visit her. In France. She sent a photo of herself, taken diagonally from above, looking tanned and wearing a straw hat with an openwork brim, the rectangles of light falling over her face like freckles of gold. She knew I wouldn’t be able to resist that picture. ‘Come here.’ Yes I’m coming. Whatever you ask me to do.
            I book a ticket and two days later, on the first of July, I fly down to her. My mobile runs out of battery during the flight and I can’t find anywhere at the airport to charge it. I stand by the exit and hope there aren’t any other ways out. Long rows of taxis. Men of what I take to be North African appearance, smoking and gesticulating to each other, walking between the rows of cars or hanging out of open windows. The sun, so corrosively, pitilessly white. All the outlines blurred. The palm trees reaching up into the sky. Planes climbing and descending.  I am sweating. Lou is nowhere. I wait. Feel unsure. Make another circuit. Go into the little place that sells coffee, cigarettes and croissants. Finally dare to ask the spotty teenage boy in my schoolgirl French whether I can charge my phone. He shrugs, doesn’t understand what I am saying. I do not repeat the question. Sit down on a bench outside the sliding doors and wait. My T-shirt is sticking to my back, I can imagine how damp it looks. She knows I’m coming. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to wait for her. That’s how the dynamic is and always has been, right? It’s always me waiting for her.
            Has any friendship like this, febrile or cannibal, survived the ravages of time? Are there people who can live their whole lives as minor characters in someone else’s life? […]

III

[...] It's not that I’m incapable of forming my own relationships. But I think people often adopt different roles, and they do that fairly early in a relationship, within families and between people falling in love, but also in friendships. Lou has always been the one to go first. Of the two of us. The magnet everyone else is drawn to. At an early stage, I became the one walking behind, even though I haven’t always been someone who walks behind. I’m not the one walking behind in my other relationships. I do have other relationships. My God, it’s been almost fifteen years since they filmed Babetta. That was when I lost her. No, not lost. God no. That was when our lives started developing in different directions. Or that was when it started to be noticeable. It’s easy to forget when you look at her successes, when you’ve been able to follow them. To forget that my life actually develops, too. I don’t just stand still. I have new friends, other friends, relationships. I do things. I think things. There are people who feel attracted to me. In whose lives I am the magnet. But I always think, when I wake up beside a boyfriend who’s at that soppy, newly-in-love stage and looks at me as if he would do anything for me, or when my current friends laugh their heads off at something I’ve said, that their eyes, their feelings, for me, how they would change, the fact that they would change if they got to meet Lou. How much I would pale by comparison. I want to see it happen, but at the same time I’m scared stiff of it happening. I have this sense of my life, in which I play the leading role, as something I only have on loan. A sense of needing to be ready, ready to resume my part, a minor role in her life.

In those early years, she made contact more often. I think she got in touch every time she was in Sweden. She called or texted. ‘Staying at the Grand Hotel, do come!’ Or ‘At the Diplomat, do you want to stay the night?’ And off I would go, every time. Sometimes it was only her and me, but just as often the place was full of other people. New friends, who I didn’t know. Only knew by name, or because I’d seen pictures of them in the paper, or seen their films, surreptitiously tried on their clothes at the smart NK department store. Some of them took no notice of me, treated me as if I didn’t exist, others were interested, nice. I made some new friends through those hotel room parties with Lou. That was how I got my first job as an assistant on a film set. From a director who was in love with Lou and was going to make a film about the Gothenburg riots and wanted to cast her in the leading role. But she was heading for Australia for the filming of a free-standing follow-up to the Jurassic Park films, so she couldn’t. I think he gave me the job because he sensed that I was close to her. By having me close, he kept some kind of link to her. That was how he saw it, I reckon.
            I just about got by, working in films for a couple of years, but I was always on the breadline. My parents went on at me, ‘Qualifications, Katja, qualifications,’ and in the end I gave in, and applied that year to both drama college and the university film studies department. The ecstatic rush I felt at for once being offered a place was enough to make me accept without even considering whether it was what I wanted. And I’ve just been sort of carried along since then.
            What I like about academic study is that there are rules. There are rules and criteria and if you just stick to them, there are no limitations. There’s no gatekeeper standing there to say no, sorry, good try but you can’t come in, or you don’t match the image the director has in mind, no, as long as you do what you need to do, you can go as far as you like in the academic world. So that’s what I’m invested in now. Without really thinking about what I want. I haven’t even really invested, because the word itself has a hidden desire and nervousness about it, and I’ve never felt anything like that. So I’ve never tried to trip myself up, the way I probably have in acting. It just carried me along. But it has never impressed me. Belonging to a club that wants me as a member, and all that.

She’s always been bad at answering the phone. Or texts, or emails. It kind of has to be on her terms. I don’t think it’s only me, she’s does that to everybody. And I understand her. Her schedule is always so packed that it’s the only thing she has any sort of control over, how and when she makes contact with people. I know some people have let it get to them, the fact that she never replies, but I don’t know, I’ve never found it hurtful. There’s so much in her life that’s important, God knows, and I can’t expect to be the most important thing in her life.

She would always meet me in the lobby, in dark glasses and discreet make-up, carrying a big designer bag crammed with scripts and other stuff. She always toted a load of scripts around with her. For parts she was going to take, or possibly take, and sometimes other scripts that the director had asked her to run her eye over, as she put it. I saw before me all the men desperately trying to find a way of being in her life. Of still existing in her life. We sat in various hotel bars, and although her phone kept on ringing, and a stream of people came up to say hello or ask for an autograph, I always felt so inspired after we had met. As if a bit of her magnetism had spilled out onto me. As if I she had infected me with her success.
            Sometimes people would ask if we were sisters, not as often as when we were at high school and saw each other every day, but it was still a regular occurrence and every time we giggled and shook our heads, no, only best friends. When I left afterwards, I even moved like her. Until it gradually wore off and I was just myself again.
         

book cover of Babetta
About the book

Babetta

Norstedts, 2022, 325 pages

Foreign rights: Linda Altrov Berg, Norstedts Agency

We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.

Nina Wähä saw her major breakthrough in 2019 with third novel, Testament. It was shortlisted for a string of literary awards, such as the August Prize, Norrland's Literature Prize, Tidningen Vi:s Literature Prize, and was awarded Swedish Radio's Literature Prize.

Sarah Death is a translator and editor and lives in north Kent. She enjoys working on texts from a wide range of periods and genres. Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Bernard Shaw Prize for her translation of Tove Jansson’s Letters from Tove.

Early poems by Maria Wine

LATEST TRANSLATION

from The Wind out of the Darkness

by Maria Wine

introduced and translated by Arthur Allen

Maria Wine (1912-2003) was abandoned at Jægerspris castle orphanage in Denmark at the age of four, after which she flourished into a dexterous doyenne of Swedish literary modernism. Something of the loneliness and the braveness of her childhood, the fragility of her start in the world, remains woven through her work, and immanent in the poems of her debut collection, Vinden ur Mörkret (The Wind out of the Darkness), published in 1943.

I initially began translating the work of Maria Wine to satisfy my own poetic curiosity. Apart from a few pages of preface in her husband’s last book, Journeys in Dream and Imagination, I could nowhere find her translated into English. It seemed anglophone history had lost her completely in the shadow of her lifelong partner, Artur Lundqvist – Swedish Academy member and first translator of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda into Swedish. Having begun with curiosity, I continued my translations in lockdown conditions with increasingly rapt attention as Wine’s voice began to emerge; personal and magical, a vulnerable subjectivity drawn through the anxious visionary modernism of the Forties. In ‘Titellek’, the final poem in Wine’s final collection (Utan längtan, inget liv, 1997), she looks back over fifty years of writing. It begins: ‘The wind out of the darkness / opened the gate of poetry for me.’ It opened a gate into the garden of Maria Wine for me, and my translations which appear here are all from that first collection: Vinden ur Mörkret.

I am currently editing a final draft of her third collection: Feberfötter, with plans to publish her first three collections together as one book next year, to mark the vicennium of her death.

Black-and-white portrait of Maria Wine
Maria Wine, 1950.

 

from The Wind out of the Darkness

What do I want?’


   What do I want?
The eagle flies over fell and valley,
small birds shake;
I hide from life.

   What can I do?
Life feeds on its own cruelty,
people kill each other;
I stand alone and watch.

   What do I wish?
The thought sails from cloud to cloud,
wind evades the sea and the land;
I go in rings around my grave.

   What must I do?
The butterfly dances in meeting the summer,
shadows cradle the long evenings;          
I gather the greying hair of time.

  What did I want?
Laughter is freed,
the seed is bound;
I kiss my beloved without pain.

   What could I do?
To cry is soothing,
childhood is a blind man’s song;
I sow roses outside the window.

   What did I want?
The soil is soft,
the summer gone;
I’m searching for a sister in the same boat.          

   What should I have done?
The winter is cold,
the lie glows;

I reach towards life with an uncertain hand.

At morning’s redness


At morning’s redness
the mermaid rises from the night-sea,
scattering the weight of water from her body,
till only a few drops glitter like fish-scales on her nakedness.

She settles herself on the strand’s black-shining stones
with her face to the rising sun,
her sea-green hair falls heavily over bare shoulders,

the wind dries it with light hands
and with one last living effort
she fastens the wonderful green in a knot. 

There she sits fixed
as though she has grown together with the stones
looking out over her world:
never has such a beautiful woman been seen by day, 
never has such a desirable woman been owned by man.

But in the soft darkness of the night
she looses her long hair once more

and sinks quietly into the sea.

See the autumn come to you


See the autumn come to you,
gold courses from the tongue of the sun,
leaves fall aureate from the sky,
the land cracks and gruff seabirds scream
with the snare round their gullets.
Now human hands cleave desperately
at summer’s faded wallpaper,
the night-owl lights the lantern on its brow,
moss grows like a kiss round the woman’s lips
and the cat purrs one last sunbeam
into the old gaffer’s ears.

Ramblers in red wind


Ramblers in red wind –
the leaves gently rustling at your feet,
the air, washed with a cold hand,
broadening all your beaches,
a surge of joy sings within you.
Beautiful birds of autumn orbit round you,
new-born chestnuts
resting in your hand like wet calf-eyes;
the cliff in the waves
awakens from summer’s hazy slumber
and rises proclaiming itself into space.

When it stopped raining


When it stopped raining, we went
out into the garden. The sunbeams reflected
in thousands of dewdrops and in our new-found joy
we let our tongues dance like wee birds in the gliding
raindrops of the ironwork gate. We went naked to the woods
with hands braided together and we drank
the leaves’ fresh coolness with our warm bodies.
Our footprints sank deep in the supple soil
and became small lakes of rain:
for insects to swim in, for birds
to slake their thirst. Black forest-snails
crossed our path and now we saw sun and shade
weave a mesh over the path,
nuzzling the forest’s flowers and trees. The creek 
lay so heavy and dreamy, milk-drunk
on the river of heaven; we saw a boat coming
out of the cover of reeds and heard a woman’s laugh
echo from the bank and in the mirror of the lake
we saw raindrops slowly glide over our naked bodies.

But now dusk is falling


But now dusk is falling
blue and long,
the flowers close their beautiful eyes,
the birds fall silent in the forest thicket,
joy drains away in the owl-light silence.

O these long, lovely evenings:
quiet as a cloud escaping over the earth,
forlorn as a beautiful woman’s song!
The beauty that surrounds them and is in them
bewilders my soul and reminds me
of my own deficiency.

O if I were a flower with closed petals,
if I were a stone cut by time’s eternity,
if I were a grain of brilliant sand in the moonlight,
if I were a wave playing lightly on the shore!

Here I want to stand,
receiving your silence and beauty within me.
But something always comes between us.
Is it awareness of my brief life
that makes me want to master you?

Or is it like this:
that living man must walk
side by side with nature
and only as the dead
join in with its beauty and silence.

So alone


So alone
and yet my hand rests in yours –
but your eyes investigate the distance,
your thoughts follow escaping clouds.

So alone
and yet I weep against your shoulder –
but evening is suffering to its end,
your morning begins in another country.

So alone
and yet we sail in the same stray boat –
but our longing goes in diverse directions
and there at the crossroads you bid farewell.

So alone
and yet your name sings within me,
your laughter lights up the night,
your caresses stay with me –
but you, you live in another country.

I have barely had time to build your name


I have barely had time to build your name
with the white pebbles of the beach
before relentless waves of sea have washed it away –
could I just as easily
rip your name from my heart.

But the heart is not a wave
that comes and goes.
The heart is a mill
that grinds and grinds.

It’s night


It’s night,
I’m sitting alone by the window,
the moon glows sadly over the land,
sometimes the night-wind strokes my hair
and makes the open window clink.
I hear far-off cows lowing
and somewhere a train bellows.
Insects flutter incessantly against the glass,
drawn by the dull sun of my lamp.
She-cats whine; dark shadows
moving on the roof, a rooster
wakes up too early and crazed,
and I hear in the distance
how a lone hiker scurries away from his own footsteps;
but the night has seized him in the depths of its darkness.

Wind howls over the merciless defeat of summer


Wind howls over the merciless defeat of summer,
tears in the old woman’s torn clothes;
a silver-grey streak shines already in my hair,
and the leaves are bathing in their golden blood.

Nature is suddenly surprised by a deep stillness:
a moment-before-death of waiting.
The trees stand hushed with their arms bare,
the water is washed-out and wistful
as a melancholy eye,
clouds drift uneasily away
and the last birds of passage depart the dying land –

But I
swimming in the red blood of tonight’s sun 
           
will depart for the second page of life.

translated by Arthur Allen

Book cover of the original edition of Vinden ur mörkret
About the book

Vinden ur mörkret

Bonniers, 1943, 64 pages

Foreign rights: the Artur Lundqvist & Maria Wine Foundation.

We are grateful to The Artur Lundqvist & Maria Wine Foundation for the permission to publish these translated poems.

Maria Wine (1912-2003) was a celebrated poet who published more than thirty collections of prose and poetry. She received several awards, such as the Bellman Prize (1976) and the Ferlin Prize (1985). Vinden ur mörkret was her first collection of poetry.

Arthur Allen is a poet and translator from Stockport, England, currently reading for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Their most recent collection, Twenty Twenty: Treatments for Cut Flowers, placed second in the Erbacce Prize for Poetry 2021, and their debut verse-novel, The Nurseryman, won the Eyelands Book Awards Poetry Prize 2020. Allen's poems have previously appeared in publications including Ambit, Amsterdam Quarterly, Bombay Gin, filling Station and New Scottish Writing.

The Velvet Dictatorship extract

LATEST TRANSLATION

from The Velvet Dictatorship

by Anna-Lena Laurén

introduced and translated by D.E. Hurford

For some fifteen years, Anna-Lena Laurén’s reporting from Russia and the former Soviet Union has combined wide-ranging political insight and analytical skill, and a fascination with everyday life and the ability to depict it vividly, readably, and with an ear for dialogue.

Her career has encompassed working as a news correspondent in both her native Finland and in Sweden, working for the public service broadcaster YLE and the broadsheets (currently Dagens Nyheter in Sweden and Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland) as well as publishing six books on topics such as Ukraine, the Caucasus and life in Russia, among others. She was Journalist of the Year in Finland in 2021, and nominated for Sweden’s Grand Journalist Prize in 2021.

Her most recent book, Sammetsdiktaturen (The Velvet Dictatorship, reviewed in SBR 2021:2) is an essay collection, each chapter examining a different facet of Russian contemporary society, and usually starting off with an anecdote from daily life. As the Putin regime’s brutal, unjustifiable military assault on Ukraine sparks renewed condemnation of the Kremlin’s violent and repressive policies, Anna-Lena Laurén’s writing offers a valuable insight into life under what she calls a ‘velvet dictatorship’.

In this extract from the book, Laurén explores discourse in civil society, the Soviet regime’s lasting impact on communication, and the true meaning of democracy.

This is a translated extract from an essay published in 2021. For comment from Anna-Lena Laurén on the war in Ukraine, read: ‘You don’t believe in war. Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?’ also published in SBR 2022:1.

Anna-Lena Laurén in front of blue background
Anna-Lena Laurén. Photo: Oksana Yushko.

 

from The Velvet Dictatorship

Just a Technical Fault

One Wednesday in April I took the trolleybus home to our flat in Moscow. I was reading an article on my phone and had got so absorbed in the text that I wasn’t following where we were going too closely. I heard the stop announcements, which came a few hundred metres before each stop.

Suddenly it said:

‘Ulitsa Marii Ulyanovoy!’

That was my stop. I got up and realised we’d actually passed it and were approaching the next one.

Irritated, I went up to the driver and said:

‘You’ve set up the announcements wrong again. We’ve already gone past Marii Ulyanovoy!’

The driver shrugged.

‘Just a technical fault. What do you expect me to do?’

I got off at the next stop and as I walked home, I kept thinking about those words.

Just a technical fault.

On 25 March 2018, 41 children burned to death in the Winter Cherry shopping centre in the Siberian town of Kemerovo. When the fire alarm sounded, one of the guards switched it off.

Just like the bus driver, the guard was convinced the problem was a ‘technical fault’. He thought of the fire alarm as being just for show – not as something that was actually necessary.

There are many similar examples. Harmless ones – like hot and cold water taps in Russia sometimes being installed so that the warm water comes out of the tap with the blue dot on it. Electronic gate locks that display a green light when they’re locked and a red one when they’re open.

The dangerous ones include the idea that fire alarms are for show, something you install to avoid a fine from the fire safety inspector – not to save lives in the event of a fire – in the same way that seatbelts are still considered as being just for show by many Russian taxi drivers. (Except for children. You buckle them up otherwise the police might land you with a hefty fine.) Some drivers get small pieces of plastic made to stick in the buckle so that the car doesn’t start beeping when you drive without the seatbelt fastened. When the penalty for not using a seatbelt was increased dramatically in the 2010s, many drivers solved the problem by pulling the belt across their chest – but not fastening it into the buckle.

The people who install the announcements, the locks and the taps wrongly all have one thing in common – their view on the value of making sense.

It doesn’t matter whether people understand.

The underlying issue is transparency. The Russian service sector doesn’t prioritise a feeling of engagement. The thinking is not: I shall now install a tap so that everyone knows which one has cold water and which one hot. The thinking is: my job is to install the tap. The colours don’t really matter too much; people can just try them out and see which one is which.

The same goes for the bus driver who didn’t see a problem with the stop announcements being wrong; everyone knows where they’re getting off anyway.

Everyone knows these things anyway.

Russian society is characterised by tacit understanding. A lot of communication is based on signals that are never actually said out loud. Having to ask about things is embarrassing, because you expose your ignorance.

As a foreigner I’ve never had the luxury of being able to hide my ignorance. No matter how long I live in Russia, I still keep ending up in situations where I can’t help but publicly demonstrate to everyone the most embarrassing thing imaginable in Russia – that I don’t know.

One Friday in October me and my daughter took the bus to a house outside Tver, where we were spending the weekend. The bus went from Moscow to Vologda, stopping at numerous small towns en route. It was as black as an oil slick outside, you couldn’t see a thing, and the GPS on my phone was running very slowly.

The bus driver didn’t call out the towns we stopped in. He just stopped the bus in the inky darkness. After all, everyone knew where to get off, as they were from around there.

I wasn’t from that area, though, and I had no idea where we were, and the feeble mobile network meant my phone was useless. If I didn’t go up to the driver now and ask when we’d be in Olenino we’d miss our stop.

I made my way up to the front, well aware that the driver wouldn’t welcome my question.

‘Excuse me, but you are stopping in Olenino, aren’t you?’

‘Eh?’

‘You are stopping in Olenino?’

‘Course I am. Go and sit down again. You can get off in Olenino.’

‘Will you say when you get there?’

‘Why would I need to do that?’

‘Because it’s pitch-black outside and this is the first time I’ve done this trip. How else would I know when we’ve reached Olenino?’

The driver was silent for a few seconds.

‘I’ll let you know.’

‘Thank you.’

I returned to my seat. This ritual was one I’d undergone many times in Russia. It starts with you not being told anything. Therefore, you have to ask. The reaction is always the same – the question is felt to be inappropriate.

Just after I’d sat down again, a woman behind me said:

‘I’ll tell you when we get to Olenino. There’s at least fifty kilometres more to go.’

A Russian paradox: staff in the service sector often operate on a principle of keeping information to themselves. But when you do ask a question – thereby showing your weakness – you will be helped immediately. Not necessarily by the person actually responsible for customers, though. Instead, ordinary people step in and make sure you end up on the right train, get off at the right stop, or head in the right direction. There is an enormous generosity and readiness to help.

In effect, there are two parallel currents flowing through Russian society – the professionals in the service sector who don’t want to part with information, and the unknown passers-by who help you out. Both the result of having lived in a society which has never rewarded anyone for sharing information or being clear.

And which maintains a strong tradition of compassion. Helping the weaker is the done thing.

A retired Finnish ambassador to Moscow once described to me what you did in the Soviet era when you needed someone’s phone number. There were small kiosks in the city manned by staff sitting behind a window with the phonebooks. If you needed someone’s phone number, you went to one of these kiosks, bent forward in front of the window like the Cyrillic letter Г (G) and asked for the number. They would then write the number down on a slip of paper and push it out under the window.

There was no question of being allowed to look through the phone book yourself, of course.

Buying a train ticket or changing money still requires you to bend over like a Cyrillic Г. Even today, most of the windows for those kinds of things are at a height that means the customer has to contort themselves into the most uncomfortable pose possible. If you have an issue to resolve or a question to ask, you need to know your place from the beginning.

Then again, the actual flow of information is no longer restricted. That’s one of the most common preconceptions I find myself correcting when I’m in Sweden or at home in Finland. Many people believe that the reason Russians think the way they do – supporting Putin, for example – is because they don’t know any better.

But they do. People in Russia have access to the exact same information as the West. True, the authorities shut down the odd website occasionally, but that means very little in practice. The media offering is enormous: partly propaganda, but also independent journalism. As a journalist, I could keep myself busy from morning to night reporting on news in the independent media like Dozhd, Meduza, Novaya Gazeta and RBK.

Moscow is also distinctly better at using apps than many cities in the West. There are apps that tell you when the next bus will arrive, apps for parking, apps for using rental bikes, apps for buying metro tickets and tax apps. All of them simple and user-friendly.

As soon as communication between two people is required, though, it’s a different matter entirely. Then you, the customer, have to contort yourself into a Г. Every time I have to deal with an official, a salesperson or anyone else working in services in Russia I’m the one who has to make sure I systematically extract from them all the information I might possibly ever need. Nothing’s for free.

Transparency and making sense have several dimensions. One is how you express yourself.

One afternoon I was taking a bus between the small town of Chernogolovka and Moscow. I’d interviewed the mother of a chronically ill child together with the press secretary of a charity, reporting on the shortage of medicines in Russia.

The journey from Chernogolovka to Moscow was 80 kilometres, and we had plenty of time for talking. We got onto the topic of languages and language skills. The press secretary was learning Swedish in his spare time and used an app to learn new words.

Suddenly he said:

‘The Soviet system destroyed Russians’ ability to express themselves. It destroyed our language.’

‘How?’ I wondered.

‘Haven’t you noticed that people in Russia can’t express themselves clearly? That they can’t say what they actually mean?’

I was euphoric. Finally, someone who could put this phenomenon into words!

After a total of ten years in Russia, this press secretary was the first person to acknowledge that it was often hard to understand what people meant. Russians almost never answer the question you ask. They always answer completely different questions.

‘What do you work with?’ I might ask someone I’m interviewing.

‘I’m a manager.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I work in sales.’

‘What do you do there?’

‘I’m a senior employee.’

A question I ask purely to introduce the person in the article can take ten minutes to get an answer to because not one of the answers I get provides me with any information.

‘I work in IT,’ a man might reply.

‘And what do you do?’

‘I make money from new technology.’

‘What kind of technology?’

‘Scientific research.’

‘What kind of educational qualifications do you have?’ I might then ask.

Without fail, the reply comes:

‘Higher.’

In my case of course, being a foreigner plays a part. I’m foreign and I will never possess the same social knowledge of Russian society as someone who was born here. And by that, I mean all the historical layers affecting communication in Russia, everything from the habit of using abbreviations to the tacit knowledge that means people don’t say things right out. Sentences go unfinished – people will understand what you mean anyway. Much of what is left unsaid will always pass me by.

Over time, though, I’ve realised that it’s a much more complex phenomenon than just that. It’s not just that I’m a foreigner.

When I do interviews and the interviewee doesn’t finish sentences, my Russian photographers often tell me they can explain to me later what the person wanted to say, so as not to annoy him or her. I don’t go along with that any more, though. I insist on asking, even though the photographers find me embarrassing. Because it often turns out that if you really dig deep into something, you might find some surprises, some information that the photographer had no idea of and that couldn’t have been obtained in any way other than stubbornly asking: what do you mean?

I often wonder how many misunderstandings arise not just between foreigners and Russians, but also between Russians, simply because Russians are so convinced that they understand everything without needing to ask.

And I wonder where this conviction comes from. Is it a shield? Something learned from history? In the Soviet era it was often best not to ask too many questions, but the Russia of today is not a totalitarian society. Asking questions is no longer dangerous, yet many still don’t. It’s a sign of weakness, of not having understood. [...]

Word usage is an interesting phenomenon when it comes to communication in Russia. It wasn’t until my Russian got better that I realised that many established concepts – words like ‘loyal’, ‘democracy’, ‘privatisation’, ‘feminism’, ‘sanctions’ and ‘genocide’ – mean something different in Russian.

The term ‘genocide’ was only coined after the Nazis’ systematic extermination of Jews in the second world war. It’s often used in Russia, but not just for actual genocide. It has become a widely accepted way of expressing frustration with being ill treated by a callous state apparatus.

When the retirement age was raised in 2018, critics, with complete seriousness, called the reform a genocide. The retirement age, one of the lowest in Europe, was increased from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. In a European context, it was highly understandable, but the upset was also understandable. Average life expectancy in Russia is significantly lower than in the West – 43% of Russian men don’t make it to 65.

But still, an increase in the retirement age is hardly comparable to genocide. Yet that’s still what they shouted at demonstrations against the pensions reform: Eto genotsid nashevo naroda, this is a genocide.

The background to this is that the Russian authorities often treat people very unfairly and arbitrarily. People feel as if they’re constantly being tormented and harassed by their decision makers, which is a historical problem stretching back centuries. The word ‘genocide’ is considered a good way of expressing frustration. Not a thought is given to what it actually means.

‘Democracy’ is another word that has taken on a new meaning in Russia. It means government by the people. In Russia, though, it’s often used to describe social justice. A shop with ‘democratic prices’ is the same thing as a discount shop.

‘Democratic’ is also often used as a synonym for something generally good. ‘Democratic countries’ aren’t supposed to have any problems. If, for example, the French authorities send in the police when demonstrators run amok in Paris then they’re hypocrites, as that’s police violence in a democracy! Which means France can’t be as fantastic a democracy as the French claim it is.

Many Russians also equate democracy with a generous welfare state. Democracy is simply a society where everyone has the right to everything for free. Often it’s impossible to explain to them that democracy is in fact a blandly grey system based on general elections and strong institutions – not on good, generous leaders. It comes as no surprise that Russians who emigrate to the West are often very disappointed by the democracy there. They thought they were coming to a system that would give them all they wanted. The slowness of democracies, the fiddliness with which they often operate – and their shortcomings, which are a part of the system because democracy and utopia are two different things – are extremely frustrating for many Russian emigrants.

In Russia, the word ‘loyal’ means showing understanding towards something, not solidarity. ‘Privatisation’ can be used any way you like. When the only remaining example of a Gulag camp in Russia, Perm-36, rebuilt by private activists and historians, was about to be taken over by the state, one of my friends referred to the process as a ‘privatisation’.

‘But it’s the opposite. They’re going to make it a state museum,’ I said.

‘Oh yes. They’re going to destroy it, at any rate.’

For her, the actual meaning of the word didn’t matter. What mattered was how she interpreted it. Like many others, she associated it with the chaotic and often very unfair privatisations of the 1990s.

Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the West responded with penalty sanctions, the word ‘sanction’ has changed meaning in Russian debate. When Russians talk about ‘sanctions’ nowadays, they often mean the food boycott – that Russia itself introduced. It’s a proud statement to the West: you can’t crush us, we don’t need your parmesan!

The EU has never punished Russia by stopping parmesan exports, though: it was the Kremlin that blocked food imports from the EU and US in an effort to respond to the sanctions.

When it comes to how words are used, there is simply an enormous tolerance in Russia for changing their meanings on rhetorical grounds. It isn’t considered odd to have a debate where each side is actually talking about different things.

I’m not sure why. Is it because rhetorical skills are so highly prized?

More likely, it’s because political debate isn’t expected to lead anywhere, as Russia doesn’t have democracy and never has. Instead, you focus on sounding good in a debate.

A functioning public discourse requires some kind of consensus on what words and terms mean. No such consensus exists in Russia. Everyone changes the meaning of words whenever they feel like it, to make it suit their own rhetoric. As a result, it’s often unclear what the debate is actually about.

In our small Nordic countries we often complain that we can only talk about one thing at a time. In Russia there are a thousand different conversations, each on its own platform, and no one cares what everyone else is talking about. When from time to time the editors back home want me to write about ‘how Russians are reacting’ to a particular event, the assignment can be impossible to carry out in practice, as there is no shared debate. What is more, issues that for us would come top of the agenda are often considered marginal in Russia, which means that ‘the Russian perspective’ is something you need a magnifying glass to search for.

In other words, it’s not true to say that Russians don’t debate, that everyone just passively accepts orders from above: it’s just that the debate takes place in so many different places that it’s near-impossible to get an overview.

It’s hard to bring about real change if you can’t even make the effort to talk about the same things.

Life in Russia has made me understand why listening is such an important part of democracy.

Book cover of The Velvet Dictatorship
About

Sammetsdiktaturen

Förlaget, 2021

Rights: the author.

We are grateful to Anna-Lena Laurén and Förlaget for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Sammetsdiktaturen.

Sammetsdiktaturen was reviewed by D.E. Hurford in SBR 2021:2.

Anna-Lena Laurén was named Finland’s Journalist of the Year in 2021 for her unique contribution to journalism about Russia. She also received Sweden’s Stylist of the Year award in 2020. Reviews of her previous works have appeared in SBR 2014:2 and SBR 2016:1.

D.E. Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. She lives in Belgium.