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The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century


Karin Petherick, TLS (February 2, 2002)

Unlike Sartre, who declined the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, Bernard Shaw, in 1925, combined courtesy with philanthropy by requesting that the prize money should be used to commission good English translations of Swedish literature. The resultant Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation has acted as executor of this charming desire to ensure that at least some of a minor language's literary heritage be available to a wider audience (if only on the shelves of the British Library). Shaw stipulated good translations, doubtless aware that 'small' languages are often translated by someone who knows both languages well, but lacks literary skill. For centuries, Swedes have had the inestimable advantage of distinguished Swedish poets lovingly translating major literary works into Swedish. Disappointingly, however, the undeniably distinguished W. H. Auden proved to be of the 'something has to give' school and disregarded rhyme when translating Pär Lagerkvist.

Judith Moffett is that rara avis, a gifted poet in her own language who through yeas of application has acquired a flawless ear for Swedish verse, which she combines with delight in facing metrical and formal challenges. Her translation of the twentieth-century poet Hjalmar Gullberg (1979) was a virtuoso feat, and is now followed by five major nineteenth-century poets: Esaias Tegnér, J. L. Runeberg, Viktor Rydberg, Gustaf Fröding and E. A. Karlfeldt. (It is a shame that the divine religious mystic E. J. Stagnelius is not included. May Moffett devote a whole volume to him next.) The five chosen poets are very fine, and is each introduced with learning and sympathy, for they all suffered early traumas of loss and bereavement. The book's title, quoted from Tegnér, is the longing call of migratory birds as they prepare to fly north, homeward bound from the sunny Nile, knowing that departure and return are constant. This favorite Romantic motif underlines the essential Swedishness (in Runeberg's case Finno-Swedishness) of the poems, at the same time as it illustrates a longing for an ancient Mediterranean civilization. Tegnér, Runeberg and Rydberg were classical scholars, Fröding, too, in his formative years, while Karlfeldt, botanically and historically learned, was essentially the celebrant of his native Dalecarlia.

Shaw would be well pleased that Swedish nineteenth-century poetry has been preserved for posterity in this most felicitous English version.

Reader's Report for the Publisher

Erik J. Friis, translator of Scandinavian plays and poetry

I have enjoyed Judith Moffett’s versions very much and will not hesitate in saying that she is a very able translator and has selected some of the most representative poems of each poet. She is extremely conscientious and above all very clever in the way she has been able to find the proper rhythm and rhymes throughout the volume.

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