Saturday, January 22, 2022

Today's Swedish vocabulary. Small pine trees, monsters.

I've reached that stage in learning Swedish when I'm apt to produce lists like this, at first in a not wholly vain attempt to absorb unmemorable vocab, but soon slipping  into a fantasy of encompassing the essense of a language in a single page. These are words or phrases that I've had some reason to tussle with in the past few days; things I've read, mainly. 

ordförråd -- vocabulary. (förråd -- store, stock)
oavsett  -- regardless
beträffar -- concerns
Varför då? -- Why?
Varför då då? -- Why, then?
I själva verket -- As a matter of fact
Sanningen att säga,.. -- To tell the truth, ...
nuläget -- the current situation
dagsläget -- the current situation
överklagades -- was appealed against (klaga -- complain)
ta emot -- receive
emotse, motse -- await   
förutsättning -- prerequisite   (förut -- before)
tillit -- trust (cf lita på
egentlig -- real, true  (also riktig, verklig, faktisk)
verksamhet -- activity, work
unna -- to not begrudge someone something
återhämtning -- recovery
oemotståndlig -- irresistible
myndigheterna -- the authorities (myndig -- commanding, authoritative)
minska  -- tr. reduce, itr. decrease, lessen, decline. Related to minst -- smallest, least
utsatt -- exposed, vulnerable. Used to describe utsatta områden (the vulnerable areas), as designated by police in 2015. These are areas with high poverty and crime, often said to be linked to radicalization and a sense of separation from the rest of Swedish society. 
tillfallet -- the case
tillåtelse -- permission
tillstånd -- a permit. It also means a state, e.g. undantagstillstånd -- state of emergency.
förfrågan -- inquiry
återge -- reproduce (e.g. text)
ange -- state, mention, note
upphovsrätt -- copyright (noun). The adjective is upphovsrättslig. Upphov -- origin, source. Upphovsman -- originator, author, instrigator. 
begränsning -- limitation, restriction
enkom -- solely, purposely, especially, expressly 
martall, margran, marbjörk: small twisted or damaged trees, e.g. dwarf pine. According to SAOB the first element is related to "mara", the witchlike being who causes nightmares (mardrömmar). 
knyta -- to tie, untie (knyta till, knyta upp). Also used to describe the formation in plants of a head or heart or tuber or fruit. "Kålen knyter i goda år fasta hufvuden." "Bönderna började äta äpplen och päron, så snart de knutit sig."
kuva -- subdue (feelings), repress, curb. 


The last part was to do with trying to translate a knotty poem by Karin Boye. 


Här i evig blåst
pinar sig martall upp ur stenen,
kröker sig trött,
knyter sig trotsig,
kryper kuvad.

Svarta mot kvällens stormhimmel
tecknar sig vridna spökkonturer.
Vidunder grips av leda
för vidunder.
Går ett stönande genom de rivna kronorna:
O att se en enda gång
rak emot ljuset
stiga en kungaek,
en gossebjörk,
en gyllene jungfrulönn.

Göm dina drömmar, krympling.
Här är de yttersta skären. Så långt ögat når:

Here's the best I can do so far. 

stunted pine

here in endless wind
the stunted pine struggles out of the stone
cowering wearily
knitting itself obstinately
and creeping curbed

black against the evening's stormy sky
outlines of twisted ghost contours
deformity is gripped by revulsion
at deformity
a groaning passes through the riven crowns
oh just once to see
straight up into the light
a kingly oak ascend
a boy-birch
a golden girl-maple

hide your dreams cripple
these are the outermost skerries 
as far as the eye can see
stunted pine.

(Karin Boye, from For the tree's sake (1935))

The main translator problem concerns the word vidunder, which means "monster" or "monsters". The difficulty is to do with cultural change as much as language. 

We're no longer comfortable with the kind of thinking that expresses a pejorative view of people or animals or even trees on the basis of form or appearance. Neither "monster" (conveying visceral horror), nor "cripple", are part of a progressive person's vocabulary.  

That in itself doesn't matter. This is a poem from another era and I don't want to disguise it. 

The English word "monster" still thrives, of course, but in contexts that are distinctly out of key with Boye's poem.

For instance, it's often used as a colourful way of saying "very big" or "very overwhelming": a monster truck, or monster bassline. But a connotation of large size doesn't sit very well in a poem about small, dwarf or stunted pines. 

And when "monster" does refer to a monster, it tends to be in contexts appealing to children. For instance Monster Munch (corn snacks shaped like monsters); or Super Monsters, the Netflix animation for young children ("material unlikely to cause offence") in which charming big-eyed kids flip into charming big-eyed monsters and have the gentlest of adventures. Like modern halloween, the programme appeals to children's love of dressing up and role playing. It also carries a social message: that differentness is to be enjoyed and celebrated, that it's OK to look different. It seeks to defuse the atavistic idea of a "monster" and to make it fun, to purge it of monstrosity. And thus for the best of reasons it seeks to rid society of the sensation of monstrosity that Karin Boye's poem is all about. 

So I felt that "monster" was now a word with exactly the wrong kind of associations. Instead I've used the word "deformity", but I'm not particularly happy with the result. 


While thinking about this issue with vidunder, I noticed the word again while leafing through Vredgade vittnen (Angry Witnesses, 1966), an anthology of post-civil-war Spanish poetry translated into Swedish by Francisco J. Uriz and Artur Lundkvist. 

The poem was by Dámaso Alonso (1898 - 1990) and I think it's an interesting pairing. It's from his 1944 collection Hijos de la ira (Children of Wrath). 

Alonso's Spanish text "Monstruos" is here. However,  my text re-translates the Swedish ("Vidunder"). 


Each day when I get up 
I make this prayer:

O God, 
don't torment me any more.
Tell me what they mean,
these horrors that encircle me.
I'm hemmed round by monsters
who mutely ask me 
just what I'm asking you.
Who maybe ask you too,
and like me vainly disturb
the silence in your unchanging night
with my heart-wrenching question.
In the stars' half-dusk,
in the sunlight's terrible darkness
hostile eyes spy on me,
grotesque forms keep watch on me,
wounding colours lay traps for me:
it's the monsters, 
I'm hemmed round by monsters!

They don't devour me,
they devour my longed-for rest,
they force me to be an anguish that engenders itself,
they make me into a man,
a monster among monsters. 

No, nothing is as terrifying
as this frantic Dámaso, 
as this yellow centipede when he with all his tentacles
            invokes you madly,
as this indwelling beast
when it melts into a flux of anguish.
No, nothing so monstrous
as this vermin that howls unto you,
as this heart-wrenching question
that now affronts you with vociferous groans,
that now says to you:
-- O God,
don't torment me any more,
tell me what they mean,
these monsters that encircle me
and their inner terror that moans to you in the night.

Alonso's poem is a discovery: It is I who am the monster. 

Likewise, though more implicitly, Boye's poem is self-directed: the horror of deformity is her own agonizing consciousness of failing to measure up to an ideal form.


Tomas Tranströmer was less spooked than Karin Boye when he wrote about this bog pine: 

Den låga tallen på myren håller upp sin krona: en mörk trasa.
Men det man ser är ingenting
mot rötterna, det utspärrade, dolt krypande, odödliga eller halvdödliga

The squat pine in the swamp holds up its crown: a dark rag.
But what you see is nothing
compared to the roots, the widespread, secretly creeping, immortal or half-mortal 
root system.

(from "Några minuter" ("A few minutes") in the collection Mörkerseende (1970), translation by Robin Fulton)

And Evert Taube's martall is positively celebratory:

Men hej, alla vänner som gästa min ö!
Jag är både nykter och klok!
När morgonen gryr skall jag vålma mitt hö
och vittja tvåhundrade krok.
Fördöme dig, skymning, och drag nu din kos!
Det brinner i martallens topp!
Här dansar Calle Schewen med Roslagens ros,
Han dansar när solen går opp!

But hey, all you good friends who visit my isle,
I ’m not quite so mad as I look!
Tomorrow I’ll have my hay hung up to dry
and sift through my two hundred hooks.
It's time for you, night-time, to give up the ghost,
It burns in the stunted pine's top!
Calle Schewen is dancing with Roslagen’s rose,
he’s dancing as sunrise comes up!

(from his song "Calle Schewen's Waltz" (1936))

Here's Axel Borg, also on the skerries, in August Strindberg's novel I havsbandet (By the Open Sea, 1890):

Nu hörde han måsarna skrika och förstod därav att hon summit ut. Han klädde sig därför hastigt, och sedan han samlat sina saker, plockade han fram ur båtgarneringen till en liten frukost, vilken han dukade på mossan under en halvstammig pinjeliknande tall.

Now he heard the gulls screaming and realised that she must have swum out. He therefore dressed himself hurriedly and after collecting his belongings he took out of the boat's hold a little picnic and laid it out on the moss under a pine with a short trunk which looked like a stone-pine. 

(from Chapter 6, translation by Mary Sandbach). 

In the following chapter, Axel actually cuts down a group of these native pines, and carves and wires the only remaining one into the umbrella shape of a stone pine: it's all part of his bizarre plan to fake the mirage of an Italian landscape, up here in the Baltic. 

Get ready for some linguistic tangles.  

The Swedish word tall is the general-purpose word for the native pine Pinus sylvestris, the same species that is called Scots Pine in the UK. In Norwegian the equivalent term is furu and in Danish fyrretræ

[Obviously these latter words are related to the word "fir", a word that is used in conflicting ways by English speakers. By some it's used to mean conifers in general, by others to mean conifers with needles (e.g. not cypresses), by others to mean pine trees specifically (Lambert's treatise calls our tree the Scotch Fir), and by still others to mean all needle trees except pines. Among modern botanists, on the other hand, it means the genus Abies (aka the Silver Firs -- this is the meaning you'll see if you look up Fir on Wikipedia -- a large genus but with no species native to the UK or Scandinavia); also sometimes the New World genus Pseudotsuga (the Douglas Firs).]

Anyway, back to Scandinavia. Swedish also has "fir" words, but they aren't used for the species in general. Fura means a tall long-boled pine, and furu means pine timber, the material you make furniture out of. Meanwhile the Norwegian word tall or toll means a young pine tree. 

SAOB speculates that tall is related to a dialect word tull, which means a young sapling (pine or spruce), especially with reference to the use of the tender shoots (this year's growth) as food for animals, and sometimes people (e.g. to flavour beer or brännvin). So, as often with vernacular tree names, the word origin may go back to some cultural use of the tree. (Like those tree names that originally referred to the tree's fruits: oak, apple, cherry, etc.)

In the Strindberg quotation above, you can see that Swedish also has a "pine" word, pinje, but it means specifically the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea), which might be one of the main Mediterranean species that the Latin word pinus originally designated. 


Tall (Scots Pine). Illustration from C.A.M. Lindman's Nordens flora (1901-1905).

It's always worth consulting C.A.M. Lindman's Nordens flora (1901-1905, here in a text revised by Magnus Fries) -- Here's the entry for TALL.  Hopefully I give the general sense but I've unpacked  his long paragraphs and tried to disentangle most of the incapsulation* common in Swedish technical writing. 

The tall or fura (pine, i.e. Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris) is an impressive conifer. It has a trunk that in favourable conditions for growth is as slender and straight and twig-free as a mast, ascending right up to the crown, which is borne on a few large boughs. It attains a height of 25 - 30 meters, sometimes even 35 meters.

In its upper part it has yellow-red bark, which together with the white trunks of the birches gives to the Nordic woodlands a rare beauty of colour. The pine foliage appears grey-green or blue-green when compared with the spruce's.  [i.e. Norway Spruce, the other large conifer of the Nordic woods.]

One of the features that distinguish the genus Pinus is the strong dimorphism (difference of form) between the shoots. The needles are in pairs (up to five in certain other pine species) on very small "short shoots", which also have a number of membranous brown-grey lower leaves. The short shoot is produced by the long shoot, which bears scattered leaves of a wholly different form, reduced to scales.(See Fig. 2). 

The species of Pinus can also be recognized by the cone scales, which are thicker towards their tips and appear abruptly sheared off with a wart in the centre. The pine cone ripens the year after flowering, in contrast to spruce cones which ripen in the same year. 

The pine is monoecious¤ and wind-pollenated like the spruce, but the young female cones, which (like the spruce) have purple-red scales, are no bigger than a pea (see Fig. 3). The male flowers (the small yellow spike-like groups of stamens, Fig. 5) are massed together to form an oval ring of blooms around the shoot. 

The pine has an extraordinary profusion of pollen, which at the time of flowering covers the ground and pools of water with a sulphur-yellow powder. This phenomenon has acquired the popular name "sulphur-rain". In lands where the pine is rarer than in the north this pollen has been seen on pools that are many miles from the nearest pine tree. Investigations of airborne pollen on lightships+ have shown that pine pollen can be transported a great distance out to sea; even on vessels in the middle of the Atlantic small quantities of pollen have been noted, for the most part pine pollen. 

The pine has deep roots, in contrast to the spruce's shallow spread of roots. It thrives in virtually all kinds of ground. But as a tall stemmed timber tree it prefers free-draining and hence dry and meagre situations, for instance on upland moraine soils, boulder ridges and glacial deltas. Typical plants of these tall-growing open pinewoods are lingon bushes (aka cowberry), ling heather and reindeer lichen. In boggy places the pine becomes dwarfed, i.e. the so-called martall, which at fifty years of age is no higher than a man and has a trunk the thickness of an ordinary walking stick. In general the pine attains a greater age than the spruce.# A pine felled in Dalarna in 1913 showed 654 annual rings. 

Within peatland, especially bogs, people have sometimes unearthed a layer of large pine stumps. These are remnants of pinewoods that in the more arid climate of the Bronze Age were able to grow on the dried-out surface of the peatlands. In the warm post-glacial period pines were able to grow a couple of hundred meters higher than today, as pine stumps found on bare mountainsides bear witness. 

Pine and spruce are our most important trees, economically speaking. Pine timber is firmer and tougher than spruce and lasts well because of its high resin content, particularly in underwater and pile construction.**

The pine occurs here in two forms with different distributions: a northern slender-crowned type (ssp. lapponica) and a southern, more broadly-crowned type (ssp. septentrionalis). The tree has a very extensive distribution in Nordic countries. But like the spruce it is absent from Denmark, large parts of Skåne and much of the southern and south-western coastal regions, as well as the south-westernmost and northernmost parts of Norway. Elsewhere the distribution stretches south of the arctic circle through Europe and northern Asia. The pine came to Nordic lands soon after the last ice age (c. 7000 BCE); as a forest-forming tree it was preceded only by the birch. 

* Incapsulation, also common in German. As a sample, here's a literal rendering of the opening, retaining the Swedish word order:

Genom sin stam, som vid gynnsam växt blir mastlikt smärt och rak och kvistfri ända upp till den av ett fåtal stora grenar uppburna kronan, är tallen eller furan ett imponerande barrträd.

Through its trunk, which with favourable growth becomes mastlikely slender and straight and twig-free right up to the of a few large boughs upborne crown, is the pine or fir an impressive conifer. 

¤ i.e. separate male and female flowers but produced on the same individual plant. In contrast with dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants) and bisexual (the flowers have both male and female sex organs). The Swedish word for monoecious is sambyggare, which means "living together".

[By the way this handy symbol (¤) appears on Swedish keyboards as shift+4. I don't know what its real purpose is.]

+ The age of lightships is now basically gone. They were used in deep water in the days when existing technology didn't allow sinking foundations for a lighthouse to sufficient depth. There are still three unmanned lightships in use off the coast of Germany. 

# But (though I can't remember the exact details) I believe a Norway Spruce was recently proposed as the oldest living thing so far known -- not an individual tree, but a spreading subterranean root network putting up suckers. 

** Another obsolescent technology. Pile bridges were founded on long poles ("piles") driven into the loose ground until in firm contact with solid substrate. 

smärt -- slender, especially when referring to tall trees (more commonly it's a noun, "pain")
späd -- tender, of shoots  (cf spädbarn -- baby)

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