I became aware of Harry Martinson’s book-length poem Aniara as an sf fan in the early ’60s, though it may have been the opera rather than the book; in any case, while I of course welcomed the idea of a spaceship driven off course by an asteroid and sent on an unchangeable new path, the details sounded awfully gloomy, and I never investigated further. Now I learn, from Geoffrey O’Brien’s NYRB review of poem, opera, and (recent) movie, that Hugh MacDiarmid was one of the original translators! MacDiarmid, as I wrote here, is one of my oldest poetic lodestones, and had I known that I might well have sought out the translation (though it’s apparently not easy to find; Amazon has “3 Used from $893.34 2 New from $969.00 1 Collectible from $199.99”). At any rate, there are some linguistically interesting bits in O’Brien’s review:

When I first encountered Aniara in the original translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert (1963), its propulsive urgency carried me along in an uninterrupted reading. The effect is musical even if the translators did not attempt to replicate the various meters and rhyme schemes deployed by Martinson, and there is an echo in its voicings of cosmic emptiness of MacDiarmid’s stark evocations of rock and sea in such poems as “On a Raised Beach” and “Island Funeral,” as well as his devotion to incorporating scientific and technical vocabulary into his poetry. In 1968, the year it appeared as a science-fiction paperback—oracular song smuggled into mass distribution—Aniara seemed a model for further attempts at epic in its fusing of concepts from astrophysics, the trappings of pulp fantasy, the contemporary science fiction of A.E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury (writers Martinson greatly admired), the memories of wartime trauma, the fear of future weaponry, and the deep well of myth and ancient history. The theme was claustrophobic but the form was exhilarating, open to all manner of variations and tonal shifts.

Binding it together is the swirl of neologisms around whose repetitions the poem’s rhythm constructs itself: the Mima [“the spaceship’s feminized computer, an omniscient entity whose bulletins from Earth provide respite for the passengers who cluster around her worshipfully in the Mima Hall”] and her priestly guardian, the Mimarobe; Douris (Earth); goldonda (spaceship); phototurb (weapon of future destruction); the abandoned lands of Rind and Xinombra and Upper Gond. Pleasure-seeking passengers are nostalgic for the lost slang of Dourisburg: “Come rockasway and shimble…. Droom dazily, come hillo in my billows.” All this vocabulary is not clutter but a fluid element, offering momentary respite from the oppressiveness of strict definition, a last stand of playfulness even when the subject is annihilation. Of “Aniara,” the name of the spaceship and the most haunting coinage of all, Martinson said, “The name Aniara doesn’t signify anything. I made it up. I wanted to have a beautiful name.” A glossary to the MacDiarmid-Schubert translation describes it as

a combination of letters, rich in vowels, which represents the space in which the atoms move. The adjective aniaros (fem. aniara) in ancient Greek means sorrowful. Thus, Aniara = the ship of sorrow.

When sung by a chorus in Blomdahl’s opera, “Aniara” becomes a wail of lamentation.

I’m curious about the originals of those invented words (the Swedish poem does not seem to be online), but the one that most caught my interest was in another place, where he talks about “the fragments of futuristic dance band music played in the ship’s lounge where everybody is doing ‘the yurg’” — the yurg! (I wonder if it was anything like the lipsi?) Happily, I found the relevant stanza 12 quoted here in Swedish (emphasis added):

Orkestern spelar fancies och vi dansar ut.
Den flicka jag för runt är absolut.
Hon är en flicka ifrån Dorisburg,
men fast hon dansar här sen flera år
i Aniaras danshall säger hon rent ut
att hon för sin del inte alls förstår
att finna någon skillnad på den yurg
som dansas här och den i Dorisburg.

Och när vi dansa yurgen står det klart
att allt som heter yurg är underbart
när Daisi Doody vrider sig i yurg
och jollrar slangen ifrån Dorisburg […]

My question is: shouldn’t it be jurg in Swedish?

If you want to read more about it, with further excerpts in Swedish, check out Lisa’s Reviews > Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum, and here’s the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for Martinson.


  1. Claes Bernes says

    Aniara is an old favourite of mine – great to see the attention it has received recently. The original Swedish text is available online here:

    I can’t see any real problem with ‘yurg’. It certainly doesn’t look like a Swedish word, but dances tend to have foreign names. ‘Jurg’ is more in line with Swedish spelling, but it still sounds foreign. When speaking Swedish, I would pronounce both ‘yurg’ and ‘jurg’ in the same way.

  2. The original Swedish text is available online here

    Thanks for that! I’ll probably never actually use it, but it’s great to know it’s there.

    When speaking Swedish, I would pronounce both ‘yurg’ and ‘jurg’ in the same way.

    That’s what I assumed.

    It certainly doesn’t look like a Swedish word[…] ‘Jurg’ is more in line with Swedish spelling

    Hence my surprise. But since dances tend to have foreign names, as you say, it makes sense!

  3. Jeffry a house says

    If you can’t pay $963 maybe you could read it from here. They have Swedish, too.

  4. Thanks!

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    The very watchable 1963 Czech science-fiction movie Ikarie XB-1 also contains a memorable futuristic dance sequence. (As a movie, it’s rather more upbeat than Aniara sounds to be.)

  6. If you want an arguably non-copyright-violating link, there’s one controlled-digital-lending copy at Internet Archive.

  7. Well, to be honest I’ll probably never actually read it, but it’s nice to know I could if I wanted to.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I have now (a) watched the 2018 film and (b) read the more modern of the translations. I regret neither!

    In hindsight, this is not the best order; the film, seen first, struck me (misleadingly) as all too much representing the work of someone who greatly admired A.E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury, both of whom (in different ways) were writers adept at suggesting great profundity without actually delivering on it.

    Not that it’s a bad film: the lead performance by Emilie Garbers is worth the price of admission by itself, and though she stands out, the supporting cast are pretty good too. But the “high concept” is pretty ho-hum. People are stupid and selfish. Yeah. Got it. Never heard that one before …

    Having read the poem, I can see the point of the film much better; it’s one of those “unfilmable” works where the only way to do the thing is via drastic pruning and a fairly radical transformation. (The genderflip of the lead character may or may not count.) There are numerous shout-outs to the poem and frequent direct citations of the verse, and the poem also sheds light on what some of the more mysterious characters (like the blind poetess) are all about. The poem creates a whole complex background mythology that there just wouldn’t be room for in a movie.

    The process of transformation involved making a Bradburyesque not-really-science-fiction work into something a good bit more movie-SFnal, which was probably commercially inevitable, but also changes the tone in a rather unsatisfactory way; and the luxury-cruise aspect of the Aniara itself at the outset doesn’t match the grimdark overall setting of the original (alluded to rather obliquely in the film when MR explains early on to a freaked-out passenger that the Mars they’re en route to is a truly harsh place, to the extent that they might actually be better off never getting there.) The luxury-liner setting is presumably a dig at consumerism; that’s OK, but that’s a modish and minor target compared with the general human wrongness implied in the poem.

    The increased scientification of the setting also means that the thoroughgoing spiritual failure of the original gets mixed up with what is really just a simple engineering failure in the movie, somewhat undermining the point.

    The modern translation doesn’t (I think) give much more than a glimmering of what presumably is a truly remarkable poem in Swedish: I wish the MacDiarmid version was available at a non-stupid price. Only a real poet can do justice to a great poem in translation (and MacDiarmid had shown his mettle at this elsewhere, of course.) If Klass and Sjöberg have any independent poetic gifts they conceal the fact well.

    [Also, the futuristic dance in Ikarie-XB1 is better.]

  9. Thanks, that’s an extraordinarily helpful review!

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah! Jeffrey a house’s link also points to the 1963 translation. Will give it a go …

  11. I never heard about it:( A translation was published here in 1984 in a volume with other Martinson’s poems, and likely was unnoticed by sci-fi readers (basically all Soviet intelligentsia were sci-fi readers). The book was printed in 50000 copies (not much for that time) and now costs some $20, it is very expensive for Russia.

    I really enjoyed reading it in Swedish, without understanding much though:) Not sure if I should read a translation or defeat the original:)

  12. Trond Engen says

    I’m reading it in Swedish now, a couple of sections at the time. Not that it’s an especially heavy read, but I get lost in the rhythm and lose the content after a few pages.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I think I was too hasty (sc. wrong) in dissing Klass and Sjöberg. The comments they make in their introduction about trying to reproduce something of the formal structure of the original verses, which MacDiarmid and Schubert really don’t, are entirely valid. I suppose if I don’t like the translation I’ll just have to learn Swedish. Something for a spare moment …

  14. David Marjanović says

    I’ll just have to learn Swedish. Something for a spare moment …

    “Schwedisch lernen Sie in sechs Wochen.”
    – overheard

  15. Owlmirror says

    The site with the text was linked to in the first comment, but it’s not immediately obvious that in addition to reading online, the same site offers a freely downloadable epub of the work to put on your e-readers, should you so desire:

    Also more by the same author:

  16. John Cowan says

    I’ll just have to learn Swedish. Something for a spare moment …

    “Dr. Abrabanel,” asked Adams, “just exactly how many languages can you read?”

    “Fluently?” Rebecca’s father wiggled his fingers. “Not more than eight, I’m afraid. Nine, possibly, depending on how you reckon ‘fluency.’ Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, of course, those being the principal languages of medicine. Spanish and Portuguese are native to my family. And English now, naturally. I spent most of my life on the island. German, French.” Again, he wiggled his fingers. “My Dutch is becoming quite good, I think. But it would be boasting to say it was fluent as yet.”

    He paused, thinking, running fingers through his well-groomed gray beard. “Beyond that? I can manage Russian and Polish, with nontechnical matters. Italian and Latin, the same. I was concentrating on the Latin, actually, but I was forced to interrupt my studies due to the political state of affairs so that I could learn Swedish.” He frowned. “It’s a charming language, in its own way, but I almost hate to spend the time on it. There is nothing written in Swedish which is not already available in other tongues. Still—” He sighed. “I felt it would be wise, given the role I was asked to play—”

          —Eric Flint, 1632

  17. David Marjanović says

    There is nothing written in Swedish which is not already available in other tongues.

    Mikko Heikkilä’s thesis.

  18. John Cowan says

    As of 1632, that is.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Yes. That was my attempt at sarcasm for this month.

  20. Trond Engen says

    … and a good one at that!


  1. […] are a couple of wonderful reviews available, the best being languagehat’s, not only for their assessment but for the contributive comments from the linguistically-interested […]

Speak Your Mind