The youth of Sigrid Undset

"Ungdom/Youth" by Sigrid Undset

"Ungdom/Youth" by Sigrid Undset

Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Writer’s Center celebrate Undset’s book of poetry “Ungdom”

By Christine Meloni

Norwegian American Weekly

Norway’s literary giant, Sigrid Undset, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, is known for her novels, in particular, her “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy. She is less well known for her poetry. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of her single book of poetry, “Ungdom/Youth.”

This year also marks the publication of Dr. Harold P. Hanson’s translation of Undset’s poetry, the first-ever in English. The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington co-sponsored a celebration of this significant event on the evening of April 21.

Hanson, son of Norwegian immigrants and a Fulbright scholar to Norway, is a retired Professor of Physics and was at one time Staff Director of the Committee of Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hanson is the person primarily responsible for the translations of the poems. He was assisted in the preparation of the book by two collaborators, Undset’s niece Charlotte Blindheim and Evabeth Astrup, professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. In addition to the 29 poems, in Norwegian and in English, the book includes Astrup’s 12 interviews with Blindheim, providing a wealth of personal family information. Astrup is also responsible for the book’s illustrations.

When poet Patricia Garfinkel, Hanson’s former colleague on the House committee, heard about his book, she contacted the Embassy and the Writer’s Center and both enthusiastically agreed to co-sponsor the event. Hanson and acclaimed actress and singer Michelle Alexandra also readily agreed to participate.

The evening began with a warm welcome from Charles Jensen, Director of the Writer’s Center, who then introduced the Honorable Wegger Christian Strømmen, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States. The Ambassador acknowledged that he is a lover of poetry and has himself written many poems (He modestly admitted that only one of them has actually been published).

The Ambassador raised the perennial question, “Is it possible to translate poetry?” Although the answer is usually no, he believes it is possible and declared that Hanson has done “a brilliant job” within the limits of the two languages. He expressed his deep gratitude to Hanson for his work in making Undset, one of the pillars of Norwegian literature and of Norway’s national heritage, more widely known. “Undset,” he said, “is a striking figure in Norwegian literature but she will always be better known for her novels than for her poems. Her poems are significant, however, also as a source for understanding her novels, which garnered her the Nobel Prize.”

Translator Harold Hanson (right) with son Steven Hanson at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. Harold Hanson translated Sigrid Undset's book of poetry "Ungdom" into English. Photo: Christine Meloni

Translator Harold Hanson (right) with son Steven Hanson at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. Harold Hanson translated Sigrid Undset's book of poetry "Ungdom" into English. Photo: Christine Meloni

In his opening remarks Hanson explained his philosophy of translation. He agrees with J.M. Synge who wrote, “A translation is no translation unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.”

The poetry reading began with a moving recitation of “Credo,” the volume’s first poem. Hanson’s son Steven read the original Norwegian version and Hanson his English translation. Steven became fluent in Norwegian while attending public school during his father’s Fulbright time in Norway.

Alexandra then took the stage and mesmerized the audience by singing one of the poems in Norwegian. She then gave moving, dramatic readings of numerous poems in English including “About Love,” “Everlasting Love,” “Eleusis,” and “The Goldenwood.”

Alexandra, a dual citizen of the United States and Norway and fluent in both languages, first studied acting at George Washington University in Washington, DC and then at the New York Film Academy in London and the British American Drama Academy in Oxford. She has spent a great deal of time in Norway. She is currently continuing her career as an actress in New York City.

The program concluded with the playing of a rare recording of Undset reading an excerpt from a text called “Hjemme på Værskjei,” broadcast from London on Easter Eve in 1945. It was a unique experience for the audience to hear the voice of Undset.

Distinguished poet Myra Sklarew, currently professor emerita of literature in the writing program at American University in Washington, D.C., was particularly moved by Alexandra. She noted that Undset had written her poems when she was young, between the ages of 16 and 20, and listening to the young Alexandra was like listening to Undset herself.

Sklarew summed up the evening’s program with these words: “The program, in a brief hour or so, attempted to convey the courage of this extraordinary woman, her immense talent, the gift of her great works that live on today, and the most generous act of Harold Hanson who thought to devote long hours to translating Undset’s poetry.”

This article was originally published in the April 30, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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