In Translation: Three Poems by Jóanes Nielsen, trans. Matthew Landrum

Jóanes Nielsen is a contemporary Faroese author and poet. These three poems by Jóanes Nielsen are translated from the Faroese by Matthew Landrum with co-translators Tóta Árnadóttir and Paula Gaard. Faroese is a North Germanic language spoken as a first language by about 66,000 people, 45,000 of whom reside on the Faroe Islands and 21,000 in other areas, mainly Denmark. Icelandic is the language’s closest extant relative.

For each of the three poems below, the original Faroese follows the English translation.

The first poem, “J.H.O. Djurhuus,” celebrates the first modern Faroese poet, commonly called Janus Djurhuus (1881- 1948).


J.H.O. Djurhuus | Empty Stairs // Tóm Trappa
| Sixteen Years // Sekstan Ár



J.H.O. Djurhuus

Deep down
Where ships’ ladders hang and the century began

Farther down
Where dreams loiter

Deeper still
Beneath boulders where blind creatures dwell
That’s where he came from

He still lingers in the streets
In a coat that smells of cigar-smoke and loneliness

His lovely insensitive no man’s land
The most renowned in our literature

The days were clauses
The nights words
Fingers crooked around lines

While others spanned rivers
He bridged nations

For a hundred years
The jester of the intellectual elite

Malicious, boozed up, intoxicated too
With love for his mother tongue

The smell of loneliness and cigars
Still lingers in the streets

J.H.O. Djurhuus

Niðri ígjøgnum har leytararnir hanga og øldin byrjaði
Longri niðri
Har dreymarnir drála
Uppaftur djúpari
Undir steinunum har blindu verurnar halda til
Haðani kom hann
Framvegis rekst hann í gøtunum
Í frakkanum sum luktar av sigar og einsemi
Hansara fagra bonska ongamannaland
Hitt gitnasta í okkara bókmentum
Dagarnir vóru paragraffar Næturnar orð
Fingrar krøktir um reglur
Meðan aðrir bygdu brýr um áir
Reisti hann brýr millum lond
Í hundrað ár
Rukkan hjá intellektuellu elituni

Óndskapsfullur, hálvfullur, etandifullur
Eisini av kærleika til sítt móðurmál

Lukturin av einsemi og sigar
Rekst framvegis í gøtunum


J.H.O. Djurhuus | Empty Stairs // Tóm Trappa
| Sixteen Years // Sekstan Ár



Empty Stairs

I say earth
Bedrock beneath the feet
Say sun
The smell of moldering seaweed
Say moon
My heart sticks to my ribs
Say darling
Empty stairs

Tóm Trappa

Eg sigi jørðin
Hella undir iljunum
Sigi sól
Angin av brunnum tara
Sigi máni
Hjarta klebrar móti rivunum
Sigi góða
Tóm trappa


J.H.O. Djurhuus | Empty Stairs // Tóm Trappa
| Sixteen Years // Sekstan Ár



Sixteen Years

What is the cost of sixteen years?
Does any scale exist on which one could weigh them?
What is the smell of sixteen years?
Sixteen-year-old flowers grow in gardens
Sixteen-year-old packages lie on layaway shelves
You can’t take back sixteen years
Nor can you forgive sixteen years
Sixteen years is stone at the bottom of the heart
A flying dragon that lost its way among the nerves
A sea plant sprouting in the moonlight
Sixteen years casts long shadows on the footpaths of love
There’s no way to hide the scars
Sixteen years is a lightswitch
When the night doesn’t want to end

Sekstan Ár

Kosta sekstan ár nakað?
Finst nøkur vekt at viga tey á?
Hvussu lukta sekstan ár?
Í summun havum vaksa sekstan ára gomul blomstur
Á serligum hillum liggja sekstan ára gamlir pakkar
Sekstan ár takast ikki aftur
Tú kanst heldur ikki umbera sekstan ár
Sekstan ár er ein steinur á botni í hjartanum
Ein flogdreki vilstur inn í nervarnar
Ein havplanta spírandi í mánalýsinum
Sekstan ár varpa langar skuggar á kærleiksgøtunum
Tað ber ikki til at fjala arrini
Sekstan ár ein kontakt
Tá náttin ikki rættiliga vil enda


J.H.O. Djurhuus | Empty Stairs // Tóm Trappa
| Sixteen Years // Sekstan Ár


About the Author

Jóanes Nielsen, a former dockworker turned political activist and writer, is one of the pre-eminent figures in contemporary Faroese literature and culture. He has published seventeen books including the novel Brahmadellarnir which was nominated for the 2013 Nordic Counsel’s Literary Prize and is forthcoming in English as The Brahmadells from Open Letter.

Jóanes Nielsen
Photo by Randi Ward

About the Translator & Co-translators

Matthew Landrum.jpg

Translator Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His translations of Jóanes Nielsen have appeared in Image Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is author of the chapbook The Homeland (Cold Hub Press)translations from the German of Katharina Müller. He lives in Detroit.

Tóta Árnadóttir


Co-translator Tóta Árnadóttir holds an MA in Faroese language and literature from the Faroese University, where she is currently an assistant professor in oral tradition.


Co-translator Paula Gaard holds an MA in Faroese literature and language from the Faroese University, where she is currently doing a Ph.d. in literary reviews.

Paula Gaard


About the Artwork

The artwork is an untitled painting by John J. Donnelly, oilbar on wood panel, 6×6 inches, from his Chasing Faroe series. Other Donnelly paintings are a feature on each poem by Jóanes Nielsen.

John Donnelly.jpgJohn Donnelly holds an MFA from Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Recently he created an installation of 1000 of his paintings and drawings, Chasing Faroe, stemming from a four week residency to the Faroe Islands while sailing aboard the ship, Johanna. Other residencies and fellowships include The Skowhegan School of painting and Sculpture and The Vermont Studio Center.

Artist Statement // The Chasing Faroe series are oil painted works on paper, wood and wool, which speak to the pursuit of the transient nature of a place or an event in life. They document the memory of travel, or the imagining of a new destination on the line that divides the heavens and earth seemingly within our grasp yet unreachable. The surfaces of the paintings become both figurative and literal landscape with the resonance of a well-weathered wall. The paintings are arranged and pinned to the wall as evidence of an investigation. A delightful deterioration, of the scraped and sanded surfaces reveal embedded color striations and a history—a visual lapse of time. Consequently there is a descent into a more ambiguous space, which is beneath the surface on several levels, where form is no longer clear yet not melted away either, searching for a language to borrow to tell of the journey.

Appears In

Issue 2

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