Breaking Open the Side of a House

A Conversation with Translator Matthew Landrum

the operating system
The Operating System & Liminal Lab


OS Collaborator Matthew Landrum talks about his new translation of Faroese filmmaker and poet Katrin Ottarsdóttir’s Are There Copper Pipes in Heaven, available now from The Operating System.

[Image: The cover of Katrin Ottarsdóttir’s poetry collection Are There Copper Pipes in Heaven, composed of a vintage black and white photograph from the author of a bottle at the top of a staircase taped to cardboard.]

Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today!

Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

Thanks. I’m so grateful for this space. Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven is the second full length collection of Faroese work ever to be published in English — and am excited to share it.

Why do you work in translation?

I did my MFA capstone lecture on translation theory but only worked with Latin at the time — no living poets. Years later, I ended up partnering with a Faroese poet during a language study in Tórshavn. One thing led to another and I’ve now worked with ten different poets and writers from the islands. For a population of just over 50,000, the number of great writers, visual artists, and musicians the culture produces is staggering. I translate by diving into work I admire from a culture I love and then offering it up in my own language.

In addition or instead of “translator,” what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate? What other work are you doing in the world these days?

I’m first and foremost a poet. I’m not fluent in Faroese though I have studied it. I work with a co-translator. We put our heads together on getting an English crib and then my job is to create living breathing poetry in English. This is a form of translation though it may not be the one that comes to mind for people when they hear the title translator. Coleman Barks, the great Rumi translator, doesn’t speak Persian. Ted Hughes worked in a dozen language he didn’t speak. So did Robert Bly. To me, the overriding question of translation is does it recreate the poetry as poetry in the new language? Accuracy is important but translation is an exercise in poetry not in academics.

Besides writing, I teach English and music at a high school for students with neuro-diverse learning styles (autism, ADHD, and non-verbal learning differences). I’m also a songwriter and musician. Translation dovetails with all these things nicely but the full slate means translation projects can take years. This one took three.

Talk about the process or instinct to move this project into book form. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together?

I do a lot of selected translating — this poem or that, often at the behest of FarLit, the Faroese government literature promotion agency. This project was different. I applied for a grant to translate an entire book. And I’m glad I did. This is a book that works as a unit.

On an impossibly balmy week in August, I sat down with my co-translator, the Faroese fiction writer Sámal Soll, at his kitchen table in front of a window with a view of The Black Falls and the capital. We knocked out preliminary translations in two afternoons. Then the book sat for a while, taking a backseat to a new school year.

In early winter, I emailed Katrin a draft and she sent back corrections and notes. I spent the next four months working to capture the vision she laid out in her emails, writing and rewriting the translations. As we went back and forth, we talked about the philosophy, trying to find a balance between music and meaning, sense and definition. This was frustrating sometimes. I rewrote the book with three sets of pronouns and tinkered and tinkered before I felt I’d matched the author’s vision. This tug of war ultimately made my translations better and I’m grateful for the insights gained.

What practices or structures (if any) do you use in the creation of your work, beyond this project? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

Writers must be readers first. I can always tell when I haven’t been reading poetry because my own poetry feels stale, retracing the same rabbit trails of topic and technique. Reading deeply opens new vistas, sparks innovation, shakes us free of stuckness. Translation is the deepest form of reading I know, and the practice of recreating beautiful work from Faroese in English has been a gift to my writing. Beyond this, it has helped me see life through the eyes of a different culture. Though translating doesn’t make me Faroese and I can’t fully grasp or inhabit that space, the process has given me so much beauty and new sight.

What does this particular work represent to you both as indicative of your method/creative practice? as indicative of your history? as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?

Other translation projects have been quietly queueing behind this one. Others are queueing behind those. I don’t imagine I’ll ever catch up, but it’s a happy problem to have. Now that this is finished, I plan to finish translating The Sun’s Taste by Rannvá Holm Mortensen, a book I fell in love with while doing an excerpt for FarLit.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

This book breaks privacy taboos in Faroese culture. It’s very controversial and many people I talked to expressed doubts about whether or not it should have been written in the first place. In English, confessional poetry is common. In Faroese, it’s never been done before. In a society where people know each other or are separated by a single degree of acquaintance, privacy is at a premium and people guard theirs.

Breaking open the side of a house and exposing its darkness — abuse, neglect, mental illness, drug use, suicide — goes against the grain. It’s difficult subject matter and Ottarsdóttir makes it hard to miss. A consummate filmmaker, she also explored the material of this book in a feature film and an interactive art exhibit. Her work — in film, art, and poetry here — brings these issues into the public sphere in a way that hasn’t been done before in Faroese culture.

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how might its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

The Faroe Islands, in the colonial shadow of The Kingdom of Denmark, is obscure to most people. When I say I translate Faroese poetry, it usually leads to a ten-minute explanation of where the islands are and how I came to them. I’d like more people to know about the Faroes and experience them through literature.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of translation, creative practice and community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?

A few hundred years ago, the population of the islands was around 5,000. Danish was the official language of religion, commerce, and education. The elite of the capital spoke Danish. Priests were imported from Denmark. But the center of Faroese life was communal dances. In the streets during mild summer evenings or in village halls or houses during the long winter dark, people would join hands in a chain and step twice to the left and once to the right. Their feet their only accompaniment, they would join in singing ancient ballads stretching back to Germanic paganism. It was the center of native culture, a chance to get a break from rural isolation, to see friends and eat good food. This interior life of Faroese culture protected and propagated the language from outside forces.

When Romanticism came to the Faroes, writing poetry and music in the vernacular became a form of resistance against Danish colonialism. Ballads were studied and recorded and their ancient roots were recognized. Faroese, long seen as a backwater dialect of Danish, was now viewed as truer to the Old Norse roots. Writing was an act of defiance.

Choosing to write in a language only 65,000 people can read continues to be a way of claiming Faroeseness against outside pressure. That pressure now comes mainly from the anglophone world where advertising, mass media, and technology reach into pockets. Young Faroese people are saying things like vit skypast and eg googla. Organizers changed Føroysku Tónlistavirðislønirnar to The Faroese Music Awards (FMAs). Capitalism asks people to be a homogeneous consumer. Katrin Ottarsdóttir could write in Danish or even English. She lives in Copenhagen and is involved with its vibrant arts and film scene. Danish would open doors. But she chooses to write about her childhood in the language of her childhood. This is an act of vulnerability and resistance.

At its most basic level, translation is deep reading. It’s intimate, something akin to love. My great joy as a translator is to share what I love. And I believe it is important for people to hear. Writing is not the only act of resistance. Reading is also taking a stand against the techno-capitalist model of distraction and homogeneity. The fringe, the minority, the repressed have important things to say to humanity. Without them we are less.

About the Authors

[Image: Photo of MATTHEW LANDRUM]

MATTHEW LANDRUM is the author of Berlin Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press). His translations from Faroese have recently appeared in Asymptote Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Image, and Modern Poetry in Translation. He lives in Detroit.

[Image: Photo of SÁMAL SOLL]

SÁMAL SOLL is a Faroese writer and translator. His short story collection Glasbúrið was published in 2015. He has an MA degree in English Language and Literature from Aalborg University in Denmark and has just completed a degree in Faroese Language at the Faroese University in the Faroe Islands. He is currently working on a translation of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. You can read more about his work at


KATRIN OTTARSDÓTTIR is a pioneer in Faroese filmmaking and has made several feature films, documentaries, shorts etc., e.g. the award winning feature films Atlantic Rhapsody (1989), Bye Bye Blue Bird (1999), and LUDO (2014). Born 1957 in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, she studied film directing at the National Danish Film School. She debuted as a writer in 2012 with the poetry collection Are There Copper Pipes In Heaven (awarded the Faroese Literature Award 2013). In 2015 she published the poetry collection Mass For A Film, and in 2016 a collection of short stories, AFTER BEFORE.



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