You probably won’t find a book similar to Safety Razor while you’re searching for your next read – that’s because author Emily Osborne is one of only a few people in the world capable of compiling the translations found within its pages.
Osborne’s new book combines her own poetry, in common English, with translations of poems in Old Norse Icelandic, a language of runes. It’s also a language whose era ended long ago, its mannerisms and secrets now kept alive by writers and academics like Osborne.
Hailing from London, Ontario, Emily’s passion for language began in university where she completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature. Her next stop was Cambridge University in England where she achieved a Masters degree in Old English Literature, capping it all off with a PhD in Norse Literature – a genre Emily says she was immediately fascinated by.
Osborne began to envision her book even before moving to Bowen, where she’s now lived for four years with her husband and two sons. She’s written poems since she was a young child, but explained finding time to pursue passions while working in academia – Osborne accepted a post doctorate position at the University of British Columbia after earning her PhD – can be difficult.
“When I was doing my PhD and post doc it’s really hard to have your critical and creative faculties coexisting. Writing criticism on poetry and then actually writing it at the same time just didn’t really work,” she says.
So Emily decided to shift to a focus on creative writing. She was bolstered in part by a 2018 talk at the Vancouver Public Library for the Dead Poets Reading Series, where she read the works of 10th century Icelandic poet Egill Skallagrímsson. A local book seller in the audience came up to Osborne after and said she should write a book of translations, as people would often ask for more Viking and Scandinavian reading material.
And while working on both her own poems and translations of Old Norse Skaldic poets, her publisher proposed combining them into the same book. Osborne says she was intrigued by the idea, which came with many new questions.
“It was an interesting experience to think about twinning these poems from 1,000 years ago with my own poetry. How does that work? How do they speak to each other thematically, and even with poetic devices – how do their metaphors speak to each other? And how does the language speak to each other?” were some of her thoughts.
One of the unique aspects of Skaldic verse, and part of the reason it’s nearly untranslatable today, is the use of kennings, or compound metaphors, to describe objects or ideas. Osborne explains that a sword is not just a sword, it’s ‘the light of battle’. The kennings can be multi-layered too, so if a battle is a ‘storm of shields’, a sword then becomes ‘the light of the storm of shields’.
“It’s pretty cool, and in order to actually understand the poetry you have to have a knowledge of this embedded system of metaphors. And because the language was inflected and had specific endings for whatever form a word was in, word order is not very important,” explains Osborne.
To add an extra layer of complexity, the metaphors are not always grouped directly together in the verse. They can begin in the first line of a stanza, and not conclude until the fourth line. Osborne says that decoding the kennings is like piecing together a puzzle, with the answer not always obvious at first glance.
“One of the reasons why they did it that way is because there’s very strict metrical and internal rhyme systems… So if you have flexibility in your word order you can meet the metrical demands,” she says of the Skaldic structure. “One of the things that’s amazing to me is that an 11th century Icelander would hear this and be able to unpack it in their mind and understand it.”
While translating the ancient material was one part of Safety Razor’s construction, finding the right order for the mix of old and new poems was another. “Probably the most challenging was just organizing the poems. I had a completely different organization when I submitted it to the editor. I think everyone sees different themes and different priorities when they read a book. He suggested a totally different ordering, and then he suggested putting in the Old Norse translations so that caused another reordering,” says Emily.
The book settled on three distinctive sections, beginning with stories from Emily’s childhood and growing up, shifting to an art history focus in the middle (including dinosaurs and the famed Jumbo the Elephant), and concluding with stories of her family and imagined journey into old age and the future.
As for the title, Osborne says the themes in both her work and the Skaldic bards informed the choice. “Safety versus danger. Innocence versus experience. Naivety versus science and academics. I was thinking of all this and the term ‘Safety Razor’ jumped to mind,” she says, adding she knew it was the “perfect title for the collection.”
“It matches imagery in the book of cutting and sharp things, and injuries. And not always physical injuries, but also emotional injuries and childhood trauma in the collection,” says Osborne. A poem about losing a family member, for example, is carefully paired with an Old Norse translation of a woman mourning the passing of her brother. Along with a matching theme, Emily employed similar imagery for the paring too.
Osborne’s book is now available locally at the Hearth Gallery, and in mainland book stores and online. Inspired by her first publication, she’s now working on a larger book translating the works of many Skaldic poets.
Emily says ultimately, she wants to make her translations engaging and meaningful for readers. “Most of the translations that exist are academic translations, and they’re entirely unreadable for anyone who’s interested in the poetry.”
“It becomes trying to think about how to communicate all of this cultural knowledge and mythology without completely doing away with that mystery of the verse,” she says of her writing goal.