Scandinavian Ballads

Please welcome today my guest Ian Cumpstey.

Ian is the author of Lord Peter and Little Kersten, The Faraway North, and Warrior Lore.  All three books are collections of Scandinavian ballads.


ian cumpstey, norway, norwegian folk songs, norwegian balladsWhat is your musical background?

I have always been singing and playing music in one way or another, though how I have done this has not always been the same. I have tended to find at least one choir to sing in in most places I have lived, ever since I was young, and including when I was abroad in Sweden and France. But having said that, I am not part of a choir at the moment.

I learned to play some instruments when I was little – violin and clarinet – but I carelessly abandoned these when I was still young. I started playing the guitar shortly after that. I still play the guitar (I play fingerstyle and/or using open tunings to a large extent), and occasionally I also play other stringed instruments.

Since I returned to the UK about 5 years ago, I have become much more involved in a folkier music scene. I go out about once a week to play and sing with others in informal pub sessions and similar occasions. The kind of things we play are very diverse, but there is a lot of folk and blues ... and ballads. I do also write and perform my own songs.


faraway north, ballads of the north, ballads of ScandinaviaHow did you become interested in Scandinavia?

There are a few quite unrelated reasons ... one is through sport. I do a lot of orienteering, and I have been involved in this sport for many years. The sport originated in Scandinavia, it is still more-or-less dominated by Scandinavia at elite level (though maybe less now than 20 years ago), and there is a great influence of Scandinavia on the sport at all times. Sometimes this is obvious as we are always thinking about "what would the Swedes do?" as we try to improve, but sometimes it is on an unconscious level as several of the words we use in orienteering are very recent loan-words from Scandinavian languages, like orienteering, control, controller, gaffling, brick, galoppen etc.

And then I went to live in Sweden and stayed there for about eight years. That was because of work. At that time, I was working as an academic chemist, and when I finished my doctorate, I was able to find a two-year position in Lund in the south of Sweden where I was able to work on an interesting project in the area I wanted to get into with my chemistry research. When that was finished, I took another academic position in Stockholm and stayed there for nearly six more years.

So while I was living over there I became fairly immersed in the language and other aspects of Sweden.

What led you to the medieval music of Scandinavia in particular?

It's something that I got into in something of a roundabout way. Singing is much more a part of the culture in Sweden than it is in other places I have lived. And there are occasions when it is expected that everyone will sing. Whenever there is a sit-down dinner party, be it at the university (often), or birthdays, or weddings, or midsummer, or doubtless many other occasions, there will be singing. Not knowing the words is no excuse: guests will be provided with a songbook, and the songs will be sung. The Lucia holiday in December is another time when there is a lot of singing of winter songs, Lucia songs, and carols.

Scandinavian folk ballads, ian cumpstey, norwegian ballads, scandinavian folkloreWhen it comes to singing in Sweden, I should probably mention Allsång på Skansen, which is a huge weekly televised public sing-along in a park/outdoor museum in Stockholm. This is an extreme example of singing together in public, though I never went to it in person.

So when I was living in Sweden I was quite often singing songs in Swedish. This is when I first started thinking about translation. I started wondering about how much of these songs could be understood by someone who could speak English but not Swedish (some words can sound quite similar between the two languages, especially when sung).

The first things I had a go at translating were some of these songs that I was regularly singing and hearing, which include a lot of drinking songs, some things by early 20th century balladeer Taube, and some by the classic 18th century drinking song master Bellman. I also looked at St Staffan's song, which is one of the medieval ballads that is still sung as a Lucia song.

At the same time I was getting more into folk music and listening to ballads in English, and at some point I made the connection, and discovered this huge and rich number of surviving Scandinavian ballads.

Do you perform these pieces as a musician?

I do sing ballads at the sessions I go to locally. Mainly these are traditional English-language ballads, but I do sometimes sing ballads I have translated into English. I do sometimes perform songs in Swedish (not ballads though ... probably too long when people probably can't understand what the song is about). Some of these Swedish songs are modern. But there are also a few songs by Bellman that I like to sing, either in Swedish or in my English translation. Bellman was a Swedish songwriter active in the late 1700s. Many of his songs are drinking songs, but he also wrote about other aspects of life and love and death.


I saw on your blog that you speak and write Norwegian. Did you learn the language specifically for your work with these ballads?

I actually speak Swedish, though some understanding of Danish and Norwegian comes as a bonus. But yes it has nothing really to do with working with the ballads. I learned Swedish when I was living and working in Sweden.

The old language that the ballad texts are written down in is a little different from modern Swedish, though, and the spelling can be quite variable. So becoming familiar with a large number of ballads helps with the understanding of each individual one. The language can be a bit archaic in places, but it tends to be straightforward and direct, which makes translation easier.

Working with older Danish and especially older Norwegian ballad texts can be a little slower for me, especially as the Norwegian texts are written with unusual dialectal spellings. But even here, it is very helpful to be familiar with many ballad texts as the formulations used in the ballads pass essentially unchanged from ballad to ballad and across national boundaries (of course these boundaries have hardly been constant in Scandinavia over the past few hundred years).


I think you did the translations into English? How long does that typically take you for each ballad?

One important aspect of my approach to translating the ballads is the fact that they usually survive in many variants. This is not always the case, of course. I have translated ballads from only a single surviving variant, or where there are two variants where the differences are so minor as to be fairly inconsequential. But typically when translating a Swedish ballad there may be 4, 5, 6 versions of the text (and there may or may not also be versions of the same ballad in Danish and Norwegian). And these versions may seem more complete, or may be more fragmentary.

The first part is to read all these versions and to do a word-for-word translation without worrying too much about rhyme or metre.

I will then look at the different versions of the ballads, and see whether the English translation would benefit from combining different ballad fragments to make a cohesive whole. And then I will try to get the rhyme and metre to work as best as possible, while also maintaining the various repetitive patterns that are found in the ballad texts ...


What are some of the difficulties of translating lyrics into another language?

Two obvious aspects of the ballad texts are rhyme and metre. These are major defining characteristics of these ballads.

There are two main ways the ballads rhyme: as ABCB, and as AA. When these are sung, the four-line verses may (or may not) also be followed by a single chorus line (called the omkväde) that is repeated after each verse. The two-line verses may also have repeated omkväde lines; typically there will be an omkväde line after each verse line. These omkväde lines will not rhyme with the rest of the ballad, and will have little to do with the metre, and often seem to be more associated with the melody than with the rest of the ballad text.

The way the English and Scandinavian languages have come down to us means that some of the time, the rhymes come for free in translation. So if for example, you have lines ending in röd and död, these can become red and dead straight away. Sometimes you may get rhymes for free even when the spelling and pronunciation have diverged, so höga and öga become high and eye.

Alliteration is less obvious in these ballads than in older Scandinavian poetry. But one place where it does crop up is in some of the common repeated phrases. Just as in English-language ballads and folk songs there are various recurring motifs – a milk-white steed, a dapple-grey, a lily-white hand, and so on – similar motifs occur in the Scandinavian ballads. And these are sometimes alliterative. For example, there is böljande blå (the billowy blue), used for the sea, or gångare grå (palfrey grey), a very typical horse. For some of these I have managed to be alliterative in translation, but not all.

Actually, repetition is an important part of the ballad phenomenon. And it occurs in a number of different ways.

Quite often, a verse may be repeated (usually immediately), with minor variations. I suppose this can be a way of emphasising a point for the audience, as well as making a text easier to remember for a performer. For example,

In Lund's church in Skåne
Are preaching pastors three
The king himself will be there today
And there will the maiden be

In Lund's church in Skåne
Are preaching pastors ten
The king himself will be there today
With all his fierce court men


(from Peter Pallebosson in The Faraway North)


It is also quite common for very similar verses to occur in different ballads. For example,

They hoisted hight the silken sails
Upon the gilded masts
And never let those sails be struck
Till Aslack's land they passed


(from Heming and King Harald in Warrior Lore)

compared with

They hoisted high the silken sail
Up to the gilded spar
And it wasn't struck to the benches down
Till Trollbotten they saw


(from Åsmund Frægdegjevar in The Faraway North)

Again, this may make the audience more familiar with the subject matter of the ballad they are hearing. I try to incorporate all these kinds of repetition into my ballad translations as I think this repetition is a very important characteristic of the ballads.

As I mentioned, I have also tried to translate some other songs from Swedish, and sometimes this has been a lot more difficult or less satisfying. This could partly be due to the songs using more "poetic" language than the "direct" language typical of the ballads. Or sometimes due to more complex rhyming patterns, which are of course more difficult to maintain. Or perhaps due to the fact that usually there is a little flexibility in ballad texts due to the existence of more than one "original" version, whereas this is not the case for a typical song.

How many other people are doing similar work as you, in preserving these ballads and this music?

Occasionally I do see people doing similar things. I'm always surprised! The other week I was playing at my local open mic night, and a band came on and did one of the medieval Danish ballads (in Danish). That was a surprise.

Around the time of great ballad activity in the 1800s, when Child was compiling his collection of English and Scottish ballads, and the Scandinavian ballad giants were publishing their collections, a number of translations were made into English, mainly from Danish. Some further translation work as been done since then, but less.

If you'd like to learn more about him or his books:




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