Swedish Book Review is not responsible for the content of external websites.
Theodor Kallifatides – from A New Land Outside My Window
Translated by Peter Linton
This article appeared in the 2003:2 issue.
Theodor Kallifatides was born in Molai in Greece in 1938, and moved to Sweden at the age of 26 to escape the high levels of unemployment at home. He learnt Swedish and worked at various jobs before becoming a lecturer in practical philosophy at the University of Stockholm 1969-72. He was the editor of Bonniers Litterära Magasin 1972-76 and since then has written for many journals and newspapers. A prolific author himself, he has also translated Greek authors into Swedish and vice versa.


The other day, on a dark and windy afternoon, I went on one of my walks around Söder, the southern part of Stockholm. From Bellmansgatan over to the churchyard of Maria Magdalena, where Lucidor and Taube lie buried opposite each other, as if drinking a toast to each other.

Then via Ragwaldsgatan and Södra Latin school down to the covered markets where the giant new Tower seems to flirt coyly with the Stockholm Globe high above our heads.

Medborgarplatsen has long since been ruined by all sorts of knick-knacks and frolics. I hurried past it, past the Kvarnen tavern, where I had once been with a Greek lady friend of mine whose husband had just been told that he had incurable cancer.

I remember holding her hand in mine for such a long time that, in the end, it seemed that we had both disappeared, leaving our hands behind.

When her husband died, she left Sweden. He left nothing but a short letter in which he wrote: “I don't know if there are windows where I am going, but if there are, I will stand by one and think of you.”

At the end he could neither talk, eat nor sleep. But he could still love her.

These memories made me walk more slowly, staring at the ground. As a result, I nearly collided with a smartly dressed gentleman wearing an elegant hat. It turned out that the collision was but the prelude to a warm and surprised embrace.

It was my old friend Elias, whom I had met at the start of my stay in Sweden. A group of young Greeks used to meet in the City Library in order to study for exams together. There were five of us. One is dead, two have returned to Greece, two are still here, Elias and I. But we hardly ever meet, and I some-times wonder if this is because we want to forget those times, or because we want to remember them.

He was on his way to a nearby Greek restaurant in order to book a table for New Year's Eve. He explained that he had been ringing round for several hours for a table without success.

"That's life", I said. "Now that we can afford it, there's no room."

"It's always been like that", he replied. "Don't you remember the old proverb? When the sea turns to yogurt, that's when the poor man finds he has no spoon."

We talked for a while, then parted with the agreeable feeling that some things never change.

His reply had filled me with happiness about being Greek, or more precisely at being back in the Greek language. I kept repeating to myself: "When the sea turns to yogurt, that's when the poor man finds he has no spoon."

I smiled happily to myself, as if remembering something agreeable. Then it struck me that that was exactly right. From being central to my life, the Greek language had become just a memory.

I no longer had any real empathy with my language. I recognised that. But after a 36-year absence, I was beginning to discover it anew. That was a blessing.

My lips moved effortlessly, my voice sank deeper within my chest, like a diver hunting for hidden treasure.

I don't know what else I can say to describe the feeling I experienced. But let me try once more. It was as if I were falling. The fall seemed long and inevitable, when suddenly it was being slowed down by a self-opening parachute.

I would never lose my way as long as the homely hearth of my language was still glowing, even if at a distance.

I would die with my dignity intact. No one can be more safe and secure than one who possesses a language.


There are differences between the Greek language and the Swedish language. But the essential differences, like those that define a culture, are but two: namely their ontology and their logic.

How is the world perceived in these languages? That is the ontological question.

How is the world organised in these two languages? That is the logical question.

The Greek sun is a curly-headed young man with short fair hair. The Swedish sun is a young woman with long blonde hair.

I sometimes wonder what sort of children would be born of a marriage between these two.

These two figures have different characteristics. From these characteristics comes a particular aesthetic sense, and from that, even if not so obviously, comes an ethic.

Ontology, aesthetics and ethics are all children of their language. Greek ontology is tangible and omnipresent. Word-endings attest to their ontological status.

This is not so in Swedish. The ontology is nowhere near as tangible. What does "autumn" convey in Swedish? Is it masculine or feminine? Or something in between? Or nothing? The word-ending divulges no gender.

But in Greek it does. Consequently a Greek's universe is populated. He is never alone in the world. His relationship with the world becomes different. He can tussle with Spring – to him a young girl.

The Swede cannot do this. He is alone in his world of inanimate shadows without substance, or substance without shadows. It is a crueller world.

Quite simply, we inhabit different worlds. That is why we often find it hard to understand and appreciate each others' literature. That well-known line by Stagnelius "Night is mother to the day, chaos is neighbour to God" sounds utterly banal in Greek.

The same is true of one of my most beloved Greek poets, Konstantinos Kavafis. His intensely personal style in Greek – his colourful linguistic attire – becomes merely a grey tracksuit in Swedish.

Words can be translated, but a world cannot. That is why poetry in translation feels so unsatisfying. It’s like making love while asleep.

A language's logical structure has other implications. The main one is that there are things one can do in one language that one cannot do in another.

A Greek like myself cannot understand what air hostesses mean when they wish me a pleasant onward journey. Why is this? It is because an onward journey is a journey that has already taken place. I can say that my onward journey was pleasant, but not that my onward journey will be pleasant.

The point of what I am saying is not to hand out grades to different languages. The point is simply that they are different. Swedish has a far greater tolerance for ambiguous expressions than Greek. This is not always a bad thing. A vigorous "We-ell" can be very useful in many situations.

Over time, this characteristic of the Swedish language has also become a feature of Swedish culture. I know of no other country where the incomprehensible is cherished as warmly as in Sweden. It is the same with silence. We often see praise for a certain author, X, who has returned after 20 years of silence. As if not working were an achievement.

The Swedish language also allows you to ignore logic, as long as you adhere to the conventions of speech. I once read the following words in a magazine: "Everyone could see that the young couple only had eyes for each other".

I laughed for a week, visualising the scene of two young people who lacked all body parts except their eyes. But from a conventional point of view, this was an entirely correct way to write. The Swedish reading public did not mis-understand. It was I, or rather my Greek language, that demanded a clear distinction between two people who only had eyes for each other, and two people who only had eyes.

The interesting thing with these differences at ontological and logical levels is that we can learn them, but cannot adopt them. We cannot live within them, even though we can live with them.

At least it is so if one learns a new language as an adult, as I did. My brain was simply branded with the words: Made in Greece.

Of course this is not something I regret. But it does mean that however much I would like to become Swedish, I cannot.

For my children, things are different. On their brains are the words: Made in Sweden. For that reason, I have not tried to turn them into Greeks. That would only fail. Their native language is Swedish. So is mine.

I start the day reading a Swedish newspaper, I speak Swedish to my wife, I write in Swedish.

My Greek language is becoming more of an oasis than an instrument. Sometimes I sing lewd songs in Greek, I tell myself stories in Greek, I swear in Greek. I am recuperating – just what one should do at an oasis.

One can also play etymological games. The closer you are to a word's etymological roots, the simpler the world becomes – and sometimes smaller as well. The mystery of life is sustained by words that we do not fully comprehend. Words like love, or spring, or death?

Why are they called what they are?

The etymology of the word for the woodworker's tool, the 'vice', creates no difficulty.

Unless one is a foreigner, that is, because the foreigner often lives his life clamped in a vice between two languages.