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An Artist’s Battle Against Time to Translate Strindberg’s ‘Inferno’ from Swedish to English to Arabic, and Back Again

An Artist’s Battle Against Time to Translate Strindberg’s ‘Inferno’ from Swedish to English to Arabic, and Back Again

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Youssef Strindberg
Installation view “Strindberg vs. Youssef.” Courtesy of Nordiska museet.

“Everything was yellow,” artist Daniel Yousseff says with a disgusted expression as he walks me through his rather anxiety-inducing yellow-walled exhibition Strindberg vs. Yousseff at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. The gesamtkunstwerk comprises a Borgesian-style collection of small labyrinthian rooms, with excerpts from August Strindberg’s 1897 biography Inferno scribbled across the walls in black marker. Seen from one of the upper floors of the stately 19th-century museum building, the work simply looks like a small exhibition. However, walking through the space, being met with a facsimile of one of Strindberg’s notebooks installed in a vitrine, his most famous painting, double-sided, Vågen VIII and VI, or The Wave, (1901-02), from the museum’s collection, a larger-than-life neon piece outlining Strindberg’s face, and a video work, Strindberg vs. Youssef sets the stage for a clever exercise in paranoid introspection—on multiple levels.

In 2023, the Nordic Museum celebrated its 150th anniversary and the opening of its new presentation of its permanent collection, Nordbor, or Northern Dwellers. Founded by Arthur Hazelius the museum’s aim was and still is to preserve and showcase Nordic everyday life from the 1500 until present day. Together with his buyers, Hazelius acquired material culture from across the region: textiles, toys, kitchen utensils, archives and letters from both aristocrats and farmers, sleds, skis, furniture, farming equipment, and the list goes on. A stone throw away, lies Skansen, an open-air museum founded by Hazelius in 1891 that hosts architecture from around the country. With its focus on nordic life, identity and both understanding and preserving the self,  lies at the core of the museum, which are also the leading functions of autobiographies. Fittingly, the last page of the catalog accompanying Youssef’s exhibition reads: “Out of these pages, I will then construct myself.” Hazelius and Strindberg were pals, and Strindberg helped his friend acquire pieces for the museum—their correspondence remains in the museum’s collection along with the largest collection of Strindberg’s paintings, several of his original manuscripts, and his library.

Installaion view. Daniel Youssef. “Strindberg vs. Youssef.” Courtesy of the artist.

Although the museum certainly holds sinister objects, several neck irons for instance, Spanska fioler, one from a Swedish court and another from a court in Bavaria, which were used to shame wrongdoers in public by forcing them to stand in the neck iron. Most objects do not have this Inferno-esque ethos. The autobiography Inferno portrays Strindberg living in Paris, suffering from paranoia after a successful alchemic experiment. His friends, artists Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin ridicule him, and he attempts to regain control through manic experiments. Its fragmentary style, avant-garde and experimental for its time, is one of the few novels the Swedish writer wrote in French. While Strindberg was contending with the voices in his head, Youssef navigated those beyond.

Youssef’s installation is more than what meets the eye, its focal point lies in AI, ahead of his time, the artist started working with Google Translate before the AI craze. Upon reading the wall texts we are welcomed into Youssef’s quest to translate Inferno, sentence by sentence, through Google Translate. From (it’s already translated) Swedish to English, to Arabic, and back to Swedish—all the languages that the artist speaks. It took shy of two years and the advancement of the software is visible and spurred the artist to finish the project before the AI became so good that it rendered the exercise null.

Strindberg vs. Youssef
Installation view “Strindberg vs. Youssef.” Photograph courtesy of Nordiska museet.

In the excerpt below, Strindberg’s student room changes to a bedroom, a trunk (chest) changes to a trunk (car), a porcelain crucible to cruises from China (country). The meaning of the last sentence remains intact, albeit in a different tense: bought from money I (had) stole(n) from myself. Still seething with self-deprecation in true Strindbergian fashion.

Väl anländ på nytt till mitt eländiga student-
rum i Quartier latin, grävde jag i min koffert
och drog fram ur deras gömställe sex deglar
av fint porslin, i förväg köpta för pengar
som jag hade stulit från mig själv.
— Strindberg

Jag kom tillbaka till mitt eländiga sovrum
i Latin Curtier, grävde i min baklucka och
släpade ut sex kryssningar från det vackra
Kina, köpte i förväg för pengarna jag stal
från mig själv.
— Youssef

Studying Youssef’s translations some parts are humorous while some passages simply do not make sense, other sentences are better than the original. Translation is an art that, for those who have used it over the years, Google Translate has gotten better at in terms of eloquence and context. The software is not yet on par with a professional translator, but certainly better than many humans—and, a welcome tool for all. I used it several times in writing this article. Furthermore, as syntax devolves in the above comparison, and sharpens in later passages I do not feel trepidation. Instead, I think about how Google Translate has allowed me to converse with people with whom I do not share the same spoken language.

Born to immigrant parents, living with the feeling of being ‘good but not good enough’ has plagued the artist—he explains, that he does not read or write Arabic and he speaks Swedish with a slight accent. However, as his childhood friend, the Kurdish-Swedish journalist, and novelist writes in the catalog: “To live in the space between different countries, gazes, cultures, identities, and languages is to be closer to dual vision that not only investigates but also bridges near and far, history and now. Or, if you like East and West.” (My translation). In short, multiculturalism offers a richer way of understanding the world and making connections in it. As the far-right Swedish democrats aim to establish ‘a Swedish cultural canon’ it is telling that the Nordic Museum lifts this project where the meeting of languages is a facet of Nordic life, in the 19th century and today.

August Strindberg Vågen
August Strindberg. “Vågen VI,” 1901. 100 x 70 cm. Oil on canvas. Photographed by Mats Landin. Courtesy of Nordiska museet.

Curator and the museum’s Creative Director, Vanessa Gandy—who, like Youssef, grew up bilingual—gave Youssef carte blanche to realize his antics and was instrumental in giving it extra flair. The multi-talented andy (who also designed the museum’s stylish new logo which is based of one of the building’s architectural elements) approached the artist after seeing another one of his neon works referencing Strindberg on view in Swedish Ecstasy curated by Daniel Birnbaum, at Bozar in Brussels. Adding to the theatricality and preciousness of the exhibition, Grandy wanted the two expressive and powerful depictions of waves, Vågen VI and VIII (1901-1902), to be treated like the Mona Lisa, she explains in the catalog. An ode to great artistry yet filled with mystery. The piece, which is comprised of two paintings back-to-back, has in the 2000s been exhibited at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Tate Modern in London, and most recently Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. In this case, its dual nature is a nice allusion to communicating in two different languages.

Reading the catalog, which exudes an air of mania and includes pages of Strindberg’s book annotated by the artist with drawings and words in crayon—”DESIRE,” “KING ARE YOU GLAD YOU ARE KING,” and, my favorite alluding to imposter-syndrome “A forgery is meant to steal the identity of the original it simulates.” The performative nature of the work is reinforced as correspondence between Hazelius and Strindberg is published alongside essays by Youssef’s friends, art critic, Dan Wolgers and Can, reflecting the chaos and community that have their place in negotiating identity, in both Strindberg and Youssef’s work. The work explores open-ended anxieties around language, translation, technology, and identity without coming to any conclusion—except, perhaps, observing anxiety as a necessary evil (a very Swedish approach).

Installation view “Strindberg vs. Youssef.” Courtesy of Nordiska museet.

“Everything was yellow in the hospital: the light, the walls, the liquids I drank, the food,” Youssef said as we entered the show. In addition to Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of short stories Labyrinths (1962, 1964, 1970, 1983) a prolonged hospital visit inspired the work’s aesthetic. A mental institution, I asked, not joking, having worked at a closed psychiatric ward–that’s what it reminded me of. “No it wasn’t that exciting,” he smiled and explained that he was receiving inpatient treatment for a stomach issue. As hospitals are a place in a constant flux of both progress and dead-ends, but imperative for our survival, it seems a fitting aesthetic to emulate as a receptacle for conversations on AI, translation, and identity to brew.

Strindberg vs. Youssef is on view through December 31st, 2024 at Nordiska museet, Djurgårdsvägen 6-16, 115 93 Stockholm.

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