Svårmod: In Translation

"Penelope" by Leandro Bassano

"Penelope" by Leandro Bassano

In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Viola, the play's heroine who disguises herself as a man, tells her employer, Duke Orsino, a story. It's about a woman (her, in fact) whose unrequited love (for him, in fact) causes the woman to suffer in secret. Viola tells him that the woman “sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief.” Viola uses it to illustrate a woman's constancy to the Duke, but her concept of smiling at grief has had more pertinent applications for me recently.

Smiling at grief

We don't have a singular term for "smiling at grief" in English. Karin Tidbeck addressed this sentiment in an essay discussing the translation of her entrancing collection of short stories, Jagannath, from Swedish to English. "The beloved Swedish word svårmod translates into 'hardship mood' which translates into a sort of despairing acceptance of the facts of one's existence," she writes. "But it also translates as what a friend of mine called 'smiling through tears.'"

Tidbeck admits that svårmod defies concrete definition, it is born of a shared cultural understanding that she recreates in her stories, most notably in "Some Letters for Ove Lindström." A young woman writes letters to her late father making connections and finding beauty in the matter-of-fact acceptance of his death. The daughter tells him about his cat, writing, "She catches mice, crunching on them under the table. She's a tidy eater, leaving only the hearts. I find them here and there, lying on the floor like red raisins."

Smiling at grief is a brave act, something that all storytellers have been intimately familiar with throughout time. It brings to mind those patient heroines who have proven a woman's constancy time and again. Like Penelope, who spends her days weaving and her nights unweaving, waiting, hoping for her husband's return in the face of the real fear that he is lost to her forever. Then there are heroines like Shakespeare's Viola and Austen's Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Smiling through tears becomes the central state of affairs in their inner lives. Grief is our companion, they seem to say, but we will make of it what we can even as we hope for better.

Writing as svårmod

Recently, I exchanged a few brief messages with a friend who has gone through a rough patch. After asking about the state of her writing life, she told me that she was using writing as a recovery method, but she wrote of this in a dejected way, as if the writing that had become more necessary to her was therefore less necessary to everyone else.

Of course, the truth is that all writers use writing as a recovery method. Writing is our way to smile at grief, to smile through our tears. Writing is svårmod. While I found convenient examples of women who accept reality against hope, svårmod is not confined to one gender, it is a basic human experience. The first of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering. Pain in life is inevitable. In stories it's essential. However, being able to take that pain and make it beautiful, I told her, was a small triumph of humanity. It matters.

Our conversation ended shortly thereafter, and I didn't press any advice on her. I've known enough grief recently myself to know the limits of one person's support. We just have to keep reading, keep writing. Things may not get better, she said, but we must carry on. And like those women who have come before us, we can always hope.