Rudolf Nilsen’s Arbeidsløs Jul / Jobless Christmas

Over the past while, I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Rudolf Nilsen (1901-1929) considered by many to be Norway’s greatest working-class poet.

Nilsen died in 1929, at the age of 28, not from a life of excess but from illness. He died in Paris from tuberculosis but was buried in Oslo. His grave can be found in the north of the city, in Nordre Gravlund. He is remembered today through a statue erected in his memory and the naming of a square as Rudolf Nilsens plass in the area where he used to live. His was a peripatetic existence, and although most associated in people’s minds with the Vålerenga district of Oslo, his family moved around a lot within the city. Born in Orknøygata, he later lived in several places within his first year, and later at Lakkegata 58 where his parents were divorced. He is most associated with Heimdalsgate 26, the place which formed the basis for one of his most well-known poems: “Nr. 13”.

Although he was working-class, in his short life he mainly made his living as a journalist, chiefly for Norges Kommunistblad, a Communist Party daily. Nilsen was a committed communist. Although he was initially a member of Norway’s Labour Party, when a split came in the party in the 1920s, he sided with the communists and joined the newly formed Norges Kommunistiske Partiet. He was also jailed briefly for his involvement in smuggling Soviet literature into the West and attempting to spread it with a friend, Kyrre Grep.

His first collection På stengrunn was published in 1925, by Andelsforlaget, followed rapidly the following year by På Gjensyn in 1926. A third collection, Hverdag, was in the beginning stages when Nilsen, in the company of friends, went travelling through Spain and France. On the trip he contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly after in Paris in 1929. He was cremated, and his ashes returned to the city he loved, where they were buried.

As I’ve been reading his work, I’ve started some tentative translations, so here’s one called “Arbeidsløs Jul” or “Jobless Christmas” as I’ve titled it. It’s from his first collection På Stengrunn.

Abreidsløs can also be unemployed but usually the term Arbeidsledig is used nowadays, implying a momentary gap between jobs rather than the more permanent sense of being long-term unemployed that Arbeidsløs can signal. My translation follows the poem in the original below.

Arbeidsløs Jul

Vi som er dømt til livet
i gråbeingårdenes by
feirer i dag en solfest
for ham, som er født på ny.

Vi har fått tyve kroner
å feire hans komme med!
For dem har vi kjøpt en julegran
og en hel sekk ved.

For dem har vi kjøpt en bayer
og et stykke hestekjøtt.
Det siste skal minne om stallen
hvor frelseren blev født.

De fattiges herre og mester!
Det var ikke godt for ham.
Han hengtes til slutt på korset
midt mellom synd og skam.

Godt det er bare en skrøne
at Kristus er kommet påny.
Så blir det en fattig mindre
å nagle på kors i vår by.

Vi i de mørke gater
feirer i dag en fest.
Til jul får vi tyve kroner,
til påske: Korsfest! Korsfest!

 

Jobless Christmas

Us doomed to life

in the bone-grey city

celebrate a feast today

for him, born anew.

 

We’ve got twenty quid

to celebrate his coming!

We’ve bought a tree

And a full sack with it.

 

We’ve bought a beer

and a piece of horse meat.

This last to remember the manger,

Where our saviour was born.

 

Our poor lord and master!

It did him no good.

He hanged on the cross

between sin and shame.

 

It’s just as well it’s a lie

that Christ is come again.

One less poor bugger

to crucify.

 

We in the dark streets

celebrate a feast day today.

For Christmas we get twenty quid,

for Easter: Crosses! Crosses!

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