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photo of Emille Demant Hatt

Danish artist and ethnologist (1873—1958)

Emilie Demant Hatt

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Growing up in the quiet countryside of Denmark’s Jylland Peninsula, Emilie Demant dreamed of a larger life than marrying a local farmer or merchant in her hometown of Selde. After a serious flirtation with soon-to-be-famous composer Carl Nielsen, Emilie went to Copenhagen to study art, first at the studio of Emilie Mundt and Marie Luplau, and then at the Women's Academy of Art. Along with her art studies in and out of the academy, she traveled in Europe and moved in mildly bohemian circles in Copenhagen.

But in 1904, at the age of 31, Emilie's life changed radically when her sister suggested a trip to the north of Scandinavia on the "Lapland Express." Traveling by train between Narvik, Norway, and Kiruna, Sweden, the two sisters met a Sami wolf-hunter, Johan Turi. Although their meeting was brief and they had to rely on a Finnish interpreter in the train compartment, the two managed to convey something of their deepest desires to each other. Johan Turi told Emilie Demant, “I want to write a book about the Lapps.” She in turn confided, “I have always wanted to be a nomad.”

Johan Turi

Emilie Demant returned to Copenhagen and found a way to study the Sami language. Three years later, in June of 1907, she returned to begin a year of living out in the open, first with some of Turi’s reindeer-herding relations in the high mountains between Sweden and Norway during the summer and fall, and then with another Sami family during the reindeer migrations of spring 1908. She spent more than a year in the mountains, taking notes and photographs, sketching, and painting. Although Emilie was not trained as an ethnologist, her habit of looking brought an artist’s eye to her new life. Because she often stayed behind with the women and children while the men were working with the reindeer, Emilie’s record of her “nomad year,” which she published in 1913 in Danish as Med lapperne i højfjeldet, or With the Lapps in the High Mountains, has proved an invaluable record of Sami domestic customs.

sketch of Lapp Woman

During the fall of 1908, finding that Johan had gotten no further with the book he hoped to write, Emilie settled for several months with him in a small cabin in the mountains and helped him put down Muitalus sámiid birra, or The Book of Lapps. In addition to transcribing his notes, interviewing him, and organizing his text into a coherent manuscript, she translated it into Danish. The book was published in an innovative bilingual Sami-Danish edition in 1910 as Bogen om lapperne (translated into English as Johan Turi’s Book of Lapland, and published in 1931). Although a Sami novelist had previously written about his people in Norwegian, and although the Bible and other Christian texts had been translated into Sami for missionary purposes, Johan Turi’s book was the first text ever written in Sami by a Sami author. It has been regarded as a classic ever since, and today, with a renaissance of interest in Sami studies, Turi’s life and work have been the subject of growing scholarly attention.

l"Reindeer" linocut

Emilie Demant returned to Denmark and in 1910 married Gudmund Hatt, a professor of cultural geography at the University of Copenhagen. She continued writing about the Sami. She also went on painting and produced a substantial body of work, including a series of lyrically beautiful paintings of Lapland, which today are stored in the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm. Earlier paintings of hers are stored and occasionally displayed at the regional art museum of Skive, Denmark.

Emille Demant Hatt painting

A new English translation:
In addition to my research into Emilie Demant Hatt's life and work in Denmark and Sweden, I've been translating With the Lapps in the High Mountains, which has been out of print in Danish for decades and has never appeared in English. An excerpt from my translation was published in Two Lines XIV, an excellent literary journal in San Francisco that focuses on translation and international writers. Other excerpts have appeared or are forthcoming in The Antioch Review, Orion, and Natural Bridge. See Selected Recent Essays and Translations.

Note: "Sami" is the word that the approximately 75,000 indigenous people of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia use for themselves. Since the 1970s, when they began to organize politically and culturally on a wider scale, Sami has become the correct manner to refer to them. Sami, sometimes written as "Saami," is both adjective and noun and is also the name of the Sami language in general; however, there are several Sami languages within that grouping. North Sami is the most widely spoken. In the past, outsiders and the Sami themselves when speaking another language referred to themselves as "Lapps." Emilie Demant Hatt, writing early in the twentieth century, would have used "Lapp" or "Lappish" with no disrespect.

Learn more by visiting http://emiliedemanthatt.com