translating poetry [59/365]

On my “About page”, I’ve stated I’m not a «poetry person». That’s not entirely true. Most of the time, I just don’t understand … when there are just words, stacked, one on top of the other… or that’s what it appears to me. They may have a deeper meaning that eludes me. There are times, though, when I fall for, either a single poem, or a poet … and then I fall hard.

Last November, I came across a poem in one of my Swedish groups in Facebook. It was posted for All Souls Day, so it’s about death. It’s so extremely beautiful, the words are quite simple so I thought I’d try and translate it. Well … it’s February now, and I’m still not finished. I keep going back, altering … pondering … I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it like a poem in English — meaning, with the rhythm, the mood and all that.

This lead me to think of the person who translated my all-time favourite poet, and Nobel Prize recipient, Tomas Tranströmer. I believe it was one of his best friends, an American [Robert Bly], who translated his work into English (example below). There’s even a book about their friendship.  When I read them, first in Swedish and then in English, I’m truly amazed. Even more so now, after my attempt with the «In Memoriam» poem.  I didn’t discover his greatness until after he’d just died. It started with one, short, little poem I found somewhere … it struck me how he managed to say so much, in so few words [almost like Hemingway’s six-words-poem]. Now, I’ve read, not most, but a great deal of his work.

So, even though I think I have a pretty good command of the English language … there’s no way I could become a poetry translator, and they who do it have my greatest admiration.

Mitt i livet händer det att döden kommer
och tar mått på människan. Det besöket
glöms och livet fortsätter. Men kostymen
sys i det tysta.
​Halfway through your life, death turns up and takes your pertinent measurements.

We forget the visit. Life goes on.

But someone is sewing the suit in the silence.

Black Postcards
Translated by Robert Bly

17 thoughts on “translating poetry [59/365]

    1. That’s exactly how I felt the first time I read it. It was my first ‘contact’ with Tranströmer … or … second, really, but the first time I didn’t know it was he.

      Hope you’re well …

  1. I am more of a quote person. I have tried some but have to think too hard about it. I feel like if I were any good it would flow. lol There is one about death I love as well and thought if I were ever to have a headstone I would like it to be on there.
    Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry;
    I am not there. I did not die.
    Mary Elizabeth Frye

    1. I recognise that one! It’s beautiful … Certain sentiments of it are the same as the one I’m trying to translate.

      If I were to have a headstone, I think I would like to have a mallard there 🙂

  2. I don’t like poems that are so deeply disguised in puzzling words that the meaning is impossible to understand unless I buy Cole’s notes to explain them to me, but there are a few (actually many) poems that convey ideas with well chosen beautiful words that have stayed with me throughout my life. I love those old favourites. Poetry need not be wordy and mysterious in order to be beautiful. I like this poem (Transtromer’s). Exactly as you say – it says a lot with a few words.

    1. One day, I’ll post that poem, but I’m not ready yet. Thank you, about the English. Swedish being such a small language, with only close to 10 million speakers … will never gain any traction 😀

  3. I think those who can translate poetry are amazingly gifted not just with language but with heart and an intuitive awareness.
    Wow. That short poem hits right between the eyes and makes us pause. Great poems do that.

    1. Yes, exactly. This was the second poem by him, presented to me. The first one, I didn’t know it was he. I can only read them, one at the time [I have a book], because there’s so much food for thought … so many underlying dimensions.

  4. Great post.
    Thinking about translation reminds me of something my wife Tamara has said several times. That is that in days gone by people wrote by hand or they annotated typewritten drafts by hand.

    Whatever the method, the earlier drafts were always preserved. In that way we can see how they worked and how they crafted the final result. We can ‘read back’ and see how their thoughts changed and developed.

    And we can do the same with our own work as we are working.

    All of that is gone with computers unless we keep earlier drafts – and who does that? Probably very few people.

    Black Postcards is a beautiful poem – clear, evocative, and does what poems often do – breathe recognition through us.

    1. Funny, though … the little poem, where I’m trying to lay my hand in translating — I’m doing it by hand! Never thought of that … I printed out the Swedish text, and then went at it by hand.

      Normally, I’m such a “computer person”, but not this time.

    1. It is very powerful. That is not my translation, it’s an American [Robert Bly]. I’m still working on the one I talked about …

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