Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation
By DAVID ORR
Published: March 9, 2012
If you’re a poet outside the Anglophone world, and you manage to win the Nobel Prize, two things are likely to happen. First, your ascendancy will be questioned by fiction critics in a major English-language news publication. Second, there will be a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any), as publishers attempt to capitalize on your 15 minutes of free media attention.
And lo, for the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, it has come to pass. The questioning came from, among others, Philip Hensher for The Telegraph (in Britain) and Hephzibah Anderson for Bloomberg News, both of whom implied that real writers — Philip Roth, for instance — had been bypassed to flatter a country largely inhabited by melancholic reindeer. And when Transtromer hasn’t been doubted by fiction critics, he’s been clutched at by publishing houses. Since his Nobel moment in October, three different Transtromer books have been released (or reissued): THE DELETED WORLD: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13), with translations by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson; TOMAS TRANSTROMER: Selected Poems (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Robert Hass; and FOR THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: Poems and a Memoir (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Daniel Halpern. These books join two major collections already in print: “The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer,” from Graywolf Press, translated by Robert Bly, and “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems,” from New Directions, translated by Robin Fulton. So a little complaining, a glut of books: pretty typical.
But what’s unusual about Transtromer is that the most interesting debates over English versions of his work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.
To understand this dispute, it’s necessary to have a sense of the poetry itself. Transtromer prefers still, pared-down arrangements that rely more on image and tone than, say, peculiarities of diction or references to local culture. The voice is typically calm yet weary, as if the lines were meant to be read after midnight, in an office from which everyone else had gone home. And his gift for metaphor is remarkable, as in the start of “Open and Closed Spaces” (in Fulton’s translation):
A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside
the gloves on the shelf.
They suddenly grow, spread,
and black out the whole house from inside.
The first comparison is surprising enough — work is a glove? With which we feel the world? But notice how quickly yet smoothly Transtromer extends the metaphor into even stranger territory; the gloves expand from the refuge of the house (which is implicitly the private self) to obscure everything we know and are. The poem becomes a meditation on what constitutes a prison, what could be considered a release (“ ‘Amnesty,’ runs the whisper in the grass”) and whether these might lie closer together than we realize. It ends:
Further north you can see from a summit the
endless blue carpet of pine forest
where the cloud shadows
are standing still.
No, are flying.
The clouds appear motionless but are actually flying — just as our lives move, or fail to move, in ways we only dimly understand. Open spaces may become closed, but the reverse is true as well.
Transtromer, trained as a psychologist, has always been interested in the ways our personalities obscure as much as they reveal. “Two truths approach each other,” he writes in “Preludes” (translation by May Swenson), “One comes from within, / one comes from without — and where they meet you have the chance / to catch a look at yourself.” In this context, his heavy reliance on metaphor isn’t surprising. A metaphor insists on the similarity of its tenor and vehicle, but also declares their fundamental difference: after all, the metaphor itself would be unnecessary if its components were identical. These countervailing purposes become, in Transtromer’s hands, a way of holding together what he can and can’t say. As he puts it in Fulton’s translation of “April and Silence”: “I am carried in my shadow / like a violin / in its black case.” He balances these often startling juxtapositions with simple diction and generally straightforward syntax, making the complexity of his poetry a matter of depth rather than surface. His poems are small, cool fields dissolving into dreams at their borders.
This is exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory. The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.
The problem is, simple can be complicated. It’s impossible to say how much Robertson did or didn’t rely on Fulton’s translations in preparing “The Deleted World,” but it’s not too hard (if you can corral a Swedish friend, as I did) to figure out where he deviates from the originals. The changes generally make Transtromer less, well, strange and more typically “poetic.” Consider “Autumnal Archipelago (Storm),” which in Robertson’s version begins like so:
Suddenly the walker comes upon the
ancient oak: a huge
rooted elk whose hardwood antlers, wide
as this horizon, guard the stone-green
walls of the sea.
And here is Fulton’s more literal take:
Here the walker suddenly meets the giant
oak tree, like a petrified elk whose crown is
furlongs wide before the September ocean’s
murky green fortress.
Robertson forgoes the poem’s Sapphic stanza form, which seems reasonable, but he also turns the passage’s deliciously bizarre doubled metaphor (an oak tree is like an elk turned to stone) into a less jarring formulation. Similarly, in “From March 1979,” Robertson translates the line “Det vilda har inga ord” into “Wilderness has no words” when a more accurate version would be “The wild has no words” (Fulton says “The untamed . . . ”). “Wilderness” is a bunch of trees; “the wild” is another thing entirely. But perhaps the least successful adjustment is in “Calling Home”:
Our phonecall spilled out into the dark
and glittered between the countryside
and the town
like the mess of a knife-fight.
There’s no fight, with knives or otherwise, in the original — Transtromer’s speaker “slept uneasily” after the call home, but the cause of his unease is unresolved. Again, the poem seems simplified.
That said, some of Robertson’s alterations do a fine job of conveying a poem’s spirit. Rather than using the literal “shriveled” to describe a sail, he says it’s “grey with mildew.” Rather than telling us that “dead bodies” are smuggled into “a silent world,” he says “the dead” are so transported. In general, while one can quibble about Robertson’s book, “The Deleted World” is pleasurable whether or not it’s a good translation of Transtromer.
Is that enough? In some ways, certainly — we read poetry for entertainment, not nutritional value. But translating a poem is like covering a song. We can savor the liberties someone is taking with, say, “Gin and Juice” in a way we couldn’t understand similar variations on songs written by Martians. And Transtromer, however popular he is among poets, remains largely unknown to readers eager to see work from the new Nobel laureate. In this instance, even a sincere imitation probably isn’t the most helpful form of flattery.