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Harry Martinson Centenary

A Translator's Look at
Flowering Nettle,

Harry Martinson's
Nässlorna blomma

Ann-Marie Vinde

Harry Martinson Centenary
This article appeared in the 2004:1 issue.

Stinging NettleThe Title

The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is a weed with fine stinging hairs and little green flowers. It grows near houses, on rubbish heaps, and wasteland. It is attractive to butterflies and host to the eggs and larvae of the small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticæ, Sw. nässelfjäril, Sweden's most common butterfly. It is associated with neglect, decay – and malice.

Harry Martinson's third prose work, Nässlorna blomma, the story of an early 20th century boyhood, came out in the autumn of 1935. The first translation, which was into English, was published in London as early as the autumn of 1936. It is called Flowering Nettle and was done by Naomi Walford, who had already translated Martinson's Kap Farväl! (1933) / Cape Farewell! (1934).


Martinson formulated the title as early as 1930 and in the following five years often spoke about it and his struggles with what he meant to be “the book of his life”. Interestingly enough, Nässlorna blomma is also the last line of the poem “Göinge”, in Natur, which appeared in 1934, one year before Nässlorna blomma. Göinge is the wooded area in north-eastern Skåne and western Blekinge where Martinson came from and also the setting of Flowering Nettle. The poem describes how desolate and empty of human life it is now that its poor inhabitants have given up and left. The last four lines read:

Nu susar vinden till ingen.
Torpen dogo bråddöd bland sina liljor.
Men det rosslar ännu i skorstensmurarna.
Nässlorna blomma.

Now the wind whispers to no one.
The crofts died a sudden death amid their lilies.
But the chimney shafts still give off rattles.
The nettles are thriving.

(Prose translation: AMV)

Nässlorna blomma is a simple declarative clause, whose subject, nässlorna, is a definite noun in the plural. It would normally refer to specific nettles, but could also be indefinite in meaning, “nettles”. The predicate verb, blomma, agrees with its plural subject; it has the form of the third person plural of the present tense. (Since the 1940s, when the written present tense forms gradually caught up with those of the spoken language, there has only been one form, blommar, whether the subject is singular or plural.) It makes a good title: it looks and sounds beautiful; it is a plain but even so, slightly intriguing statement. What makes it so is the several meanings of the verb blomma: “flower”, “bloom”, and the figurative blomstra, frodas: “flourish”, “prosper”, “thrive” – and the definite form of the subject.

Seven translations have the same form, and similar meaning, as the Swedish title. In Danish it is Nælderne blomstrer (1937), Norwegian Neslene blomstrer (1941), Icelandic Netlurnar blómgast (1958), German Die Nesseln blühen (1974), Spanish Las ortigas florecen (1979), in Finnish Nokkoset kukkivat (1939). The first French edition, from 1978, likewise has Les orties fleurissent. The second French edition (2001), however, has Même les orties fleurissent (Even the nettles flower), that is the translators obviously found the previous title wanting and so clarified it.

The form of the English title is different though. It is a noun phrase, whose head, however, is not the expected “nettles”, but an indefinite noun in the singular, nettle, premodified by the present participle flowering, here functioning as an adjective. The corresponding Swedish would be blommande nässla, nässla/n som blommar/blommade. Whether it was the translator or the editor who formulated the title, s/he seems to have focused on the main character, the underprivileged Martin Tomasson, in settling for Flowering Nettle, which is more figurative than the other translations mentioned.

The only obvious references to nettles in the book are to be found in the passages about Norda farm, the most forbidding of the boy's foster homes:

“Norda was a big but inert farmstead, where all was in slow ruin. This showed most plainly in the summer when the corners of the buildings stood deep in millions of angrily rustling nettles. There were nettles inside the mouth of the well too. When one took hold of the crank and lowered the bucket on its rusty iron chain, it had first to sink through the forest of nettles and celandines, beneath which it disappeared. ... Now only Karla and the moss were vigorous, and the million of nettles which scourged one's ankles with poison in the summer. Karla was the latest manifestation. [“of the former vigour and power of the place”] She stood, scornful and truculent, on the cairn of this ancient steading, and waved a banner of nettles.” (FN, pp. 179-180, my italics.)

“the stove in there [“the cold inner room next the ‘parlour'”] had been out of order for many years. It had never got done. Nothing got done at Norda – only the nettles, the wrangles and Karla's biennial cycle of fertility.” (FN, p. 185)

“They were topping turnips on the moss. Martin and Karla. ... The tops fell on their clogs. The tops were sharp, they sort of nettled their hands.” (NB, 2000, p. 161; translation: AMV)

Judging from the quotations, it is the abundance and sting of nettles at Norda that stayed with the author. There is no mention of flowering nettles.


Missing Epigraph

The second thing a reader familiar with the original will notice about Flowering Nettle is that the epigraph of Nässlorna blomma, which is composed of the first line and lines nine to twelve of the twelve-line melancholy poem “Lyssnare” (Listener) included in Nomad (1931), has been omitted. Did the editor feel it was not needed or did Walford find it hard to translate? It is a pity it has been removed because it alludes to important parts of the experience of Martin Tomasson: being little; listening to toothless people telling of sick crops; feeling cold even by firesides:

Jag var liten i lyssnandets dagar.
Tandlösa munnar berättade i sena höstar
om spetälsk kärrsäd och
beska mjöldrygans blomma.
Jag frös vid min barndoms härd.

I was little in my listening days.
On late autumn evenings toothless mouths told
of leprous marsh crops and
the flower of the bitter ergot.
I felt cold by the hearth of my childhood.

(Prose translation: AMV)

On page 47 of Flowering Nettle the author puts it in prose, “When Martin looked back after many years, it seemed to him that all his childhood, all his charity-boyhood, had been a time of listening”. All through the book the boy listens. In the early 20th century, children, and children in community care probably more so than any others,were not supposed to talk unless answering questions. Consequently, the only times Martin really talks is when he says his lessons at school, but more about that shortly.


Right Writing

In 1974 Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Martinson “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”. It is customary for laureates to make a short speech of thanks at the banquet in Stockholm City Hall, but Martinson abstained. In speaking for both of them, Eyvind Johnson, with a background not unlike Martinson's – both were once poor country boys, Johnson from the far north, Martinson from the small isolated province of Blekinge in the far south – dwelt with gratitude on teachers who had given them a direction: writers and thinkers of the past and present, and their first, fine school teachers under whose supervision they had practised the form and order of letters, eventually to get a clearer idea of felicitous, and less felicitous ways of using the alphabet.

Martin Tomasson, the orphaned protagonist of Nässlorna blomma / Flowering Nettle, also praises school and his teachers but need not practise the order of letters very hard. He quickly learns his ABC on going to school, at the age of seven. His school is a refuge from his various foster homes on farms in the rural south east and the hard physical work he has to carry out there: a “divine landfall”, in the language of the seaman he eventually becomes. He loved everything about it, “the school-books, lessons, sums, chalks, slate-writing and Alma the schoolmistress ... When he grew older he felt that this love remained as strong, and felt more clearly what school was: a world of light ruling the dark places;” (FN pp. 63-64)

Aged ten, walking alone for many miles to his third foster home, Norda farm – the nettle place – he thinks of himself as a little lamp whose flame flutters helplessly before the parish he is dependent on. “Perhaps it was because of this he loved School”; “this” referring to his insecurity, “School” representing stability; “Inside the school was Sweden; and there the world was to be met with every day. He had his moorings at school, while others, more pampered, had them in their homes. They went home from school in the afternoons; he went away from it. He would have liked to sleep in the classroom at night; he would have lain there gladly, though it had been on the floor. For there in the school, night and day, was Sweden, and there the world remained and was constant, never going away and leaving him alone.” (FN p. 150)

In what is Chapter XXXV of Flowering Nettle – there are no numbered chapters in the original – there is a loving portrait of Mr. Stav, who taught primary school. He is from another part of the country, the province of Västergötland, “from a plain where one could see for a long, long way; here at school, too, he sat looking far away. He was not of this world; he was of Västergötland.” Patiently and gently he suffers “the stupid children, who never knew anything, and sat goggling at the school-master like dead perch”.

Even though he is aware of Mr. Stav's qualities and, unlike most of the other children, and their parents, loves the occasions on which the teacher tells stories instead of hearing the children's lessons, Martin is said to be like the others “except for a germ of longing far within the bark of his brain”. Was it this germ that made it possible for him to survive eight years as a foster child and then run away, eventually to sea, and in the end have a life in letters?

The only thing he really holds against Stav is that he does not seem to understand that Martin is not sincere in asking for the leave his foster parents often tell him to get so that he can work on the farm. He does not want it and is disappointed when Stav grants it, believing he is helpful.

Under Mr. Stav's wing, the boy, whose father is dead and whose mother has gone to “Carlifonia”, comes into his own; outside, he is repeatedly set upon by the farmers' sons. In a well-known passage, appearing in many anthologies, Martin, then eleven years old, gets his own back on them in a spelling lesson, where he is perfectly happy and at ease while they are filled with anguish. (FN pp. 196-199)

The schoolmaster dictates a text meant to practise the spelling of [ç]
, the so-called tje-sound, for which there are three spellings: tj, k, kj:

Det vackra tjället där borta, där tjuren går tjudrad och hunden tjuter vid grinden, har ett tjusande läge vid den vackra tjärnen. Stället äges av den tjocka karlen med hötjugan i handen. Han bränner tjära och förtjänar därav mera än en tjuvskytt som skjuter tjädrar i tjogtals.

As there is no [ç] in English, the translator, Naomi Walford, had to think twice about the drill: Should she leave it out, which the translators into Danish (1937) and Icelandic (1958) do, translate the text into the target language and include footnotes, like the Spanish translator (in 1976), or find an English spelling drill that could do the job, the way the translators into Norwegian (1941), German (1967), and French (1978) came up with exercises appropriate for their respective languages? She opted for the latter and lets Mr. Stav dictate,

After ploughing the peasant leans against a screen of leaves, and does not grieve though he has a cough. He has beans in his sieve to eat with his tough meat, and receives with pleasure and relief the beams of the sun through the boughs.

In the original, Martin, handling his pen like a sceptre, is “konung över tje-ljudet och prins av äng-ljudet” (king of the tje-sound and prince of the äng-sound). Walford makes him “king of the ee-sounds and prince of the gh-sounds”. Non-native speakers of English may wonder at “the ee-sounds and the gh-sounds”, but those who went to school in English-speaking countries will be familiar with them. The examples mirror the spelling rules saying when to write ie and ei in words containing the “ee-sound”, but also seem to reflect what is taught about reading out other words with ie, ei, and ea as they may represent many other sounds than [i:].

Of the seven spellings of “the ee-sound”, that is the vowel [i:], phoneticians' FLEECE-vowel, she gets in four: ea in leans, leaves, beans, eat, meat, beams; ee in screen; ie in grieve, relief, and, after c, ei in receives. In peasant, pleasure, however, ea represents [e] and in sieve, ie stands for a short i-sound.

Of the three “gh-sounds”, Ø, [f], and [g], she features Ø in ploughing, though, through, and boughs; [f] in cough and tough, but not [g] (as in ghost, spaghetti).

Unexpectedly, Walford's dictation is rather more varied than Martinson's: he completely forgets to include words with the äng-sound (as in lång, lugn, tänka); for [ç], his dictation only has words spelt with tj, although a few lines further down, words spelt with k (kyckling, kärvänligt, käcka, kära) appear in the amusing description of how Martin, very pleased with himself, protects his spellings from the greedy eyes of the other children.

Perhaps we should be grateful that Walford did not apply the same principle as the Spanish translator. If she had done, the dictation would have come out something like this:

The handsome little house over there, where the bull is tethered and the dog is howling at the gate, is enchantingly situated by the beautiful tarn. It is owned by the fat man holding a hayfork. He is boiling tar; he earns more on that than a poacher shooting scores of capercaillie.

– and required quite a few footnotes.

Unfortunately, we cannot know what her considerations were. In spite of intensive research aimed at learning something about Naomi Walford beyond what impersonal library catalogues say, I have so far found nothing. According to them, she did a large number of translations from Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, and French between the 1930s and the 1970s. Among the ones from Swedish are works by Pär Lagerkvist, Stig Dagerman, Frans G. Bengtsson, Vilhelm Moberg, and Mika Waltari. (The latter's bestselling Sinuhe the Egyptian (1949) was written in Finnish and published in 1945. The English translation was based on the first Swedish version which appeared in 1946.)

It is however clear that, like the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974, who after parting from their teachers went on to educate themselves by reading voraciously, Naomi Walford knew how to make good use of the alphabet.