Enitharmon, 2006. ISBN: 1904634486
Reviewed by Anne Born in SBR 2006:2
The editor of this book claims Tomas Tranströmer to be Sweden’s most important poet. I would concur with this; and he is representative of several other characteristics of Scandinavian poetry: respect and admiration of the natural world, subtle sensivitity of language and economical clarity of style. The back page note to this collection calls him a poet of the liminal, “...drawn again and again to thresholds of light and water, the boundaries between man and nature, wakefulness and dream.” He writes religiously from a secular viewpoint, in tune with most writers of his time, although, possibly subconsciously, the cover photograph shows a large cross in a snowy landscape. No doubt this signifies death rather than eternal life! Interestingly, his translator writes “versions” of the poems, by which he perhaps indicates the freedom he has taken with the text, which not seldom results in very different meanings from the originals; however, he has captured the tone of the oeuvre in the poem, and the work, as a whole, shows his meticulous use of language which conveys the poet’s thought subtly and faultlessly. Here and there a line will be directly translated, but often completely different images are chosen. Tenses are changed, past tense becomes present, word order is new. Tranströmer is famed for his arresting original images, many of which are impossible in English, but Robertson deals with this effortlessly with his own images. Take the poem, “Höstlig Skärgård” – “Autumnal Archipelago”, subtitle “storm”. The first verse of this runs:
Plötsligt möter vandraren här den gamla
jätteeken, lik en förstenad älg med
milsvid krona framför septemberhavets
The translation runs:
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.
Let us look at those two versions: Note that in the first line, the English drops “here”; instead of saying “giant” oak as the original, the translator uses two words, one of which, “rooted” is not found in the Swedish but which gives a more original image than “giant” or “gigantic” – he has allowed his own imagination to add to the original. Likewise with “hardwood” antlers, which sounds fresher than the more direct “fossilised” would. “Mile-wide” becomes “wide as the horizon” – which extends the idea of something supernormal fitting the size of the tree. Then, instead of the direct translation “black-green”, we read “stone-green” of the walls of the sea instead of, perhaps, “ramparts”. The translator may have thought the latter a slightly dated word, increasing the effect of walling by using “walls of the sea”. I should mention that at a recent London reading, Robin Robertson emphasized how closely the two poets worked together on the translations. English translators from the Scandinavian languages can cooperate closely with the writers they work on when translating, since Scandinavians always have a good or excellent knowledge of English. This wonderful book has much to teach other translators in its immense concentration and daring accuracy.