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Translator's Look at
article appeared in the 2004:1 issue.
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.
Now the wind whispers to no one.
The crofts died a sudden
But the chimney shafts still give off rattles.
The nettles are
(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
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
“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:
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.
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.
berättade i sena höstar
om spetälsk kärrsäd och
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
av den tjocka karlen med hötjugan i handen. Han
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
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.