Tomas Tranströmer is generally considered Sweden’s best living poet. He presents horrible difficulties in translation. He writes an exceptionally pure, cold Swedish without frills. It’s very hard to specify why it’s not prose but you would have to be deaf blind and dumb not to recognise it as poetry.
Mention of blindness brings up another problem. I find that he is a tremendously visual poet. To read him is to see what he describes. But how can this translate to people who have never seen a Swedish landscape, and don’t know what the words refer to? That’s not a question I can honestly answer, since I can’t unsee.
In any case, I have been reading the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer in The Deleted World. It’s a slim volume that would have been slimmer had it been more faithful. It’s full of bits that just aren’t in the original, most egregiously here.
Here is the Swedish
Ett telefonsamtal rann ut i natten och glittrade på lands-
bygden och i förstäderna.
Efteråt sov jag oroligt i hotellsängen.
Jag liknade nålen i en kompass som orienteringslöparen bär
genom skogen med bultande hjärta.
Here is as close as I can make it:
A phone call spilled into the night and glittered on the country-
side and in the suburbs.
After, I slept uneasy in the hotel bed.
I was like the needle in the compass that an orienteer carries, running
through the woods with a thundering heart.
Now this has one deviation I consider unavoidable: “thundering” for “bultande”, which means “thumping” or “banging” – but you can’t speak of a heart “banging” in English: it’s an altogether too percussive activity, whereas hearts bultar a lot in Swedish. In English, hearts do thump, but it has quite the wrong sound. So, “thundering” which at least locates the central consonant cluster where it should be in the mouth. Otherwise, it’s just about word for word except some minor and unavoidable changes of word order and article (“the compass”, “an orienteer” for the original “a compass”, “the orienteering runner”).
Here is Robertson:
Our phonecall spilled out into the dark
and glittered between the countryside and the town
like the mess of a knife fight.
Afterwards, all night jittery and spent in the hotel bed,
I dreamt I was the needle in a compass
some orienteer bore through the forest with a spinning heart.
Dreams? Spinning? Knife fight? Where did they come from? More broadly, I don’t think the original poem necessarily describes a quarrel. I have had non-fighting phone conversations in hotel rooms that left my heart banging through the night like an exhausted orienteer’s.
I don’t want to be needlessly picky. Tranströmer is difficult because he boils his language down to the bones, and English has a different skeleton. These are clearly labelled “versions”, not “translations”. Some of Robertson’s word choices a just exactly right: “The world would be deleted” for “skulle världen utplånas”.