Gained in translation: Tomas Tranströmer

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:

“Calling Home”

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”.

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13 Responses to Gained in translation: Tomas Tranströmer

  1. Gunnar says:

    I (probably) wouldn’t be quite as harsh as you, but the knife fight is a disaster, for sure. Almost as disturbing, though, is the first word of the first line: “Our…”. This isn’t a poem for your Marriage Guidance crowd, after all, is it…? What’s wrong with being impersonal?

  2. acb says:

    As for harshness, I did, I know, pick on the worst one. But I suspect he wanted to make stuff that looked like recognisable English poetry of a particular style. And that’s not good translation — at least I think you should preserve the strangeness. I’m glad you picked up “our”, though.

    What I can’t tell is whether TT translates at all. For that experiment I would need a friend who loves English poetry an dspeaks no Swedish. hmmm.

  3. Gunnar says:

    Very little poetry from the Scandinavian/German area translates happily into English, in my view.

    Frank Perry might be able to help us. He once arranged a Baltic poetry reading at the British Library, in which I was drafted in as “Tranströmer”, i.e. he graced us with his presence, but was too ill to read. Reading Tranströmer in the original in front of the man himself – I was the nervousest I’ve ever been. Until I started actually reading.

  4. Hell, “our” bothered *me*, and I neither speak Swedish nor am particularly a poetry lover. (Compared to you, I always feel like I’m the archetypal TV-watching, poorly educated, anti-intellectual American.)

    I was thinking the same thing as you about non-fighting phone calls even before I read your comments…

    Translation seems to me not entirely dissimilar to ghost-writing in that the ideal is to convey the original poet’s/subject’s own voice. You have to be willing to submerge a lot of your own ego to do it well – and have a good ear for the original. I read a certain amount of ghost-written books (business and tennis autobiographies) and it’s always noticeable to me if the original voice doesn’t read/sound right.


  5. Simple Country Vicar says:

    Hmmm. So it’s not just Archbishops who like to strut their stuff when writing reviews! . . . . . . . . .

  6. Hakan Lindgren says:

    Good translators shouldn’t always follow his original literally, but that’s not what Mr Robertson is doing when he puts a knife fight in Tranströmer’s poem (or changes “suburb” to “town”.

    “Thundering heart” sounds too loud to me, but I’m not a native English speaker. To run “med bultande hjärta” is a set phrase in Swedish, that’s how you run when you are frightened or upset. What would the corresponding English phrase be?

    For more good contemporary Swedish poetry, check out Bruno K. Öijer. If you like Tranströmer, you should look him up. Öijer’s reputation as a young wild poet still lingers and might stop people from appreciating him – in fact he has changed into a sorrowful mood; his images and his lines have become as sharply honed as Tranströmer’s. His three best poetry collections have been published as a paperback (“Trilogin”) and should still be available. Not many living Swedish poets see their work in the paperback section.

  7. acb says:

    Håkan, I will look Öijer out. The English equivalent of “med bultande hjärta” used as a (literally) clichéd description would be “with a thumping heart”. But I gave my euphonic reasons for preferring “thundering”. I don’t think either is perfect, but that’s translation for you.

  8. frank mills says:

    Excellent translation! I agree with your word choice when translating “bultande”; thumping just doesn’t quite cut it. “Thundering heart” comes closer to the original, claustrophobic feeling of hearing nothing but your own heart. A tiny nitpick for you, though, is that “oroligt” would be better translated into “uneasily”, since it is an adverb.

    As for “the” versus “a” when it comes to the compass, I am personally torn. I understand your reasoning when using “the”, but at the same time “the needle in the compass” doesn’t ring true to my ears. A direct translation of the articles in the original would be “The needle in a compass that the orienteer carries” which doesn’t quite work either. Tricky!

    I do agree that Robertson’s poem reads more like an interpretation than a translation. I suspect that is sort of the point, although it would certainly be interesting to read “true” translations of Tranströmer’s poems!

  9. Inga says:

    Hi! Who are you? Your translation of Tranströmer is much better that Robertson’s! (which really IS cold. And does not capture his style.) (knife fight my foot!) Thundering sounds a bit too much. (but on the other hand it contains 3 vowels like the original.) Mitt hjärta bultar is a very common Swedish expression. To indicate a bit more than the ordinary slår! (beats.) Mitt hjärta bankar has a humouros ring to it. (and is used as such in funny tunes.)
    If you want to SEE Tomas, please visit my YouTube-site! (I recently uploaded some video-clips with him. Where he speaks Swedish.) (very far from cold.)
    You’re in luck! I know him! (and will tell him to visit your site.)
    U U
    poet and musician

  10. acb says:

    HI, Inga, sorry not to have replied before. I am too busy and more too disorganised. I am a writer who lived in Sweden for seven years. I was a judge for the Society of Authorsä triennial Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish this year, which is why I was reading so much of it. will write privately.

    I know that “bultande” is common in Swedish. But as you say, it has three syllables and an “nd”, which makes “thundering” the right word, so far as I can judge.

  11. Frank, heard you on P 1 (Swedish radio) today, 11 aug 2010 and this seems to be the only way to get to you – other than publishers. Scrolled through quickly the above on Tranströmer, agree about R Robertson entirely. Have worked a little on T myself. but mainly would love to hear from you – my old neighbour in Fulham (where I’m sure you’re not still living).

  12. PA Borius says:

    The translations or versions all have their ups and downs. As pointed out TT is hard to move from his chiselled Swedish to another tongue. However, there is some lack of understanding of some of his choices here. The verb ‘rinna’ normally means ‘flow’ like a river or water from the tap. ‘Spill’ to me signals something inadvertent or accidental. ‘Landsbygd’ is often used to mean all non-urban areas so I sense that out in the country is closer than ‘countryside’. ‘Suburb’ in Sweden can signal discomfort and disadvantage and even ghetto-like circumstances. There is no telling whether such a contrast is aimed for here. ‘Orolig’ can mean worried, anxious, disquieted but the stock term together with sleep is ‘restless’. ‘Likna’ is look like or to carry a resemblence. ‘Bära’ is a word that can mean a lot of different things and I feel that ‘carries’ does not carry the day. You can ‘bära’ a name, clothing, a suitcase and the word has a less concrete reference than ‘carry’ which to me is more like pick up and transport. Finally, I do not all subscribe to ‘thundering’. What is wrong with pounding? ‘Palpitating’ is too technical.
    So here is my bid. Whether this reads as poetry is an altogether different matter.

    A telephone call flowed out into the night and glittered on the country-
    side and in the suburbs.
    Afterwards I slept uneasily in the hotel bed.
    I looked like the compass that the orienteerer carries
    through the woods with pounding heart.

  13. acb says:

    You’re right about “rann”, I think. I suppose my picture of the verb is of something spilled, juice perhaps, which is flowing across a plastad tablecloth towards the edge. But “flowing” would be better.

    Why, though, “looked like”? _han liknade bara. Han såg inte ut som._ You can be like something without looking like it at all and I am sure that the last line refers to his inner state rather more than it does to his thrashings in the bed.

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