Translating Tranströmer


 Ansikte mot ansikte

I februari stod levandet still.

Fåglarna flög inte gärna och själen

skavde mot landskapet så som en båt

skaver mot bryggan den ligger förtöjd vid.

Träden stod vända med ryggen hitåt.

Snödjupet mättes av döda strån.

Fotspåren åldrades ute på skaren.

Under en presenning tynade språket.

En dag kom någonting fram till fönstret.

Arbetet stannade av, jag såg upp.

Färgerna brann. Allt vände sig om.

Marken och jag tog ett språng mot varann.

Tomas Tranströmer 


Face to Face

In February life stood still.

The birds refused to fly and the soul

grated against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.


The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth

Measured by the stubble poking through.

The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.

Under a tarpaulin, the language was broken down.


Suddenly, something approaches the window.

I stop working and look up.

The colours blaze. Everything turns around.

The earth and I spring at each other.

Robin Robertson



The reaction to Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize made it clear that one person’s ‘obscure Swedish poet’ is another’s literary superstar. While Sigrid Rausing, writing in Granta, was of the opinion that ‘no poet expresses better the drift between now, then, and eternity’, Hephzibah Anderson, perhaps best known as the author of Chastened: No More Sex In The City (a harrowing account of a year spent fending off men who desperately wanted to sleep with her), was happy to dismiss Tranströmer as ‘one of those arcane names that draw perennial bets from Nobel-watchers fond of mocking the Swedish Academy.’ Philip Hensher weighed in with a mean-spirited article ranking Tranströmer alongside other ‘Swedish’ winners (including the Norwegian Bjørnsterne Bjørnson and the German Nelly Sachs) of the prize, concluding that ‘Time has shown every single Swedish winner of the prize to be ‘a little phenomenon of no interest’ outside their own country.’


For a few weeks in October, anyone who was anyone in the literary world had something to say about Tomas Tranströmer. Unfortunately, very few had anything to say about his poetry. Hephzibah Anderson’s article didn’t quote a single line, while Hensher restricted himself to an English translation of ‘a haiku, which perhaps has more of a swing to it in Swedish.’ It seems safe to suggest that he made no attempt to locate the original.


Armed only with an online dictionary and a Scandinavian girlfriend, I set out to discover whether Tranströmer’s poetry really did have more of a swing in Swedish, tracking down a piece called ‘Ansikte mot ansikte’ together with two alternative English translations (both entitled ‘Face to Face’) by Robin Robertson and Robin Fulton. The two Robins have something of a history, engaging in an acrimonious exchange of opinions after Robertson published The Deleted World, his ‘versions’ of Tranströmer, in 2006. Fulton wrote to the TLS to suggest that ‘wittingly or unwittingly, Robertson makes arbitrary changes to the Swedish, a language he does not seem to understand.’ John Burnside wrote back, arguing that ‘arbitrary changes’ were defensible on the grounds that ‘the true test of a translation or version is, or should be, how well it conveys [the poem’s] spirit… Its subtleties, its suggestions, its fabric of music and nuance.’


The debate over the task of translation, or perhaps even the possibility of translation, falls into that especially stimulating category of debates which can never be satisfactorily concluded. As far back as Petrarch, translation was a thorny issue: the great Italian poet decided that ‘translation should be similar [to the original] but not the very same, and the similarity should not be like that of a painting or a statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father.’ Since and before, translators have struggled to find the right balance between the two types of resemblance, treading the fine line between lifeless line-by-line reproductions and cavalier rewrites which conveniently leave the original behind.


Nabokov favoured literal translations over ‘periphrastic’ attempts to tamper with the original text; Lowell privileged tone over meaning in his 1961 Imitations.Robin Fulton is closer to Nabokov’s camp; Robertson is closer to Lowell’s. See, for example, the second and third stanzas of Face to Face: Robin Fulton sticks as closely as possible to the original Swedish (matching ‘döda strån’ with ‘dead straws’, while Robertson goes for ‘stubble’), and Robertson takes liberties with the original text while attempting to produce a more coherent English poem. Robertson’s decision to alter the tense of the final stanza (Tranströmer’s is entirely in the past tense, Robertson’s entirely in the present) is almost inexplicable, unless you choose to believe that the present tense adds an immediacy to the last lines of the poem. Fulton’s ‘one day’ is an obvious match for Tranströmer’s ‘en dag’; Robertson goes for ‘suddenly’, which perhaps has more of an effect on the reader.


In the poem’s opening stanza, the differences between the two translations seem, to me at least, more subtle. Notice that Robertson avoids the near-repetition of ‘skavde/skaver’  by substituting ‘grated’ for Fulton’s ‘chafed’, and that his ‘life’ is further from ‘levandet’ than Fulton’s ‘living.’ The major difference in the opening line is that Robertson’s birds are, rather implausibly, refusing to fly and Fulton’s are airborne but ‘unwilling.’ The original Swedish line has the birds flying ‘inte gärne’. ‘Inte’ (meaning ‘not’) is easy enough to translate; ‘gärne’ is perhaps more idiomatic, but ‘willing’ is as close as we’re likely to get.


Anyone with the vaguest interest in translating poetry is likely to have heard Frost’s dictum that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation.’ Joseph Brodsky, on the other hand, defined poetry as ‘what is gained in translation.’ So what is lost or gained in the shift between Swedish Tranströmer and English Tranströmer? Firstly, there are words in Swedish, and moods in Swedish, which are difficult to replicate. Those reluctant birds, beaten down by winter, don’t quite fit into an English landscape, and neither does ‘skaren’, the crust of ice formed overnight on the cold snow. Robertson glosses ‘skaren’ as ice-crust, which doesn’t really seem to help. Those gloomy ‘ö’ and ‘å’ sounds (båt, snö, döda strån) are lost (although Fulton at least manages moored/straws), and the last line seems reduced in both English versions. Robertson’s version has a little more metrical zip than Fulton’s, but I’m not at all sure it ‘conveys the spirit’ of the original poem any more clearly.


Let’s not waste too much time bemoaning the slippage between language and language. The important thing is surely to celebrate the existence of Tranströmer’s work in English. As Ezra Pound (master craftsmen, gifted linguist, fascist sympathiser) once noted, ‘English literature lives on translations, it is fed by translations… every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer.’ And ending who knows where… 

Jacob Silkstone is Literature Editor for the magazine.