So a crazy thing happened recently. I step into the office of my new boss for some sort of performance review and what do I see on his desk but a collection of poems by Tomas Tranströmer. That’s not the sort of thing I typically encounter where I work (an aerospace engineering thinktank). In fact, it’s not the sort of thing I see in LA, where the taste in poetry generally runs from Bukowski to … well, no one.
But it got me thinking about Tranströmer. I’m sure I encountered some of his work in the past, if only through my reading of Robert Bly. But if so, I couldn’t remember any. A good friend (at jeffschwaner.com) is a huge advocate. So, I decided it was time to read a bit.
My first impression is that it’s easy to see the connection between Tranströmer and Bly, both of whom produce (or rather, distill) deep images through tense, terse diction. But whereas Bly always seemed critical of humanity (and America) in general, Tranströmer seems to have given up on humanity already, and inhabits a world of intense isolation and disconnection. The people who appear in his poems (when they appear at all) are barely more animated than the stones and trees. Often, we don’t get complete human shapes, only faces, stamped with a cold resignation. “Bleak” is a word that immediately comes to mind. In fact, the sun and the seasons seem to have the most personality, though they operate according to a profound indifference to, if not disdain for, the human condition.
Interestingly, my reading of Tranströmer quickly devolved into a critique of translations. In particular, I was looking at this poem:
Ett blått sken
A blue sheen
I don’t speak Swedish, of course, but with some German and Old English, it’s possible to parse the sense. After all, these are simple declarative statements. The power comes not from the nuance of the language but from the force of the image. I’m also struck by the one-word sentence, “Midwinter.” That construction is perfectly acceptable in Russian, for example, but in English, it sounds particularly elliptical, compressed—especially considering the end stop: an American poem with a one-word line probably wouldn’t end it with a period. But back to the point. Even a poem as straightforward as this has spawned numerous translations. The first line has been translated as “A blue light,” “A blue sheen,” and “A blue glow.” They are all fairly neutral words, but I ask myself whether the translators have already betrayed a bias. And in the next line, “streams out” most closely echoes the sound of the original, but “radiates” might better convey the sense. Interestingly, the greatest variation comes in translating the sound of the tambourines: “clinking,” “clattering,” “jingling,” “jangling,” etc. I suppose the word choice depends on how you interpret those tambourines: do they evoke the wind though a tree hung with frozen leaves, a cluster of icicles falling to the ground, a small patch of dry ice? Is the tambourine the drum or the cymbals?
And how about the distinction between “silent” and “soundless?” The first conveys a distinct mood. But silence is, oddly enough, a positive term, and by that I mean it does not convey a lack, or absence. In the mind, silence is something that can fill a space, as it were. Silence has substance. The neat thing about “soundless” (and by extension, I guess, all “-los” Germanic adjectives) is that it first presents the thing and then takes it away. It presents the idea of sound and then removes it. The effect is a bit more jarring, at least for speakers of English.
You might just say that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Or as the Italians say, “tradurre è tradire.” But I think it really comes down to the fact that a translator must first interpret, and then translate. And interpretation is by nature highly subjective. The word choices of the translator are just as critical as the word choices of the original poet. Indeed, a translator may end up belaboring a word far more than the original writer did. It’s a difficult business.
But as for Tranströmer, wow: bleak, depressing, chilling. (And what does that say about my new boss?!?!?!)
Those Swedish winters must be devastating.