Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s winning the Nobel Prize brought to light a rare bit of translation gossip: that there’s bad blood between a few of his translators. And as there should be—a lot of people suddenly want to buy Tranströmer’s poetry; of the five plus out there, which book are you going to get? The Deleted World, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer’s poems (Robertson doesn’t like to call them “translations”), is the controversial one. Its first American publication at the end of last year, half a decade after it originally appeared from Enitharmon Press in Britain, drew new attention to the paper war abroad. In the introduction to the slim volume of fifteen poems from across Tranströmer’s career, Robertson makes it clear, “The free versions in The Deleted World were never intended as literal translations.” Not free enough for some. As David Orr chronicled in March in the New York Times Book Review, Robin Fulton, also a Scottish poet-translator of Tranströmer, and who does speak Swedish, “accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures.” Robertson has barbs of his own: in reference to other Tranströmer collections, he dubs Samuel Charter’s Baltics a “good reading” and Robert Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven “a strong American selection,” while Fulton’s Collected Poems is a delightfully back-handed “useful.” Good for a gloss, but get your poetry elsewhere.
Whenever a translator feels compelled to present their work as something just a little bit different, as not quite a translation, but as an imitation, or a version, or whatever else they can come up with (“Englished” for “translated” is a favorite), my instinct is to cry bullshit. There is rarely something original enough to justify setting oneself apart from other translators and, intended or not, it smacks of apologetics: a way of excusing any potential infidelities as part of the game. When you actually read the poems, it’s clear why debating the merits of the different translations in terms of relative faithfulness is pointless. Compare these two versions of “The Couple,” originally published in 1962. The first is by Robin Fulton, which we know to be the sober, literal rendition:
They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.
The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.
The second, from Robin Robertson, we expect to run roughshod over those lines:
They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe
glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling
then dissolving in a glass of darkness. Around them,
the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky.
Love’s drama has died down, and they’re sleeping now,
but their dreams will meet as colours meet
and bleed into each other
in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.
All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowed in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.
Robertson adds “like a back-drop” in the fourth line, and there is certainly a good case for its not being there, but everything else can be unambiguously found in the Fulton. Robertson isn’t offering anything more new than re-configurations and re-thinkings of what’s already there — which is to say he’s translating. “The town has pulled closer together,” “The city has drawn in.” Word-for-word, one of those might be more accurate to the Swedish, but they nonetheless say the same thing. The question is which says it better.
I would make the case for Robertson here. His translation propels the reader through, where the Fulton in some parts seems to need a breath after every word (“glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of water”). Where Robertson would seem to violate the syntax and exact words of the original, we find justification in the Fulton, such as the problems of “a crowd whose faces have no expressions” (is “whose” the word to use here? does the crowd have faces or is it a crowd of faces? does each face have no expression or no expressions?) which “this audience of cancelled faces” circumvents, though we do wonder what was wrong with “expressionless faces.” Robertson is certainly not blameless, but past reviews have focused on his occasional admittedly superfluous additions (Orr cites his simile “like the mess of a knife-fight” as the most egregious example, since it is absolutely without basis in the Swedish), without giving equal weight to the majority of the time when his changes are perfectly permissible and frequently elegant, adding rhythm to the jerks and offering up Tranströmer’s images in language that flows like water rather than dripping like ice. In a later poem, “The sun scorches. The plane flies low / throwing a shadow in the form of a large cross rushing forward on the ground” becomes “The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low, / throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.”
Others cite this as precisely what’s wrong with Robertson’s Tranströmer, that the poems are too poetic, not strange enough. Such an effect may precisely be the hardest to produce: “Sick of those who come with words,” writes Tranströmer through Robertson, “words but no language.”
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