Sunday, November 05, 2006

Charters & Tranströmer: Translations and Versions

In the preface to his 1975 translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s lovely long poem “Baltics”, Samuel Charters shares two points with the reader that I think greatly deserve to be shared with a wider readership. The first, that the Swedish language distinguishes two types of translation where conventional English gives only a single name to both kinds of rendering, will ring true to any translator who has had to protect the integrity of the original work while making of it a worthwhile experience in the target language.

The second point follows from the happy fact that Charters and Tranströmer are both alive, and good friends. When faced with a thorny question of nuance, they could push their chairs away from table and walk out of doors, so as to find the exact object about which the poem was concerned. The translator and the poet standing in a salt-rimed meadow, confirming with conversation and finger-pointing just exactly what was meant by this word in this line. As exciting as the search for the right sense can be, I have to confess: that manner of ‘gathering the meaning’ is so much more attractive than thumbing through the pages of a dictionary. I can think of a few Pusteblumies who would be abundantly grateful for the privilege of joining Apollinaire on a crepuscular tour of Paris, for the chance to ask the poet to point out just the moment of dawn the line “Soleil cou coupé” was intended to capture. Charters writes:
There are two words in Swedish to describe a rendering of a poem from one language into another. One is oversättning, which means “translation”, and the other is tolkning, which is close to the English word “version”. In English the distinction is often blurred, and there is particularly a tendency to describe unrhymed renderings of rhymed poetry as translations, when they are actually versions. In Swedish, however, the distinctions are usually kept, and this is an oversättning: a translation. With some poems a great deal of the original can be lost in a translation, but with a poem like Baltics; unrhymed, rhythmically rather free, and in a contemporary idiom, it is possible to come fairly close to the original; especially since Swedish and English share a large root vocabulary, and there are many points where grammatical forms are similar. What is most obviously different is the sound of the English, which is a softer language with a rounding at the edges from the romance languages that helped form it. Swedish has a harder sound, more abrupt, and this tone is difficult to bring across.

As with most Swedish writers, English is a second language for Tomas, and we worked closely together on every aspect of the translation. At troublesome points he was often the best judge of how well the Swedish and the English reflected each other. Also he and his family made my family feel welcome on the island off the Swedish coast that figures so often in the poem, and the long summer days with them there gave me a feeling of the poem I couldn’t have gotten in any other way. In a very immediate sense, if we were trying to decide if the translation of a word should be something like either “bay” or “channel” we walked down to the shore to look at what he was describing. We worked out as many problems on afternoon walks as we did at the kitchen table in the evenings with notes and dictionaries.
I recommend Tranströmer (as much from my own reading as from the received recommendations of Robert Bly, Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass). His latest book is newly available on Amazon. From Maureen McLane of The Poetry Foundation:
Tomas Tranströmer is one of Sweden’s most lauded poets, with a massive international reputation as well. In The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, an often surreal dream logic moves us from archipelagos to the sea, and from family to world history, as in his long poem “Baltics.” Tranströmer’s poems are often located on thresholds or borders, bespeaking incomplete yet promised arrivals, as his book titles suggest—Secrets on the Way, The Half-Finished Heaven. Sleep and winter are native zones to him; windows, seas, mountains, painters, music, and geography recur. This work offers intense, visionary transformation: “[t]he lake is a window into the earth” in which “[d]ozens of dialects of green” appear.
Here, from Charters’ translation, are two (non-consecutive) segments of Part IV of “Baltics”. If you think they are fine as I do, hop on over to Amazon UK or other friendly source and dig up the paperback copy. If you are truly desperate to read the rest, let me know and I shall provision you with a copy of the book… but beware the charity of a fellow addict. The verse:

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