October 06, 2011

Tranströmer, More Than Meets The Eye!

The Swedish Academy has risen from their icy catacombs once again to deliver unto us a new Nobelist.

Several years ago a member of the committee caused a riot (the literary kind, involving a lot of obscure adjectives marked DEROGATORY in the OED) by declaring that American writers do not deserve the Nobel Prize because we're all a bunch of self-indulgent whiners with no sense of cosmopolitanism. This year, to prove just how universal and global literature is, the Swedes chose the guy who lives down the street!

They've tapped Tomas Tranströmer, "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."

That seems like a perfectly decent reason to win the Nobel Prize, and all kidding the Swedes for picking a Swede aside, he is a widely known, translated and admired poet. I don't read a tremendous amount of modern poetry that isn't written by people who have won the Nobel Prize so I haven't read much of his work and therefore I have neither quarrel with nor praise for the Academy this year. Sure, the guy seems to write a lot of nature poems, which I generally detest, but those images are pretty translucent!

Besides which, I'm not certain I could form an especially good opinion of his work anyway. Why? Because poetry is extremely difficult to translate. I posted a few months ago about the art of translation, and I think it goes without saying that poetry poses a lot of problems that prose does not. There are so many structural issues to consider -- rhyme schemes, metrical feet, marginal shape, poetic sound, etc. Yes, prose writers have a voice posessing most of these qualities, too. Getting an author's voice is hard, y'all. But poetry is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

For example, I'm currently reading Breon Mitchell's recent-ish translation of "The Tin Drum", a "fresh translation" sponsored by Gunther Grass (he invited translators in various languages to stay with him in the area the novel takes place, which is sort of like a Tower of Babel Summercamp!) that is at least intended to improve upon the Ralph Mannheim translation. Here is Mannheim's translation of the opening sentence:
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there is a peephole in the door and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

.. . and here is Mitchell's:
Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can't see through blue-eyed types like me.

Mitchell's has a certain informal flow to it, is more visceral and immediate, but basically these are the same sentence, tweaked slightly. Now, as is often the case with older books, Grass says this new translation is better in part because it includes material that American publishers were squeamish about including when it was first released. So, that's a fundamental difference between the texts. But in terms of the material both people translated, it's very, very similar.

Now take a poem by Mr. Tranströmer in two different translations, both of which are, strangely, the work of Scottish men named Robin, so don't get confused! The two translators do not even agree upon a title. Robin Fulton gives us "Loneliness (1)":

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars---
their lights---closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew---there was space in them---
they grew big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then a hold caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked---a sharp clang---it
flew away in the darkness.

Then---stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.

And Robin Robertson prefers "Solitude (I)":
I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

My name, my girls, my job, all
slipped free and were left behind, smaller and smaller,
further and further away. I was a nobody:
a boy in a playground, suddenly surrounded.

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew – making more room for me –
stretching huge as hospitals.

I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.

Then something caught: some helpful sand
or a well-timed gust of wind. The car
snapped out of it, swinging back across the road.
A signpost shot up and cracked, with a sharp clang,
spinning away in the darkness.

And it was still. I sat back in my seat-belt
and watched someone tramp through the whirling snow
to see what was left of me.

Start with the title: in English, "loneliness" and "solitude" are two very different, if somewhat related, concepts. Perhaps neither title is entirely adequate to convey the meaning of the Swedish title, but the results are two poems that from the onset present very different emotional worlds.

The first stanza is the best example of their different techniques -- Fulton's is jagged and abrupt and has a physical form similar to the events it describes. Robertson's version is more peaceful and dreamlike. I have no idea what Tranströmer intended, but the two translations are, for all intents and purposes, two entirely different poems!

I realize that it's just a matter of picking a translator you like and going with it, but with poetry always wonder if I like the poet or the translator -- or if there's even a meaningful difference.

Let me know if you have any good advice for reading foreign poetry, litfags!

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