"Never heard of the guy. Have you?" I heard that a few times when the Nobel announcement came. Well, sue me: Like a lot of folks, I've been reading his spare, stark, packed, lucid work since the 1980s. Whenever his name appeared above a stack of lines, I read it on the spot.
Robin Robertson, a poet from Scotland, has given us this little book of translations, with help from his partner, Karin Altenberg, who's helpfully from Sweden. To clear away all the garbage about translating poetry, Robertson rightly calls these "versions," not exact renderings, but free attempts to capture as much of the poem as can be.
Here's a stanza in Swedish, from the superb "Autumnal Archipelago":
Nordlig sturm. Det är i den tid när ronnbars-
klasar mognar. Vaken i mörkret hör man
stjärnbilderna stampa i sina spiltor
hogt över trädet.
With my sad trifle of German, and a Swedish dictionary, I get something like
Northerly storm. This is the time when rowanberry-clusters ripen.
Awake at night, one hears
Constellations stamping in their stalls
High over the tree.
Pretty sweet. The roots of stjärnbilderna mean literally "stars-pictures." No way to get at that in a translation. Hör man is a little tricky, because in English it's the oddly flat "one hears," or the awkward passive "is heard." Robinson gives us
A storm from the north. It is the time of rowanberries.
Awake in the night he hears - far above the horned tree -
the stars, stamping in their stalls.
Quiet, intensely active. "Horned" isn't in the original, but I rather like it. And he decides not to use the sprawling Latinate constellations, going for the brief, glittery stars. Yes.
Some things we lose. The poem, for example, is in Sapphic strophes, beautifully so, but Robinson opts not to empretzel himself or his language, going instead for sense and feeling. Applause.
The Swedish original faces his English versions, always a brave thing to do, but also useful, if you know some Swedish or other Germanic language (which you do, since you know English). When Tranströmer writes "Nordlig sturm" and Robertson renders it "A storm from the north," I mean, did you break any bones? Is your head OK? If this is an emergency, call 911.
What I'm trying to say is, you can read these 15 poems and never look at the Swedish, and, just fine, get the wonder of these poems. Robertson's fine work comes at an ideal time, when a lot of English-speaking readers are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to say Tranströmer. You can compare Robertson's version with the original. And, if you are intrepid, have your snowshoes on, and want to hike into the original in its own language, you can. Three ways to be in this little, tiny, splendid book. At no extra price, people!
Tranströmer's world is deeply northern, with scenes of snow, islands in chill waters, clouds and mists. But always, he is really speaking about innerscapes of the human soul. He can write
I stand under the starry sky
and feel the world thrill
through me, like the pulse
of ants in an anthill.
That's far from despairing - it's connected, for better or worse, and vivid. The universe can be a dark, cold place, but love is happening, and hope, and living. "We belong to the earth," he writes, in both life and death (in the original, beautiful in Swedish but less so in English, "we are Earth's"). Tranströmer, who suffered a massive stroke in 1990, wonders what brought him through, ever aware of death (which "comes to take your measurements," and even if you escape, "the suit is being sewn on the sky," a tremendous image).
He also places humanity and its gadgets firmly within the natural world:
I find myself in front of one of the new buildings.
Many windows merging [original, "that flow together"] into one window.
The light of the sky and the swaying of the trees are caught there:
in this still mirror-lake, up-ended in the summer night.
Wow! We can't get every last bit, so Robinson gives good English. "Swaying of the trees" is for a phrase that implies the "wandering of the crowns of the trees"; forget it. And "still mirror-lake, up-ended in the summer night" is a breathtaking, splendid resonance to "reflective lake without waves, raised up in the night sky." Not poetry but a startling image. Robinson transmits the startle.
And sometimes our technology brings other meanings. A jetliner, flying low, casts its shadow:
A man crouches over something in a field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.
Tranströmer sees the violence in both the jet and the cross, "a snapshot of frenzy."
I've given you almost half this lovely book. Get the other half yourself. Tomas Tranströmer is worth meeting, and after this lovely intro, you may wish to read more.
Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, email@example.com, or @jtimpane on Twitter.