Poetry, Translation

RIP Tomas Tranströmer

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has died. He won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2011, and when he won, the Swedish Academy said in the prize announcement: “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.

Others have praised his “elegant descriptions of long Swedish winters, the rhythm of the seasons and the palpable, atmospheric beauty of nature”.

Both statements are true.

Tranströmer’s poetry was translated into many languages and read all over the world. That’s quite an accomplishment for a poet, since poetry is probably the most difficult thing to truly translate successfully into another language: Edward Hirsch was right about that. Like the famous Robert Frost quote says: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”.

Tranströmer’s poetry is achingly beautiful in Swedish, and yes, some of that beauty shines through even in translation. I read Tranströmer’s poetry the way I read all great poetry: not to understand it in the way you would understand a non-fiction text, but to understand it in the way that you understand a feeling, an emotion, or another person, even though you can’t fully explain that understanding in logical terms.

To me, poetry is much like music that way: you hear it, you feel it, you react to it, on a level that is not always easy to explain without sounding like the Swedish Academy making a Nobel Prize announcement…

Five of Tranströmer’s poems are available at nobelprize.org in both the original Swedish, and translated into English.


Den halvfärdiga himlen

Modlösheten avbryter sitt lopp.
Ångesten avbryter sitt lopp.
Gamen avbryter sin flykt.

Det ivriga ljuset rinner fram,
även spökena tar sig en klunk.

Och våra målningar kommer i dagen,
våra istidsateljéers röda djur.

Allting börjar se sig omkring.
Vi går i solen hundratals.

Var människa en halvöppen dörr
som leder till ett rum för alla.

Den oändliga marken under oss.

Vattnet lyser mellan träden.

Insjön är ett fönster mot jorden.



The Half-Finished Heaven

Despondency breaks off its course.
Anguish breaks off its course.
The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,
even the ghosts take a draught.

And our paintings see daylight,
our red beasts of the ice-age studios.

Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.

The water is shining among the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.

 The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer


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