Poetry, Translation

Lost and found in translation: translator thoughts on poetry & the weight of words


Words can carry such different weights in different languages. This is something I’m being forcefully reminded of these days, as I’m in the final stages of translating all of my published Swedish poetry into English, aiming for publication before the end of the year.

One example of what gets lost:

The Swedish word “himmel” means both “sky” and “heaven”. This means that if you use the word “himmel” in a Swedish poem, the word carries more weight than it does in English. The weight comes from the implied wordplay, from the added nuance, from the added depth of possible interpretation – all of it difficult or even impossible to convey in translation.

There are other words you can use, of course. For example, the English word “heavens”, as in: “I looked up at the heavens”. This comes close to the dual meaning the word “himmel” has in Swedish. However, while “himmel” is an everyday word, “heavens” is a much fancier term: it feels more ornate, somewhat old-fashioned and ponderous, and using it instead of either “sky” or “heaven” would completely change the feel of the poem. So. Sky or heaven? In English, I have to choose. I can’t have it both ways.

Occasionally, things are easier to deal with.

In one of my poems (‘Torka’ / ‘Drought’), I write:

Vi flydde våra städer av eld / eldstäder

In English, I translate this as:

We fled our places of fire / fire-places

“Eld” means fire, and “städer” means towns or cities, while “eldstäder” translates as “fireplaces”. In Swedish, I play with the words, speaking first of “cities of fire” and then of “fire-cities / fire-places”. In English the “city” part of that wordplay is impossible, but luckily, the English word “fireplace” allows for almost the same wordplay. Sometimes you’re lucky like that.

For a translator, the difference between what is literally and formally a correct translation, and what is the correct translation in a particular context, is an ever-present challenge, no matter what kind of text you’re working with. But when it comes to poetry – where wordplay, allusion, rhythm, alliteration, and the precise use of exactly the right words in order to express a lot with a little – these differences become particularly significant.

Translating my own poetry makes things easier in some ways, but it brings other challenges. I haven’t read through my old poetry this thoroughly for a long time, and it’s a strange mix of fascination and terror (and occasional surprise and pride) to dive so deeply into my own words again. The words can feel intimately familiar and disconcertingly unfamiliar at the same time. And translating the words inevitably means re-writing the poetry. Occasionally, I can find a new weight, a new nuance in the translation that wasn’t there in the original, but that’s rare. Sometimes I can almost capture the original weight and nuance of every word, and sometimes I just have to accept that it can’t be done. To quote Edward Hirsch:

It is axiomatic that in a poem there is no exact equivalent for the valences of sound, the intonations and sequences of words, the rhythm of separate lines, the weight of accruing stanzas, the totality of musical effects.


Cuts & Collected Poems – 1989-2015new poems written in English, and translations of my previously published Swedish poetry. It’s available now!

6 thoughts on “Lost and found in translation: translator thoughts on poetry & the weight of words”

  1. I so agree, I write my poems, songtexts and novels in german and other times in english whenever I translate it to the otehr language there are the same troubles, It is very hard to translate german novels into english because you cant translate german sentences word for word into english as we have different articles etc. I am sure i will have many many mistakes in them. And that “Himmel” is swedish for heaven/sky is cool as it is Himmel in german as well 🙂 Oh btw I am Austrian

    Liked by 1 person

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