• Email
  • Print

The Double World of Tomas Tranströmer

robertson_1-111011
Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis
Tomas Tranströmer, Paris, March 1995

Every October, for decades, a group of reporters and photographers from all over the world has gathered in the stairwell of an apartment house in Stockholm, waiting to hear if the poet upstairs has finally won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The poet’s wife, Monica, would bring them tea and biscuits while they stood around—but they would always leave, around lunchtime, as the news came in that the prize had gone to someone else. Annually, the name of Tomas Tranströmer came up, and with every year one felt a growing sense that he would never receive this highest literary honor from his own country.

Now eighty, Tomas Tranströmer, who won the prize this year, is not only Scandinavia’s greatest living poet, but also widely regarded as one of our most important contemporary international writers. Born in April 1931, an only child, his parents divorced when he was three years old and he was brought up by his mother within the educated working class of Stockholm: a Social Democratic system infused with the traditional Lutheran ethics of moral compassion and generosity. He took up a career in psychology, working in a young offenders’ institute in Linköping. In 1965 he moved with his wife and their daughters, Paula and Emma, to Västerås, a small town west of Stockholm, where he continued his work with juvenile delinquents, convicts, drug addicts, and the physically handicapped.

It was during this time that his poetry began to reach its full maturity and an international audience. It was translated into over sixty languages and brought him a host of awards. In 1990, however, his life was changed irrevocably by a serious stroke. While his disability did not end his writing career, it did impair his ability to communicate, and the Tranströmers now live quietly in the Södermalm district of Stockholm—near where Tomas lived as a young boy, and overlooking the sea-lanes where his grandfather worked as a pilot, guiding ships through the Stockholm archipelago—and in their cottage on the island of Runmarö, where Tomas spent his childhood summers.

The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry has remained constant during his fifty-five-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a “buzzard poet,” Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision. A view that first appeared open and featureless now holds an anxiety of detail; the voice that first sounded spare and simple now seems subtle, shrewd, and thrillingly intimate. There is a profoundly spiritual element in Tranströmer’s vision, though not a conventionally religious one. He is interested in polarities and how we respond, as humans, to finding ourselves at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment:

The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low,
throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.
A man crouches over something in the field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.

I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.
Sometimes it seems like a snapshot
of frenzy.
—“Out in the Open,” from The Deleted World

Tranströmer’s is a poetry of sharp contrast and duality—a double world of dark and light, inside and outside, dreaming and waking, man and machine, stillness and turmoil—and he is fascinated by the pressure between the world we know and the hidden world we cannot deny. He continually returns to symbolism that stands in opposition to the natural world: the bureaucratic, the technological and—most specifically—the car, the driver, the mass movement of traffic. The image of man as a diminished, vulnerable creature—distanced from nature, protected by his machine but open to sudden accident—is a recurring one, and this combination of a natural landscape and abrupt, violent meetings with the mechanical, the unnatural, is a hallmark of his work.

What happens at this moment of collision is vividly portrayed: the split-second of shock, of vertigo, where the nerves start to register panic and calamity, where the mind starts to fight against the body’s accelerating fear. The eerie coolness and detachment of these poems, rooted as they are in quotidian reality, allow him to present the intrusion of irrational forces as primal threats; the poems can be seen as staged confrontations between the deracinated modern human sensibility and the unseen, unconscious forces—ancient, mysterious, and implacable—that sleep beneath our waking minds.

Tranströmer has been well served in English with a good translation of Baltics by Samuel Charters (1975), Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton (1987; updated 1997), and a strong American selection by Tomas’s old friend Robert Bly, The Half- Finished Heaven (2001). Despite the apparent simplicity of his diction, he is a complex poet to translate. His exquisite compression and vividly cinematic imagery are instantly attractive, but the elemental sparseness of his language can often be rendered as colorless and bland. The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the plosive musicality of Swedish words like domkyrkoklocklang lose all their aural resonance when they become a “peal of cathedral bells.” His empty, numinous landscape is comfortably familiar to Northern poets, but his metaphysical parsing of that landscape into minimal Swedish can often prove too challenging.

In his introduction to Imitations (1962), Robert Lowell writes that “Boris Pasternak has said that the usual reliable translator gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and that in poetry tone is of course everything.” In my relatively free versions of some of Tranströmer’s poems, soon to be published in the US in The Deleted World,* I have attempted to steer a middle ground between Lowell’s rangy, risk-taking rewritings and the traditional, strictly literal approach. I have kept the shape of the poems, opened out their sense more clearly, and tried—as Lowell rightly insists one must try—to get the tone.

Though Lowell referred to Imitations as “a book of versions and free translations,” he took his London editor’s advice on the title. T.S. Eliot told him, “If you use the word translation in the subtitle it will attract all those meticulous little critics who delight in finding what seem to them mis-translations. You will remember all the fuss about Ezra Pound’s Propertius.” Lowell had only a passing knowledge of the original languages of the poets whose work he re-presented in Imitations. However, the contemporary British poet Jamie McKendrick is surely right when he says, “The translator’s knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.” As Tranströmer himself has remarked:

I perceived, during the first enthusiastic poetry years, all poetry as Swedish. Eliot, Trakl, Éluard—they were all Swedish writers, as they appeared in priceless, imperfect, translations…. We must believe in poetry translation, if we want to believe in World Literature.

The English versions in The Deleted World have their genesis in Bohus-Malmön, a small island off the west coast of Sweden, where my girlfriend’s family keep a summer house. It was August, but it was raining when we arrived, and the rain continued to fall. Storm-stayed, as it were, in the cottage, there was little to do but read and write, and the first book that caught my eye was the collected edition of Tomas Tranströmer, published by Bonnier. Three decades previously I had discovered his work in the Penguin Modern European Poets series, so I was intrigued to come to him in the original Swedish, in Sweden, with a Swede—a friend of the Tranströmer family. Karin would write out a prose transcription in English, then recite the original poem in Swedish, so I could hear the cadences. I then produced a first draft—a simple, loose translation—that she checked for lexical or tonal inaccuracies before handing it back. For every day of rain: another poem. By the time we left the island there had been very little swimming and no sailing or sunbathing, but I had a sheaf of versions of poems by a poet I had admired since university—whose work I had met again, there on that Swedish island, with a new, and much more profound, engagement.

Tomas Tranströmer has said, “My poems are meeting-places.” The metaphor is persuasive, and singularly apt. He is interested, as all poets are, in epiphanies: the moments of sudden, spiritual manifestation when we are aware of an intimate connection being made with our landscape, our history, or each other. But he is also deeply concerned with the dangers of abandoning those “meeting-places”—those moments of communication—in favor of something mechanical: faster and more efficient, certainly, but also meaningless, artificial, and ultimately corrosive to the human spirit. As he wrote himself: “The language marches in step with the executioners./Therefore we must bring a new language.”

I was nervous about Tomas’s reaction to the versions in The Deleted World, but he could not have been warmer. This book was launched in London and Stockholm with the actor Krister Henriksson reading the originals, followed by my own delivery of the English versions. The highlight of both evenings, though, was Tomas playing specially written piano pieces, with his left hand. Subsequently, I and the other trustees of the Griffin Trust invited Tomas and Monica to Toronto so he could receive the 2007 Lifetime Recognition Award: a happy prelude to the slightly grander prize he will receive this year in Stockholm.

It is an honor to know this man, and to have translated some of his work—and a huge happiness to me that this work will now reach so many new readers. The world of poetry can finally raise a glass to salute this humble man, this magnificent poet.

  1. *

    London: Enitharmon, 2006; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to the US edition. Poems from The Deleted World appear in this issue of The New York Review. 

  • Email
  • Print