Slippery Slopes — on Reading Transtromer Translations

I’m reading a new Tranströmer translation, and, as translations always spur me to do, I pulled up some other translations so I could compare them. This new volume, Bright Scythe, translated by Patty Crane, offers side-by-side original and translated versions, which I find so delightful and consuming. I don’t speak Swedish. But to be able to pore over the original words and order and then see what the translators have done is what I consider a good time. The choices! The choices! It’s astonishing the myriad choices a translator has to make. For example, translator Robin Fulton entitled a poem “National Insecurity” and Crane chose to render it as “Insecurity’s Kingdom” from Tranströmer’s original “Osäkerheten’s Rike.” Rike is a cognate of reich, which is Germanic for realm, and our English ear hears that reich, a word familiar to us with its dreadful echoes of Hitler. Fulton avoids the actual word entirely, Crane’s “kingdom” picks up the hard k and the sense of monarchy. I wonder if the actual word “reich” could have been used. Or would that have been too Germanic, too heavy with resonance? The first word could be translated as uncertainty rather than insecurity. But I think insecurity is the appropriate choice for the poem, which begins with an “Under Secretary” drawing an x and her earrings dangling like “damoklessvärd” or Damocles’s sword, which, incidentally, Fulton translates as “swords of Damocles” and Crane as “Damocles’s sword.” All that and we haven’t even gotten to the poem yet. Consideration of the music of a line is also important as the translator grapples with choices. What Robert Bly translated, awkwardly to my ear, as “The music is a house of glass standing on a slope/” in the poem “Allegro,” Crane offers as “The music is a glass house on a slope/” from the original “Musiken är ett glasus på sluttningen/”. Sluttningen is such a mouthful, I feel a little disappointed in “slope” but I suppose it does the job. Is there another way to capture that sound? Hm. See? Isn’t this fun?

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