Oddly enough, I first entertained the idea of translating poetry while reading Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. I say “oddly” because it is a tract whose aesthetic import is predominantly restricted to its allegations concerning the end of art and–as far as I know–rarely referenced in expositions of literary aspirations. Hegel also, however, opines briefly on “bad poetry,” that is to say prosaic thought coerced into poetic form, and its opposition to true poetry, which is of course a unified act of poiesis. It is from these–albeit enigmatic–musings that I believe two conflicting ideals can be derived and subsequently made available to the translator who finds themselves faced with the challenge of translating poetry: the translated poem and the poetic translation. For me, this aspirational bifurcation is not a difficult one to approach; I would much rather be remembered as an adequate translator than a poetaster, and as such it is towards the poetic translation (and to a form fitting of the translation) that I aim. With ends thus determined there are certain repercussions that permeate directly into questions of form versus sense. This dialectic is, I believe, especially pertinent when attempting to translate Edith Södergran with the reverence this particular poet is due. There is a poem by another canonical Swedish poet, Karin Boye, that I like to imagine, despite a conspicuous lack of philological or historical evidence, is in fact an ode to Södergran and her poetry. The second stanza closes with the following lines:
A redness hovers
behind paleness of cheek.
A sea of fire burns
where no one knows,
where no one reaches.
It is these words (reminiscent of when Södergran herself–in the guise of the last flower of autumn–proclaims, “red flames erupted on my white cheek”) I have tried to keep somewhere in the back of my mind when working with Södergran’s works; it is this eruption, this sea of fire burning below the surface, that I have attempted to know, and to reach, when translating Södergran; and it is a dedication to this sense which I believe justifies certain formal sacrifices. All this is not to say that I believe myself to have a kind of supernatural ability to grasp the artistic intentions of a consciousness not my own, an ability to once and for all unearth the true meaning of Södergran’s poems. What I am referring to is the sense that Edith Södergran has for me (as an avid reader and aspiring translator). In my eyes, the true sense of Edith Södergran is not that of the meek victim, one subject to a fate decided by debilitating illness and crippling circumstance; rather it is that of the wickedly ironic benefactor of conditions beyond her control, conditions she would continue to vigorously resist despite no hope of victory. I hope that a dedication to just this sense has allowed me to render poetic translations worthy of Edith Södergran the poet.
– Nicholas Lawrence
You’re going to read a Swedish play. Heavy. You’re thinking Ingmar Bergman, deep symbolism, whispers and cries, anguish, suicide, maybe some blonde sex in the sauna. Think again. The world of Sofia Fredén is more closely related to Larry David’s. Bergman’s characters are silent and closed. Sofia’s are open and naïve. They wear their psychology on the outside. They say what they feel. They are refreshingly selfish when you consider their context: a chilly, grey, and silent country where the motto, until quite recently, was “Duty above all else.” White Baby is a political comedy about a group of people who can’t seem to make place in their lives for a child. Most of it you’ll understand. But you probably won’t recognize similarities between the character Eva and Mona Sahlin, the present leader of Sweden’s social democratic party. You’ll listen to the scene in the postal service centre unaware that Post Offices have been completely phased out in Sweden and you’ll think it more absurd than we would when a character at the social service office asks to have his welfare check forwarded to Africa. Sweden and the U.S. are a bit different. We can’t help that. I am a great fan of Ms. Fredén and her work. White Baby is the fourth play of hers that I’ve translated. The earliest of rough drafts was workshopped at a theatre I ran about eight years ago. Three years ago Sofia and I took a version to a playwright’s colony in a nunnery in Winnipeg where she worked on it some more. Sofia has written about a dozen other plays while White Baby was in progress, so it had to wait until less than a year ago to get finished. It opened February 2007 at Göteborg Stadsteater.
(Edward Buffalo Bromberg)
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).