Translating the soul

Reflections on Tomas Tranströmer's poetry

I must be alone / ten minutes in the morning / and ten minutes in the evening, wrote Tomas Tranströmer in a poem from 1966. Just like the poet, everyone should try to get daily moments of solitude. Why not read Tranströmer during those free moments? Ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. Every day. It’s like medicine for the soul – perhaps the best medicine of all. Reading his poems is like listening to good music; his writing is full of musical sounds. Imagine having the opportunity to read him around the world – Tranströmer’s work is available in no less than 60 languages from Lithuanian, Bengali, and Greek to Slovenian and Chinese; from Persian, Romanian, and Korean to Arabic and Bulgarian.

Simple language, hard to translate

But why is Tranströmer translated across the globe? Perhaps because translating him is like translating the soul – to paraphrase a title from one of Kjell Espmark’s books. Or perhaps it’s because the qualities of Tranströmer’s verse have shown themselves to survive translation to other languages to an unusually high degree. But it’s not easy to translate him. He’s been called ‘the master of the metaphor’, but there is a pull towards greater simplicity, towards the colloquial, in his poetry. While easily accessible on the surface, the poems contain a density, complexity, and depth the translator must come to grips with. The poet himself puts stringent demands on how he is to be translated: even the word order matters. This is why he thinks his poems can’t be translated into German, since the verb always comes last there.

Into many languages

Despite all these difficulties, Tomas Tranströmer is very likely Sweden’s most translated poet. Many of these translations  are available at the National Library of Sweden, and it is with great pride that we are putting a small selection of the 34 languages represented in our collections on display.

In connection with Tranströmer winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Library is arranging a smaller exhibition of Tranströmer translations. The Library’s collections now house approximately 140 translations into 34 different languages of Tomas Tranströmer’s work.

Contact person: Dan Shafran, e-mail: firstname.lastname@kb.se


By Dan Shafran, who works at the Foreign Literature Division at the National Library. Dan has translated Tranströmer himself.

The text comes the department's blog: Extranea - Foreign Literature (In Swedish)

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