Tuesday Poem: Poetry in Translation - Tomas Transtromer

April and Silence

Spring lies desolate.
This velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
without reflections.

The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers.

I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.

April Och Tystnad

Våren ligger öde.
Det sammtesmörka diket
krälar vid min sida
utan spegelbilder.

Det enda som lyser
är gula blommor.

Jag bärs i min skugga
som en fiol
i sin svarta låda.

Det enda jag vill säga
glimmar utom räckhåll
som silvret
hos pantlånaren.

Aprile e Silenzio

La primavera giace deserta.
Il fossato di velluto scuro
serpeggia al mio fianco
senza riflessi.

L’unica cosa che splende
sono fiori gialli.

Son trasportato dentro la mia ombra
come un violino
nella sua custodia nera.

L’unica cosa che voglio dire
scintilla irraggiungibile
come l’argento
al banco dei pegni.

I have the Bloodaxe ‘Collected Poems’ of Tomas Transtromer in English, but - because I’m learning the language, I also have his ‘Sad Gondola’ collection (La Lugubre Gondola) in Italian, and this edition includes the original poems in Swedish. So, by a happy accident, I’m able to read three different versions of the same poems - in three different languages - and I thought it might be fun to compare them. Looking at poems in translation can sometimes give additional insights into the meaning, but it always raises the questions, ‘what is a good translation?’ and ‘is a translation a new poem altogether?’

Transtromer himself has written that ‘theoretically we can, to some extent justly, look at poetry translation as an absurdity. But in practice we must believe in poetry translation.’ He goes on to explain what he means by this, that there are two ways of looking at a poem. ‘You can perceive a poem as an expression of the life of the language itself, something organically grown out of the very language in which it is written. ... impossible to carry over into another language.’ But you can also believe that ‘the poem as it is presented is a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages. Thus, even the original version is a translation.’ The Italian translator of his poems goes further and adds that every reader makes their own translation - for each one ‘the text is the same, but the poetry is different.’ So, no poem, in whatever language, is ever the same for every person. The important thing, she writes, is what happens between the text and the reader.

The English versions, by Robin Fulton, are excellent and come from a close partnership with the poet. George Szirtes writes in Poetry London that, ‘Transtromer has entered the English language as if he had been born to it, floating in Anglo-American space with an ease denied to many other’. In Italy Transtromer is translated by Gianna Chiesa Isnardi and the poems are very, very close to the English (I can't judge on the Swedish). Essential features of the poem’s structure have been kept, such as the repetitions in stanza two and four ‘L’unica cosa’, ‘Det enda’, ‘The only thing’. The length of the lines remains more or less the same and most of the words are simple equivalents. ‘Som en fiol’, ‘come un violino’, ‘like a violin’.

April and Silence translates very well - a straight-forward transmission of meaning using the repetitions of ideas and phrases, exactly chosen words. But the sounds and rhythms are very different. Looking at the unfamiliar symbols of the original Swedish I’d assumed that it would have a rougher sound than the Italian or English, but a Swedish friend here read it for me and I was surprised at the lyrical quality of the language. Smooth, musical and beautiful, more equivalent to the Italian than the English.  I hadn't expected it to sound like that. This is a glimpse of Transtromer reading in Swedish.

For More Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poets hub at http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com

I'm having fun getting about a bit this week - also guest-blogging about 'The Itinerant Muse'  over at Wendy Robertson's brilliant blog  A Life Twice Tasted

and writing about women's diaries and letters 'What Survives of Us....' on Michelle McGrane's wonderful Peony Moon.


  1. I can't read either Swedish or Italian - but the poem is beautiful in English, and I love the idea that any poem is a translation of another invisible poem.

  2. It's a lovely poem in English, Kathleen, and your exegesis is very interesting. I don't think I've ever seen a poem presented in three different languages in the same place before!

  3. Makes me want to read more. I believe as you say the poem translates differently with every reader. This is certainly my experience of the novel.

  4. I found this so interesting to read - especially your exploration of the possibilities and limitations of poetry in translation. I love his statement that a translation is 'a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages.
    That idea of 'the language behind...' is mind-blowing. This goes some way to explain my enjoyment of working with the Chinese girl Xiorxia in prison and her thousand year old Chinese poem.

  5. I was especially taken with the lines:

    "I am carried in my shadow
    like a violin
    in its black case."

    I always admire a translation of any work that seems to stand as a thing of beauty itself. Good or great translation is an art in itself.


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