- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
I have translated some poetry into English, and have felt fully the rather inevitable disappointment of rendering a line of limpid beauty into my own clunky music. One tries, and there is enormous pleasure in the trying, but the fruit of such efforts is always bruised. The curse of translation is that at its best it can only be adequate–and yet my dependence on translators for much of the literature that I love has made me not merely grateful for adequacy but convinced that adequacy in translation is itself a kind of beauty, a worthy target for the striving.
Consider the remarkable Susanna Nied, upon whom I depend for reports from Denmark. I know and love her translations of the (just recently passed) poet Inger Christensen. That I came to them at all is as a result of New Directions Publishing, which insists on bringing notable international voices into American bookstores whether they become famous afterwards (W.G. Sebald) or not (Christensen).
Alphabet is the book I would suggest to start your Christensen habit. A poem that travels the same imaginary continent as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Christensen’s Alphabet is the most interesting long poem of recent years. Formally rigorous and lyrically rich, the poem proceeds via incantation to catalog the entirety of the living planet in 77 pages. Never has a list been so lovely or strange, and rarely is repetition used in poetry to such decidedly melancholy effect. I would love to hear it read in Danish, but to read Nied’s completely convincing English rendering is never to doubt that Alphabet is a poem. That it transubstantiates its source into different and seemingly truthful music should be a goad to anyone who translates, writes, reads.
From the poem’s part 11:
love exists, love exists
your hand a baby bird so obliviously tucked
into mine, and death impossible to remember,
impossible to remember how inalienable
life, as easily as chemicals drifting
over the knotgrass and rock doves, all of it
is lost, vanishing, impossible to remember that
there and there flocks of rootless
people, livestock, dogs exist, are vanishing…
More from Wyatt Mason:
Chances that a deep breath inhaled today will contain a molecule from Julius Caesar’s dying breath:
Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos, Hill and Wang (N.Y.C.)
The earth once had three moons; the two lost moons may have crashed into the surviving moon, or been sucked into the sun, or flung out of the solar system to drift through deep space.
In Florida, an 87-year-old World War II veteran flying touch-and-go drills in a Cessna collided with an airborne skydiver. “There was a ‘woof’ sound,” said a witness, “like falling on your face into your pillow.”
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”