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…