Tag Archives: Translations

Revisiting “For Tomas Transtromer” (in Swedish!)

stones A few stones shine like full moons. –Tomas Tranströmer The name of this site is based on the idea that even the poems we write in our native language are translations of a kind, coming to us through a process which must transform source material from a language with no words, to borrow a phrase from the poet Tomas Tranströmer, into the words of our own language. I’m happy to report that the site now will actually include an actual “translation from the English”—what follows is a translation of my poem “For Tomas Tranströmer,” written on January 14th, rendered thoughtfully and also somewhat spontaneously into Swedish by James Wine—as he was showing the poem to Tranströmer himself, just twelve days after its composition… Plenty of back-story below, but first here’s the poem in Wine’s Swedish translation, followed by the work in its original English:

For Tomas Tranströmer

Isen på vägen ser oss med våra egna ögon och det är inte bättre än vad vi är på att hjälpa oss själva som riktningsändringar. På vinter långt söder om här, vaktas den stilla vattnets kanten fortfarande av cypresser knän, som en trött armé som låg på ryggen och tog en tupplur utan att hitta en anledning för att stiga upp. Långt borta hörde jag vrål av en tjur alligator som hävdar världen. Genom en kall vår majsfält tusen mil bort, stirrande på stormens vind springa förbi innan den kunde höras eller kännas, jag vet att allt kan begäras, som dessa minnen–är de oändliga chanser att säga hej bara ett rop över slumrande? Kan vindens våld äntligen höra oss med våra öron? Jag kommer att sitta här med dig ett tag och se vad som kommer. * The ice on the road sees us with our own eyes and is no better than we are at helping ourselves as direction changes. In a winter far south of here, the edge of still water is guarded by cypress knees, like a tired army that lay on their backs for a nap and never found a reason to get up. Beyond them I heard the bellow of a bull alligator claiming the world. By a cold spring corn field a thousand miles away, watching the storm’s wind sprint across before it could be heard or felt, I know everything can be claimed, like these memories—are the endless chances to say hello merely a shout over the slumbering? Is the wind with its violence finally hearing us with our ears? I will sit here with you for a while and see what comes. (If you go to Google translate you can hear the sound of the Swedish, at least as well as the Translate robot can figure out free verse poetry… you can also see that the translation, re-translated into English, renders pretty faithfully.)

The Astor-Piazzolla-like Nature of Time

Readers of this site know that I’m an admirer of the poetry of Tomas Transtromer. You see a line of his on the site’s banner, and I have also posted an appreciation for his work here. I’ve been reading Transtromer for over twenty-five years; I first encountered his work in 1989 in the Cambridge Public Library, stumbling across the Ecco Press collection of his work edited by Robert Hass and including translations by a nearly a dozen different translators. I can still remember standing in the stacks and reading the opening lines of “Prelude,” the first poem in TT’s first book from 1954, and thinking how that poem had waited 35 years from its first publication to reach me but flowered immediately in my mind as if it were being written while I stood there, somewhat dumbfounded, that such a great poet could exist without me knowing about him (as someone fresh from a university tends to think), and read it again and again. Twenty five years later and exactly a month ago from this evening, film-maker James Wine wrote me to let me know that he was releasing a film of Transtromer’s poem “Baltics,” read by the author himself in 1990. The film never usurps the author’s voice, instead furnishes images of the landscape of the poem without intruding on the marvelous effect of the writing itself (subtitles in English are the translation of Mr Wine and a group of friends). Mr Wine contacted me because he’d found this site while searching the web for traces of Transtromer’s global following, which is indeed large, to help pass on news about the film. I viewed the film and wrote about it here, and have since watched the film a few more times—there seem to be more wonderful lines in that one poem than many poets find in a lifetime, and the film provides local context for some of the imagery in the poem while at the same time managing not to diminish anything; rather than explaining, it amplifies the wonders of the poem. Seeing the film inspired me to write the poem, although I did not send it to Mr Wine. It was discovered by one of his colleagues, and he wrote to me a week later, saying he’d like to show it to the poet himself. You can imagine, given the above, how excited I was (and still am) to know that this poem reached the poet himself, and in such short order. In fact, I felt the accordion-like nature of time contracting in a whirligig musical crescendo which might be comparable to finding oneself thrown into a scene in a Thomas Pynchon novel, re-created in a film by Fellini, with a soundtrack by Astor Piazzolla: thirty-five years between when Transtromer wrote “Prelude” and when an awkward American grad student first encountered it; twenty-five years of avid reading followed; then, after an out-of-the-internet-blue email from Mr Wine, a mere twelve days between when I composed a poem honoring my favorite poet and when the poet himself saw it in English, and heard it in Swedish thanks to the work of Mr Wine. As he wrote to me later, “We had a good time with the translating!” *

So, Translate this poem!

That line from Mr Wine gave me an idea. I know many of this site’s readers are also writers and poets; and many of you visit here from lands quite far-away from the Blue Ridge mountains here in Virginia—from China, from Turkey, from Manila, from Spain and Italy and even from Boston, where I know from experience the English language is just a little bit different… So why don’t you take a shot at translating this poem into your own native language? If it creates one more reader of Tranströmer as a result, you’ll have done a great deed. And I’m curious, from a somewhat philosophical perspective as a writer, what the problems and rewards are of translating one of my own works into another language.  I’ll put up a new page on the site’s banner where any new translations can be posted and compiled, and would like to hear from any intrepid souls who attempt this exactly what the experience was like. I know the poem itself, as well-meaning as it is, is much more a stone than a full moon; but seeing it translated into Swedish, and knowing that it reached its intended audience, made it shine a little bit brighter to me. My great thanks and appreciation to James Wine, not only for bringing this poem to Mr Tranströmer’s attention, but also for providing his translation for me to post here.

[readings] Thank you, Li Ho (and Edward Scott)

Thank you, Li Ho: [Reading 3/8/2014 at Allen Chapel AME Church in Staunton VA as part of “Rhythmic Time Between the Lines”]

Today I spent a few hours just a few blocks from my house, in a part of the world that was almost entirely foreign to me, and by bringing in a piece of work that was equally foreign I believe I helped contribute to something meaningful. Or maybe I should say that I believe that Chinese poet Li Ho (b.790) contributed–but I brought that guy with me, after all…

I was invited to participate as a member of the local writers group in a fundraiser to celebrate 21 years of the Allen Chapel AME Choir. Also there to read or perform in this small brick church said to be the oldest church established by people of color west of the Blue Ridge mountains were a handful of other poets, dancers, singers, students, and even a talented mime.

After a couple of dancers and a few poets whose work seemed pretty in tune with the occasion and the religious nature of the setting, I introduced the congregation to my old friend Li Ho. I talked about Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th centuries and how many of the things they wrote about–mountains, snow, sky–were important elements of our lives in this town. I then read the prose poem “On Translating Poetry from the Chinese” and after that read my recent translations of poems by Li Ho and Li Po.

I can tell you that in a AME church setting, people behave like they are in church. That means if they hear something they like, you know it before you’re done reading that line.

“Mm-hm,” someone says quietly. “Uh yeah!” says another voice, a little louder.

I wasn’t reading poems about God, I wasn’t giving an uproarious rendition of a Nikki Giovanni poem, I was not preaching to the choir (no pun intended)—I was bringing to this room some words and ideas that were utterly foreign to those in attendance. And they immediately got it. And I believe the reason they got it was because they were open to it and they were actively listening. That’s what they came there to do every weekend, and that’s what they were doing now–listening and responding, line by line, it seemed, to the words of a man born in 790 CE, and another born in 701 CE. For the poet born in 1965, the enthusiastic applause for each of the three poems I read was not just polite–it was part of the celebration. It was a celebration of being there, and being alive, and listening.


Later, in his closing remarks, the church’s pastor Rev. Dr. Edward Scott was speaking quietly and personally about a recent tragedy that rocked this church community, that being the death of his daughter just a few weeks ago. He was talking about suffering, the intense suffering of the dying, the grieving of the survivors, and how upon his return from Raleigh he did not at first wish to return to church, or see or talk to anyone; but how he put on his tie and shirt and shiny shoes and came to church today to listen. “And today,” he suddenly boomed in a style which I am sure was quite familiar to his congregation, “I heard tell of a TOAD on the MOON!”

He intuitively had grasped that ancient symbol, that distant watcher, as a way to connect us in that meeting hall to a Malaysia Airlines plane crash that had just happened that day–how beneath that moon was more suffering that must be met, more survivors in far-away places that must come home to grieve and be supported by their communities.  He instinctively grasped the moon as elemental to identifying with missing and missed loved ones, just as Li Po and Li Ho did in their time. He found his own grief instructive, channeling it through twelve lines of verse written twelve hundred years ago and everything else he’d seen and heard that hour, into a vision of a shared world.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like my contribution to this celebration was quite so foreign, after all.  And for that I can thank two Chinese poets I have never met, and one newly-met pastor of an America I’m still discovering.


On Translating a Poem from the Chinese

On Translating a Poem from the Chinese

First you find a quiet place in the forest near a mountain. You set about clearing a small patch of land, building a house, moving a family in from the other side of the world, naturally they are confused at first, until you show them that everything is where it should be, including the dragon behind the falling water and beneath the icy pool and the distant dragon in the mountain and the fox behind the tombstone they cannot read and the toad on the moon and the orioles in the tree, and you set about showing them you have built the house where a breeze from the south protects against the red dust of the paths which led them here, and then you set about taking in the family’s exiles, who naturally drink more wine than anyone else yet seem not to have the same sense of vertigo upon arrival, because the moon is the same and has always been the same moon and one day when you are out looking for one of them who did not come home last night you find a plant growing on the dusty path and take it home, and when you get there the exiles are waiting wondering where you were and if there is any more wine, and then you set about placing the perfect plant in a window on the top floor that the family loves and the forest around it loves and that sounds as the last needle of sun skims the canopy of trees and glances off the window like the sound like rain on bamboo. And in the leaves of that plant the past of each of the house’s denizens has to be taken into account, and in every flower a future extending a thousand years. And then you turn your back on it as you turn your back on a dream upon waking, it has to melt back into the earth, artificial as it is, without causing harm. And the fox comes around looking for the garbage and in the middle of a clearing is the poem.

[new translations] Grasses, by Po Chü-i



Parting and parting the grasses on the plain
which one year withers and one year flourishes
which burns again but is never destroyed
a spring wind blows over this life resurging

its fragrance trespasses old paths in the distance
even to the abandoned city comes jade clarity
as we part again, my friend, separated by world’s wind
it’s as deep grasses parting on a crowded plain

–Po Chü-i (Bai Ju-yi)
translated by Jeff Schwaner


Our Time

Happy 2014, everybody.

Our Time

Most of our time together is spent in these words,
The hours of writing and reading
And our house under the roof of your eyes
Is the place we will never come home to
Because we have never left it because
This is not a place but a time we share
Unaware of each other holding
The other sometimes of the wrist of mind
Resisting departure: have you felt that
And the memory of these words that may come
At any moment and at every moment
Is our time and the closest thing to permanence
Is that these words are waiting for us


from 20 Poems & Other Translations from the English