Tuesday 29 November 2022

Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-68)


Den som inte hoppas


Den som inte hoppas

skall inte förtvivla.

Den skall inte tvivla

som ingenting tror.

Men den som söker mål

och den som söker mening

ger draken dess etter

och riddaren hans svärd.


Flingorna lägger sig mjukt

till ro i dödens driva.

Lågorna flätar sig muntert

i livets eld.

Som flingornas lek därute

och lågornas på härden

har livets lek sin mening

i meningslöshet.


Ej öde men kombinationer,

virvlar och världsvindsdrifter.

Ej kamp men kampens växling.

Ej orätt eller rätt.

Låt elden smälta drivan.

Låt drivan släcka elden:

Liv, var är nu din mening?

Liv, var är nu din udd!


Två föräldralösa barn

var hjärtat och själen,

en bror och en syster,

och hon var i moders ställe.

- Så vagga mig av och an,

min syster och moder.

Sjung visan för mig,

den ändlösa visan.



The one who does not hope


The one who does not hope

shall not despair.

Doubt shall not assail

the one believing nothing.

But the one in search of goals

and the one in search of meaning

gives the dragon its venom

and the knight his sword.


The flakes settle softly

in the snowdrift of death.

The flames intertwine merrily

in the fire of life.

Like the play of snowflakes outside

and that of the hearth’s flames

the play of life has its meaning

in meaninglessness.


Not fate but combinations,

whirlings and drifts of world winds.

Not struggle but struggle’s alternation.

Not injustice or justice.

Let the fire melt the snowdrift.

Let the snowdrift douse the fire.

Life, where now is your meaning?

Life, where  now is your sting!


Two orphaned children

the heart and soul were,

a brother and sister,

and she in her mother’s stead.

– So rock me from time to time,

my sister and mother.

Sing a song for me,

that never-ending song.


Wednesday 23 November 2022

Marie Dauguet: 'Parthénon, Cathédrale?'

REVUE LITTÉRAIRE de Paris et de Campagne

Juillet 1906, pp. 228-231


Marie Dauguet


Parthénon, Cathédrale? Le premier satisfait voluptueusement ma raison, la seconde enchante logiquement mon imagination. Je dis bien logiquement, ‘le cœur ayant des raisons que la raison connaît pas’.

Parthénon, discours magnifique dont toutes les parties se tiennent et découlent les unes des autres, théorème lumineusement démontré. Cathédrale, ode symphonique aux multiples voix, chœurs alternés, explosions d’extatiques accents, splendeur harmonique qui n’a jamais été dépassée.

Parthénon et Cathédrale, mais je goûte, mais j’endure tous les deux.

Les sonnets de J.-M. de Hérédia me pénètrent d’une belle joie ensoleillée.

Les romances sans paroles du pauvre Lelian, dorlotent si suavement les heures mélancoliques dans leur musicale pénombre.

Et il y a des vers libres qui sont distributeurs d’ivresse: cri du faune qui mord à la grappe, flageolement de vertes flûtes ou beaux fabliaux ensorcelés qui évoquent la silhouette des princesses gemmées aux créneaux des tours, des fantomatiques fileuses près des astres où danse une flamme anxieuse.

Et peut-être à cause de son don d’étourdissement, d’enluminement, qui confine aux sensations que procure la musique, est-ce lui – le vers libre – que e préfère? Je me figure que les symphonies de Beethoven sont écrites en vers libres…

C’est en vers libres qu’on aime, qu’on balbutie son amour; qu’on pleure et qu’on crie sa douleur.

Il est l’expression immédiate de la nature et d’instinct.

Mais le beau vers mesuré, cadencé, parfaitement eurythmique que des génies successivement ont créé, que nous devons au doux et pompeux Ronsard, à Racine, à Hugo, aux parnassiens aussi – à ceux qui comptent – ce beau vers qui est le comble de l’art et sa suprême expression, pour ce qui est de la parole et par conséquent de l’émotion et de la pensée extériorisées par le son, ce beau vers là me touche infiniment, justement par son supernaturalisme, par son excessif raffinement et ce qu’il comporte d’artificiel – j’entends le mot dans son vieux sens – de création en un mot purement humaine. Je l’apprécie donc et je l’honore à toute sa valeur.

En résumé, en poésie comme pour le reste, tout m’est plaisant qui est pour moi une source de plaisirs, de larmes, ou de curiosité, et mon très large éclecticisme me rend les choix difficiles et les distinctions trop absolues, presque impossibles.




de Paris et de Campagne

July 1906, pp. 228-231


Marie Dauguet


Parthenon, Cathedral? The first voluptuously satisfies my reason, the second logically enchants my imagination. I use the word logically ‘the heart having reasons that reason does not know’.

Parthenon: a magnificent discourse where all the sections hold onto and stem from each other, a theorem luminously demonstrated. Cathedral: a symphonic ode for multiple voices, alternating choirs, explosions of ecstatic accents, harmonic splendour that has never been surpassed.

Parthenon and Cathedral, but I savour, but I endure both of them.

The sonnets of J.-M. de Hérédia penetrate me with a fine sun-lit joy.

The songs without words of pauvre Lelian coddle so suavely the melancholy hours in their musical half-light.

And there are vers libres that are distributors of intoxication: a cry of the faun that bites at the cluster of grapes, a quivering of green flutes or beautiful bewitched fables which evoke the silhouette of princesses concealed in the niches of towers, of phantom-like spinsters close to starts where an anxious flame is dancing.

And perhaps, because of its gift of giddiness, of enlightenment which restricts one to the sensations procured by music, is it perhaps this form – vers libre – that I prefer? I envisage to myself that Beethoven’s symphonies were written in vers libres…

It is in vers libres that one loves, that one murmurs one’s love, that one weeps and cries out one’s pain.

It is the immediate expression of nature and of instinct.

But beautiful verse, measured, cadenced, perfectly eurhythmic which geniuses have created in succession, which we are indebted to the sweet and pompous Ronsard, to Racine, to Hugo, to the Parnassians as well  - to those who count – this beautiful verse which is the apogee of art and its supreme expression, for that which is of words and thus of emotion and of thought exteriorised by sound – this beautiful verse touches me infinitely, precisely because of its supernaturalism, its excessive refinement and that which it contains of the artificial – I am using the word in its old sense – of creation in a word purely human. I thus appreciate it and I honour it for all its worth.

To sum up, in poetry as in everything else, everything pleases me which is to me a source of pleasures, of tears, or of curiosity, and my considerable eclecticism makes choices difficult and distinctions too absolute, almost impossible.


Friday 18 November 2022

zkg 20 'Legacy'




among all the other

asymmetrical structures

in my body

why not the skull too

i wondered

feeling my surfacing pate

through the thinning hair


for i encounter

running my fingers

browwards in a left and right sweep

a transverse furrow

on the right-hand side

is this my legacy from birth

from pa and ma –

a hallmark of both their houses?


or maybe the legacy from birth

as i was squeezed out

into this weird world?


or maybe the garage door

ma inadvertently slammed down

onto my skull

before we drove off to see pa

in his coffin –

a final addition?


i feel it warily:

it may prove

the dent is a deathmark

sealed and delivered


 All of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and Stories now available in a new translation into English. A free digital version, and each  is downloadable! Just go to this website.

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Aage Berntsen: 'Så sætter vi piben i ovnens krog'




Is there anything as hideous as a male voice choir? A question often asked me here in Denmark, mainly because it is difficult to assemble a choir of males capable of singing with any degree of professionalism. And I say this with a love of Danish amateur mixed choirs, which I have sung in for decades. We are thin on the ground – first tenors and second basses (the intrepid explorers of the vocal spectrum) are worth their weight in gold.


So when Carl Nielsen, among the other gems included in his ‘Funen Springtime’ – a wonderful composition that would fare much better if there were a good translation of the songs into a world language – included a short four-part male song to be sung by old men with rheumatics, rejoicing at the return of the Danish spring, there was an obvious potential hit in there somewhere.


And, in a sense, a hit it has become. ‘Nu lægger vi piben...’, one of the Aage Berntsen poems used by Nielsen in his work, is a twelve-liner that nearly every Dane would recognise within a couple of seconds.


So here it is, in a world language. And while pondering on its subtleties, try listening to the recording of it by the Studenter-Sangforening, recorded on Helikon HCD 1027:



Så sætter vi piben i ovnens krog


Så sætter vi piben i ovnens krog

og lukker den skindklædte bibelbog,

det er den velsignede forårstid,

og gigten er bleven lidt mere blid.


Vi tager hinanden i trofast hånd,

hver finger er krum som en kroget vånd,

langs haverne puster den milde vind,

der luner det kuldskære, gamle skind.


Men når vi har rokket en lille tur,

så længes vi efter en lille lur,

for gammelfolk hælder mod støvet ned

og længes mod hvilen i evighed.



We lay down our pipe in the stove’s far nook


We lay down our pipe in the stove’s far nook

and close now our leather-bound Holy Book,

the sweet blessèd springtime is here once more,

each twinge of rheumatics not quite so raw.


We firmly shake hands in a trusting bond

with fingers as bent as a crookèd wand,

each garden’s caressed by a gentle breeze

that warms our old hide that is quick to freeze.


But when we have shaken our limbs a bit.

we long for a nap and a place to sit,

for old folks know well that to dust they wend

and long for a rest that will never end.


Workshop: J.C. Bloem's 'November'




One thing that strikes me about Bloem as a non-Dutch reader is a sense of flow in his poetry. Not monotony, but pulse. You are borne along when reading the poem. In ‘November’ there is a syllable count of 9898 for each quatrain (if you elide ‘dove erinneringen’ but do not elide ‘te ontkomen’), but the stress pattern is not just repetitive: every 9 does not have xXxXxXxXx, and every eight not xXxXxXxX. And there is plenty of enjambment, even between the second and third lines of quatrains. The basic unit is a four-line stanza, except for the last quatrain, which has a final couplet summing up the preceding lines.

Another thing is the naturalness of the rhymes, something which poses a serious translation problem – it calls for flexibility in the use of syntax and word classes as well as ingenuity in finding suitable rhyme words in the target language. Antiquated, rare words, or words whose meaning is not implied in the original are the pit you can easily fall into.

Bloem is also a writer whose language is backward-looking, rather than forward-looking. It is soaked in tradition, though normally without the over-elision and syllable-crunching of, say, Dèr Mouw or de Tachtigers. Striking a balance in the target language, one that will stimulate similar nerves in the target-language reader as in the source-language reader is a further aspect to be considered.

Bloem is a fearfully difficult poet to translate.



Here, then, is Bloem’s poem:





Het regent en het is november:

Weer keert het najaar en belaagt

Het hart, dat droef, maar steeds gewender,

Zijn heimelijke pijnen draagt.


En in de kamer, waar gelaten

Het daaglijks leven wordt verricht,

Schijnt uit de troosteloze straten

Een ongekleurd namiddaglicht.


De jaren gaan zoals zij gingen,

Er is allengs geen onderscheid

Meer tussen dove erinneringen

En wat geleefd wordt en verbeid.


Verloren zijn de prille wegen

Om te ontkomen aan den tijd;

Altijd november, altijd regen,

Altijd dit lege hart, altijd.



And here is my first draft – done, like all the others, in summer 2007, which means I am now forced to rationalise after the event, since I am unsure why certain things were changed.






It’s raining and it is November:

Autumn lays siege now to the heart

That sadly, though more wont than ever,

Endures its secret pains apart.


And in the room, where resignation

Turns ordinary living grey ,

From streets that speak of desolation

A wan light falls at close of day.


The years pass by like years departed,

The difference will soon be gone

Between dim memories uncharted

And what is lived and is to come.


Lost are the ways I knew of gaining

Release from time in earlier days;

Always November, always raining,

Always this empty heart, always.



What I normally do is to ask a second opinion on such a draft from a native-speaker with a good command of English – or sometimes vice versa. In this case, I used the former.

The criticisms I received had to do with lines 5–12 – the first and last quatrains have remained unscathed throughout the drafts, so I will leave them aside for the time being.


Here are the second draft alterations:



And in the room, where resignation

To humdrum living holds full sway,

From streets that speak of desolation

A wan light falls at close of day.


The years pass but the years don’t alter,

The difference will soon be gone

Between dim memories that falter

And what is lived and is to come.



The first draft ‘where resignation/Turns ordinary living grey’ is not what the original says, where resignation does not cause anything. But my replacement I find almost worse, even though the meaning is closer. ‘holds full sway’ is typical padding, a cliché that goes for a rhyme at any cost. This latter crime is precisely why ‘uncharted’ in line 11 had to go. There is nothing wrong with ‘years departed’, but ‘memories uncharted’, with its post-adjectival, is terrible. The ‘alter/falter’ rhyme is much closer in meaning, less cliché-ridden and simplifies the language – clogged language is one of my weaknesses when translating older poetry.


The third draft has the following changes:



And in the room, where resignation

Sees daily living drain away,

From streets that speak of desolation

A bleak light falls at close of day.


The years pass by but never alter,

The difference will soon be gone

Between dim memories that falter

And what is lived and is to come.



The ‘holds full sway’ is out, replaced by an active transitive verb for ‘resignation’ and a feeling of powerlessness and meaninglessness implied by ‘drain away’. The construction is much more natural than the earlier version. The replacement of ‘wan’ by ‘bleak’ is an attempt to characterise the late-afternoon light better. The word ‘wan’ is a bit-old fashioned and has ‘sickly’ connotations, whereas ‘bleak’ has a touch of ‘the prospects are bleak’ about it.

The changes to line 9 have to do with flow and stress pattern. The previous version ‘The years pass but the years don’t alter’ jerks you to a halt at the word ‘but’ and the rest of the line is restless.


Here is the final version:





It’s raining and it is November:

Autumn lays siege now to the heart

That sadly, though more wont than ever,

Endures its secret pains apart.


And in the room, where resignation

Sees daily life pass as it may,

From streets that speak of desolation

A bleak light falls at close of day.


The years pass by but never alter,

The difference will soon be gone

Between dim memories that falter

And what is lived and is to come.


Lost are the ways I knew of gaining

Release from time in earlier days;

Always November, always raining,

Always this empty heart, always.



The only change is ‘drain away’, which is more than the original said. The idea of indifference due to inability to change the course of events results in ‘Sees daily life pass as it may’, an improvement I think. ‘Life’ is better than ‘living’ and the language is once more simplified and sounds more like natural speech.






A few weeks ago, I was sent some translations of Bloem poems by James Brockway. Among them was a translation of ‘November’:





It is raining and it is November:

Autumn’s come back again to besiege

The heart that has secret pain to remember,

A sadness time cannot assuage.


And here, where everyday life is lived

With resignation, into the room

Shines from cheerless streets the sieved

And colourless light of afternoon.


The years goes by as years go by,

At the last there is little difference

Between what grows dim in the memory

And what is here, what lies hence.


Lost are the ways we’d escape from time,

Easy to find in early days;

Always November, always rain,

Always this empty heart, always.



Quite honestly, I think this translation has fallen into all the pitfalls I began by listing. If you read it aloud, it reads like prose. It has words like ‘assuage’, ‘hence’ in it alongside forms like ‘we’d’ and ‘Autumn’s’, and the inverted word order of lines 6–8 is typical of second-rate poetry. The whole atmosphere of a Bloem poem is gone. No flow, no go.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Out of tune and harsh - translating a sonnet by Revius from Dutch into English



As a young teenager I studied the part of Ophelia for the school play. I was chosen partly for my soprano voice, for Ophelia sings several songs, some of which still circle in my brain ‘How should I my true love know/from another one?/By his cockle hat and staff/And his sandal shoon’ I chirped in A minor. When Hamlet feigns madness, his music sounds ‘out of tune and harsh’ to Ophelia. And this is what happened when I tried to translate the poem ‘Scheppinge’ by the Dutch poet Jacobus Revius (1586–1658).

The fact that I need to find out what various parts of the lute are called in English is only a slight stumbling block, as such information can now be accessed by Googling. The exception to this is ‘met clavieren betrecken’, where I am stuck for sensible dictionary definitions. Since the world is compared to a lute that is played on by God, the only sensible thing God can have done to prepare for playing is to string it. So I have had to guess that this is what the first two lines are referring to. The bass strings and the quint are some of the strings later referred to; the others are called ‘the rest’. The strings of the lute, I discover, are arranged in what are called ‘courses’, usually of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of a single string. This is known as the quint, or the chanterelle. The chanterelle is the first course and this means that an 8-course Renaissance lute usually has 15 strings. In the later Baroque lute, the first two courses could have single strings, so that a 13-course Baroque lute would probably have 24 strings. Each course in the poem is an aspect of God’s creation, e.g. earth, sea, sky, trees, animals. The other parts of the lute mentioned can be seen from a website showing a lute-builder at work. The bowl is the body of the lute; the ribs are the alternate strips of different woods applied to the back of the bowl that give it a light-dark pattern, sometimes with thin black strips in-between; the rose is the round aperture covered with beautiful fretwork that lets out the sound. There are sometimes two of them, one smaller than the other – hence the ‘sun and moon’.

The problem with Revius’ poem is that its ‘music’ does not fit the English language. This has to do with two things: the frequency of feminine rhymes, and the sheer length of the lines. I am used to dealing with sonnets that alternate between 10 and 11 syllables, but this one has 12 and 13. Trying to retain the rhyme scheme (except for allowing myself a CDDC in lines 5–8) and the syllable count gave me a poem that sounded out of tune and harsh. I ended up with the usual excess of words ending in –ING, adding ‘now’, ‘then’, ‘all’ and similar ‘line-extenders’. I had a first line ending in ‘world as’ (so that ‘A lute’ could start line 2) rhyming with ‘are whirling’ in line 4, for example. And ‘roaring’ for line 5 rhyming with ‘of every calling’ in line 8. The translation lurched along without any poise or pulse.

The Dutch sonnet tradition (or the Danish or German for that matter) often faithfully adheres to its Italian template, and can afford to do so, since it has plenty of words ending on a weak syllable. The English sonnet, however, mutated during the 16th century as regards both form and content. Most of the 11-syllable lines had become 10-syllable lines by Shakespeare’s time, although he was not averse to throwing in some pairs of 11-syllable lines in some of his sonnets. [And the down-to-earth English poets found worshipping idealised women on pedestals a waste of time and brought them down to earth, sometimes even parodying the Italian paeon of praise (e.g. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’).] The English sonneteers gradually replaced the harmonious outward-inward journey of the two halves of the octet ABBA ABBA (sometimes compared to the intake and outlet of air) and the often circular development of the sestet CDE EDC by, in Shakespeares’s case, a gradual build-up of dramatic tension: ABAB CDCD EFEF, capped by the dénouement of the final couplet GG (e.g. ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold...’ ‘...This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well which thou must leave ere long’). Revius has a very clear construction that has similarities with both traditions: lines 1–2, what God has done; lines 3–8, the nature of the comparison in a neutral present; lines 9–11, what God the lutenist did, in the past tense; lines 12–14, the unenviable position of man, unless God decides to be merciful. In these final three lines, Revius reverts to an ‘eternal’ present.

Translating such a poem as this means that I have to straddle two traditions. Should I try and retain the form of the Dutch poem unaltered (i.e. reproduce all the lines with 13 syllables), or I can graft onto the poem enough of the English tradition qua form that it sounds, more or less, like a recognisable English sonnet? What is fidelity in a translation? Is it slavishly adhering to the form of the original, or can it include changes that mean the English reader has similar cultural nerves that are ‘set vibrating’, if I may use a fitting image? And speaking of mood, chronologically speaking we are somewhere between Shakespeare and Milton.



God heeft de werelt door onsichtbare clavieren

Betrocken als een luyt met al sijn toebehoor.

Den hemel is de bocht vol reyen door en door,

Het roosken, son en maen die om ons hene swieren.


Twee grove bassen die staech bulderen en tieren

Sijn d’aerd en d’oceaan: de quinte die het oor

Verheuget, is de locht: de reste die den choor

Volmaket, is t’geboomt en allehande dieren.


Dees luyte sloech de Heer met sijn geleerde vingers,

De engels stemden in als treffelicke singers,

De bergen hoorden toe, de vloeden stonden stil:

Den mensch alleen en hoort noch sangeren noch snaren,

Behalven dien ’t de Heer belieft te openbaren

Na zijn bescheyden raet en Goddelijcken wil.

kwint = hoogste vioolsnaar, dunste snaar van een snaarinstrument

bescheiden = verstandig, oordeelkundig. de bescheiden lezer

Gods raad = het eeuwige plan dat Hij met de wereld en de mensen heeft




God with his wires invisible has strung the world

As ’twere a lute, with all of its accoutrements.

The welkin is the bowl, full-ribbed from end to end,

The rose, the sun and moon whose orbits round us twirl.


The two coarse bass strings that forever boom and roar

Are earth and ocean: the high chanterelle, so sweet

Upon the ear, the sky: the others that complete

The choir are the trees and beasts of every sort.


This lute th’Almighty plucked with His accomplished fingers,

The angels then joined in as His proficient singers,

The mountains listened rapt, the rivers all stood still:

And man alone hears neither singers nor the strings,

Unless it please God to reveal to him such things

According to His prudent plan and heav’nly will.

Eva Gerlach: 'Virus 6' from the collection 'Hier' (2022)


Virus 6


He stands on the ladder, is painting

the house. Does not fall. Hand following eye which is fixed on


the house that bears him. The wood rots, he scrapes fibres off,

kills mould, fills holes in, levels; he’s painting, he nurses


the house. Should it sag, he’ll shore it from top to toe, should it leak

will plug each wound with skin and hair. Let storm, let tremor fear peril


falling come our way, he’ll stand there on the ladder, hold

the sky up sand light smooth tape off time and whistle through his teeth be-


hold I make all things new chip by strut forever and ever, he’ll

stand, look through the window, raise a hand, laugh. He is


painting the house.