Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Couplets: poetry on tour

To celebrate National Poetry Month, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a poetry blog tour, and today I'm hosting Carol Berg. I've already written about translation from Spanish in another post, and today Carol talks about translation from a Swedish without having mastered the language.

Fifty poets are participating in this tour. You can find links to other Couplets posts at: Celebrate poetry!


On Translation, by Carol Berg

One of the first poems I ever published, "Make Believe," was about my grandfather who lived in Jamestown, New York. My grandfather was Swedish and I never learned how to speak Swedish and always felt that was such a loss. When my family traveled to Jamestown, everything would change, even my father. He would try to speak Swedish to his friends, although he only knew certain phrases. For that reason, and many others, I chose to translate three Swedish contemporary writers for my third semester project while I was getting my MFA in poetry at Stonecoast's Low-Residency program. Translating, I believed, would introduce me to the Swedish language as well as strengthen my own poetry in ways I would probably learn only intuitively.

Clearly, not being fluent in Swedish presented some problems. I needed to find Swedish speakers willing to help me. Being a member of the Wom-po list-serve (a discussion group of women poets), I emailed a request for Swedish speakers and received a number of responses. I also decided to use two different methods of translating. The first was to go through the poem myself and translate it word for word, then use an existing English translation to help in understanding. The other method was to ask a translator for a transliteration of three poems by each of the poets and then to turn these literal translations into poems in English.

The tools I worked with were The Hippocrene Standard Swedish-English Dictionary, Swedish: Essentials of Grammar, as well as an online Swedish dictionary website In addition, I accessed the Swedish online newspaper SvD and tried to read it often.

I immediately realized how difficult translating is when I began translating Eva Ström's poem "Jag är Steinkind". The first line of the poem, "Jag är Steinkind i min svarta klänning," translates directly to "I am stonechild in my black dress." For me "black dress" conjured the sexy little black cocktail dress and not a funeral dress, which to my mind would be "black clothes." After struggling with the possible meanings and the rest of the poem, I made what I considered my first true translational choice, which was changing the word "klänning" to "cloth" instead of "dress." In my mind, "cloth" sounded similar to "klänning," but the connotations would be different. At the very point of making such a decision, I felt a responsibility for the poem. To read my translation of this and another poem by Ström, go to

One of the ongoing arguments about translation is whether the translator should attempt a translation in a language he or she knows very little about. After my experience, I can honestly say that having a fluent understanding of Swedish may have helped me create better translations. I am thinking mostly of having the connotations of words that could have enabled me to make different choices. But I feel that, especially with the tools now available to a translator, such as hearing the language on the internet, the ease of finding on-line dictionaries — in short, the ability to immerse oneself into the target language from one's own home — makes translation a different process than it has been before.

If you are interested in translating, I would highly suggest asking around in your particular communities first for native speakers, be it an on-line virtual community or one that is in your neighborhood. Buy some dictionaries in your target language. Look for international blogs in another language and visit them daily, without worrying about trying to understand the language. And finally, choose a poem that's relatively short in length.

To hear many many international poets read their poems in the native language, and to find poems written in another language, go to and browse around. It's a start to your translating project.

Tags: poetry

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