Sunday, March 10, 2019

Translating Poetry, 10 Years After

Recently I've begun translating poetry again. This current spate comes 10 years after the last slew of translations I published on this blog in 2009. Seems like yesterday...

Today's poems are all translated from Danish, and they represent three generations of writers - with poems appearing originally in the 1920s, '50s and '80s...

The first poem is by Nis Petersen - from Nattens Pibere, his debut collection from 1926. The strange title refers to the bats he observed and and heard squeaking at night in a local cemetery.

The poem I chose for translation, "When the Cherry Trees Are Blooming", is a witchy celebration of nature's temptations. I don't usually do rhyme-driven poems, but I had a lot of fun with this one.

Nis Petersen was a somewhat tragic figure, who spent many wasted years in his youth, drinking and living as a vagabond because he couldn't hold down a job. He traveled extensively and spent substantial time in Ireland and the Faroe Islands - both locations inspiring poems and novels. His main fame comes from his 1931 historical novel, Sandalmagernes Gade, which is set in classical Rome.

He eventually settled down in the middle of Jutland and stopped drinking after a rehab stay in Sweden. However, his life was cut short by cancer and he died before turning 50, on March 9, 1943...

The second poet I've been working with turns 91 today. Knud Sørensen is a local poet residing on Mors, the island just across from National Park Thy, where I am currently living. Before retiring 35 years ago, Knud Sørensen worked as a surveyor alongside his writing work, and the sense of place and spirit of the land is acute in his writing. He had his debut as a poet in the classic Danish poetry journal, Hvedekorn (Grains of Wheat) which is still going strong.

 Below is one of his early Hvedekorn poems, “Morning”, which I have recently translated…

The final translation I'm presenting today is from the work of the quintessential New Wave post-punk poetic voice in Denmark, Michael Strunge, who died by suicide on March 9, 1986.

Posthumously, Strunge became the most popular poet in Denmark since Klaus Rifbjerg - and in contrast to the two first poets I've mentioned, Strunge was very much an urban voice in Danish poetry. Here is my new translation of his 1984 poem, "When we're asleep" from his collection Armed with Wings...

Note how in the poem the voice of the speaker originates from an apartment in the city and ends up encompassing all of the surrounding landscape. Strunge is far from the first poet to compare the hearts of lovers to a pair of birds - in fact Nis Petersen did exactly that in one of the poems in Nattens Pibere, where he wrote:

"Men tænk, om to mennesker vågnede midt
om natten og glemte, hvad mit var og dit
og sang — bare sang som hr. Kvirrevit
og fru Kvirrevit

"Imagine two humans waking up one night,
Forgetting what was mine and what was yours
and sang — just sang like Mr. Chip-Chirip
and Mrs. Chip-Chirip:

I'm not suggesting a direct intertextuality between the two misfit poets here, but for sure a commonality of theme and imagery.

As far as I can tell none of these Danish poets from three different generations have been translated into English before. I hope some will enjoy their work.

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