Writing poetry in your own language is a kind of translation—you put your thoughts and feelings into words and music on the page.
Nothing gets to the heart of that process faster than comparing actual English translations of the same poem side-by-side. Every difference between the two makes the decision-making process visible: what choices were made in every phrase and line, and what are the effects of those different choices?
The book for my upcoming class, The Poem Itself, provides all the raw materials you need for assembling an English version of a poem originally written in another language—no knowledge of another language required. You’ll all work on the same poems, and then we’ll discuss your versions in class. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how you proceed when you write and revise your own poems.
Consider these two versions of the Swedish Nobel-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “The Couple.” Do you prefer one to the other overall? Or one phrase here, another there? Try your own rewrite. This will give you a taste of what we’ll be doing in class.
The Couple translated by Robin Fulton
They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.
The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.
The Couple translated by Robin Robertson
They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe
glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling
then dissolving in a glass of darkness. Around them,
the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky.
Love’s drama has died down, and they’re sleeping now,
but their dreams will meet as colours meet
and bleed into each other
in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.
All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.
Sharon Bryan received her BA in Philosophy and an MA in Anthropology before she began to write poetry, and then received her MFA from the University of Iowa. She has published four books of poems: Sharp Stars, Flying Blind, Objects of Affection, and Salt Air, which won The Governor’s Award from the State of Washington. She received the Isabella Gardner Award for Sharp Stars. Her other awards include two NEA Fellowships in Poetry, an Academy of American Poet’s Prize, the Discovery Award from The Nation, and an Artist Trust Grant from the Washington State Arts Council. She taught at the University of Washington and Memphis State University and is currently on the faculty of the low-residency in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.