Saturday, October 18, 2008

Edith Södergran: "On foot through the solar system"

This is a poem by the Finland-Swedish female poet Edith Södergran, who lived from 1892 to 1923. Her early death was due to tuberculosis. She lived many places during her lifetime, also in the Finnish forests, composing poems quivering with intense sensibility, emotion and originality. She is one of the definitely most interesting poets of her time. As her brief life was punctured by illness, her poems sometimes have a feverish life-celebrating glow to them while others are marked by a welcoming of death.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, by Swedish-speaking Finnish parents, she attended a German all-girl school in St. Petersburg facing the grand Winter Palace, home of the tzar. Here she was taught German, English, French and Russian - but no Swedish, which was her mother tongue. She wrote her innovative poems in Swedish anyway.

Her verse was free and modern. No doubt she had been influenced by other authors; Nietzsche was of her favourites for a time. But her voice is everywhere clearly a woman's. This in itself must have been a novelty in the early 1900s. She has been described as an expressionist as well as a modernist, but at the same time she is at odds with more central modernist poets. Her poems are often passioned, etheric, visionary, fantastic, feminine (or even feministic) -- all in all different and unique.

I have risked translating a small poem. Seeing as my mother tongue is not Swedish but Norwegian, this is slightly daring, but our languages are so alike that they are almost counted as dialects. Anyone is invited to suggest improvements, though ;-)

Till fots fick jag gå genom solsystemen

Till fots
fick jag gå genom solsystemen,
innan jag fann den första tråden av min röda dräkt.
Jag anar ren mig själv.
Någonstädes i rymden hänger mitt hjärta,
gnistor strömma ifrån det, skakande luften,
till andra måttlösa hjärtan.

On foot my path wound through the solar systems

On foot
my path wound through the solar systems,
until at last I found my red robe's first thread.
I already have a sense of who I am.
Somewhere in space my heart's suspended,
sparks flowing from it, quavering the air,
reaching out to other speechless hearts.


This is one of her minor poems, and I will probably try to translate a few of her other, more famous poems. But when, I do not know.


Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Thekla

I have a book of translated poems by ES which includes this poem. The translations are by Gounil Brown and published by Zena.

I would say that your translation comes closer to the original as far as I can tell.

I would question whether you need "at last" in line 3. Is it in the original?

Instead of "quavering the air, unto other speechless hearts", Gounil has "vibrating the ether, in search of other boundless hearts".

I think using "boundless" as a translation misses the point, since this is all about communication and your "speechless" seems closer to the original.

But, I think her "in search of" is better than your "unto" which doesn't really seem to fully make sense.

However, overall I think yours is a very nice version of the poem, and it's good that you have stuck closely to the original.

Thekla said...

First of all: Thanks for your comments in general, which are to the point and insightful - and for this one in particular. Translating poetry into another language is strewn with pifalls and hurdles.

"at last" isn't strictly necessary, no, but it keeps the rhythm and makes the sentence more specific. But I see that it can be a problematic choice, as it might add an interpretation which is not needed.

"Unto" is probably an archaic word. I have read so many Jane Austen books as well as Emily Dickinson, Brontë etc, that my English can be coloured by this. I was, however, aware of this, but think I might change the word into someting else, perhaps "towards", which is a more direct translation than "in search of". I'll look into it!

Speechless vs boundless: This is an ambiguity in the original Swedish which is hard to capture in translation, but in this poem I found speechless to be the most suitable word.

I actually haven't seen any translations of ES before, so I might take a look at one if I can find one. It is always interesting to see which solutions other translators have come up with, especially if you think your version is better : )

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hope my comments were constructive. No, I don't think the other translation is particularly better. Different certaintly.

Jacques Felix said...

Hi Thekla,

Here are a few more translations of this poem by Edith Södergran:

by Stina Katchadourian:

On foot/ I had to walk through the solar systems,/before I found the frist thread of my red dress./ Already I sense myself/ somewhere in space hangs my heart/ sparks fly from it/ shaking the air/ to other reckless hearts//

byDavid McDuff:

On foot/ I had to cross the solar system/ before I found the thread of my red dress/I sense myself already/ Somewhere in space hangs my heart/shaking the void, from it stream sparks/to other intemperate hearts

by Klaus Jürgen Liedtke:

Zu Fuss/musste ich die Sonnensysteme durchqueren/ ehe ich den ersten schon ahne ich mich selbst/ Irgendwo im Weltall hängt mein Herz/ Funken strömen von ihm aus, erschüttern die Luft/ hin zu anderen masslosen Herzen.

By tuula haipiainen

A piedi/ attraversai il sistema solare/prima che trovassiil filo iniziale del mio vestito rosso/intuisco già me stessa/da qualche parte nello spazio pende il mio cuore/ da cui grondano faville, scuotendo l'aria/ad altri cuori smisurati//

By Renato Sandoval and Irma Siltanen

A pie / tuve que atravesar el sistema solar/ antes de hallar el primer hilo de mi traje rojo/ yo pura me imagino/ de algúb lkugar del espacio pende mi corazón/ y de un río de centellas, remeciendo el aire/ fluye hacia otros corazones desmesurados.

By lisette Keustermans:

Te voet/ moest ik door de zonnestelsels/ voor ik de eerste draad van mijn rode gewaad vond/ ik heb al een voorgevoel van mijzelf/ ergens in de ruimte hangt mijn hart/ er stromen vonken uit, ze schokken de lucht/ op weg naar andere mateloze harten

I love your translation of mattlösa (sorry, no diacritic sign on my keyboard to modify the first a) by 'speechless' although all others stick to 'boundless' with
'intemperate' still offering a different connotation.

I think both translations have their merit: the immensity of space awes and makes speechless and 'boundless' suggests the wideness and generosity of her heart looking for a companion.

Jacques Felix said...

I made too many typing errors and resend therefore the German and Spanish versions:
Zu Fuss/ musste ich die Sonnensysteme durchqueren/ehe ich den ersten faden meines roten Kleides fand/ schon ahne ich mich selbst/ irgendwo im Weltall hängt mein Herz/ Funken strömen von ihm aus, erschüttern die Luft/ hin zu anderen masslosen Herzen.

A pie/ tuve que atravesar el sistema solar/ antes de haller el primer hilo de mi traje rojo/ Yo, pura me imagino/ de algún lugar del espacio pende mi corazón/ y de él un río de centellas, remeciendo el aire,/ fluye hacia otros corazones desmesurados.

Thekla said...

Well, what can I say? Thank you, Jacques Felix, for a wonderfully rich comment with many different translations of this poem. I have a few Belgian and Dutch friends, and common for all of them is their wide knowledge of languages. I guess French, Dutch/Flemish and English are the most natural languages to know, but many also know German and bits and bobs from other languages. Quite impressive and truly European!

Jacques Felix said...

Dear Thekla,

I’m a subscriber to the Italian magazine POESIA that dedicated its last issue to Olav Hauge and looking for him on the Internet I bumped into your wonderful blog, so varied and poetical that it is really astounding for such a young person. Forgive me for saying that because I’m 65 and just retired, anxious to dedicate the freedom gained to my interests in literature, history, philosophy, the arts, languages and travel.

During my career I was often in Oslo, staying in hotel Bristol, just a block or so away from the Norli bookshop, which is indeed a very fine bookshop, where I often indulged in buying books, alas, not in Norwegian. I read 10 and speak and write 8 languages but unfortunately no Scandinavian tongue although I have many great Scandinavian authors in my library. But I am now polishing up my Polish to appreciate more Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska that count among my favourites in the original and don’t know if I will have the strength and stamina to add another language, although I would certainly wish to do so.

I added one poem of Rilke to your presentation of him on your September blog and offer you here one each of Borges and Montale who are also among my favourites.
Borges’ one is a prosaic poem written directly into English by this great anglophile Argentinian poet (who, however, was in love with the German language and dedicated a poem to the German language itself that I may put on my own blog that I’m trying to set up and have called Infinity&Immensity in honour of Giacomo Leopardi’s phenomenal poem L’Infinito. I have more than 100 translations of this poem in the languages I know and even made one myself to Dutch.

Here’s Borges’ one:
What can I hold you with? I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the moon of ragged suburbs. I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked long and long at the lonely moon. I offer you whatever insight my books may hold, whatever manliness humour my life. I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal. I offer you the kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams, and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities. I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at sunset, years before you were born. I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about yourself, authentic and surprising news of yourself. I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.

And here goes Montale in a stoically melancholic poem written when the heart could no longer ignore the brain’s knowledge about mortality:

Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro
arida, rivolgendomi, vedrò compirsi il miracolo:
il nulla alle mie spalle, il vuoto dietro
di me, con un terrore di ubriaco.

Poi come s’uno schermo, s’accamperanno di gitto
alberi case colli per l’inganno consueto.
Ma sarà troppo tardi; ed io me n’andrò zitto
Tra gli uomini che non si voltano, col mio segreto.

(Vielleicht an einem Morgen, unterwegs
in einer Luft aus Glas, erblicke ich das Wunder,
wend ich mich um: das Nichts in meinem Rücken,
die Leere hinter mir, erschrocken wie ein Trunkner.
Dann schieben sich auf einmal, wie im Film,
die Bäume, Häuser, Höhen zur üblichen Kulisse
und kommen doch zu spät; ich gehe still
durch unbewegtes Volk und hüte mein Geheimnis.)
(I’ll look up an English translation of this very beuatiful poem because I have one somewhere in my library but don’t have the courage to go looking for it now.

Before ending I quickly add one more by Sándor Márai, the great Hungarian novelist, who wrote some poetry as well and that I find the beautiful expression of a very aristocratic mind and heart in the best sense of the word:
Este nyolckor születtem, fújt a szél
Kassát szerettem, és a verseket,
A nöket, a bort, a becsületet
S az értelmet, mely a szívhez, beszél.
Mást nem szerettem, minden más titok.
Nem könyörok s ne irgalmazzatok.

(Bei Wind bin ich geboren, abends um acht,
Habe Kaschau geliebt und Gedichte,
Frauen, Wein und die Ehre,
Wohl auch die Vernunft, wenn sie zum Herzen spricht—
Sonst liebt’ ich nichts. Den Rest kennt keiner.
Kein Bitten, kein Flehen, erbarmt euch nicht meiner.)

I have already found a picture and a motto for my blog but am so clumsy with it that I haven’t got any further yet. I will have to ask my son how to bring pictures and texts to it. I saw your picture in Yosemite and my son (31, architect) was there in September last. I have two daughters, Annick (38, pilot) and Natalie (35, physiotherapist and avid reader as well).

The picture I chose for my blog is from the recent trip I took with my wife to Argentina and is in the natural park Leoncito near Barreal, where there is the largest Observatorium of South America offering incredible night views of our galaxy.

I love Edvard Munch and the pictures you display and discovered recently in Norway a contemporary painter that I liked too: Kai Fjell. I must probably check the spelling again, but don’t have the book near for the moment.

Congratulations on your blog, one of the most wonderful I have come across!

George Mamunes said...


I like your posing. Dickinson, Sodergran, Munch, Bronte!! They all battled with tuberculosis, and I feature them all in my book, So has a Daisy vanished: Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis (2008).

I'd love to chat with you about it.

George Mamunes

Rita said...

Thank you, everyone seems very knowledgeable! I can only say, I was happy to find the poem by Sodergran,I knew nothing about her 10 minutes ago, a friend quoted her, google did the rest. Luck too, as your blog seems very inspiring.
Long live poetry!and writing this I understand fully for the first time the French (my mother tongue) Vive la poesie!
tusen takk!

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