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How do you read the poetry of Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer?

October 6, 2011

If you are Swedish, then you have good reason to be happy that Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2011. He’s the first Swede to win since 1974.

And you can enjoy his poetry not only in your native language but also, if you read them, in some 50 other languages into which his work has been translated. In English alone, you can choose between translations by more than a dozen translators. The most prolific of Tranströmer’s English translators are Robert Bly and Robin Fulton. The former introduced the poet to the English speaking world; the latter has sought to keep us reading the poems by, in some cases, improving on earlier translations.

So how would you compare the following two different translations of two three different poems by Tranströmer? Which would you think is the earlier one, by Bly? And which do you believe is the more recent one, by Fulton? How, then, do they reflect the craft of the Nobel Prize winner?

Here is the first pair:


A blue glow
Streams out from my clothes.
A clinking tambour made of ice.
I close my eyes.
Somewhere there’s a silent world
And there is an opening
Where the dead
Are smuggled over the border.


A blue sheen
radiates from my clothes.
Jangling tambourines of ice.
I close my eyes.
There is a soundless world
there is a crack
where dead people
are smuggled across the border.

Now here is the second pair:


Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.

After Someone’s Death

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail.
It contains us. It blurs TV images.
It deposits itself as cold drops on aerials.

You can still shuffle along on skis in the winter sun
among groves where last year’s leaves still hang.
They are like pages torn from old telephone directories–
the names are eaten up by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel your heart throbbing.
But often the shadow feels more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Now here is a third if earlier pair:


After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.


I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.

How do you like that?  Is one translated poem of the two more poetic than the other?  Does one, or do both, make you want to read the Swedish original?  Are certain lines, or images, more striking?

Well, is it important for you to know that in both three sets, I’ve arranged the translation by Robert Bly first with the one by Robert Fulton under it?  Bly translated “Midwinter” in 2005, Fulton the year after.  And Bly translated “AFTER A DEATH” in 1972; Fulton rendered “After Someone’s Death” in 2006. And Bly translated (or at least published) “Allegro” in 2001; Fulton earlier, in 1977.

Does anyone have the original poems by Tomas Tranströmer to share?  Do you have another favorite by Tranströmer to discuss or show?  If you write the poetry in comments (or email me), then I’ll be happy to update this post to show the Nobel Prize deserving work!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 6:44 pm

    What a coincidence that Sweden, a country with fewer 10 million people, has produced the third largest number of Nobel Literature Prize Winners. It is true that Sweden has not produced a winner since 1974, but that is perhaps because of the scandal that resulted when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson (who just both happened to be Nobel judges themselves and both almost completely unknown outside of Sweden) won, beating out the heavily favored Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, and Saul Bellow. (Bellow eventually won the prize — but apparently Nabokov and Greene didn’t have the right stuff.)

    What do Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Leo Tolstoy, Ezra Pound, Mark Twain, W. H. Auden, Emile Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Miller, and Salman Rushdie have in common? They were all passed over for the Nobel Prize. Apparently they aren’t very good writers.

  2. J K Gayle permalink
    October 6, 2011 7:00 pm

    I doubt the members of the Nobel Prize organization would deny or hide any of the history you touch on here, Theophrastus. Here is from the organization web site:

    A review of the practices and controversies, by Kjell Espmark –

  3. October 10, 2011 2:55 am

    Efter någons död

    Det var en gång en chock
    som lämnade efter sig en lång, blek, skimrande kometsvans.
    Den hyser oss. Den gör TV-bilderna suddiga.
    Den avsätter sig som kalla droppar på luftledningarna.

    Man kan fortfarande hasa fram på skidor i vintersolen
    mellan dungar där fjolårslöven hänger kvar.
    De liknar blad rivna ur gamla telefonkataloger –
    abonnenternas namn uppslukade av kölden.

    Det är fortfarande skönt att känna sitt hjärta bulta.
    Men ofta känns skuggan verkligare än kroppen.
    Samurajen ser obetydlig ut
    bredvid sin rustning av svarta drakfjäll.

    I prefer the Robert Bly one – but I like Bly’s poetry from that period..I think he somewhat captures the mix between solemn and common words in the original. This is a somewhat weirder poem in swedish I think.

  4. October 10, 2011 4:04 pm

    Tack, Petter!

    Why do you say, “This is a somewhat weirder poem in swedish”? Would you say it’s weirder than “Midvinter”? How would you explain what’s weird about the poem “Efter någons död”?

    Have you heard Tranströmer reading it? Here it is

  5. Rebecca Snow permalink
    April 11, 2015 6:25 am

    I’m glad I came across this blog, and I guessed which translations were Bly’s 🙂 I definitely prefer his. Here is a blog I just wrote on his poem “Allegro”–comparing Fulton’s and Bly’s versions. Check it out, and I would love to hear your thoughts:

  6. April 14, 2015 1:54 pm

    We’re glad you came across this blog too. Reading your blog, I’m not surprised you knew Bly’s translation and prefer his. Thanks for linking back to your post, where I have left my thoughts. And I hope you won’t mind; I’ve updated my post, above, with “Allegro,” from your post. 🙂

  7. Rebecca Snow permalink
    April 17, 2015 1:13 am

    No problem at all! “Allegro” is a nice addition, I think 🙂 Thank you for your comments on my blog (I replied to you on my website).

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