Bly vs. Fulton: Tranströmer’s Poem “Allegro”

Last year, after hearing the news of Tomas Tranströmer’s death, I renewed my effort to sneak poetry into my English composition classes. When the Swedish poet and psychologist finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, I was thrilled. His poems linger with me in clear and powerful images. We focused as a class on one of my favorite Tranströmer poems, “Allegro,” and we made a quick comparison of two different translations.

We discussed Robert Bly’s translation first:

Allegro

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.1

One of my students from Africa gazed at the words projected on the screen with rapt attention. She nodded a little and smiled during the class discussion, in that wondrous moment when she understood a line of poetry in English, maybe for the first time—a turn of phrase, the juxtaposition and progression of imagery from stanza to stanza, a metaphor’s meaning and impact. This is when I really love teaching.

We discussed the way the poet gives sound the color green, contrasting the “black day” in the stanza above, and how “a little warmth in my hands” implies the poet was cold—both physically and emotionally—before he started to play.

Every time I teach a poem, I always learn something from the students—another reason I love to teach. One student said the “house of glass” was both music and the person playing the piano, at once—a mysterious juxtaposition of a human being merging with the music his fingers are playing, a surprising (physically impossible, yet emotionally real) metaphor of glass not breaking despite the rocks flying through it.

Sometimes we discover a literary moment together as a class, like the way Tranströmer leads us to believe he is raising a flag of surrender in the fifth stanza, but the “haydnflag” is instead a flag leading troops to battle—“We do not surrender”—and yet, at the same time, no battle—“we want peace.” We fight for peace without bloodshed, the nonviolent protest for freedom persisting in the best of human spirit throughout history, and persisting in music.

Regarding the fourth stanza, we discussed how acting calm, even though we are not calm, can help us be calm, just like smiling can help us feel happy when we’re not. One student gave a lovely example from his own life—how the glass house is like staying calm and quiet while a family member is trying to get you to argue.

From my own older and getting-wiser years, I pondered the fact that “someone pays no tax to Caesar” in the third stanza comes from a mature sensibility. Even though Tranströmer (or the narrator) may have to pay taxes, someone doesn’t, and this is something to celebrate. He has developed the ability to feel freedom just because it exists for someone else, even if not for himself—just as in my life, I am starting to discover the mysterious and liberating ability to feel joy because joy exists somewhere in the world, even if I myself am sad about things. Hey, if I’m not in love, at least love exists! At least two people are in rapturous joy together, somewhere, and that makes it easier for me to tolerate my solitude, instead of harder as it did in my less mature days (and still sometimes) when I felt jealous and bitter about it all.

Then we got to the poem’s sound and rhythm, comparing Bly’s translation above to Robin Fulton’s below:

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.2

We all seemed to agree, Bly’s is much better—both in sound and imagery. None of us knew Swedish fluently, so we couldn’t give a true analysis, but as far as the English translations go, Bly rocked and rolled American style without losing the poem’s literary and solemn flair. In the first line, Fulton is true to the word order in Swedish, beginning with the English version of “Jag spelar Haydn.” While this may work well in the original language, Bly makes it flow like we would say it in English, beginning with “After a black day, . . .” In the second line, “a little warmth in my hands” is more natural and less awkward than “a simple warmth in my hands,” and the two translations go on like this—Fulton making us think too much about it being a translation because of the stilted word choice, Bly making us unconscious that it’s a translation, but making us fully aware, at the same time, of the poem’s originality, power and grace.

Fulton fails, for example, to capture the powerful sound of Bly’s version of the last two stanzas. In Fulton’s English, “where the stones fly, the stones roll/And the stones roll right through,” the repetition of “stones roll” sounds to me like a kid writing a poem for third grade. Not that kids can’t write spectacular poetry, but there is an adult brilliance in Bly’s version, where “rocks” is repeated but not the verb form of “roll”—the variation of “rolling” and “roll” works a lot like an imperfect rhyme—less stilted, “rolling” with more movement, just like the literal image of the rocks, and with better music. So when we find the “glass is still whole,” it is more surprising, jolting, and beautiful. Or, one could argue, does “rocks” juxtaposed with “rolling” conjure up American rock-and-roll when we’re supposed to be hearing Haydn? It’s there in the background, like a subliminal metaphor for freedom (not that Sweden isn’t free, but you do have to pay high taxes in Scandinavia). The imagery and sound crash above the subliminal tone and make the rockslide work despite almost a tongue-in-cheek allusion.

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.

Readers of Tranströmer, what do you think of Fulton vs. Bly as translators of the poet? I am curious, now, to read the published correspondence between Bly and Tranströmer. Being close friends with Tranströmer must have helped Bly understand his sensibility, his poetic intent, and his soul, and to me Bly is just better at writing poetry in English (though my own sensibility there could have to do with the fact that Bly is American, which is more what I’m used to, whereas Fulton is a Scottish writer).

At the same time, I prefer Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke to Bly’s, which I will try to write about in a future blog. What do you think of Bly vs. Fulton (or vs. Mitchell) as translators in general?

And have you read Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane? World Literature Today touches on her translation of “Allegro” in the link above. The book is on my “read soon” list.

 

 1From The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly, Harper Collins, 2004.

2From Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011.

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A review by Annie Dawid + a Poetry Fellowship award this week!

In her review of Glassmusic, Dawid brings up Ingmar Bergman’s films and T.S. Eliot!

And then to be awarded my first fellowship this week (in poetry!) is really making me feel honored as a writer. I get to write on the beach at Seaside Writers Conference, work with poet Seth Brady Tucker along with fellow Kim O’Connor and other writers, help teach the craft of writing at local schools, and meet with an agent! Check back after the conference (May 11th-17th) for a blog about my experience there.

Links & Writerly Info

Awards

Reviews of Glassmusic

Poetry

Blogs & Reviews by Snow

A few blogs written for Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Author Interviews and Panels

Conundrum Press

Praise for Snow’s debut novel

Glassmusic was shortlisted for the 2015 International Rubery Book Award.

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From the judges: “Glassmusic achieves a lot in a short space, successfully evoking the world of early twentieth century rural Norway and creating a rite of passage novel for Ingrid, the main character, and her blind father, who creates music from filled glasses of water. It explores in a thought-provoking way how religion can uplift or distort into disturbing behaviour. The writing is deceptively spare, creating its own beauty, which complements the simplicity of the farming setting.”

Like Ingmar Bergman’s films, Snow’s creation is a world unto itself.”
–Annie Dawid, author of And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family
Read Dawid’s full review here.

“Listen to Glassmusic. Its delicate beauty will resonate long after you close the cover on the final page.”
–William Haywood Henderson, author of Augusta Locke

Glassmusic explores the perils of childhood and the burden of holding dark secrets with prose as resonant as the music at the center of the story. Young Ingrid navigates chilling territory as she learns to make music alongside her father, and tries to make sense of a terrible incident she witnesses. The world through Ingrid’s eyes is fragile and fraught with danger. Snow’s debut novel is as beautiful as the frozen landscape she describes with such precision.”
–Tiffany Quay Tyson, author of Three Rivers

Glassmusic is as elegant and finely wrought a novel as the title suggests. Snow’s stunning prose evokes the Norwegian Fjordlands with the sensory impact of a lucid dream and delivers a symphonic combination of emotionally complex characters and immersive story that lingers in memory long after the pages have turned.”
–Doug Kurtz, author of Mosquito

“Rebecca Snow’s Glassmusic is a wonder of imagination and skill. Part coming-of-age story, part examination of faith and evil, part family portrait and a consideration of how young women become their truest selves, part tribute to both the creative spirit and the enduring bonds between sisters, the book unfolds with uncommon beauty, terror, grace and restraint. Rural, 1920’s Norway is evoked so vividly it becomes a character itself, an animate, spiritual landscape that makes us feel we are there, one with Ingrid’s developing awareness, as the story hurtles toward its startling – and satisfying – denouement. Luminously written, in language as precise and delicate as ‘the echoes of water and glass’ made by the magical musical instrument at its heart, this book has the authority and resonance of a fable. I read in one sitting, spellbound by its beauty, insights, and power.”
–Alison Townsend, author of Persephone in America

“The rural setting, community, and family dynamics create a powerful presence against which Ingrid must struggle to become her own person. Both good and evil play disturbing parts.”
Norwegian American Weekly

In the serene fjordlands of Norway in the early twentieth century, Ingrid has led a blissful childhood until, through no choice of her own, she becomes holder of her family’s secrets. Her father, a blind preacher who ministers through sacred music played on glassware, increasingly relies on Ingrid to see for him even as it threatens to tear apart his marriage. And after she witnesses an assault against her sister, Ingrid must decide when to speak and when to remain silent, whom to trust and when to run away. Glassmusic explores the sometimes devastating realities of loyalty and jealousy, with philosophy, music, and love serving as guides.

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Header photo by Arnold Hoddevik