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Translating Tranströmer: An Interview with Patty Crane

January 26, 2016 | by

In the afterword to Bright Scythe, her new translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s selected poems, Patty Crane tells a fascinating, fatalist story about how she came to translate the late Swedish poet and Nobel Prize recipient. Crane moved with her family to Tumba, Sweden in 2007, after her husband took a job overseas at a paper mill. A year into her relocation, she took a summer residency at Vermont College and began flying back to the United States in order to focus on her writing. One evening she sat next to poet Jean Valentine in a cafeteria, and because Valentine had heard that Crane was living near Stockholm, she asked if Crane might deliver a book to her friend Tomas. A year later, Crane was sitting in Tomas Tranströmer’s home, speaking to him in Swedish, and beginning to translate his poem “The Station” into English. A few more years later—and this isn’t part of that fatalist afterword, but it’s part of our story today—a galley of Bright Scythe arrived at my studio in the Catskills and the doors that seemed to bar me from Tranströmer’s work for so many years were blown off their hinges.

Is it weird for you to think that if even one of these events never took place you and I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation?

It is weird. If it weren’t for a flat bicycle tire, we definitely wouldn’t be having this conversation! That’s how I met my future husband, whose future job brought us to Sweden. I imagine there are events in your own life, maybe even a chance encounter, that led to this exchange we’re having. Turn of events such as the ones I experienced—the move to Sweden, learning the language, re-discovering Tranströmer, my chance encounter with Jean, and everything that flowed from that—seem to me to be less about what happens to you in a given set of circumstances and more about what you make happen. I guess I’m talking about opportunity. A door opens and you enter. And look, a new room with more doors. Here I am in Stockholm, taking Swedish-for-Immigrants classes. Here I am reading Tranströmer in the original Swedish. Here’s an early draft of my translation of “From July ’90” with Tomas’s faint pencil lines under the word pit. And here we are, Danniel, having this conversation. How do I reconcile that? I hope with sufficient gratitude, humility and hard work. 

Now that you’ve published a book of Tranströmer translations, has your sense of him as a person changed, and would you say it’s changed you?

I don’t think it’s possible to immerse yourself in anything without being changed in some way. While reading Tranströmer’s work, just before I started translating him, I often felt that he was speaking to me. Not in the direct sense, of course, but through the things and places on which he focused his attention. They’re the kinds of places I like to look, and his way of looking compelled me. But, on another level, the poems felt like a sort of guide map. I didn’t understand this at the time. I say it in hindsight. This past summer I returned to Sweden for the first time since leaving the country in July 2010. At some point while walking around our old neighborhood and visiting my favorite haunts in Stockholm, I became aware that random lines of Tranströmer’s poetry were scrolling through my head. Whatever triggered them, the collage of words kept coming—sometimes in Swedish, but mostly in English. It was almost unconscious. It dawned on me, then, that while I was living there and immersing myself in his poetry, I was simultaneously struggling to find my place in his country, and somewhere along the way those two processes of discovery merged. The poetry became the place, and the place the poetry. My Sweden was Tranströmer, and vice versa. His work is now part of my psyche.

And what about translation and language?

Prior to Sweden, I’d spent a fair amount of time pondering the challenges and ambiguities of translating poetry. I had no desire at that time to translate, but my experience reading multiple and vastly different English versions of the same handful of Pablo Neruda poems led me to the uneasy conclusion that, since I didn’t know Spanish, I couldn’t with certainty say that I loved Neruda. I could only say that I loved James Wright’s versions of Neruda. The implications of this fascinated and bothered me. How or even whether it impacted my own translation process is hard to say. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to pursue the translations had I not felt comfortable with the language. And the more I think about it, I probably wouldn’t have gone so deeply into them had I not felt a connection to the place itself, meaning the landscape of Tranströmer’s Sweden.

Not much has been said about the way Tranströmer breaks down the walls between past and present. “Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark,” he writes in “Kyrie.” Whenever I read this line, I’m jolted by the verb tense, which softly and forcefully feels like it should be present. What do you make of Tranströmer’s blurring of past and present?

I’m immediately reminded of what he said in an interview, conducted about a year before his stroke, when responding to a question about his writing process, specifically concerning the relationship between the interior and exterior landscapes. For him, inspiration is “the feeling of being in two places at the same time. Or, of being aware that you are in a place that seems very closed but that actually everything is open.” Consider the wonderfully fluid opening lines of “Deep in Europe”—“I a dark hull floating between two floodgates / rest in bed at the hotel while the surrounding city wakes.” There he is at the nexus. Whether it’s between sleep and wakefulness or past and present, maybe the blurring comes from the speed with which he moves between these states. And at times it can be jarring, like the surprising verb tense in the first line of “Kyrie.” But does the verb want to be in the present tense, as you suggest, or do we want it to be? The speaker of the poem easily inhabits both time frames. If, instead, the line were to read, “Sometimes my life opens its eyes in the dark,” those periods of awareness would seem more in the speaker’s control, as if the eye-opening was a choice. Written in the past, control seems nebulous and the moments of sudden clarity, paired with the sensation of disconnect described in the poem’s next few lines—“A feeling as if crowds moved through the streets / in blindness and angst on the way to a miracle, / while I, invisible, remain standing still”—suggest a profound loneliness that parallels the child’s deep fear of the dark later in the poem and the relief of daylight after a long, terrifying night. Not a way out of the darkness and angst, so much as a way through. If the poem were to begin in the present tense, the child and the speaker would feel separate. As written, they feel like the same person. And that’s a very different poem.

Your sense of Tranströmer as guide is among the most vivid experiences of reading Bright Scythe, and the archetype of “the captain” haunts so many of these poems. In “The Forgotten Captain,” for instance, he says, “Y climbed out of his grave after forty years / and kept me company.” I love your sense of Tranströmer as a poet who holds vigil and sees us through that terror. Do you feel any sense in the poems as to where that way through leads?

The way through leads to something like acceptance, including the acceptance of profound uncertainty. Think of the fate of the captain in “The Forgotten Captain,” who “finally got to lie down / and turn into the horizon,” whose suffering has come to an end and is transformed to the comforting notion of horizon as both a point of vanishing and point of arrival. The effect, for me, is like being on an airplane that’s experiencing disturbingly heavy turbulence, while sitting, white-knuckled, beside a man who is clearly relaxed and reading a book. How reassuring it is to see him calmly reading. How reassuring to watch the captain turn into the horizon, or feel, through one’s entire body, the whispers of a faceless angel telling us that we’re not supposed to be complete, as we do in his poem “Romanesque Arches.”

Robert Bly said in his Paris Review interview that Tranströmer “is closer to some silent energy in the middle of the universe than the rest of us.” He sets Tranströmer opposite Michelangelo, whose work seems to say, “I made all this. I am God.” I always feel like Tranströmer considers it his job to be attendant to the natural world. What’s your sense of Tranströmer’s relationship to the world and its energy? Or to put it another way, who does he work for?

I love that Bly quote. It’s as accurate a description as any I can think of to explain Tranströmer’s affinity for the liminal places and the ease with which he moves around in them. Whether it’s between the natural and interior world, his dream life and waking life, or the past and present, his vigilant imagination and deep sensitivity allow him to inhabit multiple planes of being and awareness at once, while his clinical patience allows events to unfold as they will, in a way that renders the borders between them porous.

I’d say Tranströmer embodies a deep and abiding connection to the natural world, and that its presence in his poetry is inevitable. “What we’re given is a larger, if mysterious and elusive, whole. Tranströmer’s sense, in moments of inspiration, of being in two places at once, where “everything is open,” clearly relates to this and speaks directly to his relationship to the world. The writing stems from this relationship, not the other way around. The writing distills and hones it.

Who does he work for? Maybe eternity. Or oblivion, or both.

To hear you talk about who he is in the poems, Tranströmer’s really a conduit through which energy moves. I’m curious about our impulse to try and pinpoint Tranströmer in relationship to the world and its mysteries, which isn’t the case with many poets. Is this what’s ultimately so intriguing about his work, that it helps us reconcile our own place in a world that’s often terrifying, blurry, and fatal?

Conduit seems like an excellent word choice. It’s hard not to think of him in this way, and it parallels Bly’s wonderful remark about Tranströmer being closer to some silent source of energy at the universe’s core. There are so many examples in the writing that suggest this, such as these lines from “Winter’s Formulas”—“I stand under the starry sky / and feel the world crawl / in and out of my coat / like in an anthill.” And these from “Further In,” when he’s stuck in traffic and the sun hits his windshield—“I am seen-through / and some writing shows up / inside of me / words in invisible ink / that appear / when the paper is held over fire.” And these from the final section of Baltics, where he writes of his grandmother—“I remember her. I’d nestle up to her / and at the moment of death (the moment of crossing-over?) she sent out a thought / so that I—a five-year-old—understood what had happened / half an hour before they phoned.” Tranströmer is a malleable character in his own poems—openness, night sky and anthill, paper held over fire. Again and again he enacts the mysteries of the world while making them tangible enough to grasp, or nearly grasp, thus offering us a way to imagine saying the unsayable, and to hold for a while the un-holdable. “Beauty can only be seen quickly, from the side.” We’re given that glimpse. Does this help us reconcile our own place in the world and is it part of the reason the work will endure? On both counts, I imagine so.

Danniel Schoonebeek’s most recent book is American Barricade. His collection C’est la guerre is due out this year.


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