Inger Christensen’s poetic oeuvre, six books composed over roughly thirty years, is widely known in Europe, less so in the United States. Light (1962) is the source of the first poems presented here. These represent her earliest work, free verse lyrics grounded in Scandinavian modernism. Letter in April (1979), her fourth volume and the source of the last two selections, is an innovatively structured poem set in Paris, where she and her then four-year-old son briefly stayed.
My collaboration with Christensen began in the seventies. I would send drafts with queries; she would reply and comment. When I periodically traveled to Copenhagen, we read aloud to each other and then went over the manuscripts line by line, our conversations bridging languages, she considerately keeping to Danish (though her English was excellent) as I swerved and struggled to shift linguistic gears. Beyond manuscripts, we shared errands and outings, chores and concerns. These times were gifts, the living context that informs translation.
One pleasure of translating Christensen is her music. In Light, irregular meters and rhymes surface and submerge. I opted not to force parallel sound effects, instead capitalizing on whatever sound elements occurred most naturally in the English. Christensen’s support of decisions like this was based, I think, on her trust in language, a belief that linguistic music and meaning will unfold on their own, if we give them a start and then get out of the way.
In Letter in April, speech rhythms repeat and vary in a mathematical pattern of fives and sevens. (One literary scholar graphed it to reveal an argyle design, interlocking diamonds that would look great on a sweater.) The structure evolved from Christensen’s interest in French composer Olivier Messiaen, a recognized ornithologist as well as a musician, who discovered the same pattern in certain birds’ songs and later incorporated it into his compositions. Here the translation needed phrases whose sounds and meanings would work in several contexts without violating natural speech. Finding them was less a matter of writing than of mindful listening: linguistic birdwatching.—SN
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This poem originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Poetry magazine