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Translator's Note: The Portrait

I first translated Edith Södergran in Finland, ten years ago. In the guest room where I stayed there were three books by the bed—one by J.K. Rowling, one by Richard P. Feynman, and one by the poet. I opted for the poetry, which happened to be in Swedish.

I’ve spent many hours since then with Södergran’s books cracked open over one knee and my Swedish-English dictionary cracked open over the other. I’ve kept track of my progress in the same little journal I had in that guest room. In Swedish, I’ve found the straightforwardness that I’ve moved towards in my own work. The language is gorgeously balanced and at ease with itself. Its sounds and appearance on the page encompass both the sunny and the snowy. The hot and the cold. The red and the white. The rustic and the modern. The elegant and the sturdy.

My conversational Swedish has deteriorated drastically in the past ten years, not that it was ever remarkable when I had the chance to make it so. As with other languages, I do much better reading the words than saying them. That’s why I’m happy to share a few of my translations. It’s crucial for poets to read outside their own language, whatever their academic background—to sit for hours with a book of poems on one knee and a dictionary on the other. I would argue that a poet who has never translated a poem is going to write uninformed poetry. The translated poet, even if deceased, will be the toughest and most appreciative critic you’ll ever have.

Södergran sits on my shelf in a group of female poets bookended by H.D. and Edna St. Vincent Millay. More poets belong here than I have access to, but I’m hopeful this will change. As for Södergran, in the few older translations available, the (very competent) translators seem to push her more towards the traditional, despite calling her a Modernist—this has always confused me. I’ve enjoyed defining my own preferences in the same poems. My translations are not radical, but they do seek to animate, rather than patronize, the youthful, self-certain character I read in Södergran’s work.—bc

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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