boundary 2 29.1 (2002) 31-34

The Co-Translator’s Dilemma

John Matthias

Again the e-mail draft appears on my screen.
I go back to work.
Tranströmer’s successor speaks aloud from his poem.
Sort of, that is. I’m supposed to make such improvements [End Page 31]
that everyone in America will recognize at a flash
the original style & voice, the very personality of this poet
known up to now only by his most intimate friends.
I despair. They are waiting in Lund for my version.
But it’s already in English, so what should Ido?
I change an article: “The cow in the pasture” would really
be better written here “A cow in the pasture.”
I stare at the screen. Maybe a comma just before the conjunction.
At just that moment I hear a commotion in the hall.
I can hear several people questioning students:
Which is the charlatan’s office? I recognize the Swedish accents.
Suddenly Jesper and Leif, Göran and Lars-Håkan
all tumble into my room. We’re here to help you, they laugh.
Göran offers me a virtual beer.
The heart of your problem, Leif says in Swedish,
Is that you don’t know Swedish. What?
He says in English: The problem is you don’t know Swedish.
Oh, that. Well, I work from this other guy’s drafts.
What do you do? He seems to have a whole list of questions.
I show him the screen: “A cow” was once “The cow,” I say,
and commas, or their absence, are very important.
That’s it? he asks. Nothing else?
Well, there’s the issue of prepositions. I find that most
Of my Swedish colleagues get confused:
A poet whose head is up in the clouds may appear with
his head up around the clouds, or up about the clouds,
or even up from or up off the clouds!
The four Swedes sputter with amusement or contempt.
So that’s all? Articles, prepositions and commas?
Well, sometimes, if I’m lucky.
And what if you’re not? Not lucky, thatis.
Ah, then—I hesitate—then I have to rewrite the poem.
You’d rewrite somebody’s poem?
Not in Swedish, of course, I hasten to say. Just in English.
Ah well, they grumble, that’s a relief.
I mean, what can you do with a poem set entirely in Lapland
that’s full of yoiks or voulles? And then he throwsin
classical myths and quotes not only from Sappho but also Rimbaud.
American readers will never sort it all out. [End Page 32]
American readers could learn to yoik for themselves, Jesper insists.
In this poem with a cow? I mean,I say,
in the poem that appeared on my screen containing the cow.
The one whose poet had his head up around the clouds.
Apollo and Hermes are also, I can see, there on the screen,
and what am I to do with words like Poikilóthronos and Boukólos?
Well, Lars-Håkan says, what will youdo?
I’ll change the setting entirely, move the lot of them to Texas!
But in Texas nobody yoiks, everybody protests.
There are plenty of cows, however, and cowboys like to yell & shout
while they ride all around saying things like Yahoo!
But a Yoik is a Lapland poem, it’s a chant, an incantation, a song!
In my Texas version the cowboys will sing quite a lot:
Get along little dogie, and stuff like that.
That’s the line in fact that I’ll substitute for the quote from Rimbaud.
What about Hermes? What about Apollo?
I think I’ll exchange them for John Wayne & Clint Eastwood.
Those are mythic types American readers relateto.
All the Swedes have now stopped grinning & laughing
and are starting to cry, tearing their hair.
In Greek plays lots of people cry and tear their hair.
That’s another thing that gets into this poem, along with the
language itself: the Poikilóthronoses and Boukóloses.
Sounds like some bacteria infecting the meat of the burger.
Göran says, darting a knowing glance over at Jesper:
The author of this poem is an eminent Hellenist!
By God, I thought he was a Swede!
Anyway, if you’ve got to have your Greek go see Ezra Pound.
He’s long dead, of course, which means
you might as well just go on working withme.
I’ve become a little tipsy by this point drinking the virtual beer
and suddenly drop the nearly empty virtual bottle onto the keyboard.
Yoiks! We’re all at once transported off to
The Amazon: Now that’s better than Texas!
The stern-wheeler is sailing upriver from SantarÈm.
Elizabeth Bishop is getting on board, clutching
an empty wasp’s nest given to her by the druggist
in the town’s little blue pharmacy. I follow her with my cow
which has somehow attracted a herd— [End Page 33]
not of cattle exactly, but of sheep, goats, yaks,
chickens, llamas, cats and yellow dogs.
What’s going on? I’m not exactly sure, but I likeit.
Jesper’s shouting in English: Who do you think you are,
some kind of Hercules? That poem (that golden girdle!) is mine;
I,I,I, am Tranströmer’s successor!
Not any more, I exclaim, heading into the current
on the riverboat called Poikilóthronos Juan.
Off in wintry Lund, all the systems start to crash.
Every screen flickers and goes blank.