Tomas Tranströmer, “Romanesque Arches” – two translations

I found this a moving poem when I first read it in Bly’s translation[1]. In Fulton’s version[2] I find it almost overwhelming. Not knowing Swedish, I can’t compare how well the two capture the flavour and spirit of the original, but I have no doubt which makes the better poem in English.

You can link to Bly’s version here and Fulton’s here.

You just have to put them side by side to see how much more taut and dynamic Fulton’s is, even simply on the level of sentence construction. This is obvious from the first line. Bly’s “Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church” is a flatly factual statement with no tensing of a syntactical spring. Fulton’s “Inside the huge romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness” creates suspense by setting the scene before describing the action and by setting it in a way that makes you feel something momentous is about to happen. The strong contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables in the opening phrase creates a surging effect when you speak the poem aloud. This heightens the sense of drama and draws you in physically as you throw yourself into projecting these vigorous sounds. Again, if we look at Bly’s first stanza as a whole, its three lines lie limply alongside each other with no transfer of syntactical energy between them:

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.

The first two sentences describe the situation as it exists in the imaginative present; the third illogically shifts into the past. Of course shifting between temporal perspectives isn’t bad in itself, but coupled with the way line and sentence boundaries coincide, it makes for separation between the statements, makes them fall apart instead of generating any kind of continuous momentum. Even the use of the perfect tense (“have crowded”) rather than a simple past seems to me to have a weakening effect: merely eliminating “have” would make the line more dynamic.

Many different things in Fulton’s version of these lines create a sense of accumulating force whose causes we don’t need to notice to register the effect. The sentences are still separate but there’s a momentum running through them and into the next line because they hinge on a series of simple past tense verbs, each seeming to pick up the baton of an ongoing, rapidly developing action from the previous one:

Inside the huge romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle-flames flickered.

Another kind of transfer of force or baton-passing happens on a subliminal metaphorical level. For example, the gaping of the vaults seems to borrow animacy from the jostling tourists, as if the tourists’ wonder were suffusing the very stones of the building. Phrase by phrase and word by word, (with the exception of line three!) the Fulton is simply much better expressed. Bly’s “enormous” drawls itself out, limply retarding the line; Fulton’s “huge” gives us one massively stressed, expressively stretched vowel and gets on with it. Fulton’s “jostled” gives us the physical contact, the barging and mutual impeding of the tourists; Bly’s “have crowded” just tells us there were a lot of them. Bly’s “opening” is doubly weak, as participle and as pretty abstract notion; Fulton’s “gaped” has a physical intensity on the level of idea and startles us by its sound, partly because of the collision of the adjacent stresses of “vault” and “gaped” and partly because its emphatically articulated vowel is so different from any earlier sounds in the poem. The vividness of Fulton’s writing works together with the strong sense of continuity I mentioned earlier to keep us both intensely engaged and off balance – the baton keeps moving but swerves in a new direction every time it’s passed.

I could go on but don’t want to labour the point. Before leaving the Bly I’d just like to mention a couple of details where Fulton has solved problems that Tranströmer pointed out in a letter to Bly[3]. Tranströmer writes:

Line 6. “human being” sounds a little cliché-like. Of course it would be dangerous to say “Do not be ashamed to be a MAN!” Can you say “a human”? Well, this is a question for someone who knows English.
At the end: “Herr Tanka” should be “Mr Tanaka.” If you say “Herr” in an English text it will mean that Mr Tanaka is a German. But of course he is Japanese – Tanaka is one of the most common Japanese names. “Herr” in Swedish is “Mr” in English.

Bly’s failure to accept the correction of “Herr” is simply astonishing because the right answer is so easy. Fulton’s solution to the other problem is elegantly simple – “a human” wouldn’t have worked, but replacing the noun phrase with an adjective works beautifully.

A good translator use all his skills in his own language to release and project the power of the ideas in the original. In terms of sound, Fulton’s “Romanesque Arches” is both highly varied and densely patterned. The variety creates a sense of surprise, of things opening in unexpected ways that is vitalising in itself and also of course particularly appropriate to the poem’s fundamental idea. Patterning creates emphasis, intensity of impact, a sense of things coming together in a forceful way.

I’ll just look at a couple of examples. You see both variation and density of recurrence in the way the particular “a” of “gaped” is used – not at all before “gaped” itself, so it stands out when it suddenly appears; once in the next line (“flames”); three times in line 4 (“angel”, “face”, “embraced”), and then never again. Phonetically its occurrences stand out in the poem like five closely juxtaposed spots of a distinct colour only used those five times in a painting. I find the effect aesthetically appealing in itself because of the way it vivifies one’s sense of the phonetic texture. I think it also works on the level of meaning or imaginative suggestion because of the way it focuses attention on the three words “angel”, “face” and “embraced”, and on the hauntingly suggestive idea of being embraced by an angel with no face. “Gaped” isn’t itself one of the key words in this chain, but makes them stand out by initiating the string of assonances. The climax comes with the full internal rhyme of “face” and “embraced”. Describing the angel as “with no face” brilliantly, paradoxically and disturbingly embodies the idea of the angel’s bodilessness, and that idea is played against the strong sense of the poet’s own body and the bodies of the whole jostling crowd.

The word “body” leads me onto another effect of sound patterning: Fulton’s skilful use of end rhyme. Again he combines maximum variety with cohesiveness. Lines 4, 5, 7, 8, 11 and 12 all rhyme. The effect isn’t obtrusive because the rhyme is always on an unstressed syllable and because the lines vary in length. However, it’s subtly reinforced by stress pattern and by other sound echoes:

In “embraced me” / “body”, alliteration on “b” and the echoing trochaic stress pattern reinforces the rhyme.

In “endlessly” / “meant to be” the near-rhyme of “end” and “meant” and the repeated dactylic stress pattern (/xx) reinforces the rhyme of “ly” and “be”.

“Sabatini” isn’t reinforced in the same way, but then it hardly needs to be given the strength with which the whole rhyming series is clinched by the last line.

It’s clinched not only by the repetition of the word “endlessly” but by the way the line repeats virtually the whole of line 7. This is the culmination of a pattern of repetition set in motion at the start and superbly effective in expressing and developing a fundamental idea. Let me quote again:

Lines 1 – 2:

Inside the huge romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.

Line 7:

Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly

Line 12:

and inside them all vault opened behind vault endlessly.

Reading the poem you have the sense of an idea emerging more and more clearly and more and more fully in the mind of the speaker, in the poem and in your own mind. The parallel is clearly strongest between lines 7 and line 12. The parallel between lines 1 – 2 and line 7 is stronger than it may at first seem, though. It’s not just a matter of the words that are exactly repeated but of ideas that parallel each other. “Inside the huge romanesque church” parallels “inside you”, and – we come to realise – “endlessly” thrillingly parallels, extends and imaginatively corrects “no complete view”.

Each repetition is also a departure. In the centre of the poem the speaker receives the revelation that he himself is like the church in the way vault opens behind vault endlessly within him. In the final line this revelation and movement inward into his own self expands outward again to embrace the whole of humanity – or rather the inner selves of every individual human being. The organisation of the poem is such that the force behind the launching of these ideas is focused precisely and to maximum effect: attention is concentrated on the differences between largely parallel constructions, and so on the difference between “no complete view” (with its limitation to the literal idea of lines of sight and its negative emphasis on limitation) and “endlessly” (with its movement into metaphor and sense of infinite expansion); and on the difference between “inside you” and “inside them all”. (It also focuses on the difference between the present tense of “opens” and the past tense of “opened”. To me this tinges the thrilling climax with sadness, the sense that the visionary moment can only be remembered rather than being felt as a present experience.)

As I said at the start of this comparison, what I’m really interested in is which translation makes the better English poem. However, I’ve now looked at the original, and discovered that Fulton hasn’t invented the parallelism; it’s there in the original, broadly visible even to the Swedish non-speaker:

Valv gapande bakom valv och ingen överblick.

Inne i dig öppnar sig valv bakom valv oändligt.

och inne i dem alla öppnade sig valv bakom valv oändligt.

Why Bly decided to blur and soften it by adding unnecessary variations to the parallel phrases I don’t know. He obviously didn’t want the sense of parallelism to be too strong, and perhaps worked quite hard to avoid it. To my mind, though, it adds to what to my mind is the weakness of Bly’s whole version of the poem: a tendency for its words, phrases, ideas to crumble apart rather than being drawn together in dynamic interaction.

[1] In The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, chosen and translated by Robert Bly, Graywolf Press.

[2] In Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, both Bloodaxe Books.

[3] Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, ed Thomas R. Smith, Bloodaxe Books

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