Tomas Tranströmer: Robin Fulton and Robin Robertson

Having just read the versions of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems in Robert Robertson’s The Deleted World I can understand why people love and admire them so much and perhaps in time I’ll come to do so myself.  Their language is supple and fluent, rich and delicate in sound and full of expressiveness, and behind it all there is the immense power and humanity of Tranströmer’s own vision. At least for now, though, they just don’t feel right to me.

Perhaps familiarity with Robin Fulton’s versions means that I’m not approaching Robertson’s with an open enough mind. And of course I have no idea what someone bilingual in Swedish and English would think. But I do feel there may be a real matter of personal taste here. One of the things I love about Fulton’s Tranströmer is his groundedness. His poems don’t just begin in the ordinary prose world, they stay in it even as they make us see that world in a startlingly new way. Plainness, angularity, even awkwardness of expression are part of that rootedness in ordinary experience. Robertson’s versions, by contrast, often seem to me overdressed.

The effect is pervasive even if illustrations can seem trivial. For example, in the two men’s versions of “Face to Face”, where Robertson has

 Suddenly, something approaches the window

 Fulton has

One day something came to the window

The Swedish starts “En dag”, so Fulton is literally right here, but the real point is to do with overall tone rather than accuracy of detail. “Suddenly”, a word Robertson introduces in a number of poems, seems an injection of gratuitous and drama, especially coupled with the melodramatic tone that his rhythm at this point gives to the word “something”. For the second line of a poem he calls “Solitude” Robertson has “My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice”. Fulton calls this poem “Alone” and his second line is “The car skidded sideways on the ice, out …” To my mind the inflated language of Robertson’s version and the introduction of a pathetic fallacy in “shivered” lifts the whole experience out of the world of terrifyingly ordinary risk into an unreal world of what one might call poesy as distinct from true poetry. In the third stanza Robertson writes

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew – making more room for me –
stretching huge as hospitals.

 Fulton’s version of this stanza goes

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone at me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.


Fulton’s is plainer except in the third line. No doubt some people will find Fulton’s style underwritten and feel that Robertson’s brings out the terror and drama of the moment more fully. For myself, I find “huge as hospitals” exaggeratedly poetic. I feel that Fulton’s low key style makes his hauntingly strange third line stand out in a way nothing in Robertson’s versions does, and makes it stand out not by inflated language but by strangeness of idea.

I’ll give just one more example. For the first stanza of the poem he calls “Island Life, 1860” Robertson has

One day when she was rinsing clothes at the jetty
the chill of the sea rose up through her arms
and into her soul.


Fulton calls this poem “From the Island, 1860” and his first stanza goes

One day as she rinsed clothes from the jetty
the chill of the strait rose through her arms
into her life.

I have little doubt that the Swedish word “livet” literally corresponds to “life” rather than “soul”, but that isn’t my essential point. “Soul”, coming so plumply at the end of the stanza, seems to me both florid and facile in a way that lets out all the imaginative pressure built up in the brilliant preceding line. In Fulton’s version, the whole force of the stanza builds to the last word. In its ordinariness and colourlessness as a word, “life” seems to understate, but its  largeness of meaning leaves the reader thinking and feeling for themselves how completely the cold has taken possession of her.


You can only go so far by comparing isolated bits. Undoubtedly I could find lines and phrases in Robertson’s versions that I would prefer to their equivalents in Fulton. Robertson is a highly accomplished poet. However, what I’ve tried to illustrate is a difference of overall style and approach which I think makes Fulton’s Tranströmer a greater poet than Robertson’s, a poet of depths rather than of surfaces, one for whom poetry is something that inheres in ordinary life rather than being ornamentally added to it and one who trusts his readers to feel this poetry without the persuasions of an obviously poetic style.

Tomas Tranströmer, The Deleted World, Versions by Robin Robertson, Enitharmon, 2006
Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe, 2002 (I haven’t read the more recent edition of the Collected Poems translated by Fulton).


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