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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

'hard to convey in any language' - Danish translations for World Poetry Day

Students from Denmark <3: a message in our guestbook
Students from Denmark <3: a message in our guestbook

On World Poetry Day – appropriately enough – students from Ringsted Gymnasium in Denmark arrived, bringing bright sunshine with them.  They were visiting Edinburgh and were coming to the SPL as part of a day that included Holyrood and the Parliament (tick off your cultural icons here – how nice that a poetry library feels like a place that’s just as important to visit as a parliament and a palace).

With teachers Signe and Philip, we’d arranged a quick visit, tour, and suggested in passing that maybe the students might like to bring a couple of Danish poems to read to us;  given that my Danish is limited to ‘thanks’ and ‘don’t go into that dark building without a torch or backup’, I’d asked for a rough translation too.

I was not entirely prepared for 29 17-18-year-olds fluently presenting, in English, selected Danish poems, reading them in Danish, offering their own English translations, commenting perceptively on a few of the translation issues involved, and explaining why they had chosen the poem.

Here are the poems they chose, and a few lines of their translations.  For copyright reasons, we won’t reproduce the original poems here, but will provide links to information about the poets.

Inger Christensen, ‘Sommerfugledalen: IV’
‘The poem is about the human and its good and bad sides. It is expressed through nature and animals… She uses a butterfly and the caterpillar that it is before it turns into a beautiful butterfly to show that the two sides of the human are connected.’

Emily, Frederikke and Anja also pointed out that the original is a sonnet: they chose to translate ‘as literally as possible instead of making it rhyme because we wanted to pass along the correct message of the poem.’
A particular challenge struck me in two lines, ‘man tror det er en blomst der flyver op, / og ikke denne billedstorm på række’;  looking at the butterfly, the speaker observes that ‘one may think that it is a flower which flies up, and not a picture-storm’. Billedstorm seems to be literally a storm of images – hard to convey in any language, but what a gorgeous way to see whirring butterfly wings.

Hans Christian Andersen, ‘Det døende Barn’ / 'The dying child'
‘The child comforts the mother .. they have twisted roles, and he has assumed the role of the mother’.

An 1850 translation of the first verse offers:

Mother, I'm tired, and I would fain be sleeping;
Let me repose upon thy bosom sick;
But promise me that thou wilt leave off weeping,
Because thy tears fall hot upon my cheek

I prefer the students’ translation of some of these phrases:
‘Mother, I am tired, now I want to sleep’ and ‘Cry though not, that you may first promise me / For you tear burns on my cheek’.

Naja Marie Aidt is a contemporary Danish poet, born in 1963. On a quick search, I can’t find any reference to existing English language translations of her poems. The students brought ‘Stavelser 5-9’, ‘Syllables 5-9’ – ‘it’s called Stavelse 5-9 because there is 5-9 syllables in each line’:

Now the heather blossoms
and the sun
appears from the cloud…
that is how life should be
appealing and repeating
but life is always sudden
changing, confusing
every time you love it all
you get burned
what you thought was yours is gone
the sun goes down in a sack

Yes, the students confirmed, the literal translation is ‘the sun goes down in a sack’.  We thought this might be more to do with a strange and arresting image of the sun suddenly blotted out by cloud.

‘Min kærlighed’ / ‘My love’, by Grethe Risbjerg Thomsen

My love - even you die sometime.

The roses are falling, the grass becoming hay.
That is how the law is, that masters the world today.
Even you must wither with your fear and desire.

A little voice answers in my chest:
I don’t know the laws of this world.
I only know one thing, that I can never die.

And three groups of students chose the two-stanza lyric ‘Angst’, by the poet and doctor Emil Aarestrup (1800-56):  ‘this poem is about love. We believe that it is two people who love each other so sincerely, that they are afraid of losing one another.’ ‘The fear of losing is something everyone can relate to. It is easy to understand, but still full of meaning […] The verses can mean two things. Both that you are afraid, that you will lose a person to death, or that you will lose them because their feelings will disappear … you can say the poem is about more than one possible way of losing the one you love.’

Hold tighter round me
With your round arms;
Hold on, while your heart
Still has blood and warmth.

Each of the three groups chose a slightly different way to translate the second stanza:

‘Soon, then we will be apart,
As the berries on the hedge;
Soon, we will be gone
As bubbles in the rivulet’

‘Soon we’re torn apart,
Like berries on the trees;
Soon, we’re gone,
Like bubbles in the creeks’


‘In a while we’ll be divided
as the berries on the green
In a while we’ll be missing
Like bubbles in the stream’

Not only translating but in each case aiming to retain the rhymed structure of the original.

Thanks to the Ringsted Gymnasium students and teachers for a fascinating morning and some really considered translations.

Lilias Fraser, Reader Development Officer