Göran Sonnevi (b. 1939) is not merely the leading poet of his generation writing in Swedish and arguably one of Sweden’s greatest living poets, he has served as a political conscience for the nation. Esteemed authors and critics in Scandinavia have described his work as a single long poem, a commentary on everything that comes within range of his language, comparing him to Lucretius – part scientist, part philosopher. I think of him as many poets in one: poet of nature and the natural sciences, of politics between individuals and nations, of language, of love, of human possibilities. He is a poet who does not hesitate to confront the unknown; indeed, he courts it – historically, philosophically, linguistically. His voice is European; it cannot be compared with that of any one American poet, although his natural descriptions and scientific leanings at times resemble those of A. R. Ammons. If he were like any American poet, I don't think we would need him so much in English. While unavoidably conscious of its European and Swedish points of view, in his poetry Sonnevi has always looked toward the world in its entirety. Among those he has translated into Swedish are Pound, Celan, and Mandelstam.

I have been translating Sonnevi’s work since 1984 – more than a quarter of a century now. Princeton published my selection of his poems from 1971-1989 as A Child Is Not a Knife (1993), and Yale published his 190-page meditative/visionary poem Mozart’s Third Brain in 2009. The basic concerns of poetic translation are always present: fidelity vs. freedom, translating form with an approximation of the same form or the creation of another. Additionally and most crucially – for Sonnevi stutters when he speaks but almost never when he reads his poems aloud – translating for a living voice that sings in a very special way. I have translated Sonnevi’s poems so that he can read them aloud in English, and so that I or we can read them as well.

If I had never heard Sonnevi read from his work in Swedish, I may never have translated him. For in the mid-1970s I had read some of his poems and regarded them as tracts on mathematics, politics, linguistics, nature, or eros that simply trickled down page after page hugging the left margin. In 1982, however, at the Guggenheim Museum I heard him read in Swedish the poem “Koster, 1973,” composed largely in short lines, but which tied a number of those thematic strands together. The words, the voice – not melodramatic, not grandiose, not incantatory, but fluent, singing – went through me like a knife through water. The stress on each word was extraordinary. At the end of each enjambed and often brief line his voice rose; the stress on the first word of a new line even more extraordinary. There were pauses of different durations, beautiful silences.

We took long walks and had long talks the next day and have repeated this pattern all the years since. We both had some experience of playing the piano and studying the natural sciences. Most important, however, was that we agreed the most crucial thing to get across in translating poetry was speech rhythm. When asked to write or talk about translating his work (the title of one such piece I published in 1989, in Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth, edited by Daniel Weissbort, was “Voice; Landscape; Violence: Sonnevi into English in Helsinki”) I always come back to the shock of hearing him read aloud the first time. What was it? Some kind of recognition? Something vaguely erotic? Astonishment, I think, at the sheer beauty of the music. What the uncharitable often claim, reading silently to themselves, is lost in translation. Maybe I deceive myself in following that voice as a guiding light. Maybe it’s just a will-o-the-wisp. Before there were cheap international telephone rates, I would ask Göran to read the poems I was working on into tapes for me. Over the years I have internalized his reading voice.

For Reuben A. Brower’s classic collection of essays On Translation (1959) John Hollander wrote one entitled “Versions, Interpretations, and Performances.” Hollander covers all the bases or splits all the hairs in search of the authoritative what-I-once-insisted-on-calling rendition of a text. In heeding Sonnevi’s voice and making what will doubtless be merely the first English versions, I try to keep interpretive and performance variations in mind, in both languages. We must ever bear in mind that a literary translation is simply a record of a reading. Every reading is a new act of creation, a variation on the original, at first a private act that may or may not become a public performance. Another great (alas dead) Swedish poet I have translated, Gunnar Ekelöf, put it this way (more or less):
There shall be an empty setting at the ready-laid table; it belongs to the reader.

At the start of his wonderful manual Rhyme’s Reason, Hollander reminds us: “. . . that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted; poetic scheme and musical pattern coincided or were sometimes identical. Poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from or residue of, musical form, from which it came to be divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance in narrative, prayer, spell, and the like. The ghost of oral poetry never vanishes, even though the conventions and patterns of writing reach out across time and silence all actual voices.” That is my reason or excuse – one and the same word, skäl, in Swedish – my defense of semantic translation by musical ear.

In 1988 Tomas Tranströmer asked how my work with Göran was going. I reluctantly admitted, “Pretty well, we haven’t killed each other yet.” He replied, with a grin: “I can just see it: two pedants, one on either side of the table, that must be why you two get along!”

Here are samples of one short- and two long-lined poems by Göran Sonnevi in my translation. Know that I read them at about twice the rate that Göran does in either language.

I said to you,
I am not human
And you
looked at me
and said, no
perhaps you
are not

Then I began to vanish
dissolving from within
until not even
my shell remained
Not even
my skin, the human
And you
touched me
as if I
did not exist

And inside,
inside me
night streaming, streaming night
and starless Not
a single
human star

When I touched you
with my fingers of night
you, too, dissolved
you were
between my fingers

[From A Child Is Not a Knife: Selected Poems of Göran Sonnevi, Princeton University Press, 1993, translated and edited by Rika Lesser. Original Swedish in Dikter utan ordning (Poems with no order), 1983.]


from MOZART’S THIRD BRAIN by Göran Sonnevi


Returning We are in the city of memory It is creation's
first morning A great tit is singing I go out to
the trees, the houses, get the paper from the mailbox, lightly
rimed with frost The sun rises behind the houses
over the snow, over human beings That's how it always is
The brimstone butterfly and the orange underwing flew The snow
already melting quickly, but still there in the shade Then
I also saw a peacock butterfly, a small tortoise-shell, and a comma
Out of the abyss of politics I think Almost nothing is
what it seems to be The screens are called deception, self-
deception, individual or collective Hell's
forms move Verily we shall be with one another
in Paradise I finish reading the book on Shostakovich; it
presents a crushed man; except when in deep concentration,
where he is in music, in his ultimate seriousness, despair
I think about the forms of the hippocampus, the art of fixing memories That
new thoughts are as dreams; if they are not quickly ob-
jectified, they disappear I touch the blinding sound
I try to phone my mother, who has pneumonia
but there's a busy signal I understand, that in the great listening
I shall hear voices, the voice ahead of me Even if listening
is simultaneous through all time About music and violence; in this
impossibility Everything simultaneous; in this love Now
the voices are summed Even the voices of the dead come from in front, as from
an infinite absence But all music comes out of this infinity
Listening-receiving Total reality such as it comes to me
The unheard-of, potential, imaginary world of sound Of which
mathematics is only a small part Or vice versa There is no
difference We are listening-inward That which comes into actuality
comes with its blinding Or with its satisfaction, its delight


Once again
the sea shall leap up, from the highest point Where
we imagine the limit to be, precisely where we tran-
scend The sea roars below the cliffs; the diabase veins
protrude like spines We are their
rhythms, also, in the greater rhythmic system; in our
provisional attempt at counterpoint
I, too, play the second voice; in colors;
in transformations; also in the transformations of fear
The sea of fear and the sea of joy; identical; in the play of light
of valuations, beneath wandering clouds, their
shadows, lightning, oblique downpours
I walk into the wind; its pressure against my face
See the islands, the heights, the rocks The city,
in the upper corner of the bay, shrouded in smoke
I was also part of its chemistry; when I was defined
The transformations just go on
The islands of poverty and social decay
need not be embedded
in some overriding imperial or economic structure,
I understood, yesterday, since long ago Refugees come
wearing their veils, their darkness, their colors
We are part of this transformation, we act, the trans-
mutations in what is humanity will
go on; then we will pay the price;
or else everything is already worthless, gold . . .

If song will again be possible is not for us to decide –

[From Göran Sonnevi, Mozart’s Third Brain, Yale University Press, 2009, translated by Rika Lesser.]

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