Saturday, 5 October 2013

Learning as you go

Harry D Watson is a translator in the Scandinavian languages. In this article he shares his experience of the 'pleasures and pains' of attempting to translate a poem in a language in which he describes himself as 'still learning': Faroese. The article provides an insight into the process and tasks of translation (a field in which Scottish PEN aims to increase its member-activity) as Harry describes how he tackled the poem Havin (The Garden) by the Faroese-born, but now Danish-based poet and film maker, Katrin Ottarsdóttir.

Learning as you go
a tentative attempt at translating a Faroese poem

My background as a translator is in the Scandinavian languages, and although Swedish is the only member of the group that I am comfortable speaking as well as reading – having lived and worked in Sweden as well as studying the language – the three mainland Scandinavian languages are so similar in their written forms that I have also on occasion translated from both Danish and Norwegian. However, my “first” Scandinavian language, which I studied at university in the 1960s as part of an English Language degree, was Old Norse, the ancestral language of Scandinavia which survives today in remarkably good condition and with a greatly increased vocabulary as modern Icelandic. And Icelandic has a close cousin in Faroese.

A couple of years ago I went on a cruise, a sort of Viking raid in reverse, to Iceland and the Faroes and returned with plunder in the shape of a dictionary of modern Icelandic and a Faroese language course, complete with CD. Fellow-translators, if no-one else, will sympathise with my choice of holiday souvenir. With some background in Icelandic, I made fairly rapid progress with my Faroese course, and before long I had taken out a subscription to the Faroese literary journal Vencil and was trying my hand at a few tentative translations. It may seem a foolhardy exercise to try translating literature in a language one is barely acquainted with, but I am a great believer in learning by doing, although I was quite clear from the start that I would need to liaise with the relevant authors, as any translator must inevitably do when translating work by living writers.

To illustrate the pain and pleasure of translating from a language one is still learning, I want to concentrate on my evolving version of Havin (The Garden) by the Faroese-born but Danish-based poet and film-maker Katrin Ottarsdóttir. Here is the poem in the original Faroese:


                Dreymarnir brotna í vøkrum havum
                ein rhododendron kveylar leivdirnar í seg
                gevur maðkunum enn eina grund at vera til

                suffini fara millum havarnar
                leita eftir meiningini í mjúku moldini
                undir blóðdropunum hjá kristusi
                heldur ikki hann veit síni livandi ráð

                í einum hava grør alt sum maðurin nertir
                hjartað lekur innistongd orð út í fingrarnar
                allir litir leskiliga lokkandi
                inni í húsinum er útideyðaveður
                skjótt noyðist hann at fara inn.

A literal translation would go something like

                The dreams broken in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron coils its remains into itself
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft earth
                under the drops of blood from Christ
                nor does he know what to do

                in one garden there grows all that a man touches
                the heart leaches locked-in words out of the fingers
               all the colours refreshing, beguiling
                inside the house is life-threatening weather
                soon he is forced to go in.

Hmm. A bit more work needed there, perhaps! And the “drops of blood from Christ” in the second stanza seems to strike a jarring note, in the context of a garden.

The initial response from the author contained both good news and bad news. Her initial comment, “Sær øgiliga gott út á enskum” (Looks awfully good in English), was heartening, but it was followed by “I think we have a bit of a problem with the tricky “the drops of blood from Christ”, though. In Faroese “Jesu Kristi blóðdropar” is the name of a sort of fuchsia that grows very well on the islands. I can’t find that specific name connecting to the garden plant in any English dictionary.”

Ahhh. My own face probably resembled a fuchsia as I read those words. Now Christ’s blood-drops in a garden started to make sense. Katrin informed me that the Faroese word for a fuchsia came from Danish. The Ordbog over det danske sprog gives Kristi bloddraabe (Christ’s blood-drops), with a couple of interesting illustrative quotations. Firstly, den Blomst, som de Lærde kalde Fuchsia, men som siden almindelig kaldes Christi Bloddraabe (that flower which the learned call “fuchsia”, but which has since been generally known as “Christ’s blood-drops”); and secondly, a line of verse: Fra fuchsien blodets tunge tårer trille (from the fuchsia trickle the heavy tears of blood).

Finally, a search for “fuchsia” in the online English-Faroese dictionary ( gives blóðdroparunnur (‘blood-drop-shrub’), so it does look as if the “Jesu Kristi” fuchsia is a special variant.

Was there an allusion to Christ’s passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, I wondered. According to Luke 22:43-44, Christ’s anguish in Gethsemane was so deep that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground”. Katrin confirmed my suspicion: “For me it would be best to somehow bring Jesus along by saying that the flowers of the fuchsia look like the blood drops of Christ or something like that. In order to give meaning to the sentence that even Jesus doesn’t know what to do. For Faroe Islanders Christ is never far away, even with not religious people”.

This inspired my next effort, which was

                under the flowers of the fuchsia
                that look like drops of Christ’s blood
                and he’s at his wits’ end too

                or alternatively

                and even he’s at his wits’ end.

The “at his wits’ end” phrase seemed to me a more faithful rendering of “ikki hann veit síni livandi ráð”, and Katrin agreed: “Sounds good. And in this case I like the latter version best, “… and even he’s at his wits’ end”.”

While we were in contact I took the opportunity to quiz her about another expression with botanical content that had me puzzled. I had translated ein rhododendron kveylar leivdirnar í seg as “a rhododendron coils its remains into itself”, which is literally what the Faroese says, but this didn’t sound to me like anything I could imagine a rhododendron doing. The poet’s response was swift: “Here kveyla í seg = eat greedily, stuff oneself, wolf (a meal) etc.” Well, in a British context rhododendron is often seen by gardeners and botanists as an “invasive species” which sucks all the nutrients out of the soil and allows nothing to flourish under it, so I suppose that could explain the “eating greedily” trope. How about “A rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers”, or, “A rhododendron crams all the goodness into itself”, which conveys the sense of a rhododendron’s greediness, and also remains faithful to the Faroese í seg?

A further email from Katrin with useful suggestions resulted in the following slightly tweaked version:

                the dreams break in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft soil
                under the fuchsia’s flowers
                that look like drops of the blood of Christ
                even he is at his wits’ end.

Only one verse to go. Katrin suggested amending my

                in one garden there grows all that a man touches,
                in one garden everything grows that the man touches
                the heart leaches locked-in words out of the fingers
                the heart leaks locked-in words out into the fingers

This has the advantage of suggesting something like “green fingers”, expertise at growing things. What the man cannot express in words, he can express with his hands, making things grow and flourish in his garden, where the colours are “refreshing and beguiling”. I was rather attached to “leaches”, but losing a syllable with “leaks” probably improves the metre of the line.

We now come to one of the words in which Faroese excels – a term for nasty weather. If the Inuit have lots of words for snow (something that linguists now dispute), the Faroese certainly have plenty of terms to describe their bewilderingly changeable weather. Jonathan Adams and Hjalmar P. Petersen’s Faroese. A Language Course for Beginners (Stiðin, 2009) lists no fewer than 37 words and phrases for different kinds of misty and foggy conditions, with útideyðaveður – the term used in verse 3 of the poem – defined as “extremely bad weather”: three words, where Faroese makes do with one. The definition from the online Faroese dictionary goes one (or three) better, defining útideyðaveður as “extremely bad weather which makes it highly perilous to travel”. A fine definition, but not particularly useful for a translator of poetry! Hence my “life-threatening weather”, which is rather more concise while keeping the basic meaning intact.

The author’s suggestion for improving my two last lines was

                inside the house the weather is life-threatening
                soon he has to go in.

There is an obvious paradox here. Weather is usually what happens outside, but here the weather is inside. I take “weather” to be a metaphor for life, with all its problems and hardships. The garden is a little paradise, but although it provides a temporary refuge from normal human concerns, eventually the gardener has to return indoors to all the responsibilities and duties and burdens of normal life that await him there. The poet herself has not dissented from this reading of her poem.

So the (provisional) final version of the translation would be:

                the dreams break in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft soil
                under the fuchsia’s flowers
                that look like drops of the blood of Christ
                even he’s at his wits’ end

                in one garden everything grows that the man touches
                the heart leaks locked-in words out into the fingers
                all colours refreshing and beguiling
                inside the house the weather is life-threatening
                soon he has to go in
I don’t think I will be re-inventing myself as a Faroese translator any time soon, but this little exercise has certainly whetted my appetite for further translation experiments with this quirkiest and most idiosyncratic of the Scandinavian languages.



dritanje said...

Fascinating to read this process of translation, and to see how the meaning (not initially obvious to me I have to say) of the original poem gradually unfolding. And a very fine translation is the result. Congratulations,

Scottish PEN said...

Thanks Morelle. Katrin is delighted that her work has appeared on the Scottish PEN blog, and she tells me that she has just been awarded the major Faroese literary prize, the Bókmentavirđsløn M.A. Jacobsens, for her poetry collection "Eru kopparrør i himmiríki". She is currently editing her latest film.


writing help said...

I have never even heard of the language. It is a wonderful effort to translate poems from that language. Scottish Pen should encourage or endorse people who are involved in such activities.