on literary translation
Fall 2002. Vol. 10, No. 2
North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen.
Roger Greenwald is a remarkable poet, translator and critic. He is also dedicated to his work and has lived in a close relationship with the work of the Norwegian poet, Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994) for many years, publishing translations of his poetry in 1985 (Princeton University Press) and 1997 (Gyldendal Norsk Forlag). The present volume is an expansion and revision of his earlier work. His thoughtful introduction is one of the best available critical essays on the poetry of Rolf Jacobsen. Moreover, Greenwald is obsessed (as a poet must be) with textual detail and his careful editingoften in consultation with Jacobsenhas made this bilingual edition the most textually reliable edition to date of Jacobsons work. All emendations are explained and argued for in Greenwalds useful notes so that readerssuch as the present onemay make their own final decision on the preferred text.
Jacobsen has been praised by critics and fellow poets alike as one of the most original voices in Norwegian poetry in the twentieth century. With his first two volumes in the early 1930s he redefined the language as well as the themes of poetry in Norwegian. From the very beginning, an important aspect of Jacobsens poetic project seems to have been to help his readers see the world they live in. Consequently, he has also been important in educating the Norwegian reading public in the appreciation of a poetry that is very different from all they had been taught to think of as poetic. Quite a few past and present Norwegian poets have become familiar to a broad public through anthologies and school readers, and many Norwegians with little special interest in poetry or, indeed, literature will recognize individual poems by many writers and may even be able to quote a few lines. Rolf Jacobsen is in this sense a familiar name to many. But Jacobsen lived to experience true popularity in his own right: his last bookin 1985became the best-selling poetry volume in Norway in the second half of the century. Greenwalds translations have made it possible also for readers of English to enter the poetry of Rolf Jacobsen.
In a review in this journal of Roger Greenwalds translation of the work of another fine Norwegian poet, Tarjei Vesaas, I wrote that, Poetry translation for Greenwald is to explore the poetic universe of another poet, intellectually and emotionally, before recreating new poems in English that are as faithful as possible to the language as well as the ethos of the other poet (Metamorphoses 8:2 [Fall 2000]). When I now read Jacobsens poems and then Greenwalds translations of these poems, it is, strangely, Jacobsens voice I sense coming through in Greenwalds. For Greenwald has the gift of placing his own qualities as a poet so fully in the service of another that it is as if he lends them the use of his own fine voice. This is truly a gift, but the realization of this gift requires not only the work of a critic, analyzing and interpreting as fully as possible the work of the poet you wish to translate, but also the more long-term project of mastering the language of this poet and his or her literary and cultural context and tradition. And Greenwalds translations are informed by his immersion in the work of Jacobsen as well as by his intimate knowledge of Norwegian language and literature. To read Jacobsen through Greenwald is to be as close to this poet as you can possibly get without knowing his language as well as does Greenwald.
Jacobsen had a long publishing career, six decades, beginning with his first volume in 1933 and concluding with his last published poem in 1993, the year before he died. He did not, of course, remain the same through all these years. His voice changes as does his visionas, indeed, his world changed. In his introduction Greenwald traces both formal and thematic aspects of Jacobsens growth and development. When Jacobsen in 1933 imagined a ride on one of the blue Oslo streetcars through streets lined with shops and their large display windows, no one had written poetry in such a manner in Norwegian, transforming the urban commercial mundane into an intensely imagined world:
On our sailing trip by trolley
There is much travel in Jacobsens poetry; his fascination with trains is liberally documented in Greenwalds introduction as well as in his translations. Visits to other places and other countries are increasingly a motif and motivation in his work. But the contrast between his fanciful sailing trip by trolley in 1933 and his rather disillusioned journey home by plane in 1979 is such that it hardly seems the same poet who is speaking:
[...] But dont get up and leave,
Although Rolf Jacobsens expression as well as his attitudes and views change and develop over the decades of his life, Roger Greenwald has given us English translations of a poet who is consistently engaging.
A bilingual edition of the quality of Rolf Jacobsen and Roger Greenwald invites bilingual readers to the experience of reading each poem several times in its two versions. Thus we may appreciate both the unique qualities in the voice of each and the fascinating ways in which Greenwalds translations open up to new readings of Jacobsen. If you know Jacobsens work well, then this book will most likely show you new sides of his poetry that you had not thought of before. If you have not yet met Jacobsen, then this book gives you an excellent introduction to one of the major poets of twentieth century Europe.
© 2002 by Orm Øverland. This material has been made available only for on-screen viewing; further reproduction or distribution requires permission from Orm Øverland.