The journal of the five-college faculty seminar
on literary translation

Fall 2002. Vol. 10, No. 2

North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen.
A Bilingual Edition.
Translated, edited and introduced by Roger Greenwald.

The University of Chicago Press, 2002. xxviii + 328 pages.
ISBN 0-226-39035-7 (cloth). $35.00.

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 editing—often in consultation with Jacobsen—has made this bilingual edition the most textually reliable edition to date of Jacobson’s work. All emendations are explained and argued for in Greenwald’s useful notes so that readers—such as the present one—may 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 Jacobsen’s 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 book—in 1985—became the best-selling poetry volume in Norway in the second half of the century. Greenwald’s 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 Greenwald’s 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 Jacobsen’s poems and then Greenwald’s translations of these poems, it is, strangely, Jacobsen’s voice I sense coming through in Greenwald’s. 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 Greenwald’s 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 vision—as, indeed, his world changed. In his introduction Greenwald traces both formal and thematic aspects of Jacobsen’s 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
out to dandelions and lilacs
we got stuck in plate glass
in a long streaming canal.
As we left a blue wake behind us
through the glittering swell of the panes
we were enveloped in shadow
and ended up on the city’s seabed.

The opening lines of   “Plate Glass,” p. 15

There is much travel in Jacobsen’s poetry; his fascination with trains is liberally documented in Greenwald’s 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 don’t get up and leave,
because we’ll be arriving soon
in the new era, where everything will soon be made of glass,
transparent, for we’ve acquired new eyes,
hard ones. You see almost everything that happens on Earth.
And your delight gets slowly subdued.

No smoking allowed.
Please fasten your seat belts.
And then the landing, down to the rain,
the escalators and the waiting-lines for taxis.
It is your life
I’m writing about.

The concluding lines of   “Fasten Your Seat Belts—,” p. 241.
(Italicized words are in English in the original.)

Although Rolf Jacobsen’s 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 Greenwald’s translations open up to new readings of Jacobsen. If you know Jacobsen’s 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.

Orm Øverland
University of Bergen

© 2002 by Orm Øverland. This material has been made available only for on-screen viewing; further reproduction or distribution requires permission from Orm Øverland.

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