Vårt Land

Oslo, 16 September 2002  


Rolf Jacobsen Resonant in English

As a Norwegian I feel proud and honored.

North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen
Translated and Edited by Roger Greenwald
A Bilingual Edition (University of Chicago Press)

Reviewed by Liv Riiser

“My aim in the translations has been to write good poems in English that capture the movement, tone, and to whatever degree possible, some of the texture of the originals,” writes Roger Greenwald in his introduction to his English translations of Rolf Jacobsen’s poetry. This is a goal he has attained.

Roger Greenwald is an American poet and translator who has approached our own Rolf Jacobsen with great reverence. He already has one edition of Jacobsen to is credit and has also translated Tarjei Vesaas. In North in the World he has selected a large number of poems from Rolf Jacobsen’s entire wide-ranging body of work and published them in a bilingual edition. As a Norwegian I feel proud and honored, not least because of the love for his subject and the respect for our great poet that Greenwald displays.

The distinctly Norwegian. Here we can read Rolf Jacobsen’s well-known and lesser-known poems, carefully translated into English, and accompanied by extensive notes that explain such distinctive Norwegian features as stave churches, or the Norwegian turnip harvest and raspberry season.
    Here we find poems about Avaldsnes, Hallingskeid, and Peasant Norway, side by side in English and Norwegian, and I can assure you that in Greenwald’s translations you will feel you’re in a familiar place. They have the same spirit as the originals.
    In addition, they offer a new and exciting way into Rolf Jacobsen’s poetry. Since Greenwald includes such a rich selection and tackles Jacobsen’s poems without fear of the foreign, this edition serves as a broad presentation of Jacobsen for Norwegian readers too. Moreover, the parallel English text draws a curtain aside, so we see more of the richness, breadth and depth of Jacobsen’s work. Here one can discover things one has overlooked earlier and find new resonance in familiar poems. It is as if Greenwald has laid his ear directly on his poet and proceeded by listening with the same sensitivity that Jacobsen himself possessed.

Religious sensibility. This sensitivity is emphasized in Greenwald’s full and judicious introduction. Jacobsen’s sensi-bility is religious, Greenwald says. Not in a doctrinal sense, but in a spiritual one expressed through a concern for life, for unity, and for the interconnedtedness of all living things. “His sensibility is receptive and contemplative,” Greenwald says—and based on humility. Through these and similar observations, Greenwald casts new light on Rolf Jacobsen’s poetry in particular and on Norwegian ways of thinking and modes of being in general.

Heartwarming. It is interesting, for example, to read what Greenwald writes about Norwegians’ relationship to nature. Without understanding this, one cannot understand a poet like Rolf Jacobsen, he says, emphasizing what all Norwegians know but need to be reminded of because we take it for granted: that nature is an “everyday fact of life” for us who live here. The special relationship to nature yields a special poetry, says Greenwald, and compares this distinctiveness to that of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Obviously a Norwegian heart swells with pride at such a comparison.
    Another tip Greenwald gives readers is to follow the railroad tracks through Jacobsen’s work. Everyone who knows the poet knows he has a relationship to the railroad, but to use this to trace a path through the poems is fresh and original.

A gift. In these and many other ways, this publication is a gift to Norwegian readers as well as English-speaking ones. It approaches the poet from new and unexpected angles, and it brings Rolf Jacobsen’s poetry onto the international stage where it most assuredly belongs. Roger Greenwald travels in the USA and Canada to give readings from his translations, and I hope he’s getting support from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, because this is an ambassadorial mission on a high level.

© 2002 by Liv Riiser, Vårt Land. Translated by Roger Greenwald. This material has been made available only for on-screen viewing; further reproduction or distribution requires permission from Liv Riiser and Roger Greenwald.

Read three poems from North in the World

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Complete Table of Contents for North in the World

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