translation as the feeling of the sound as well as the meaning of the words

Patty Crane is a poet and translator who takes full advantage of serendipity. Her new translation of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer came about through a series of chance events, and those chance events led to a work that Craig Morgan Teicher of the New York Times describes this way: “To my ear, Crane has so far made the best English version of Tranströmer because of . . . small choices.” Those choices include using the word “steps” instead of the distancing term “tread” as seen in some translations, and “slips” instead of the more vague “puts.” Both small options, Teicher says, draw the reader into the emotional center of the poems.

But how did this Western Massachusetts poet happen to become a translator of a Swedish poet? It all began when her husband was told his company would be sending the family to Sweden for three years. They were given six months to prepare, which, for Crane meant taking Swedish classes. When they arrived, she took advantage of Sweden’s policy for offering free language courses – three hours a day –for all newcomers to the country. At the same time she was enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program. When she came back to the States for her ten-day residency, she met Jean Valentine, who teaching in the program and knew Tranströmer. As the two had coffee together, Valentine asked Crane to take her new book to the Tranströmers.

Before her meeting with them, Crane had been working hard on the language, insisting that locals let her stumble through conversations, at which day-by-day she became more fluent. She had also translated one of Tranströmer’s poems, a poem she had seen in both English and Swedish and, not satisfied, felt an urge to try her own version. She brought her translation with her when she went to meet the Tranströmers.

And what a visit that was! It lasted over four hours. At the time, as a result of a stroke, Tranströmer was suffering from aphasia, which made it difficult for him to speak, even though he continued to be able to write poetry. But he, his wife Monica, and Crane had tea and laughed as they got to know each other. Transtromer played the piano, movingly, even though he was able to play with only one hand. Finally Crane felt safe enough to show them her translation of Tranströmer’s “Station.” Monica Tranströmer, who spoke English reasonable well, took it from there. The two of them began to examine the translation in detail. The meeting closed with a rapport strong enough for Crane to feel comfortable in bringing her translations of other poems to talk over with Monica Transtromer. Each meeting would last up to five hours. Sometimes Transtormer was present and would play the piano; and other times the two women would simply spend time talking over Crane’s translations.

I asked Crane what was the most difficult thing about translating a poem from Swedish. “English has its rhythms and meters, its stresses on words. In Swedish those stresses are completely different. The trick of translation is to reproduce the feeling of the sound as well as the meaning of the words.” Crane, in an essay in the Ohio Review, says there’s “an unmistakable lilt to the former [Swedish] that’s simply not reproducible in the latter [English].”

Perhaps it is that attention to getting the “feeling” of the sound right that draws Teicher’s observation that Crane’s translations are more faithful to the original. “Tranströmer’s poetry is concerned with precisely how little we’re able to really see, yet how much that little is worth. His is a tense, taut music, easier to hear in Crane’s slightly relaxed interpretation,” he says.

Crane finds Tranströmer’s poetry satisfying because he seems to move effortlessly from the natural world to a deeper sense of being. She quotes Robert Bly as saying, “Tomas is closer to the mysterious core of the universe.” And yet his language is simple and plain spoken.

Crane not only loves his poetry, she found him a wonderfully charming, generous man. She watched him as he listened to music, played music, laughed, communicated with his wife, listened in conversation with obvious interest and with open-minded curiosity. “He was intrigued by translation of his work, eager to hear what was being made of it outside of his own language.”

Crane was back for a residency in Vermont when she heard that he had received the Nobel Prize, an award that many, including Seamus Heaney felt was overdue.

Here is Crane’s translation of “The Station,” the first poem she translated and one that brings the natural world into the mystery of human experience:

The Station

A train has rolled in. Car after car stands here,
but no doors are opening, no one’s getting off or on.

Are there any doors at all? Inside, it’s teeming
with closed-in people milling back and forth.
They’re staring out through the unyielding windows.
And outside, a man walks along the train with a maul.
He’s hitting the wheels, a faint ringing. Except right here!
Here the sound swells unbelievably: a lightningstroke,
a cathedral bell tolling, a round-the-world sound
that lifts the whole train and the region’s wet stones.
Everything’s singing! You’ll remember this. Travel on!

See Patty’s interview on Transtromer in the Paris Review.


Patty Crane’s poetry has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Fugue, RUNES, The Massachusetts Review and West Branch, among others, as well as reviews and essays in Poetry International and The Writer’s Chronicle. Her translations of the Swedish poet and Nobel laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, have appeared in Blackbird and Poetry Daily. A  2011-2012 Stanford Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, her other awards include Atlanta Review’s 2005 International Publication Prize and Two Rivers Review’s 2004 Poetry Prize. She lives in the hill towns of western Massachusetts.