Bright, Dusky, Bright: Translating Eeva-Liisa Manner
The translation and commentary below are reproduced with kind permission of the Stephen Spender Trust. ‘Theorem’ came joint third in The Times Stephen Spender poetry translation competition in 2008.
Proosa olkoon kovaa, se herättäköön levottomuutta.
Mutta runo on kaiku joka kuullaan, kun elämä on mykkää:
vuorilla liukuvat varjot: tuulen ja pilvien kuva,
savun kulku tai elämän: kirkas, hämärä, kirkas,
hiljaa virtaava joki, syvät pilviset metsät,
hitaasti maatuvat talot, lämpöä huokuvat kujat,
hauraaksi kulunut kynnys, varjon hiljaisuus,
lapsen pelokas askel huoneen hämäryyteen,
kirje joka tulee kaukaa ja työnnetään oven ali,
niin suuri ja valkea että se täyttää talon,
tai päivä niin jäykkä ja kirkas että voi kuulla
miten aurinko naulaa umpeen aution sinisen oven.
Let prose be hard, let it provoke unease.
But the poem is an echo that is heard when life is mute:
shadows gliding on mountains; the image of wind and cloud,
the passage of smoke or life: bright, dusky, bright,
a river flowing silent, deep cloudy forests,
houses mouldering slowly, lanes radiating heat,
a worn-down threshold, the stillness of shadow,
a child’s timorous step into the darkness of the room,
a letter that comes from afar and is pushed under the door,
so big and white that it fills the house,
or a day so stiff and bright that you can hear
how the sun nails shut the abandoned blue door.
The poems of Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–95) are lucid yet mysterious. They are haunted by echoes, steps, shadows, reflections; but they evoke ghostliness with utter clarity. I wanted to translate ‘Theorem’ because as well as being characteristic of Manner’s oeuvre in terms of its style and imagery, it offers an aesthetic manifesto, a ‘theorem’ pertaining to poetry. I am also motivated by the fact that Manner’s work is shamefully little known outside of Finland.
When translating from Finnish, a key challenge is posed by the lack of articles in the source language. The translator must choose between ‘a’ or ‘the’. Another potential problem is the lack of genders in Finnish; the pronoun hän can mean ‘he’ or ‘she’. A further challenge is presented by the frequent use of the passive voice in Finnish; yet another, by the many references in Finnish texts to geographical features and varieties of (for example) fish and berries, which may not be known to the Anglophone reader.
The first issue is salient here. In this translation, I opted for ‘the poem’ (not ‘a’), since this is a ‘theorem’, a generalising pronouncement. Later, I have ‘a worn-down threshold’ but ‘the stillness of shadow’. Why? Stillness seems to me a general characteristic of shadow, whereas the ‘threshold’ of the poem gains power from its particularity, its singularity. And yet, I have ‘the door/house/sun/blue door’, since there could only be one of each item in the world that the poem is evoking and establishing.
In this way, translating this poem raises philosophical questions regarding the nature of the particular and the general: appropriate, since Manner is often interested in such issues. I define my approach to her work as respectful but vigorous: sensitive both to the original and to what works and pleases in English.
A selection of poems by Eeva-Liisa Manner, Bright, Dusky, Bright, translated by Emily Jeremiah, is available from Waterloo Press.
Emily Jeremiah’s sensitive and assured translations capture Eeva-Liisa Manner’s ethereal and entrancing poetry with rare maturity, telling of the light of the snow, a thought just passed or the weight of invisible birds. Here are versions that have the rare quality of seeing with the poet’s same eye “as through reversed binoculars”, like the poet herself, piercing right into “the ABC of the soul”. An essential volume to still troubled times.
Eeva-Liisa Manner’s poems, in Emily Jeremiah’s beautifully honed translations, are delicate yet powerful, elusive yet evocative, luminous, mobile, haunting; capturing the fleeting loveliness and desolation of the natural world and of the human condition, they are, in the words of one poem, “fragile bits of meditation”.
The poetry of Eeva-Liisa Manner is remarkable in its precision and force. It seems to occur at a sub-atomic level, where experience is borderless and change continuous while surfaces remain clear and still. The disturbance and containment she observes is so essential as to be universal and yet the world of her poems is emphatically that of Finland: its space and silence and light.
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