The 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature: It’s Tomas Tranströmer

By Susan Harris

The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Sweden's great Tomas Tranströmer. The Swedish Academy said it recognized the eighty-year-old poet "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." From his "Prelude," translated for us by Rika Lesser:

In the first hours of day consciousness can embrace the world
just as the hand grasps a sun-warm stone.

Tranströmer's poetry is available in a number of collections, rendered by translators including Malena Morling, Robin Fulton, and Robert Bly and published by Green Integer, Ecco, New Directions, and Graywolf, and (of course) in WWB's Ecco Anthology.



After tossing and turning all night with nightmares that Bob Dylan had seduced that Stockholm conclave into handing him the prize, I awoke to the news that Tomas Tranströmer, one of the great, very great, living poets has been, at long last, honored. There will be those who feel the award was lost by Adonis. There will be those who will aim their snark guns at Scandinavians taking care of their own. There will be those who will use this award as an excuse to raise the tired rant about the committee stonewalling Americans. But, as more and more people use this occasion as an impetus to discover Tranströmer for themselves, it will come clear that this award was no mistake. Poet and poetry critic David Orr, in a short but perceptive essay in The New York Times (, concluded by saying: “The turbulent stillness of Mr. Tranströmer does honor to a prize that has not always done honor to itself.” To which I say, indeed.


Take a peek at some of Robin Fulton’s translations here:


Thanks for the link. It looks like a beautiful book. I’ll be putting it on order right away, in spite of the one reviewer’s negative opinion of some of Fulton’s translations. I have a much-loved copy of Robert Bly’s translations, THE HALF-FINISHED HEAVEN. But Fulton’s is a more complete collection. I always find it fascinating and enriching to compare the choices of different translators.


David, here’s a feature on the site on just that topic: two translators produce versions of the same text, in this case a short story by Germano Almeida, then discuss.


to #4 Susan

I took a look at the feature on translation for which you provided the link. Wonderful. I have a friend who took it upon himself to translate two books, a novel and a collection of stories, by a Latvian author, Regīna Ezera. I was privileged to read his versions and discuss with him his choices.  My friend was not a “targeteer”. He was so concerned about preserving the syntax and style of the original Latvian, like a museum curator, that, to my mind, he defeated much of the purpose of translation: to make a work readable in another language. Not just readable, but convincing. My friend saw my points, but was too bound by his feeling of obligation to his source to transcend his perhaps misplaced scruples. But, in fairness, the moral stance of a translator must be very difficult to arrive at.

Robert Bly, it seems to me, is more of a “targeteer”, a fairly liberal translator. I’ve noticed, for example his translations of Antonio Machado take occasional, calculated liberties with the original Spanish, allowing the spirit, the duende if you will, of the poems to bloom for an English reader in a way that it might not with a more literal translation. His versions of Tranströmer I love. I will be fascinated to compare them with his other English language advocates.

To #5 Alan

Robert Bly is a good poet, a fine translator, and, perhaps best of all, a passionate advocate for the work of others. Robert Bly deserves many good things.  The Nobel Prize is not among them.

And, as for Dylan… No. On second thought, let’s not even go there.


Here is an excerpt from my latest post at, an example illustrating why I feel this is such a well deserved award:

He (Tranströmer) has described the poems of his cycle, Baltics, which arose from his travels in Soviet controlled Latvia and Estonia, as his “most consistent attempt to write music.” One of his English translators, Robin Fulton, has observed that these poems are full of thematic returns and variations, music’s stock and trade. As well as being a great poet, Tranströmer is an accomplished pianist. An important pairing for him; music has long been a means by which he has approached the border between those realms of experience which invite the free commerce of words, and those which, against all efforts, deny their entry. He has frequently made runs on this border in his poetry. His love for music is sometimes explicit, as in his homages to composers: Liszt and Wagner in “Grief Gondola #2″, Mily Balakirev in “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)”, Haydn, in “Allegro”, and, of course, “Schubertiana”. But often his music-love is quieter, organic. as in “Slow Music.”

Much has been made of Tranströmer’s evocations of nature. In the work of a good poet, like Mary Oliver, nature is mined for what it signifies. There is frequently a moral imperative to move towards it, emulate it where possible, show regret where it is lost. Nature becomes a tool for transformation. In a great poet, like Tranströmer, nature is approached differently, as part of the full spectrum of what we experience, of equal valence with buildings, desks, dark clothes, and wherever we might be when not at the sea. No moral is drawn, and therefore no intellectual filter – apart from the poem itself – to diminish nature’s impact, or its mystery. Nature is left tremendous, and we to our own devices.


David, thanks for your interesting comment. I’ve removed “Slow Music” for copyright reasons, but think your points stand without it.

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