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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

Translating Inger Christensen Alex Middleton

If the best poems are 'instances of themselves', as John Ashbery said of Frank O'Hara's poems, then how should anything which isn't the original be able to convey this 'instance'? When translating poetry many compromises must be made, since semantic content (including cultural references), metre, rhythm, sound patterning and rhyme won't all survive translation into another language. The difficulties involved in the choices one must make are specific to the poetry being translated, and to the respective languages of the original poem and the translation. When translating the poetry of the Danish writer Inger Christensen I wasn't able to decide upon a strategy before-hand, since the process had to be a dialogue with the original poetry. What I knew was that I wanted to write a poetic and not a literal translation - to convey the 'instance' as faithfully as possible.

The following poems are from Christensen's collections Alfabet, 1981 (Alphabet) and Sommerfugledalen, 1991 (The Valley of Butterflies). Often called a 'system poet', Christensen tends to use systems as the basis for her poetry. She works mostly with material from the 'real' outside world, using facts that everyone has an opportunity to know and verify.


As the title suggests, the alphabet constitutes one part of the system that organises this long poem in fourteen parts, each part starting out as a listing of things that exist. The nouns in the first part start ...

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