Monday, 11 March 2013


The poem plays a central role in Sophus Claussen’s novel Valfart (Pilgrimage, 1896). Valfart is written as a travel memoir in the tradition of Goethe’s Italian Journey, though in Claussen’s book the narrative lends itself to the creation of a fictional world, a fantasy that is only tangentially linked to the real locations in Italy and France which the novel’s central character, the bridge-building engineer Silvio, visits. Silvio has been commissioned by a wealthy German lady to write “a treatise that was to be called Some of Italy's Oldest Bridges (Nogle af de ældste Broer i Italien)." In a sense, the novel is the treatise, in which the bridges eventually become allegorical, representing love-relationships rather than constructions of stone. The “pilgrimage” of the title is a journey to the sanctuary of the Montallegro Madonna near Rapallo, a section that forms the high point of the novel’s second part.

On the way to Italy Silvio visits Paris, where he falls in love with Célimène and has a Platonic love affair with her. The affair eventually becomes complicated by Silvio’s desire for a physical relationship, but before this happens, he attends a New Year’s celebration at which he has a hallucinatory vision of a more ancient civilization – the Persian city of Ecbatana:

Han vidste ikke helt nøjagtigt, paa hvilken Klode eller I hvilken Tid, han selv befandt sig, om han virkelig var i Paris ved et Nytaarsselskab, eller om han var med ved et nu længst forglemt Gæstebud I Ekbátana.

He was not quite sure on which planet or in which era he found himself, whether he was in Paris at a New Year’s gathering or whether he was taking part in a now long-forgotten feast in Ecbatana.

The Ecbatana poem is a curious assembly of visual and visionary, dreamlike elements, bound together in a four-footed metre. There is, however, a problem in the last line of each stanza, all of which end with the word "Ekbátana". As the Danish scholar Vilhelm Andersen once pointed out, where the metre calls for the dactylic Ek--a-ta-na, there is what he calls an “iambic dipody”, or double iamb. This has the effect of creating a slight emphasis on the "Ek-" of Ekbátana, producing a delay which means that the final syllable of the line carries a lighter stress than would normally be the case, and causes a sense of floating uncertainty, where "in a single word finite meets infinite, and materiality meets transcendence".  (For this perception I'm indebted to Dan Ringgaard's study of Claussen's poetic universe in his book Den poetiske lækage).

There are other technical problems in the poem – for example, the name ”Ekbátana” is a poor rhyme-word in Danish, and Claussen has to resort to pairing it with insignificant words like “da” and “fra”. Yet the richness of the imagery is such that this doesn’t really interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the poem as a whole.

In my English version - which I'm still working on - I have tried to maintain the metre and rhyme, though this may have led to some distortions of meaning. The Danish text follows, and after it my translation.


Jeg husker den Vaar, da mit Hjærte i Kim
undfangede Drømmen og søgte et Rim,
hvis Glans skulde synke, jeg ved ej hvorfra,
som naar Solen gik ned i Ekbátana.

En Spotter gav mig med Lærdom at ane,
at Vægten paa Ordet var Ekbatáne.
Den traurige Tosse, han ved ej da,
at Hjærtet det elsker Ekbátana.

Byen med tusind henslængte Terrasser,
Løngange, svimlende Mure - som passer
der bagerst i Persien, hvor Rosen er fra,
begravet i Minder - Ekbátana!

Hin fjærne Vaar, da min Sjæl laa i Kim
og drømte umulige Roser og Rim,
er svunden, skjønt Luften var lys ogsaa da,
som den Sol, der forsvandt bag Ekbátana.

Men Drømmen har rejst sig en Vaar i Paris,
da Verden var dyb og assyrisk og vis,
som blødte den yppigste Oldtid endda ...
Jeg har levet en Dag i Ekbátana.

Min Sjæl har flydt som en Syrings af Toner,
til Solfaldet farvede Parkernes Kroner
og Hjærtet sov ind i sin Højhed - som fra
en Solnedgang over Ekbátana.

Men Folkets Sæder? den stoltes Bedrift?
hvad nyt og sælsomt skal levnes derfra?
En Rædsel, et Vanvid i Kileskrift
paa dit Dronningelegem - Ekbátana.

Men Rosen, det dyreste, verden har drømt,
al Livets Vellyst - hvad var den da?
Et Tegn kun, en Blomst, som blev givet paa Skrømt
ved en kongelig Fest i Ekbátana.

Da blev jeg taalmodig og stolt. Jeg har drømt
en dybere Lykke, end nogen har tømt.
Lad Syndflodens Vande mig bære herfra
- jeg har levet en dag i Ekbátana.


I remember that spring, when my heart in its time
conceived the dream and searched for a rhyme,
whose glory should sink, I know not from where,
as when the sun set in Ecbátana.

A mocker advised me, with scholarly drama,
that the stress on the word was “Ecbatána”,
The sad, silly fool, he wasn’t aware
that the heart is in love with Ecbátana.

The city with terraces thousandfold sprawling,
with passages secret, walls dizzy falling
in Persia down there where the roses are,
buried in memories – Ecbátana!

That far-off spring, when my heart in its time
dreamed of impossible roses and rhyme,
has died, though the air was also light there,
like the sun that died behind Ecbátana.

But in Paris one spring the dream came to rise,
and the world became deep and Assyrian and wise,
as if still antiquity bled as of yore…
I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

My soul floated on like a syrinx of sounds
till the sun’s fall colored the parks' tree-crowns,
and the heart fell asleep in its highness, as there
in a sunset over Ecbátana.

But the people’s customs? The proud man’s feat?
What new and strange things would be left to share?
A terror, a madness, a cuneiform script
On your queenly body – Ecbátana.

But the rose, the most precious that world’s dreams know,
all life’s voluptuousness – who knew what they were?
Just a sign, a flower that was given for show
at a royal feast in Ecbátana.

I grew patient and proud. And then in my sleep
I dreamt of a fortune unemptied and deep.
Let the Flood’s waters carry me hence, afar
– I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sophus Claussen in English

The apparent absence of a standard English translation of the work of the great Danish Symbolist poet Sophus Claussen (1865-1931) has always struck me as puzzling. Whether it's because Claussen is still  associated in some Anglo-American literary minds with the European "periphery", or whether it relates to the difficulty of rendering his polished and elegant metrical verse into English rhyme, or whether the obscurity of some of his work has confounded the translators, his poetry has remained to a large extent unknown outside the Nordic region. It has also meant that Claussen's novels, which include Unge Bander (1894), Antonius i Paris (1896) and Valfart (1896), are not yet known to an English-language readership.

During the past few months I've been trying out some English versions of poems by Claussen in the environment of an online translation workshop, where the general atmosphere, though inevitably somewhat foggy, is none the less enlivening. The response among specialists and non-specialists alike has been interesting. Although some participants have dismissed the poems as "glib" and "flowery", others have confirmed by the general drift of their comments that in many respects Claussen's work differs little in form, style and character from that of many other Symbolist poets of his time, although they wrote in French, German or Russian, not Danish. Certainly, Claussen was entirely at home in the world of Parisian literary bohemianism, and was even photographed together with Verlaine and other Parnassian and Symbolist poets. The French translations of his work by the poet Charles Cros, though long out of print, also put him firmly into the context of the French literature from which he derived so much of the technical basis of his inspiration.

In her fascinating and amazingly detailed study of Nordic Orientalism, the Scandinavianist and literary scholar Elisabeth Oxfeldt has examined the  roots and genesis of Claussen's celebrated poem 'Ekbátana', which she sees as a central text in the historic emergence of Denmark from the cultural periphery of Europe towards its centre. She writes that "the poem expresses a longing towards Parisian modernity and cosmopolitanism as well as a built-in resistance towards a Western monoculture whose tendency it is to obliterate peripheral cultures."

In future posts I'll present the Danish text of  'Ekbátana' together with the latest version of my translation, and discuss the poem further.

Out in the Field

A small group of Finnish-English translators who hail from both sides of the Atlantic has recently set itself up as a literary "translation cooperative" - FELT.  At present the aims of the new body are somewhat unclear: apparently it's not an association along the lines of SELTA, the long-established association of Swedish-English literary translators, but rather "a community where translators can exchange news, ideas, and working methods with each other and share their work with the public", to quote the official statement on the FELT website. It seems that it also exists, in the words of one member, "to unabashedly promote our own work to general readers, publishers, and agents."

So far so good, and one wishes the cooperative all the best for the future. It's still not clear, however, whether the new community is an open one which all Finnish-English translators may join - in the way that Swedish-English translators have joined SELTA over the past few decades as full or associate members - or whether it's a closed professional club with a fixed and restricted membership and a Facebook window on the wider world. It might perhaps be helpful if the organizers would make this less ambiguous, though one appreciates that the planning of the new organization may still be in the early stages.