I began my research of Henrik Ibsen’s poetry with a simple question in mind: why is Ibsen’s poetry so unknown? He is, after all, one of the greatest names in the world of literature, considered by many to be the father of modern drama. Was his poetry of so low merit that it eluded the critical acclaim Ibsen achieved with his drama? Or was it something else that forced Ibsen’s poetry out of scholarly debate? My findings point toward two main reasons: lack of translations and what is lost is translation.
In my research, I have focused on three main translations: Richard A. Streatfeild in 1902, Fydell E. Garrett in 1912, and John Northam in 1986. Every translation reads differently. As John Northam phrased it in the introduction to his translation of Ibsen’s poems, “Any serious comparison between different forms of the same poem manifestly demands comparison of the Norwegian texts, not of English translation. This cannot, obviously, be a book for the use of scholars; it is intended as the equivalent of a translation into English of one of Ibsen’s plays for a general public.” So, I studied Ibsen’s poems in the original Norwegian. The differences between Ibsen’s poetry and translations are unmistakable – from rhyme to metre, rhythm and form.
For example, Ibsen’s ‘En Svane’ (A Swan), though simplistic in nature, remains untranslated with true accuracy to Ibsen’s original:
Your journey ended
with birth of the song.
Your death-song blended; –
you were, then, a swan!
‘Twas one brief quiring
And thy day gone then.
Thou sang’st expiring –
Thou wast a swan, then!
(F. E. Garrett)
Thou wert a swan! Thy death was music!
The hour that broke
Thy fleshly yoke
Bade all thy soul in rapturous song unclose.
(R. A. Streatfeild)
The end of the original poem reads more like this:
I toners føden In the tone’s birth
du slutted din bane. you ended your course.
Du sang i døden; – You sang in death; –
du var dog en svane! you were yet a swan!
Of course, in direct translation, the poetry is lost. If the translator has any hope to preserve Ibsen’s original rhyme, metre, rhythm, or form, then content is in turn inevitably lost. This makes accurate translation next to, if not absolutely impossible. A translator can, at best, hope to capture a similar image. The sound and timbre of Ibsen’s poetry, however, is rooted in the language in which he wrote. Unlike Ibsen’s drama, where the flow of language and individual words bear less weight, Ibsen’s poetry cannot properly exist outside the original Norwegian.
In addition to Ibsen’s poetry being rooted in the Norwegian language, much of the scholarly criticism regarding his poetry also remains untranslated. This lack of translation in both source and analytical material makes the study of his poetry all the more inaccessible for non-Norwegian public and scholars. There is also the issue that Ibsen himself abandoned the poetic form in the later half of his writing career, commenting of his poetry that it contained much that he would put little weight on. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss his poetry altogether. Despite his self-deprecatory comments, Ibsen was adamantly persistent in the publication of his poetry – a fact that reveals critical importance in his poetry. How, then, should Ibsen’s poetry be taught?
Ibsen asserted that his poetry gave his works a sense of unity, indicative of his writing career as a whole. Indeed, many of his poems share close thematic relationships to his later dramas: ‘Blueprint’ and The Master Builder, ‘The Miner’ and John Gabriel Borkman, ‘With a Waterlily’ and Little Eyolf. Other works express Ibsen’s passionate sense of identity, both personal and national. These thematic explorations make Ibsen’s poetry important for both understanding his later dramatic works and his role in shaping Norwegian national identity.
As I have already pointed out, Ibsen’s poetry inevitably loses accuracy in translation. It is important, then, to not only view the original Norwegian text, but also to have access to multiple translations. There is currently no attempt at a critically discerning translation of any of Ibsen’s poetry. John Northam’s 1986 publication of Ibsen’s Poems provides the most rhythmically and metrically accurate reproductions of Ibsen’s poetry in English. Northam’s translation has flaws; he takes liberties with content and word arrangement, but creates strikingly similar imagery, comparable flow and sound to Ibsen’s Norwegian original. In order to study Ibsen’s poetry with any scholarly relevance, however, more than just the rhyme and metre need to be reproduced. Direct translation is essential for an English-speaking reader to better understand the actual content and imagery of Ibsen’s poems. With better understanding of the poetry in translation, a reader can be opened to his poetry’s significance.
Though Henrik Ibsen’s poetry did not redefine poetry in the way his dramatic works shaped modern drama, his poetry explores other literary aspects worth scholarly review. While the poetry is still best enjoyed in the original Norwegian, its significance can still be understood in translation. Ibsen’s poetry offers better understanding of his later dramatic inspirations and of developing Norwegian national identity. His ability to express passion and tragedy in poetic form is an ability that does not deserve to be lost in translation.
If you would like to read my complete research, the bibliography for my works, or my (incomplete) translations of Ibsen’s poetry, please send me an e-mail. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.