The first, by Kolbein Falkeid


The first

Eva dead. The first
of the lot of finely sown-together
old friendships.
The quietest. A life on the little wick
shining with clear flame
but which without flickering
blew out.

The teeming
flower-languages' linguist.

Even in sober Latin
lush flora thrived. You coaxed
brave wildflowers out upon the barren
moors in us, tore up bunches of colours from scorched thoughts.

The rest of us
keep going still. But perhaps
the flowers close up
in the middle of the day now?

The worst thing
is not to be the next to follow in your footsteps
nor the one after that
but the last.

And to have to talk to oneself
in a snowed-under
winter tongue.


Den første

Eva død. Den første
i flokken av fint sammensydd
gammelt vennskap.
Den stilleste. Et liv på den vesle veken
lysende med klar flamme
men som uten å blafre
blåste vekk.

De myldrende
blomsterspråkenes lingvist.

Selv i den sobre latinen
trivdes frodig flora. Du lukket
modige villblomster ut på de skrinne
moene i oss, røsket
kvaster av farger fra avsvidde tanker.

Vi andre
holder det ennå gående. Men kanskje
lukker blomstene seg
midt på dagen nå?

Det verste
er ikke å være nestemann ut på reisen din,
heller ikke den andre
men den siste.

Og måtte snakke med seg selv
på et nedsnødd


  1. The second sentence of the poem is tricky to translate: on the one hand, "fint sammensydd gammelt vennskap" ("finely sown-together old friendship") is in the singular, whilst on the other "Den første i flokken (av)" is a set phrase which literally means something along the lines of "The first of the crowd (of)", so that it would naturally combine in English with a plural.

    To address this, I have made a rare choice to alter the word order somewhat, rendering the set phrase as "first of the lot", which I feel fits well with the tone of the poem as a whole.

  2. Though the rendering of the preposition "på" to "on" in the phrase "på den vesle veken" leads to a rather unusual line in English ("on the little wick"), I like the feel of it.

    The adjective "vesle" might often be translated to "tiny", but I feel that "little" works best poetically here.

  3. Typically, "vekk" would be translated to "away", so that "blåste vekk" would become "blew away". Whilst this is not impossible here, I feel that the more forceful "blew out" is much the better choice.

  4. The poem makes significant use of compound nouns, mostly of Falkeid's own construction, i.e. specific to the poem. I have rendered nearly all of these quite literally with a hyphen, as I feel this best allows the imagery to come through in a way faithful to the original: "sammensydd" becomes "sown-together", "blomsterspråkene" becomes "flower-languages'" (with a careful use of the plural possessive), "lyngleseren" becomes "heather-reader", and so on.

    The final word ("vinterspråk") of the poem is an exception. A more literal translation would be to "winter-language", but I prefer "tongue" to "language" here, it being, I feel, slightly more flexible metaphorically, allowing in particular a combination with "winter" without a hyphen, leading to a richer, and more in natural in English, construction.

  5. The definite noun form in Norwegian is more flexible than in English, and often is best translated to the indefinite in poetry: here too I feel that a rendering of "den sobre latinen" (literally "the sober Latin", which might not be quite possible here anyhow, or "that sober Latin") simply to "sober Latin" is most natural in English.

    I feel that "den sobre latinen" almost certainly refers back to the previous stanza, or at least that the possibility of reading the line in this way is present; this would be more strongly emphasised with a translation to the definite, but is I feel still an implication which can be drawn with use of the indefinite in the way I have.

  6. The verb "røske" can be used in the expression "røske med ruta", the equivalent to which in English would be "tear up by the roots", the imagery of which is close to that of the poem. Thus I have chosen to translate "røsket" to "tore up"; the "up" could be omitted, but including it leads to a closer rhythm to the original, and anchors the translation more tightly, I feel, to the intended imagery.

    Though it has several meanings, the noun "kvast" can be used in the context of flowers, herbs, and similar, exactly as "bunch" can in English, and "bunches" thus seems the best translation of "kvaster" here.

  7. Whilst "Vi andre" would literally translate to "We others", I feel that the more flowing "The rest of us" fits better here. The remaining part of the sentence, "holder det ennå gående", too can be translated in several, slightly different ways, for example to "are still keeping going", but I have chosen the economical "keep going still" because I feel it works best rhythmically and tonally.

    A point of note is that "gående" is a kind of gerund form in Norwegian (possibly the only way to form it), the use of which is sparing; it hence feels important to translate it to the gerund "going" in English.

  8. The interrogative formulation of "Men kanskje blomstene... nå?" is a little unusual, but is equally so in the original. That is to say, the phrasing was a deliberate choice of Falkeid's.

    One could translate "lukker blomstene seg" to "the flowers close themselves up", but I feel that omission of "themselves" does not significantly affect the meaning or mood of the line, whilst the greater pithiness of the resulting line fits well with the overall tone of the poem.

  9. The line "Det verste" is an example of a construction in Norwegian in which a noun form can be omitted and left implicit: literally, it would translate to just "The worst". The translation I have, namely "The worst thing", seems to me to be closest equivalent in English, with a similar degree of genericity.

    A couple of lines later, "den andre" is another occurrence of this. Literally, it can be translated to just "the second", but this is not really possible in English in combination with a translation of "nestemann" to "next"; though more verbose, "the one after that" seems to work well rhythmically as well as semantically.

  10. The phrase "nestemann ut på reisen din" is somewhat tricky to translate. Very literally, it could be rendered "the next man out on your journey". However, "nestemann" (literally "next man") is almost always used more loosely to mean something like "the next (person/one) along/in line", or "the person/one afterwards"; I have chosen to translate it simply to "next", as I feels that this combines best rhythmically with my rendering of "ut på reisen din" to "to follow in your footsteps".

    The latter is a very loose translation, but I feel that, in being a set phrase, it has a down-to-earth quality that is present in the original, which more literal translations lack; as well as flowing well off the tongue, as the original does.

  11. Literally, the compound noun "nedsnødd" would translate to "down-snowed", but "snowed-under" is the phrase typically used in English to express the same, and I have chosen it for its greater naturality.


The poem is originally from the collection «Utrøstelig bøddel» ("Inconsolable executioner") from 1997, which can be viewed at the Norwegian National Library's site: «Den første» is on pages 36 and 37 of both the original and the online text. It also appears in the collection «De store strendenes samtale» ("The great shores' conversation"), which can be viewed at the same site: «Den første» is on page 168 of the original text (170-171 of the online text).

Mainly translated on the 23rd of October 2022, with some adjustments on various days up to and including the 1st of November.

Last updated: 15:23 (GMT+1), 23rd January 2023