On the endless blackboard
where the stars' full stops shut out
all trespassing thoughts
the night plane writes its foreign phonetic transcription.
For a moment the symbols thunder
like logs of wood through their hearts.
Here where repose flowed sluggishly
alongside concrete river banks
and drawing of breath spun silk
around the sleeping.
A sudden glimpse
of strange, frightening expanses —
Then the transcription is rubbed out
and sleep flows peacefully as before
with its flakes of rust.
På den endeløse tavlen
hvor stjernenes punktum stenger for
alle uvedkommende tanker
skriver nattflyet sin fremmede lydskrift.
Et øyeblikk dundrer tegnene
som tømmerstokker gjennom hjertene.
Her hvor søvnen fløt dorsk
langs sementerte flodbredder
og åndedrettene spant silke
om de sovende.
Et brått skimt
av rare, skremmende vidder —
Så strykes lydskriften ut
og søvnen flyter fredelig som før
med sine rustflak.
The title assonates in the original Norwegian, giving it a certain ring that is difficult to replicate in English. Literally, "småby" is a compound of "små" (small) and "by" ("town", noting though that Norwegian doesn't really have a word for "city" (the closest would probably be the compound "storby" — "large town"), and that "by" can be used for what in English would typically be termed cities too), and the most usual translation would indeed probably be to "small town". However, the rhythm of "small town" is wrong compared to the original, whilst the compound "smalltown", which is correct rhythmically, has the wrong sense.
For these reasons, although not a common word in English, I have chosen "townlet" as the translation of "småby": it is stressed in the same way, and is also etymologically very similar ("let" acts a modifier of "town" akin to "small"). It cam be observed that Norwegian has a word for "village ("bygd"), which would have been used if a village was what was in mind, and thus "townlet" seems more faithful than "village" to the original.
One can consider the possibility of translating to "a townlet" rather than simply "townlet", but the title seems to me to work fine without it, thus not justifying a departure from the original, in which no article is present.
The word "punktum" ("full stop" in British English, that is to say, the symbol used to denote the end of a sentence) could remain unchanged in the indefinite plural, or be conjugated to "punktumer". Thus it is unclear grammatically whether "punktum" is intended to be in the singular or plural; "stenger for" ("shuts out") would be the same in both cases. However, whilst probably just about possible, the singular rendering to "the stars' full stop shuts out" would be to stretch a metaphor very far, likely too far, since "stjernenes" is very definitely the genitive-of-a-plural construction "the stars'". Thus I have chosen the more natural plural interpretation.
The adjective "uvedkommende" is quite tricky here, at the same time as it is vital to the poetic sense of the opening stanza. Most commonly, it is used in a context for which "unauthorised" would be a typical translation, but that is not quite the right sense here. Closer in some respects would be "unwanted", but this is quite far etymologically from the original, and lacks the aspect which "uvedkommende" definitely, to at least some extent, has of not being allowed. Fortunately, "trespassing" seems to work well here, being somewhat in between "unauthorised" and "unwanted" semantically, as well as similar rhythmically, and in addition being a verb-cum-adjective (derived from a present participle), as "vedkommende", which helps retain an 'activeness'/'energy' in the poetic sense from the original.
The word "lydskrift" (a compound of "lyd" ("sound") and "skrift" ("writing" or "text"), thus literally "sound-writing/text") is much shorter than "phonetic transcription", but the latter does seem the correct term in English. One can consider translating to, say simply "phonetics" or "phones", but the latter is rather formal/academic, whilst "phonetics" is not quite right semantically, and lacks a direct analogue of the "skrift" component of "lydskrift".
The line in which "lydskrift" appears in the original is quite long relative to most of the other lines in its stanza in the original, and I feel that use of "phonetic transcription" does not significantly change the weight or rhythmic feel of it. Thus it seems best to use it, to be as faithful to the original as possible semantically.
The construction "Et øyeblikk" is literally just "A moment"; this can sometimes work in English, and could perhaps just about work about here, but it feels awkward to me. Translating to "Momentarily" would retain the lack of preposition from the Norwegian, but "For a moment" is syntactically closer to "Et øyeblikk", as having a rhythmic weight that I feel is closer.
Whilst "dundrer" can be translated in various ways, I have chosen "thunders" for its phonetic similarity to the original; though "dundrer" is highly onomatopeic, to an extent to which there is no equivalent in English amongst possible translations, "thunders" is as close as it comes
The word "hjertene" is in the definite plural, and would literally translate to "the hearts". However, the definite can be used more freely in Norwegian than in English, and "the hearts" would read awkwardly here in English. One could use the indefinite (simply "hearts"), but this feels a little too sweeping, lacking the down-to-earth quality of the original, which refers simply, and unambiguously in Norwegian, to the inhabitants of the townlet ("småby") of the title. To make this reference to the title clear without an incongruous circumlocution, it seems to me best here to translate to the genitive "their hearts".
There are two other freer-than-English uses of the definite form in the second stanza: "søvnen" (literally: "the sleeping") and "åndedrettene" (literally: "the drawings of breath"). In both cases, I have translated to the indefinite, and have used the singular "drawing of breath" rather than "drawings of breath" or "drawing of breaths", as anything else feels unnatural.
The noun "søvn", of which "søvnen" is the definite form, would almost always be translated as "sleep". However, there is no real alternative to translating "de sovende" to "the sleeping" at the end of stanza, and translating "søvnen" to "sleep" would thus lead to a slightly clumsy repetition which is not present in the original. Thus I have chosen to translate it to "repose"; though in many contexts it might be somewhat literary, here I feel that the word fits the poetic sense well.
It is a little tricky to pick a translation for "dorsk" out of a number of possibilities. Though its etymology is different, I have chosen "sluggish" for its simplicity: alternatives such as "languidly", "lethargically", and "listlessly" all have additional connotations which would likely be a departure from the original to introduce, whilst alternatives such as "drowsily" are too close to the notion of sleep to be possible poetically here.
The preposition "langs" is also a little tricky to translate accurately here: though closest syntactically, "along" is not really possible here, as "along river banks" would typically imply movement on the banks, which is not the sense here. At the same time, there is a sense of movement which a translation to "beside", say, would lose. The choice I have made, "alongside", combines some of both senses, and thus seems best here. The fact that it has three syllables, whilst "langs" has only one, is more or less compensated for by the reduction of two syllables in translating from "sementerte" to "concrete".
Literally, "sementerte" refers to cement, not concrete. However, "concrete river banks" is much more widely used in English than any construction derived from the word "cement"; poetically, the naturality of "concrete" thus seems to outweigh any slight differences in meaning.
It is tempting to translate "spant" to the almost identical "span" in English, but use of the latter as the perfect past of "to spin" would perhaps be a little too literary here, and thus I have stuck with the modern form "spun".
The word "vidde", the plural form of which I've translated to "expanses", can often refer specifically to a "mountain plateau", or slightly less specifically to a "plain", but here I think the general sense of something that is broad and open is likely intended, to contrast with the stars' full stops and the concrete river banks; "expanse" seems the closest term in English.
The passive verb "strykes ut" could be translated to "is erased", but "is rubbed out" is closer syntactically to the original.
In the final stanza, "søvnen" is another occurrence of the freer-than-English use of the definite form; here, exactly as in the second stanza, of "søvn" (sleep). Just as in second stanza, I have translated to the indefinite for naturality, but have this time translated to "sleep" rather than "repose", despite loss of the repetition present in the original, as I feel the rhythmic weight of the line is better here with "sleep", and that the assonance with "peacefully" works well.
The verb "flyter" is the present conjugation of the verb "å flyte" of which the verb "fløt" of the second stanza is the perfect past form. Thus the repetition of the verb "to flow" in the second ("flowed") and fourth stanzas ("flows") is present in the original Norwegian as well.
However, I have translated "lydskrift" simply to "transcription" and not "phonetic transcription" in the final stanza, as I feel the reference back to the longer form in the first stanza is clear, and that the longer form would be cumbersome rhythmically to use here.
The poem is originally from «Dissonans» ("Dissonance") from 1968, which can be viewed at the Norwegian National Library's site: «Nattfly over småby» is on page 18 of the original text (12-13 of the online text).
Last updated: 01:19 (GMT+2), 2nd November 2022