On the night sea it's far between ships.
Lanterns greet each other cold as stars —
The helmsman turns to starboard
Which ship went by?
On the night sea it's far between people.
Your words' searchlights cross mine.
In the outer reaches there's just vast space
and we wonder:
Which of us was that?
På natthavet er det langt mellom skip.
Lanterner hilser hverandre stjernekaldt —
Rormannen dreier til styrbord
Hvilket skip gikk forbi?
På natthavet er det langt mellom mennesker.
Dine ords søkelys krysser mine.
Ytterst er bare det veldige rom
og vi spør:
Hvilket menneske var det?
The noun "natthavet", which I've translated as "night sea", is a compound of "natt" ("night") and "hav" ("sea" or "ocean"); such constructions are often difficult to translate (cf. the discussion of "stjernekaldt" below), but fortunately "night sea" is a compound noun in English which is more or less identical to "natthav", and with which the same preposition can be used ("on" for "på").
One has to be very careful with translating "det er", or the inverted form "er det", constructions to English: the most direct translation would typically be to "it is" or "it's", but is often not quite right somehow. The ease and naturalness of speaking in the general which "det er" constructions allow is perhaps one reason that Norwegian lends itself well to philosophical lyricism, and the subtleties of this are not always easy to express in English.
For the two occurrences of "er det langt" in the poem, "it's far" does seem to me to work well rhythmically and tonally, allowing for the structure of the original line to be retained; there are a number of alternatives, such as "it's a long way", "there's distance", and "there are miles", but I prefer "it's far" for its closeness to the original, as well as for its poetic feel within the lines as a whole.
The noun "Lanterner", which I've translated as "Lanterns" for the obvious closeness in poetic feel, and which certainly can refer to a "lantern" in the usual sense in English, is also used in the more general sense of "navigation light" in modern Norwegian, whether on a ship or on the coast or a skerry.
The pronoun "hverandre", which I've translated as "each other" for syntactic closeness, could also be rendered "one another".
The adjective "stjernekaldt", which I've translated as "cold as stars", is a compound of "stjerne" ("star") and "kaldt" ("cold") which is impossible to replicate in English; "starcold" or "star-cold" would feel very forced, whereas the expression is completely natural in Norwegian. Thus I feel that, despite its greater verbosity, and despite changing from a metaphor to a simile, and from singular to plural, "cold as stars" better captures the poetic feel.
It is possible to interpret "stjernekaldt" in two ways: in the sense of "as coldly as stars", or in the sense of "being cold". Since "cold as stars" allows for both meanings, I prefer it to the former.
I have chosen "cold as stars" rather than "as cold as stars" to preserve the concision of the original as far as possible, and again because the interpretation of "being cold" is perhaps more equally prominent with the omission of the leading "as".
There is a third sense in Norwegian coming merely from an association of stars with cold, e.g. the cold of a clear winter night with star-filled sky, but this could only be captured in English without use of a compound with a phrase such as "cold under the stars", which is quite distant from the original.
The verb "dreier" could conceivably also be translated as "steers" here, but the primary meaning of "dreie" has a strong element of turning/rotating; since "turns", unlike "steers", also leaves ambiguous whether it is the helmsman or the boat which turns, which I feel is appropriate poetically here, I have elected to not divert from this primary sense.
Typically, "spør" would translate to "asks", but the poetic feel of the more contemplative "wonders/wonder" seems to me preferable on both of the occasions upon which "spør" is used in the poem, in the penultimate lines of the two stanzas.
Literally, "menneske" (resp. "mennesker") translates to "person" (resp. "people"), but it can be used more flexibly in Norwegian. In particular, the final line of the poem would literally translate to "Which person...", which is not really possible in English.
Thus, whilst I have translated to "people" at the start of the second stanza, I have given a looser rendering of the final line. One possibility would be simply "Who was that?", but this feels a little too blunt, especially as this would typically be expressed in Norwegian using a different phrase ("Hvem var det?"). A further alternative would be "Who among us was that?", but "Which of us was that?" is quite close to the original syntactically, and has a touch of universality in its tone which is also present in the original.
The somewhat unusual use of the double plural in the line "Your words'" is equally present in the original Norwegian; I feel that it works very well poetically.
The use of "Ytterst" in the poem is very tricky. Literally, it would translate to "outmost" or "outermost", but "ytterst" is a much more common word in Norwegian, and can be used in a number of subtly different ways. What is intended in the poem is ambiguous, but I feel that translating to "in the outer reaches" best allows for an interpretation both in terms of the 'outer layers' of a person, and in terms of the outdoors, this dual possibility being present, I feel, in the original.
In the same line, "det veldige rom" is in the definite, though, as is not uncommon in literary Norwegian, "rom" has been written in the indefinite. The definite form in Norwegian is rather flexible, and it is quite often the case that the indefinite serves better in English, especially in poetry; I feel that the indefinite ("vast space") is indeed what is natural in English here.
Just as in English, "rom" ("space") also has a connotation of "outer space", especially because of the use of "ytterst" (one way to refer to "outer space" in Norwegian is "det ytre rom", "ytre" being the root of "ytterst") and given the earlier reference to stars. I suspect this connotation is intended, or at least is poetically relevant.
The word "veldige" could be translated in a number of different ways, but "vast" seems closest to the original in tone and feel.
Also pertaining to this line, "er bare", which I've translated as "there's just", would more literally be "is just", but this feels slightly incorrect to me: cf. the discussion of translation of "det er"/"er det" above.
The poem is originally from the collection «VI» (the Roman numerals "VI", though it may not be irrelevant that "vi" also means "we" in Norwegian) from 1966, an early work of Falkeid's, which can be viewed at the Norwegian National Library's site: «På natthavet» is on page 7 of the original text (8-9 of 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: «På natthavet» is on page 22 of the original text (24-25 of the online text).
In the early 2000s, a recitation of the poem was recorded by Falkeid, intertwined with music. He also recites the poem at the beginning of a little film made to mark his death in 2021.
Last updated: 12:31 (GMT+1), 11th January 2023