On the night sea, by Kolbein Falkeid

Translation

On the night sea

On the night sea it is far between ships.
Lanterns greet each other cold as stars —
The helmsman turns to starboard
and asks:
Which ship went by?

On the night sea it is far between people.
Your words' searchlights cross mine.
Outmost there's just the vastness of space
and we ask:
Which person was that?

Original

På natthavet

På natthavet er det langt mellom skip.
Lanterner hilser hverandre stjernekaldt —
Rormannen dreier til styrbord
og spør:
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?

Notes

  1. The line "Ytterst..." is difficult to translate well. Whilst "Outmost" is an accurate translation of the word "Ytterst" ("Outermost" could also be used, but "Outmost" is closer to the original syntactically), "Ytterst" is a much more common word in Norwegian. In addition to having two meanings which are reflected in "outmost" (on the one hand of being "furthest away", and on the other of being "on the very outside" of something), "ytterst" also can be used in the same way as "uttermost" ("uttermost need", for example), as well as in the same way as "finally" or "ultimately", though this is more literary.

    Trickiest is the phrase "det veldige rom", which is a somewhat unusual construction, clearly carefully chosen, and which I've translated as "the vastness of space". It is in definite form in Norwegian, though, as is not uncommon in Norwegian poetry, "rom" has been written in the indefinite; it is difficult to capture this in English. To translate "det veldige rom" just as "vast space" would be a more literal rendering, apart from being in indefinite form. Nevertheless, "the vastness of space" is more or less identical in rhythm to the original, and though quite a loose translation, captures the poetic sense better, I feel.

    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; if would be mostly lost in translating to "vast space" or "vastness of space" (with the definite article omitted).

    The word "veldige" could be translated in a number of different ways, but "vast" seems closest to the original in its phonetic feel; the fact that it is much shorter syllabically is repaired rhythmically by use of "the vastness of".

    Finally, "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" below.

  2. The word "natthavet", which I've translated as "night sea", is a compound of "natt" ("night") and "hav" ("sea" or "ocean"); such compounds are often difficult to translate (cf. the discussion of "stjernekaldt" below), but fortunately "night sea" is a compound noun in English more or less identical to "natthav" with which the same preposition can be used ("on" for "på"). It wouldn't work so well if one translated "hav" instead to "ocean"; the looser rendering "In the ocean's night", with its different preposition, would in that case be, I feel, closer to the poetic sense.

  3. One has to be very careful with translating "det er", here in the inverted form "er det", constructions to English, as often a direct translation to "it is" or "it's" is 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 easy to express in English. However, in the case of the two occurrences of "er det langt" here, I feel that "it is far" can naturally be used in English in both instances, and I have thus retained the most direct translation. I have chosen "it is far" rather than "it's far" or "it is a long way/it's a long way" to reflect the rhythm of the original.

  4. The word "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.

  5. 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.

  6. The word "hverandre", which I've translated as "each other" for syntactic closeness, could also be rendered "one another".

  7. The word "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.

  8. I really like the line "Your words'..."; the somewhat unusual use of the double plural here is equally present in the original Norwegian.

  9. "Hvilket menneske", which I've translated as "Which person", also has some of the sense of "What kind of person", and this translation would syllabically be closer to the Norwegian, but I feel that enough of this sense is retained in English with "Which person" that this more literal translation is preferable, all the more because it allows the repetition of the leading pronoun from the "Which ship..." line that is also present in the original ("Which kind of person" rather than "What kind of person" feels rather clumsy). Use of "Who was that?", say, as the translation of the final line would definitely be wrong, I feel, as the same possibility exists in Norwegian ("Hvem var det?"); the formulation "Hvilket menneske...", with its greater poetry, was clearly very deliberate.

    The use of "person" in the final line also allows for the repetition of it from the first line of the second verse to be preserved from the original, which is an important structural element, paralleling the use of "ship" in the first and last lines of the first verse.

  10. Overall, with regard to form, not so much has been lost in translation, I think: though of course there is some internal rhyme, the original has no formal rhyme scheme, and the rhythm of the translation is for the most part quite close to that of the original.

Sources

The poem is originally from the collection «VI» 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», 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.

Translated on the 16th of May 2022.

Last updated: 10:29 (GMT+2), 19th May 2022