The seamen, by Kolbein Falkeid


The seamen

The seamen hang around the docks
and on the street corners.
They have broad faces
which wind and oil have made roads in.
Their fists are rough
as old ship's-timber.
They feel it's good to be home.
They paint their garden fences,
trim bushes. Are here
They have voices like iron and avalanching stone.
When they laugh, the church towers sway,
and their hats cast shadow over the street corners.
In this way they clasp the town to them
as if it were a child they have been absent from.
But given the choice
they wash backwards and forwards along the docks
like the driftwood up by Cape Chelyuskin.
But with loneliness, vast as the sea,
in the eyes.



Sjøfolkene henger rundt bryggene
og på gatehjørnene.
De har brede ansikter
som vind og olje har laget veier i.
Nevene deres er ru
som gammelt skipstømmer.
De synes det er fint å være hjemme.
De maler hagegjerdene sine,
klipper busker. Er her
De har røster som jern og steinskred.
Når de ler, svaier kirketårnene,
og hattene deres kaster skygge over gatehjørnene.
Slik klemmer de byen inntil seg
som om den var en unge de har savnet.
Men helst
vasker de frem og tilbake langs bryggene
lik rekveden oppe by Kapp Tjeljuschkin.
Men med ensomheter, veldige som havet,
i øynene.


  1. Whilst it would be possible to translate the compound noun "skipstønner" to, for example, "ship timber", I feel that "ship's-timber", as well as being closer to the original syntactically and tonally, gives the line a certain piquancy which works well here.

  2. The adjective "ru" could alternatively be translated to "rugged", but "rough" reflects the rhythm of the original better.

    Though slightly unusual (one would typically, in such a case, precede "rough" with a second "as"), I feel that the poem flows best with "as" rather than "like" at the beginning of the following line.

  3. How to translate "synes" is a little tricky here. The most usual translation would be to "think", but this feels a little anaemic to me here, whilst "reckon", say, feels on the other hand a little too informal.

    Norwegian has several variants on the verb "to think", but the equivalent ("å føle") of "to feel" is not one of them. But "å synes" is used specifically to express a personal opinion (etymologically, one might render it as "to look upon"), and thus can play something akin the role of "to feel" in English in the context of thought. For that reason, "feel" is possible here, and tonally seems to me to work well.

  4. The adjective "fint" would most obviously translate to "fine", but "good" seems to me to better capture the tone of the original here; "grand" would be another possible translation, but the more earthly and generic "good" seems to me more accurate poetically.

    In the same line, I have chosen the contracted "it's" over the more literal "that it's", as I feel that the weight of the line is then better.

  5. A more literal translation of "klipper" would be to "cut" or "clip", but "trim" seems most natural in English in this context.

  6. Literally, the compound noun "steinskredd" translates to "stone-avalanches", but I feel that this is too unnatural in English: translating compound nouns in Norwegian to a pair of nouns in English joined by a hyphen often works well, but I feel that the result is a little too awkward here. The same goes for "stone avalanches" without the hyphen.

    An alternative is "avalanches of stone", but this feels too verbose; I feel that the more energetic "avalanching stone" that I have chosen is preferable rhythmically and tonally.

  7. Since the plural is also possible and might perhaps be the most obvious choice syntactically, note that "skygge" ("shadow") is in the singular in the original Norwegian as well.

  8. The use of "slik", which in many contexts would translate to "such", here does not have an exact equivalent in English. There are several possible translations, for example to "like this", but I feel that "in this way" works best rhythmically.

  9. One could translate the verb "å klemme" from which "klemmer" derives in two somewhat different ways in English: to something akin "to hug", or to something akin "to press (to)" or "to squeeze".

    The translation to "to clasp" reflects, I feel, something of both senses semantically, and also contributes tonally to a faithful rendering of the original in sharing its first syllable with "klemmer"; it is for these reasons that I prefer it.

  10. Literally, the preposition "inntil" would translate to "in to", but, as is often the case with prepositions, this would at best be rather awkward in English. The simple "to" which I have chosen seems to me the most natural rendering.

  11. It would be possible to translate "unge" to "young one" or "youngster", which are phonetically and etymologically closer to the original, but these translations feel out of place tonally to me here; "child" seems much more preferable.

  12. The verb "å savne" would usually translate to "to miss", but the meaning of the latter which pertains to loss seems too dominant for "have missed" to feel right as the rendering of "har savnet" here; though a slightly loose translation, I have chosen "been absent from" instead to avoid the ambiguity.

  13. There is no exact equivalent in English to "helst", which is a superlative form of "gladly" or "rather". The most direct translation might be to "preferably", but this feels cumbersome, and too weak, here. Better are, for example, "if possible" or "if they can", but there are numerous possibilities in this looser vein.

    I prefer "given the choice" because it feels right rhythmically to me, at the same time as closely reflecting the original in being in passive voice, but possessing a certain energy, and having an implicit sense of will.

  14. The primary meaning of verb "å vaske" here is more or less identical to that of "to wash" in English; the much less common secondary meaning which is relevant here is equally uncommon in Norwegian, and thus the very direct translation of "vasker" to "wash" that I have chosen is in fact, despite the unusualness of the choice of adjective, rather direct!
  15. Their are various possible ways to translate "uslitelig", such as to "unflagging" or "tireless", but "indefatigable" is closest etymologically to the original, which literally would be something like "un-tired out-able", i.e. "not able to be tired out", and seems to me to work well for that reason here.

  16. In the original Norwegian, "ensomheter" is the plural form of "loneliness". This plural form is natural in Norwegian, and not at all uncommon, but in English is not really possible: "lonelinesses" feels awkward and contrived, whilst a more circumlocutory rendering would require an additional noun, the choice of which would I feel be too much of a departure from the original.

    I feel that the poetry of the original is still present in the simple and natural singular rendering in English, and thus I prefer it.

    In the same line, one could render "havet" either as "the sea" or "the ocean", but I feel that the earthier translation to "the sea" works better poetically here.


The poem is originally from «Dissonans» ("Dissonance") from 1968, which can be viewed at the Norwegian National Library's site: «Sjøfolkene» is on page 17 of the original text (10-11 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: «Sjøfolkene» is on page 29 of the original text (30-31 of the online text).

Translated between the 12th and 15th of November 2022, mainly on the 12th and 13th.

Last updated: 13:35 (GMT+1), 2nd January 2023