The Person and the Personal

A person stoops to tie his shoes. Only his arms and legs are visible.
photo: sweet ice cream photography/unsplash

Who is Aleksandur Kristiansen?

The question was simple on the face of it. My co-translator had sent me a biopic note explaining that he was a Faroese poet a generation older than Jóanes Nielsen.

We were working on Nielsen’s “I Brushed the Dust off an Intoxicated Poet,” in which wiping “the dance-floor dust” off a drunken Kristiansen’s jacket serves as a sort of laying on of hands for Nielsen when he is a fledgling young poet. It’s an intensely personal poem.

For me, translating is about entering into the poem and inhabiting its space. It wasn’t enough to know the facts. I wanted the feeling, but without a connection to or experience with Aleksandur Kristiansen, my translation felt wooden.

Nielsen and I gave a bilingual poetry reading at Sirkus Føroyar that August. I had rough translations finished of all the poems in his book Brúgvar av Svongum Orðum (Bridges of ravenous words). He chose exclusively biographical poems about Faroese people—an obscure fisherman named Hugo, teacher and poet Rói Patursson, novelist William Heinesen (who turned down a Nobel Prize nomination), pioneering modernist poet Jens Hendrik Djurhuus, and Aleksandur Kristiansen.

Reading a translation is like taking a walk in new shoes. You know right away if it doesn’t feel right. Most of the translations felt good, but the Kristiansen poem didn’t yet. I made a note to tackle it next week.

It was drizzling on the streets of Tórshavn the next morning on my way to church. I walked in just as the singing started and opened my pew-back psalter to the first number on the hymn board. It was by Aleksandur Kristiansen.

Voices rose in unison. A sliver of sun broke through the clouds shining through the high windows of Vesturkirkjan. I joined in, wrapping my mouth around the difficult Faroese vowels. And there it was, the sense of him, a poet who could fall off a stage dead-drunk and a man who could write a fervent hymn of praise. I hurried home after service and drafted a translation.

Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His translations of Jóanes Nielsen have appeared in Image Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Michigan Quarterly Review.