Translated and introduced by Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2012:1 issue.
Stig Dagerman is best known as a prose writer, but by the time he died tragically at the early age of 31 (he committed suicide) he had also displayed great potential as a dramatist and poet. An aspect of his work much admired by specialists but not so well-known to the general reader is the satirical verses he wrote almost daily for the Syndicalist newspaper Arbetaren (The Worker) during the years 1944-47 and 1950-54 – about 1,350 in all. They were known as Dagermans dagsedlar (A dagsedel meant originally a daily report on work done, but in popular usage now means ‘a box on the ear’). Occasionally there was a genuine lyric poem, but usually Dagerman would pick on a news item that he found scandalous or disgraceful in some way, reproduce a summary of it in small print at the top of the poem, and then write – prodigiously quickly but astonishingly skilfully and effectively – verses ridiculing or otherwise attacking the person(s) or circumstance(s) behind it: one might call it a literary version of the cartoons that often grace our newspapers nowadays. Dagerman’s politics were socialist, but above all he believed in the freedom of the individual and rejected the regimented programme of Communism, and even Social Democracy.
For obvious reasons, some of the ‘daily verses’ are too specific to be widely understood nowadays, sixty years or so after they were written; but surprisingly many of them strike home because of the universal significance of the anger directed at stupidity, cruelty, bureaucracy and hypocrisy. A key reason is the sheer brilliance of the versification: sometimes this evokes an atmosphere of melancholy but with undertones of hope and positive aspirations (as in ‘One Day a Year’); but in the satirical comments on a contemporary happening, the reader is carried away by not only the words, but also the compelling rhythm and the rhyme scheme which combine to give the impression of a boxer landing one rapid blow after another on a punchbag.
I have always had a desire to translate Dagerman’s dagsedlar, but a collection in English is unlikely to be taken up by a commercial publisher. Anyone attempting to translate Dagerman’s ‘boxes on the ear’ is clearly on a hiding to nothing: but to do so is fun. The poems have no pretensions to be ‘serious literature’ of the kind that might be considered by the Nobel Prize adjudicators: they are designed to have an immediate and striking effect on readers at the breakfast table. It can be argued that when translating, strict adherence to vocabulary and imagery is unnecessary: more relevant is to recreate similar references and images that produce similar reactions in – in this case – English-language readers. Obviously, the translator should try to stay as close to the original as possible: but the equivalents of words that rhyme in one language are unlikely to rhyme in another, and a translator can argue that taking liberties is justified provided that the finished product is in sympathy with the original, and that the rhythm and rhyme scheme are similar. Whether or not the attempt has been successful will depend on whether (a) readers unable to read the original Swedish find the English poem satisfactory, and react in a fashion similar to that of the Swedish readers of Arbetaren over their breakfast; and (b) whether readers who also know Swedish find the finished product sufficiently close to the original, albeit inevitably inferior.
The earliest of the three poems translated here, ‘A Swedish Problem’, was written shortly before Christmas, 1944, with World War II at a critical stage. Soldiers were dying in agony, parts of the world were full of rotting corpses – but in neutral Sweden, all some people could think of was whether they would be able to enjoy their Christmas meals as usual. I have taken liberties with the imagery, but tried to retain the spirit of Dagerman’s satire while replacing references to traditional Swedish Christmas dishes with things an English reader will recognise.
‘The Big Match’ is a reference to the post-war nuclear arms race: in October 1952 the UK had exploded an atomic bomb on an island off the west coast of Australia: the Americans would soon produce a bigger and better explosion, and everyone knew that before long the Russians would be exploding an experimental bomb of their own. Ironically, Dagerman portrays the race as a series of football matches: after the latest bomb, England is at the top of the league table. I hope I have reproduced the intentions of the original reasonably faithfully, but I found I had to replace some references and images in order to retain the rhyme scheme and rhythm (e.g. I failed to find a satisfactory way of incorporating the ambulances waiting outside the stadium to whisk away the injured and dying, replacing them with paramedics – the stress pattern of ‘ambulances’ is awkward). As a sort of apology to Dagerman, I rhymed all odd lines and all even lines: he only rhymed the even lines. (And hence laid myself open to accusations of trying to ‘improve’ the original...).
‘One Day a Year’ has become one of Dagerman’s best-known dagsverser because it has been adopted by The Stig Dagerman Society as the keynote for their annual Stig Dagerman prize to any writer (in any language) or institution (e.g. libraries) adjudged to have made the most significant literary contribution to bringing about a better world in accordance with the ideals that Dagerman stood for. There is no reference here to a current news item: this is Stig making a heartfelt appeal for an end to war, violence and disdain for human life. The same kind of strategies and reservations apply to the translation of this poem as to the others: but the implications and importance of the message make the inadequacies of the English version all the harder to bear. But all one can do is one’s best.
A SWEDISH PROBLEM
In the peaceful oasis that is Sweden, our main cause for concern is our Christmas dinner. Rumours of a strike by dairy workers are also worrying.
rot away in the mud.
(At home we think:
‘Where’s our Christmas pud?’)
in a hostile sea.
(Where’s the milk
for my cup of tea?)
A spitfire stutters,
a Bren gun clatters.
(Our Christmas dinner
is all that matters.)
For the wounded, death
is a sweet release.
(All we ask
is to eat in peace.)
I den frediga oasen Sverige är det allt överskuggande problemet frågan om julskinkan och julkorven. Rykterna om en eventuell mjölkstrejk verkar också alarmerande.
och gamar slår,
får vi i år)
och salvan smäller.
till kaffet heller.)
i gräs och torv.
om vi får korv.)
till blods på jorden.
(Respekt vi kräver
THE BIG MATCH
After the latest round England is top of the nuclear league.
The match gets more melodramatic,
we’re all on the edge of our seats.
Reactions get more problematic
as a team first attacks, then retreats.
The Yankees were leading for ages,
but then England scored a great goal.
The pitch is on fire, chaos rages
and the ref’s disappeared down a hole.
The teams are most entertaining,
but whispers are going the rounds:
the Russians are said to be training
in secret, somewhere out of bounds.
In the streets outside the location
paramedics are standing around
with stretchers and strong medication
as the fans stagger out of the ground.
DEN STORA MATCHEN
Efter senaste omgången leder England atomkampen.
Matchen är spännande värre.
Vi är många, vi som ser på.
Vi sitter på läktarn och huttrar
och undrar hur det ska gå.
Jänkarna ledde rätt länge
men nyss gjorde England ett mål,
och planen försvann i en röksky
och domarn försvann i ett hål.
Lagen är verkligen goda.
Dock visar man lite till mans,
att Ryssland ligger i träning
på en idrottsplats någonstans.
Men utanför stadions murar
hör vi ambulansernas tjut.
Det sägs de ska hämta publiken
en gång när matchen är slut.
ONE DAY A YEAR
One day a year let’s all pretend
that death is tucked up, fast asleep.
That no lives meet a tragic end,
no dreams are shattered on the cheap.
The world’s at peace, there are no wars,
we hug our friend, our former foe.
No beggars die outside locked doors,
all cells are empty on death row.
Nobody’s stabbed, nobody’s shot,
no car runs over someone’s friend.
This can’t be true! – Well, maybe not.
All I’m saying is: let’s pretend.
EN DAG OM ÅRET
En dag om året borde alla låtsas,
att döden vilar i ett vit schatull.
Inga stora illusioner krossas,
och ingen skjuts för fyra dollars skull.
Världskatastrofen sover lugnt och stilla
emellan lakan på ett snyggt hotell.
Inget rep gör någon broder illa,
och ingen syster slumrar vid ett slutet spjäll.
Inga män blir plötsligt sönderbrända
och ingen dör på gatorna just då.
Visst är det lögn, det kan väl hända.
Jag bara säger: Vi kan låtsas så.
About the translator:
After four years living in Umeå, Laurie Thompson taught Swedish at the University of Wales from 1967 to 2000, first at Aberystwyth and then at Lampeter. In his ‘retirement’ he has become one of the country’s most sought-after translators from Swedish; he has translated some fifty books, including fifteen of Henning Mankell’s novels. He was editor of Swedish Book Review from 1983 to 2003.