Éilis Mathur (Queen’s, German and Linguistics) interviews Winner in the 16-and-under category of the 2022 Stephen Spender Prize, Trystan Willis, for his translation from the Norwegian, The Substance of our Souls, of Sjelmesse by Steiner Opstad.
Submissions to this year’s Stephen Spender Prize are open from 12 May to 14 July.

How did you decide on a poem to translate?

When I was looking for a good poem to translate, the way this poem melded both gritty and heart-warming realism with some really profound reflections on life and death stuck out to me more than any other poem I read, so I thought it would be good to translate it.

What were your favourite and least favourite parts of translating the poem?

I’m going to the word “oblat” for this question. I really had no idea what it meant at first, and all the online dictionaries seemed to have different ideas of what it meant (apparently it could also mean “coin” or “oblate”). I had to really look closely at the context clues (the speaker finds it outside a church and eats it, so it probably isn’t a coin) to understand what it meant but once I did, the word opened up this wholly new dimension of the poem, which I hadn’t even noticed before – that of religion.

How did you tackle deciding where to split and space lines in your translation?

Norwegian uses quite a few compound nouns that often don’t have direct translations into English; if you want an example, just look at the original poem’s title. Because of this, I split quite a few of the poem’s lines off into new lines, which thankfully still felt authentic due to the fact that the poem already had a free verse structure and spaced certain lines with indents. Most of the lines I split off were indented to try and give the sense of them still being connected to the lines before them and I tried to split them at points that emphasised things I thought were points of emphasis in the original.

The poem deals with dark themes in a subtle manner and with a specific tone. How did you find presenting these ideas and maintaining the overall feel of the poem?

I think one of the most important features of this poem in terms of its tone was its sense of narrative perspective that gave it a feeling of being a bystander or distant onlooker. That priority strongly influenced my choice of verbs, for example, in the translation. Apart from that, the quite direct tone of the language translated quite well, and I think in English it’s even more emphatic, which fits with the general spirit of directness and honesty in the poem.

How did you find balancing a truthful translation and maintaining a poetic flow? Where there any decisions where you had to choose between them?

Norwegian is a very rhythmic language and the way it’s spoken means that words often meld together in a way which can create a beautiful poetic effect, as it does in this poem. It was definitely a challenge to recreate the soft and meditative flow that the original has. In general, I tried to prioritise the meaning of the poem; I wanted to be sure to get across, as much as possible, the philosophical message the poem had.

Translation allows you to gain the closest possible reading of a text; did you find this when translating the poem and did your insight of the poem change?

When I read the poem for the first time, my understanding of its meaning was quite patchy. There were a few words I didn’t understand so I missed those parts of the meaning at first, only to gain them after looking up the words in close detail. The example that sticks in my mind the most is the entire religious aspect of the poem that I didn’t get at first, all because of a single word I didn’t know: “oblat” (in this case, “communion wafer”).

What, in your opinion, is the main reason why translation matters?

Frankly, if we didn’t have translation, then reading would be much more boring. The number of books and poems available originally in English is big, sure, but there are so many more great works of literature, like this poem, that would be inaccessible if it weren’t for translation. That’s what’s most important, in my opinion: making the world’s literature accessible.

Did translating a poem from Norwegian give you a better understanding of the Norwegian language or culture?

First of all, the practice of close reading and meticulously translating this poem definitely improved my skill in Norwegian. I’m not a native speaker of Norwegian, so there were still certain nuances in the language that I hadn’t noticed yet when I started translating the poem, but realised by the time I finished. In terms of culture, I feel like the images evoked in the poem really transported me to a rainy-day scene in a small Norwegian town, and I think translating the poem brought me even closer to that scene.

Do you think translation will remain an important part of your life?

Absolutely. Modern languages are a huge part of my life, and I’m planning on continuing learning and interacting with languages, including Norwegian, at and beyond university, so I look forward to future opportunities to translate even more.

Do you have any advice for other translators that you learnt during the experience?

This translation wasn’t the first time I translated a poem, but it was the time when I relied least on online dictionaries, which was a big improvement. I think overreliance on online resources can really damage the creative interpretation of translation, and I found even while translating this poem that I was often better off working from contextual clues than relying on dictionaries to help.