FIVE TRANSLATIONS FROM
THE LITERATURE OF TREES
By Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson)
Translated by Victoria Cribb
Text and poetry by Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson)
Published in Teikn exhibition catalogue, 2019.
Published by Reykjanes Art Museum.
POEM, 2018-2019. DETAIL FROM TEIKN, 2019
When I accepted the invitation to decipher Guðjón Ketilsson’s tree pictures, I had no idea how difficult this would turn out to be in practice. On the contrary, I felt sure of my qualifications for the job, having been immediately struck by the works’ resemblance to the type of human creativity known as poetry: rows of longer or shorter words, laid out in lines of varying lengths, coming together to form individual stanzas of varying size, themselves often grouped with other stanzas of varying number. And since I have spent the last forty years engaging with poems as a reader, poet and translator, I embarked on the exercise full of a misplaced confidence.
The first aspect I had to stop and consider was how much effort had already been put into teasing out the meaning of the works before I got to see them. The artist’s choice of twigs, his decisions about which way round to place them, how to combine them, how many to include on each line and in the artwork as a whole, the colour he painted them – all these factors channelled the interpretation in a particular direction, which inevitably set limits for me. But since Guðjón has had a longer, more intimate relationship with wood than almost any of our contemporaries, I concluded that I should trust implicitly in his preparatory work with his materials.
Another aspect that gave me pause was the way the mounting of the twigs on a white background precluded a fully three-dimensional view of the ‘words’ – which, on closer inspection, could be individual letters or whole sentences, paragraphs or even chapters, hieroglyphs or a form of sign language – but this was compensated for by the shadows they cast, which I chose to see as enhancing or emphasising the meaning. I wonder, though, if a text of this kind can ever be fully understood (one can but dream) except by running one’s fingers over it.
My original optimism might have been due to the blueness of the ‘words’, evoking, as it did, the blue ink of the fountain pen I wrote with as a child at school. The memory was curiously soothing, though my relationship with the pen was sometimes fraught – I can’t think of it now without the tip of my index finger and the edge of my hand turning blue in sympathy – and I looked forward to whiling away a pleasant December afternoon on a satisfyingly challenging yet leisurely dialogue with the five ‘poems’ the artist had chosen for me from his collection.
For the translations themselves, there was little help available: no dictionaries, in Icelandic or any other language – a problem faced by every pioneer – and without the inspiration provided by Dr Alexander Jóhannesson’s etymology or Professor Finnur Magnússon’s work on the rune-like inscriptions at Runamo, I would probably have given up in despair. In the end, the ‘poems’ proved to be a far more complex and varied ‘literature’ than I had anticipated, and the task of translation became ever more arduous as my knowledge of the language improved. This quality, at least, it shared with other types of writing.
I suppose I had been expecting something lyrical, like the nature poetry of the Japanese school, something limpid and grateful. But there I underestimated the trees – and their intimate friend, Guðjón Ketilsson.
go on! swim
swim sisters – swim along the shore
along the shore!
go back! go back unconquered
go on! swim – go back / to you
head divided from trunk
the dead come to no one’s aid
a trunk halved, a rooted horizon, a child
where once we lived little grows out of much, our children sleep in the soil
an unexpected guest appears, puts down roots
a westerly wind, layers of earth stripped bare, days of hardship
trunk seeks new head
Read from the bottom, from right to left. Together the ‘letters’
form a noun in the feminine singular: ‘mechanical bride’.
life – an ice-sheet
weeping and splitting
orchards – clouds
from sea to sky
follow me up above the clouds
the sun burns in the depths