“On the 27th June 1682, was born King Charles the Twelfth, a Man the most extraordinary, perhaps that ever appear’d in the World.” With these words in 1732, from the first English translation of Voltaire’s vividly readable Histoire de Charles XII, the legend of the adamantine warrior received an indelible imprint. The French original was first published in 1731, and remains one of the most frequently re-issued and re-translated works in literary history. Rigorously nurtured in the Protestant religious ethic by devoted parents, Charles placed his deceased father’s crown on his own head, at the age of fifteen. Three years later, in 1700, Sweden’s then extensive Baltic and North German territories were opportunistically attacked by a coalition of three kings ruling four countries, Russia, Poland, Saxony and Denmark. Charles spent the remaining eighteen years of his life at war, leading the resistance to this onslaught in person. The first nine of these eighteen years were attended by unparalleled success, followed by nine years of virtually unremitting defeat. By 1721 a diminished Sweden was left to lick her wounds in peace. Charles had been killed in 1718, murdered, according to the latest investigations, by a ball fired from close range, encased in the brass or silver metal of one of his own coat-buttons.
Voltaire set the mould for an enduring legend, but the panegyrists were engaged from the moment of Charles’s shattering first victory over the Russians at Narva on the Baltic coast in the early months of the war, the news of which spread rapidly throughout Europe. In 1951 Olov Westerlund published his doctoral dissertation at the University of Lund, Karl XII i Svensk Litteratur, a 350 page study in the ways of poetic iconography from Dahlstierna (1661-1709) to Tegnér (1782-1846). This analysis of myth-making could rank with The Road to Xanadu by J.L.Lowes, and it demonstrates that almost every line of Tegnér’s poem on Charles XII has its origin in the effusions of the preceding hundred years.
Tegnér’s centenary verses were a milestone in the long process of debate on the character and historical significance of Charles and his Great Northern War, in which the human individual has now almost vanished under successive layers of hagiography and censure. Westerlund reveals that one of the king’s most virulent critics in the mid-18th century was a man at least as extraordinary as himself, Emanuel Swedenborg. Attitudes to Charles XII within Sweden, which hardened against him as his star began to fall, have always been subject to swings of hero-worship and denigration. It has proved almost impossible for Swedes to reach a consensus in weighing reverence for their boy David, against the fact that his obsessive pursuit of his hydra-headed Goliath merely led to the collapse of their 17th century European status. A well-judged biography by Bengt Liljegren, published in 2000, may finally have achieved the desirable balance of passion and objectivity.
In a trenchant article in Tidningen Boken, 1998, a Swedish historian and novelist, K. Arne Blom, expressed his concern with the devaluation of Sweden’s historical and literary heritage. In his view a major victim of this revisionism is Esaias Tegnér, who can fairly be described as his country’s first international best-selling author. Within 15 years of its appearance in 1825 his principal work, Fritiofs Saga, had been translated, partially or completely, twenty times, and the present reckoning is reputed to be once at least into every European language, as well as twenty-two times into English, and twenty times into German. The basic theme of this verse epic is the continuity of human values underlying the transition, during the Viking age of Scandinavia, from paganism to Christianity. Tegnér ended his life as a bishop, albeit of an unorthodox sort. Apart from his poetry, his work centred mainly on education and pan-Scandinavian cultural enfranchisement.
Until about the mid-1960s Tegnér’s summation of the memory of Charles XII would have been known to every Swedish schoolchild. Although anthologies of pre-modernist Swedish poetry occasionally appear in English, one of the latest being The North! To the North!, by Judith Moffett, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2001, the only known previous attempt to translate Tegnér’s extremely familiar lines has been by J.E.D.Bethune, in his Specimens of Swedish and German Poetry, 1848.
Few translators of formal, rhymed, metric, 18th and 19th century verse seem able to resist expressing their contempt for the efforts of their predecessors, and Bethune is no exception. Disingenuously admitting that “I have not myself attempted a version of Frithiof”, he rides into an attack on those that have, with “I am ready to allow that all the previous English translations of Frithiof are indeed very bad”, and singles out that of George Stephens, 1839, as the worst of the lot. It is true that Stephens, a pioneering runologist who spent most of his life in Denmark, appears to have no ear whatsoever for the rhythms of English verse. A much later translator, C.D.Locock, 1924, agrees that Stephens’s “versification can only be described as ludicrous”, but concedes that as regards the first essential prerequisite, “The reproduction ….. of the author’s meaning”, it is “almost too unimpeachable”. In Stephens we perhaps have a significant forerunner, in the advocacy of literal translation, to no less a practitioner than Vladimir Nabokov.
The fact is that a poet, whatever s/he writes and whether in a style of the strictest traditional formality or the most outré avant-garde, is expressing his/her love-affair with his/her mother-tongue. For any poet older than about fourteen there can be no fully acceptable surrogate in this relationship. How then is the well-meaning translator to tackle his/her self-imposed and thankless task? Another of Tegnér’s translators, Clement B.Shaw, in 1908, set out a number of rules, of which the following are only a sample: “A translation should produce the effect of the original. But this identity of emotional effect is by no means always to be secured by literal rendering ….. Moreover, the translator must translate — must faithfully reproduce the matter of the original, — no more, no less ..… One must not depart from his course for a rhyme too good to be lost; must not employ ‘mountains’ to rhyme with ‘fountains’, when the original does not allude to mountains.” Shaw’s native origins are plainly evident from this excerpt. He, too, can only disparage his predecessors: “no European English paraphrase of Frithiof’s Saga preserves the Tegnerian measures with enough felicity even to evince literary courtesy to the great poet. Yet each translator claims to have done this very thing”. However, he reserves “very high indorsement (sic)” for two American translations, “the works of Mr and Mrs Holcomb, and of Professor Sherman. No consideration of nationality prompts the opinion that these two translations have not been equaled (sic) in England.”
Devotees of Nabokov’s masterpiece, Pale Fire, may surprise themselves with a start of recognition at Shaw’s instancing the rhyme of “fountains” with “mountains”, and might wonder if the well-read polyglot was also familiar with the numerous English paraphrases of Fritiofs Saga. Yet another of its British translators, in 1872, was Captain H.Spalding, of the 104th Fusiliers — a gentleman too upright to belittle his rivals. By 1881, when he translated Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, he had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and he is jocularly referred to in Nabokov’s own impeccably non-paraphrastic 825-page conundrum as “bluff Spalding”, or “matter-of-fact Lt.Col. Spalding”. Nabokov’s dissection and “literal” translation of Eugene Onegin in 1964 produces an effect on the English reader at least as ludicrous as Stephens’s Frithiof’s Saga. My suspicion is that the roguish genius was consciously constructing a monumental academic joke at the expense of lickspittle scholarship. Pale Fire is the obverse of this performance: a comic novel which is deeply serious, and the prankster’s shade may now somewhere be chuckling at the Kinbotes he has spawned.
In the foreword to his three volumes devoted to Eugene Onegin Nabokov asserts “To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible. But in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom ….. Should one then content oneself with an exact rendering of the subject matter and forget all about form? Or should one still excuse an imitation of the poem’s structure to which only twisted bits of sense stick here and there, by convincing oneself and one’s public that in mutilating its meaning for the sake of a pleasure-measure rhyme one has the opportunity of prettifying or skipping the dry and difficult passages?” ….. “A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poeticization, and it is when the translator sets out to render the ‘spirit’, and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author.”
To coagulate a poem’s spirit, sense, metre, verbal tropes, rhymes and meaning, into a language other than its original, would be a supernatural achievement. Mortals are left to compromise. While agreeing that “in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom”, I can only dissent from Nabokov’s opinion that the translator who sets out to render the spirit of the text “begins to traduce his author”. What other objective should s/he have, which could not otherwise be accomplished by handing the would-be reader several dictionaries, a selection of grammars, the rest of the literature in the source language, and locking her/him up for a year or ten? Clement B.Shaw, in my view, is correct to say that “a translation should reproduce the effect of the original”. Spirit is certainly communicable, and its inter-cultural transfer has been the aim of translation since poetry first began — the only issue is the translator’s ability to prioritise from those factors that are irreconcilable. In the end it is a matter of taste and judgement and, pace Nabokov, the verdict of the consumer.
The modern reader might wonder that a military man, at the apogee of Queen Victoria’s Empire, addressed himself to translating verse masterpieces from Swedish and Russian, and be curious about what he was doing between 1872 and 1881. It is recorded that on 22nd January, 1879, a Brevet Major Henry Spalding, of the 104th Regiment, rode out of a tiny British supply depot in Southern Africa, leaving a Lieutenant J.R.M.Chard in command, with the memorable words “You will be in charge, although, of course, nothing will happen. I will be back by evening.” The defence of Rorke’s Drift during the following 24 hours is one of the most astonishing actions in the annals of military history, unmatched since the Battle of Narva. I must try to emulate the disciplined restraint of “bluff Spalding” by limiting myself to remarking that J.E.D.Bethune seems to have been mesmerized by his overwhelming compulsion to reproduce Tegnér’s rhyme-scheme.