Translating Mellom bakkar og berg
A song of celebration
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
How do you translate a song? How do you convey the meaning, follow the song’s meter, and retain the beauty of the language? When a poem is carefully crafted, it is, after all, not just about the words; it’s about the feelings the rhythms and sounds evoke, poetic devices that create a work of art.
For this reason, many singers have chosen to stick to songs’ original languages. One need only think of the songs of Edvard Grieg. While it was one of Grieg’s greatest desires to hear his works performed abroad in other languages, few were up to the task of translating the lyrics of Ibsen, H.C. Andersen, Vinje, and Garborg, to name a few. Much of his song repertory remained in Norway for this reason, and even with better translations now available, many singers choose to stick with the original Norwegian texts, providing their audience with printed translations.
When it comes to the words of one of Norway’s most famous national poets and the father of nynorsk, Ivar Aasen (1813-1896), the translation challenge is magnified to the near impossible. Nonetheless, I took a stab at this for the new Songbook for Daughters of Norway Lodge (2018), translating the song “Mellom bakkar og berg,” in which Ivar Aasen’s text is set to a traditional folk melody.
“Mellom bakkar og berg” is also know as “Nordmannen” (The Norwegian) and is one of the most famous Norwegian songs, the unofficial hymn of western Norway. Written in 1863 for a collection of poems called Symra, it expresses the Norwegian’s love for the landscape that is his home: beautiful, yet austere and harsh. It is widely sung in Norway and frequently sung on the 17th of May. This song was so well known that the first two stanzas were engraved on all Norwegian license plates between the years 1998 of 2007.
So how in the world can you do a song like this justice? Maybe it isn’t possible, but my colleague Beth Kollé and I wanted Norwegian Americans to be able to directly experience the meaning and beauty of this national poem. I worked on the lyrics, and Beth created the musical arrangement. We worked closely together, for the two tasks are intertwined.
Right away, the title of the song, “Mellom bakkar og berg” presented a problem with its alliteration of “bakkar” and “berg.” The poetic device is critical to the movement of the poem, but “hills” and “mountains” are not alliterative. Mountains thus became highlands, by definitions areas of high or mountainous land. “Highlands” was also a somewhat older, folksy-sounding word. The alliteration was retained and a memorable phrase like those found in folk songs created. It worked, and with time the rest of the song fell into place.
More time was spent to retain rhymes and alliterations that create an atmosphere. While the beauty of Aasen’s original nynorsk cannot be matched, I hope you will read and sing this new translation, forgetting that it is a translation. On this Syttende Mai, may it fill you with the love that Norwegians everywhere have for their beautiful, beloved homeland.
Between highlands and hills by the ocean
the Norwegian has found his true home.
He himself has laid the foundation,
Built upon it a house of his own.
He looked out on the empty land, lonely,
on the strand filled with hard craggy stone.
‘Let us clear out this place and start building.
Then this land will become our own home.’
In the winter his thoughts often wandered:
‘Oh, to travel afar to warm lands!’
But in spring shone the sun on the hillside,
and his thoughts turned to home by the strand.
And when meadows like gardens are blooming,
filled with flowers on fields once so drear’,
and the nights are as light as the daytime,
there is no place that he holds so dear.
To learn more about the Daughters of Norway songbook, visit www.norwegianamerican.com/arts/working-for-a-songbook. To learn more about Nynorsk, visit www.norwegianamerican.com/norsk/a-writers-view-of-nynorsk.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.