The short summer night – a translation

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Here in the north at this time of the year, the days grow longer and longer. Four months ago, at the beginning of February it was still twilight at 7 o’clock in the morning. Even then we were talking about how the days were noticeably longer. And they were. But now in June, with just a week or two left till the solstice, it’s already full daylight at 4 in the morning, and the sun doesn’t before 11 p.m.

The short summer night is a real thing and has all sorts of consequences. Encouraging people to stay up all the night long is one.

Norwegian interruption

We were on our early morning walk the other day when Mrs SC suddenly stopped in her tracks and said something to me in Norwegian. (She does this from time to time. Not specifically Norwegian. Different languages.) From the cadence I guessed it was poetry.

Norwegian – the Norwegian called Bokmål – isn’t so difficult to understand if you can understand Swedish. So I got her to repeat the line and guessed at: We shouldn’t sleep through the short summer night for it is too light for that.

She was trying to remember the rest of the poem, or rather lyric. A little later she sang me a verse. It turned out to be a song she learned when she was younger.

Translation challenge

When we got home, she gave me a link to the full poem on line. It turned out to be Vi skal ikkje sove bort sumarnatta by Aslaug L Lygre. The website includes a really dreadful English translation, possibly a machine translation. I thought I could do a little better. See what you think.

We shouldn't sleep through the short summer night

We shouldn't sleep through the short summer night
for it is too light for that.
Better if we walk together outside
under the leaf-heavy trees.

Better if we walk together outside
through long grass woven with flowers.
We shouldn't sleep through the short summer night
that crowns our hair with dew.

Let's not sleep away from sweet scent of hay
and grasshopper chirp in fields
But walk hand in hand 'neath pale blue skies
Till morning birds take to wing

And feel our connection to nature and earth
to the wind that drives the white clouds
And know that we'll always be close side-by-side
All night till the coming of dawn.

My version doesn’t rhyme, it’s true, but at least it aspires to a similar scansion. On the website linked above there’s a midi version of the melody by Geirr Tveitt. You can try singing my translation if you like. I have. It’s not easy, but then I can’t sing the original along with the melody either. Probably because, though I can read the words, I don’t now how to pronounce them. (Nor can I easily hold a tune in any language, it has to be said.)

Aslaug Låstad Lygre

Short sumer night: Aslaug L Lygre
Aslaug L Lygre

Aslaug Lygre turns out to be a Norwegian poet from the middle of the 20th century. She came (so Wikipedia tells me ) from Våss in the west of Norway and graduated from school in Bergen. I guess her mother tongue would have been one of the a Vestlandsk dialects of Norwegian. I’m glad she didn’t write in that. That would have defeated me.

Wikipedia also says this poem “coined the phrase” Vi skal ikkje sova bort sumarnatta “widely used today even out of its context.” There’s also a translation of the title: We shall not sleep away the summer night. Interesting that Wikipedia’s translation also fails to hit the 11 syllables of the original. “Shall” rather than “should”, too. I think mine’s better – but then I would, wouldn’t I?

Auslag died in December 1966, in the middle of a dark Scandinavian winter, a few days after her 56th birthday. I find that sad. But I hope she had the memory of many a short summer night to comfort her.


The photograph of Aslaug L Lygre comes from her Norwegian website here. (Also linked from the photo.)

The header image incorporates some Scandinavian Midsummer photos of my own.

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