Poetry in Translation

How do you translate poetry?
How can you translate poetry?
How dare you translate poetry?

“If it can be translated, it isn’t poetry.”
“Traduire, c’est trahir” 

I really have no satisfactory answer to these questions. A poem – i.e. genuine poetry as opposed to mere versification – whether rhyming, scanning or free, moves us, as does all genuine art. The translation should ideally have the same effect in all respects as the original.

Is that possible? A poem is, in Coleridge’s definition, “the right words in the right order” making the whole far greater than the sum of the parts.

Verlaine’s famous lines, used by the BBC in 1944 as the signal to the French résistance that D-Day was underway, provide a wonderful example: “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone …” (Chanson d’automne) These are indisputably the right words in the right order. The long-drawn out nasals and O sounds echo the moaning, sobbing autumnal wind and the painful melancholy of the poet. Many people have tried to translate this poem into English but I have yet to see any version that approaches the original for effect, and this link offers an insight into some of the problems facing the translator.

The translator always has to deal with the fact that frequently a word in one language is not one hundred percent equivalent to its counterpart in another. Take the simple word ‘bread’ – your culture will dictate what image and taste you connect with the word, and Brot / pain / pane / pan / kruh /psomi have little in common with the white cotton-wool sliced stuff often used to make toast in English-speaking countries. Just as in art, the blue of Rembrandt is not the same as the blue of Picasso or Chagall.

Like music, poetry is intended to be heard; to be read aloud or recited. “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves,“ said the Duchess to Alice in Wonderland. In poetry, however, it isn’t just the meaning of the word and the associations it arouses, but also the emotional impact of the sound, its resonance, the effects of rhythm, rhyme and length of syllable, alliteration and assonance, the position of the tongue in pronouncing the vowels and consonants, and the juxtaposition of those vowels and consonants.

In English, the word ‘fall’ provides a good example of a sound that physically imitates the sense. In simple terms, you can feel a downward movement inside your mouth as you move from the ‘fa’ to the ‘ll’ sound.  Read Tennyson’s ‘Eagle’ and experience the powerful effect of the eagle’s dive in that very last word:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In some cases the foreign language result may be close to the original, enough to satisfy readers who don’t speak the source language, and the millions of translations of Shakespeare into practically every language under the sun bear witness to this. There are, of course, also some poets who have produced versions better than the original, as Baudelaire did with Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.

I once gave an exercise to my translation class: to translate the first verse of ‘Jabberwocky’ into their native tongue. My objective was to get the students to grasp that translation is not only about meaning, and my expectations were actually low. However, this group took on the challenge with gusto and some of them produced very creditable versions, including some in Swiss-German dialect, coining great-sounding words for ‘brillig’, ‘wabe’, ‘slithy toves’ etc. I don’t know if they really understood why I gave them this assignment, or whether they simply dismissed it as a foible of an eccentric teacher.  I hope it opened their minds a little.

Illustration on the poem Jabberwocky

Illustration on the poem Jabberwocky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I said at the start that I have no satisfactory answer as to how to translate poetry, and yet many of us persevere at this daunting task. Perhaps the question should be “Why” and not “How” – but that’s another post!

1 thought on “Poetry in Translation

  1. Translating has always fascinated me and my recent endeavor with a translation reminded me of the challenges one faces. After all one just needs to open the Thesaurus and look at a word. One has choices in the original language and the translation. You mentioned the “Poem exercise” for your students and it reminded me of one of my favourite professors in the Masters Program. He read a Chinese Poem so we could hear the “soul” of poem. Then he gave us a word for word translation (we know how well that works) and asked us to capture the feeling and meaning of the original. It was one of the most difficult assignments, but also one I have never forgotten.
    I do think poetry can and should be translated. Of course, it looses part of its “soul” in the translation, but sometimes it captures other parts and often it just brings pleasure to the reader. In the end the reader translates its meaning to his/her personal life and feeling at that moment.
    So far that is my personal answer to the “why” question. The “how” question is more difficult, however, here is my personal interpretation. Poetry should only be translated by someone who understands poetry, is perceptive on an emotional plane, and linguistically skilled to know which word choice elucidates the meaning in the translated version. Complicated, isn’t it? But then feelings are always more complicated to put into words. But I wax poetically here and far more then I should. I look forward to your next blog.

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