1. Translation of poetry

by Bruno Osimo, 2001 [http://www.logos.it/pls/dictionary/linguistic_resources.cap_4_26?lang=en]


Translation of poetry is probably the subject in translation studies that triggers the strongest polemics. Even those not specialized in translation often have an opinion on the subject; consequently it is much platitudinized.

One of the most boring and useless debates concerns translatability and untranslatability of poetry. It is not worth while spending time on that, since there is a commercial and private production of translation of poetry, and thus a readers public ready to read such translated texts and to recognize, in a way, more or less perceivable traces of identity of this or that author.

Someone translates poetry and someone reads translated poetry, and that is more than enough.

Even for poetry, the translation dilemma is either creating a text enabling a reader to access the original, or creating a beautiful poetic text inspired by the original. Therefore, it is better make some distinctions on the aim pursued by translating poetry.


1. Direct access to the original: probably the most common form of translation of poetry is metatextual, and consists in a critical apparatus prepared for a poem – in the same language of the poem or in another language – allowing people not particularly proficient in that language to access an interpretation of the text through a clarification of the semantic values of the original.

2. Interlinear translation with parallel text: this is another form of direct access to the original, but in this case the aid is textual and not metatextual. Even if it is not always possible to call a parallel text "text". When the parallel verse is the reproduction, word for word, of the original verse, its only aim is to indicate the meaning (the one, among the many possible meanings, chosen by the translator) attributed to the individual words in the original, and seldom the whole result can be called "text" in the proper sense of the word, i.e. a consistent and coherent set of words.

3. Philological translation: a translation that does not consider the readability of the text that is produced, only its philological adherence to the prototext. Aim of such a translation is to give access to the original for readers unable to access it through one of the previous strategies. Philological translation can be in prose or verse. When in verse, the verse of the metatext generally matches the verse of the prototext, but of course there are no rhymes (if not by chance), or pursued alliterations , and rhythm and other non-denotative aspects of the text are not considered. One of the most famous advocates of such a strategy is Vladimir Nabokov:

There is a certain small Malayan bird of the thrush family which is said to sing only when tormented in an unspeakable way by a specially trained child at the annual Feast of Flowers. There is Casanova making love to a harlot while looking from the window at the nameless tortures inflicted on Damiens. These are the visions that sicken me when I read the "poetical" translations from martyred Russian poets by some of my famous contemporaries. A tortured author and a deceived reader, this is the inevitable outcome of arty paraphrase. The only object and justification of translation is the conveying of the most exact information possible and this can be only achieved by a literal translation, with notes. (1973: 81)

4. Single-dominant translation: usually the result of a poor and superficial analysis of the prototext, or of insufficient poetic competence, or of a low-profile publishing policy . One aspect of the original is found, the one most visible to the inexpert reader, like rhyme for example. In translation, the rhyme pattern is reproduced. Due to the anisomorphism of natural codes, pursuing the rhyme means obligatorily discounting the sense. For the dominant’s sake, all the rest is lost, relegating the role of subdominant to the sense, when a part of it can be preserved. This kind of translation, especially when the rhyme is preserved and the measure of the verse is even, is also called "singsong" because of the effect similar to counting-out rhymes.

5. Translation with a hierarchy of dominant and subdominants: this is the method that, while seeking an equilibrium between the opposite extremes of translatability ad untranslatability, takes for granted the impossibility to translate everything. It is a strategy deriving from Torop’s total translation view. You first make a translation-oriented analysis of the prototext to identify the dominant elements in the source culture. Then such dominants are projected onto the receiving culture, and one must foresee the understandable elements, those textually incomprehensible and the partially understandable ones. Based on the model reader, the publishing strategy, the type of publication and, often, the translator’s taste, one decides which important elements of the prototext can become dominants of the metatext, and which elements can be rendered only metatextually (through a critical apparatus)

Then a critical apparatus is made in which the metatext reader is told all that and a metatextual rendering of the translation residue (e. g. explaining the meter of the prototext that is not possible to reproduce in the metatext, or what connotative meaning a given poetic form in the source culture has).

When drafting the translated text, absolute precedence is given to the main dominant; once rendered, the translator tries to make room for the other dominants too, according to the hierarchy set during analysis.

The most important aspect of such an approach is absolute transparency of the decisions made by the translator (often by the publisher too) as concerns translation strategy. A translation of poetry that doesn’t make clear what its carefully analyzed blind spots are, runs the risk of presenting itself as a "complete", "absolute" translation or, as some insist in saying, "faithful" translation of the original, a situation in which the reader comes out of feeling cheated, teased and/or manipulated.

6. Cultural transposition: it is the strategy of people thinking of those who believe themselves able to find the cultural homologue of the poetic forms from a culture to the other. Let us see how David Connolly expresses the notion:

the sonnet form does not signify for the contemporary North American reader what it did for Petrarch’s contemporaries in fourteenth-century Italy. Using the same form for a translation in a different age and a different culture may therefore carry quite a different meaning and produce the opposite of a faithful rendering. One solution is to look for a cultural equivalent (such as the English iambic pentameter for French Alexandrines) or a temporal equivalent (modern free verse for classical verse forms of the past) (1998: 174).

Putting aside the presumption implicit in the choice of a supposed "equivalent", cultural or temporal that it might be, since it is evident that such a choice is highly disputable anyway, such a strategy has a very low consideration of its model reader. It implies a person who isn’t’ open-minded enough to understand that a given form can have had a different meaning in another time or in another culture. This is what I have already written about rendering the reader responsible, and on esteem for the reader. With this kind of strategy one decides to underestimate her, to withdraw any responsibility she may have and, to top it all, to propose her a text that is very different from the original but that is presented as a "faithful translation".

7. Poetic translation - author’s translation: the translation is given a poet in the receiving culture. The result is often poetry, sometimes wonderful, sometimes better than the original. It is the best choice if one wants to produce poetic texts inspired by the original in another language, and if the philological interest is the last of the subdominants.


2. Practical Approaches to the Translation Poetry

by John Gledhill, 2001  [http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-3370/gledhill-ch5.html]


It can be argued that the whole field of poetry translation is still in its infancy at the theoretical level despite three millennia of practice. The past and present states of the theory regarding the translation of poetry is well summarised in The Encyclopaedia of Literary Translation (1998) under the headings The Poetics of Translation and Poetry Translation. There is no need to repeat these excellent summaries written by Gentzler and Venuti respectively, but instead, it will be of greater relevance to examine the language of discourse in this field. In short, it can almost be said ’anything goes in the theory of poetic discourse translation as there are distinguished theorists, literati and poets who represent more or less every conceivable stance on this most difficult of topics. Based on Lefevere (1975), Bassnett (1991) list of the various possible approaches still applies:


- phonemic translation (imitation of ST sounds);

- literal translation (cf. Nabokov);

- metrical translation (imitation of metre of ST);

- prose translation (rendering as much sense as possible);

- rhymed translation (added constraints of rhyme and metre);

- blank verse translation (no constraint of rhyme but still one of structure);

- interpretation (complete change of form and/or imitation).

(Abridged from Bassnett. 1991: 81-82)


More detailed examples of these various stances will be given in the course of this introduction.

There has been much written about poetry translation by poets, translators and literary critics, but there has been little written in a systematic way. The wide range of stances on this issue is also well summarised by Holmes (1978) who also reflects some of the vehemence with which these views are held by the various parties involved:


What should the verse form of a metapoem be? There is, surely, no other problem of translation that has generated so much heat, and so little light, among the normative critics. Poetry, says one, should be translated into prose. No, says a second, it should be translated into verse, for in prose its very essence is lost. By all means into verse, and into the form of the original, urges a third. Verse into verse, fair enough, says a fourth, but God save us from Homer in hexameters. (Holmes 1978: 94)


In the history of translation and literature, each school of thought has distinguished representatives. It could also be added that the language of discourse has both a moral and absolutist tone which excludes open debate on these matters. It will be useful to begin with the first category mentioned by Holmes (1970) which refers to those poets and theoreticians who are convinced that all poetry in all cases (such is the universalist form of their discourse) should be translated into prose.

The literary critic and translator, John Middleton Murry (1923) is a vigorous supporter of the ’poetry-into-prose‘ school:


Poetry ought always to be rendered into prose. Since the aim of the translator should be to present the original as exactly as possible, no fetters of rhyme or metre should be imposed to hamper this difficult labour. Indeed they make it impossible. (Murry 1923: 129)


The argument is based on moral exhortations as illustrated by the emphasis. Similarly, the more recent critic, writer and translator Nabokov, whose essay “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English“ originally published in 1955, quoted in full in Venuti (2000), takes an equally extreme and absolutist position on this topic. His justification of this stance is based on an uncompromising literalist view of translation:


The term “free translation“ smacks of knavery and tyranny. It is when the translator sets out to render the “spirit“ - not the textual sense - that he begins to traduce the author. The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful that the prettiest paraphrase. (Nabokov 2000: 71)


By his use of the verb traduce, Nabokov implies a severe moral condemnation for the ’free‘ translator, possibly as an echo of the well-known Italian dictum to the effect that traduttore (to translate) equals traditore (to betray).The same tone of moral indignation concerning ’free‘ translators pervades the whole essay:


The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language has only one duty to perform, and this is to produce with absolute exactitude the whole text and nothing but the text. (Venuti 2000: 77)


The phrase “the whole text and nothing but the text“ is redolent of the oath to be sworn before a jury: “the whole truth and nothing but the truth“. This is to imply that free translation is not only betrayal but is also a form of perjury.

It is, however, not very well known that the poet Robert Browning‘s views on poetry anticipate those of the ’literalist‘ school. Pound and Benjamin also tend towards this approach to translation where the target language is sometimes violated to preserve the rugged and raw nature of the original.

In between the two extremes of translation into prose versus translation into verse, there are, however, other opinions which include grey areas such as those of Matthew Arnold (1909), whose essay “On Translating Homer“ originally appeared in 1861, is a slightly less categorical supporter of the poetry-into-prose school since he restricts his dogmatic ban only to the ’great works‘ of literature on account of the variety entailed in such literary monuments:


There are great works composed of parts so disparate that one translator is not likely to have the requisite gifts for poetically rendering all of them. Such are the works of Shakespeare and Goethe‘s Faust; and these it is best to attempt to render in prose only. (Arnold 1909: 274)


Although Arnold‘s arguments are consistent in theory, they are rather weak in practice as they involve preferring an obscure French prose version of Shakespeare to the universally acclaimed Schlegel-Tieck translations. Similarly, he supports a very weak English prose version of Goethe‘s Faust.

At the other extreme, Alexander Fraser Tytler (1791), who was one of the early theoreticians to discuss the problem of poetry translation into English, takes a diametrically opposite stance to both the translation-into-prose school with an equally confident dogmatism. Tytler asserts:


To attempt, therefore, a translation of lyric poem into prose, is the most absurd of all undertakings; for those very characters of the original which are essential to it, and which constitute its highest beauties, if transferred to a prose translation, become unpardonable blemishes. (Tytler 1791: 111)


Again as with Nabokov, opprobrium is supported by ethical threats with Tytler‘s use of the adjective unpardonable. Tytler also adds the threat of ridicule to possible opponents of stance by his use of the phrase most absurd. Sometimes, even national prejudices are invoked to support extreme views on poetry translation as in the case of the poet Coleridge:


I do not admit the argument for prose translations. I would, in general, rather see verse in so capable a language as ours. The French cannot help themselves, of course, with such a language as theirs. (Quoted in Selver 1966: 13)


Entertaining though it may be to consider the diverse opinions of poets and scholars from the past on the topic of translating poetry, it has already seen to be not very illuminating as there are few arguments other than oracular pronouncements based on the supposed authority of the writer or there are dire moral threats for those who dare to disagree.



3. Five Tips on Translating Poetry

by Jennifer Liddy, 2002  [http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/liddy.shtml]


You've decided to translate a poem. Maybe you have been studying a foreign language your whole life and want to put your talents to good use. Maybe you just came back from vacation to an exotic country and fell in love with their national poet and you want to recall the romance. Either way, translating poetry is serious business and not to be taken lightly. Your job as a translator is not only to pass the meaning of the poem into another language but to respect and honor its spirit. I don't mean you need a seance with a thousand candles, begging the poem to breathe your page. I mean that there are some rules to respect when you translate a poem:


1. Stay Close to the Poem. Read the poem again and again until the words become second nature on your tongue. By doing this, you will be able to feel the rhythm of the poem. You will recognize the pace, the pauses, the beats, the swirls of energy. Write the poem in longhand and make ten copies. Stick these where you can see and read them. Try the bathroom, the kitchen cabinet, or the freezer door, leading to the Ben & Jerry's. These copies will familiarize you with the poem's grammatical structure: Where the adjectives are, where there is a break in tenses. Plus, if you put them on that package of Oreo's, it'll take you longer to gobble the bag down. You will have to read the poem first!


2. Know the poet. If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him or her questions about the poem. What was the poet thinking when writing the poem? What does the poet think the poem means? Is there any imagery or language that is repeated? Is there anything symbolic from his or her life? What does the poet think of poetry? The more you know about the poet and his or her life, the better able you are to understand the nuances of the poem. Be courteous and grateful. The poet is answering your questions to help you with your translation.

If, however, you choose a poet who has passed on, your job is a little harder. Try and find out as much as you can about the poet's life. Most countries have national writer's associations. If they don't, check the web and university libraries and language departments. Maybe from there you can find other people who knew the poet or can help guide you. Build as many contacts as you can. Be familiar with the poet and you will get a sense for the poem.


3. Go for Grace. When you translate a poem, your job is to stay as close to the meaning as possible. That said, you also have artistic license to use (not abuse) the meaning to make a clear and graceful translation. Translating slag is an excellent example of when to use artistic license. Some slang has absolutely no meaning in another language. In fact, a direct translation would make the poem fail. In that case, turn the meaning of the slang into its equivalent. Remember, you want readers in your language to enjoy the poem, not marvel at how well you can directly translate words.


4. Be Wary. This tip is for those of you who think translating takes a few minutes tops. There are some great computer programs that are designed for translation. There are also some excellent dictionaries and phrase books. But do not rely on them to give you the end-all-be-all translation. You must do the footwork. You can use these computer programs and dictionary translations as a guide. They may help get to the bones of the poem but your job is to put heart and live language on those bones.


5. Take a Deep Breath. When you finish a translation, sit tight for a few days, maybe even a week, before you go over it. Take some time to think about something else, in your own language. Then come back and see where the gaps and the goodies are.

Translating a poem is a lot like writing a poem yourself. You have to know what you want to say. You have to feel what you want to say. You have to be focused. There are a thousand other jobs that are easier, better paid, and eyesight-saving, but translating has its own glories. Putting poems into another language is one of the best ways to share culture, honor poets, and remind us that we can transcend geography. Do your best.