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From The Mind

Why Translate Poetry?

by Susan McLean

Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” So, why does anyone attempt this impossibility, and why, if you are a poet, should you consider doing so? Most poets assume they must be fluent in a foreign language, or even be a linguist, to translate poetry. Yet translating poetry should not be left to linguists. Poets have knowledge and skills many linguists do not, including familiarity with poetic traditions in their own language and facility with image, metaphor, wordplay, and (in some cases) rhyme and meter.


Poet-translators tend to avoid certain pitfalls frequent among linguist-translators: translating poetry into prose because prose conveys meaning more accurately, using rhymed couplets as a default form, although rhymed couplets have not been widespread in English since the eighteenth century, or trying to replicate the original poetic form even if it is poorly suited to the language they’re translating into. For example, Latin quantitative verse has a pattern of long and short vowels, whereas English verse has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables but ignores vowel length. Substituting stresses for the long vowels of Latin does not produce the same effect in English. Most English readers cannot recognize Latin meters, and the rhythms of Latin verse sound odd to English ears.


Poet-translators usually try to find an analogous poetic form in English, one that fits the line length of the original but may have a different meter, number of words per line, or rhyme scheme. Trochaic meter, common in German, is rare in English, where it sounds chant-like, so poets may substitute the more common iambic meter. Poet-translators, however, also have common pitfalls: thinking that they can “improve” the original or needn’t worry about accuracy. Adding filler or omitting content are both undesirable, although rewording is inevitable.


Few poets start out wanting to be translators. They may stumble into it by doing an assignment in a language class, encountering someone else’s translation that feels unsatisfying, or reading an enjoyable poem that has not been translated. The feeling that “This could be done (or done better), and I think I see how” can be the first step to becoming a poetry translator.


Translators are typically drawn to poets with whom they share affinities, but they seldom choose poets who sound exactly like them. They tend to lean toward authors who express aspects of themselves not expressed in their own writing. As actors call on everything they know to create the voice and character of roles they inhabit, so translators pull out of themselves tones, attitudes, and words they might never use if writing in their own voice. Actors know that it is often more fun to play a villain than a hero: the temporary respite from taboos and social conditioning is freeing for the actor and appealing to the spectator. However, poets are also attracted to personality traits and poetic characteristics they admire but lack.


I most enjoy poetry in form, so I have not translated poets who write free verse. Because I love conciseness, wit, and humor, I’ve been drawn to writers of satirical Latin epigrams, such as Catullus, Martial, and Sir Thomas More. On the other hand, I also like writers who combine strong emotion with striking images and great verbal control, which has led me to translate such widely varied poets as Baudelaire, Rilke, and (again) Catullus. My life has little in common with the lives of any of those men, nor would my poems be mistaken for theirs. But I knew I had something in common with them beyond just admiring their poems when I found that no sooner had I translated one of their poems than I immediately wanted to start translating another.


What benefits does translating poetry offer? You get to engage with great poets and see, by imitation, how they achieved their effects. If the poets are alive, you may be able to contact them, perhaps even work with them (permission to translate must be obtained if the poem is not in the public domain). But if poets are long dead, they cannot refuse. At the very least, your attempt to translate gives you practice in skills that can make your own poems better. If you tend to get writer’s block, translating can be a way around it. If you like doing crossword puzzles, finding the right word to fit a slot in a poem is not very different but feels more rewarding. If you love a poem in another language, there’s no better way to get to know it in depth than to take it apart and try to reassemble it in your own language. Doing so takes patience and humility. Capturing everything perfectly is impossible. But you knew that already, right?

Susan McLean

From The Mind is our editorial page, for topics related to poetry, creative writing, and literature. Please feel free to submit your editorial for this page, putting From The Mind in your subject line. 300 to 700 words. We’d love to hear from our readers and contributors here. — Vera Ignatowitsch

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