“Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, as the American poet Robert Frost famously said. Actually, he didn’t. Frost’s actual phrase is less pithy and more long-winded: “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.”
The short, snappy version that has become famous is a paraphrase – a kind of translation that makes the original clearer, briefer and easier to remember. But Frost is right: there’s something lost. The paraphrased quote conveys the content, but it doesn’t convey the essence of Frost’s voice – his hesitations, his unique turns of phrase, the precision of his train of thought. Even within the same language, adaptations are imperfect.
Translating poems from one language to another is even trickier – and more controversial. Poetry is a nuanced, special kind of language that operates on multiple levels of meaning. The sound, form, and visual shape of a poem are all just as important as its content.
Translators can never reproduce all of these elements, which is why many say that translating poetry is impossible. Renowned translator Willard Trask had a response to that argument: “Impossible of course, that’s why I do it”.
But if much is lost in translation, much is also gained. Following Trask’s lead, we’ll celebrate the beautiful impossibility of poetry translation and show how skilled translators can create new poetic works that should be appreciated in their own right.
Entre les lignes helps brands craft messaging across languages and cultures. Want to learn how we can help you with translation and transcreation? Get in touch today.
The unique challenges of poetry translation
Translating poetry brings a triple whammy of challenges: linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural elements are all difficult to adapt.
On the linguistic side, translators need to find a way to convey the double meanings, wordplay, puns, and subconscious word associations intrinsic to poetic form.
But aesthetic qualities are no less important. A poem’s musicality – its rhythm, tempo, and flow – defines much of the reading experience. The visual shape the poem makes on the page also needs to be considered, as well as the specific challenges presented by poetic techniques like rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds).
Finally, translators must account for cultural differences when adapting a poem for a new audience. Many poems include cultural allegories, including references to local politics or art that readers in a different language may not be familiar with.
On top of this, poems are often appreciated for their intangible, almost mystical qualities. There’s something ineffable about poetry – a voice or essence that’s impossible to put your finger on.
Clearly, no translator can reproduce all of these different aspects of the original poem. Poetry translators have to make difficult decisions which change the nature of the poem. This is often viewed negatively; the phrase “Traduttore, traditore” or “Translator, traitor” is a famous slur on translation as a kind of betrayal.
But even if full fidelity to the original is impossible, translators can be faithful to their own interpretation of a poem. It’s true that translators essentially write a new poem, but rather than a betrayal, this is a generative, creative act – a transcreation of the work. As Geoffrey Brock, who has translated Umberto Eco and Cesare Pavese, says: “A good translation should breathe on its own and not require the original text as a heart and lung machine.”