Can Poetry be Translated? The Unique Challenges of Recreating a Poem

6th Jul 2021
Entre les lignes

“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.”

Aesthetics and accuracy: a delicate balance

While a translated poem is a new creation, that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all: translators usually try to convey as much as possible of the poem’s original meaning, style, and tone. 

Poetry translators must weigh up how much to prioritise the literal sense of the original, and how much to reproduce its aesthetic features (its sound and feel) and cultural features (its references and emotional resonance). 

There are some radical proponents of translating for accuracy alone, which means emphasising the literal sense-meaning and not recreating rhyme, form, or shape. Famously, Vladimir Nabokov, who translated his own works into Russian, said “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Nabokov believed that cultural references should never be changed, but faithfully translated with footnotes. “I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page”, he declared. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Argentina poet Jorge Luis Borges advocated a “happy and creative infidelity” in translation. He argues that translators should feel at liberty to produce their own work, emphasising the aesthetic qualities of the work to convey the beauty of the original. 

Most translators walk a tightrope between these extreme approaches. The best poetry translators convey much of the aesthetic texture, adding their own sense of beauty in the new language, but also make the meaning accessible to a new audience. 

Doing the impossible

A perfect poetry translation is impossible, but translating poetry is an immensely rewarding challenge. Translators do the impossible every day, creating new poems for new audiences in different languages. 

The same poem can be translated in an infinite number of ways, and this sense of possibility is what makes the art of poetry translation so special. We want to champion the art by sharing a couple of our favourite translation projects and stories. 

Poetry translation at Entre les lignes

Here at Entre les lignes agency, we relish the challenge of adapting specialised language forms, from translating slogans to translating poetry. 

In one recent project, we were delighted to work with JES vzw, a Belgian youth organisation that wanted to exhibit the poems of two young artists in a multilingual format. The original poems were in French, and they sought a translated version for a Dutch audience – but this was no straightforward FR-NL translation. The idea was that Dutch readers would not only read the Dutch version, but would find a way to engage with both French and Dutch versions. 

So, we created the Dutch version not as a standalone poem but as a kind of key to the French original. It acted as a manual for making the French poem understandable to a Dutch audience. This was a beautiful task we were delighted to work on, which brought a unique form of cultural exchange.

Translations of Beowulf

The famed epic poem Beowulf was written in Old English sometime between 975 and 1025. Several esteemed writers, from fantasy writer JRR Tolkien to Irish poet Seamus Heaney, have taken on the epic task of translating the poem into modern English or other languages. 

There is no single definitive translation of Beowulf: different translations update the poem for different audiences and different moments. There’s space for all of them to co-exist, with each translation adding to the last.

Seamus Heaney’s translation included some especially interesting creative touches. Heaney decided to capture aspects of Northern Irish diction in his translation, drawing out the similarities between Old English and Northern Irish language use. The first word in Old English, hwæt, has been a particular challenge for translators – it’s a call to action, announcing the beginning of the story, that has no direct equivalent in modern English. Heaney “translated it into Irish English, with the word “so,” a particle which obliterates all previous narrative and announces your intention to proceed”. 

Another unusual translation is Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent work, which is a spirited feminist revision of the heroic tale. She makes a bold move in translating the first word as “Bro!” – “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!”. Headley also dots social media slang and Americanisms throughout, infusing the poem with contemporary relevance and making it her own.

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. 

Jorge Luis Borges and Walt Whitman  

As we’ve seen, Argentinian poet and translator Borges is a major proponent of understanding a translation as a new poem, and an advocate for artistic and creative license in translation.

One of Borges’ most renowned poetry translations is his Spanish version of Leaves of Grass by American poet Walt Whitman as Hojas de Hierba. Walt Whitman’s work was becoming hugely important in Latin America when Borges completed his work. Borges, as well as other translators like Pérez Celis made Whitman’s message of equality, democracy and celebration speak to a new cultural context, in the changing political landscape of 1960s Argentina. 

Borges published essays about other Whitman translations, and one of his pieces shows just how important a single word can be in translating poetry. When a Spanish poet, León Felipe, translated Whitman’s famed poem “Song of Myself” as “Canto a mi mismo” (“Song to myself”), Borges wrote extensively about how this idea of singing to oneself rather than of oneself dramatically changes Whitman’s ideas of self and identity. 

Translating poetry as a creative act

Poetry translations speak to the original poem across the boundaries of culture and time, but they are entirely unique. 

By understanding the care and artistry that goes into translating poetry, we can appreciate why a new poem is never a betrayal of the original. Rather, translations are creative adaptations or remixes that make poems live and breathe for new audiences.