Interpreting Poetry for Translation

November 4th, 2013

Translating poetry from one language to another is a special challenge that only a handful of translators are capable of undertaking.

Interpreting Poetry for Translation | One Hour Translation

Ah, poetry. Johann von Goethe once said that ‘Personality is everything in art and poetry,’ and no one knows that to be true more than translation professionals.

You have likely never considered the gnarly question of translating poetry, but take a moment and consider it now, because it’s fascinating. First, you have to start with the why – why bother in the first place? Then you’d have to consider the how – how in the world do you take an artist’s deep and subtle language and render it in another language? These aren’t easy questions, and even if you answer them it only begins to unravel the problem, because then a translation pro like myself has to tackle the actual work.

The Why of Poetry Translation

The why of translating poetry might seem obvious: For the same reason we translate novels or dub films, so the whole world can enjoy a work of art. Yes, but that actually doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. The real why is whether or not this can even be done. A poem written in German in the 19th Century, for example, is hopeless localised, not just geographically but chronologically. It will use idioms that no longer get used, it will refer to things that no longer exist, and it will reflect educations and mindsets and attitudes that no longer flourish. In short, poetry is intensely personal. Why even try to drag something so set in a time and place, so mired in individual thought and style, into another sphere?

It’s a challenge, to say the least. The reason, of course, is to expand our understanding of each other. That poem in German from the 1800s might be archaic and foreign to 21st Century Australians, for example, but it also might convey some truth about the human condition that you’ve never heard before, or simply a beautiful image that you’ve never been exposed to before. That’s the why.

The How of Poetry Translation

The how of poetry translation is complex. It’s not like other forms of translation, even other forms of artistic translation like novels or film subtitling. It’s a difficult beast to tame.

First and foremost, the translator in question must be not only fluent in both languages, but deeply fluent, to the extent of understanding the evolution of both languages. Poets often use language in unusual ways, even ways that violate the grammar and definitions of the vocabulary, sometimes using words simply for their sound as opposed to their meaning. Simply being fluent is simply not enough when it comes to translating poetry.

Second, the translator in question must be an artist themselves, because translating poetry is basically taking in a piece of art, understanding it deeply, then rendering it anew. You are fundamentally re-writing the poem – and this is not something every translation pro is capable of.

Poetry translation is well worth it – but it comes at a steep price in terms of effort.

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