Translating Rhymes

August 28th, 2012

Most people, frankly, are a little bored when they find out I work as a translator.

Translating Rhymes

The answer is, I usually don't.

Translation is transformative. No matter what you do, your translation is not the original work. It's an interpretation of the original work. That's what makes translation as much an art form as a science.

In the case of poetry or lyrics, you have to make some decisions, because trying to preserve rhyme and/or meter in a new language can actually change the meaning of the work. I've worked on poetry that rhymed and translated it into free verse because that was the only way to preserve the meaning. And I've translated non-rhyming verse into rhymed! Every project has different requirements.

Seven Different Approaches to Translating Verse

There are seven generally accepted approaches to translating rhymes.

1) You can attempt to recreate the sound of the work while still trying to maintain the overall meaning (Phonemic translation). 

2) You can attempt a word-for-word translation and disregard rhyme and meter (Literal translation).

3) Metrical translation attempts to replicate the original meter of the work.

4) You can abandon any attempt to preserve the work as verse and perform a Verse-to-prose translation, capturing the meaning and structure of a work but losing its beauty.

5) You can try a Rhymed translation, which keeps the rhyme scheme of the original – often at the cost of meaning.

6) You can attempt to keep the rhythm and ‘flow’ of the work without trying to maintain the literal rhyme scheme (Free Verse translation).

7) Finally, you can pursue an Interpretive translation, where you literally recreate the work in the target language using your own writing skills. This last is not strictly speaking a translation, but rather a re-creation.

Which Approach To Choose?

Every piece requires its own approach. Before you begin work, you have to know what your goals are as a translator.

Sometimes the rhyme scheme of a poem or lyric isn't important at all – your client needs the meaning, not the art. Sometimes you need to recast the work as a different but related song or poem so your client can perform or simply enjoy the core beauty of a work in their own language. It's not always as simple as matching words to their counterparts in another language, stringing them together and calling it a day. Sometimes it requires a very artistic touch.

Not everyone has that touch. I've known translators who can work rings around me when it comes to translating dry academic documents or court proceedings, but who can't work on a love song without turning it into a disturbing dirge. We all have our talents.

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