The Pitfalls of Translating Poetry

Once the Paris Review began publishing its Art of Translation series more regularly from 1999 onwards, it soon started to become apparent: translation was not just a process, but an art requiring as many considerations of nuance as a novel or an epic poem. Since the turn of the millennium, translation as an art form has generated a greater amount of interest from readers with translation theorist Susan Bassnett (2014) proclaiming that, "The twenty-first century is the great age of translation" (pp. 1). Exposure to literature from other countries and cultures is undoubtedly one of the main delights today's readers encounter.

The Paris Review. (2017). Cover Page of The Paris Review No. 222. [Cover Art].

But while the process itself is fascinating, the art of translation itself is not and has never been simple (Bassnett, 2014, 2-3). This is more true of poetry than any of the other art forms. The impossibility of translating poetry is well known and unquestionably accepted by many; One of the famous decriers, Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, called it "impossible" (Hond, 2021). Poetry, unlike prose, is more structured. Its often-intricate structure and utilization of rhythm deprive poetry of the relative flexibility prose provides. Different languages have different syllabic rhythms. To other languages, poetic forms that we take for granted – such as the sonnet – are as foreign as the northern lights are to equatorial countries.

Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Tunnel made from books. [Media from Wix].

While many opinions about the impossibility of translating poetry may be held for good reason, the story history tells is not one of defying the impossible on a regular basis, but of the irrelevance of defying the impossible in the first place. Translation quality has not stopped the greatest poets from imparting new, unique and beautiful forms of poetic artistry into other languages, be it Baudelaire's Fleurs de mal, The Waste Land, Shakespearean sonnets, the poems of Goethe, or even the surprise success of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the West. Not only have they entertained readers with exotic stories: they have, as Bella Brodzki (2014) wrote, been fundamental to how we in the 21st century perceive the world (pp. 3).


Whatever the pitfalls may be, the art of verse translation is not only a brave artistic endeavor but a cultural necessity. The pitfalls themselves, however, are worth mentioning. For however possible a great translation of poetry is into another language, it is, without a doubt, a worthy challenge.


Syllable Count


Counting syllables while reading poetry.

“A translation is no translation…unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it,” so wrote Irish author and playwright J.M. Synge (1962). While the musicality of the Irish accent has its own standards to follow, the translator of poetry must face the fact: the syllable count of a translation will struggle at best to match that of the original. While the general manifestation of a syllable remains the same in most languages, the similarities end there. A syllable, after all, is not just a sound. Meaning can be infused that may not only differ from another language: the meaning may also be more or less compact.

Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Harp. [Media from Wix].

Take the Slavic languages, for instance. Elastic in their meaning, there are many instances where a Slavic language can express more in just a few syllables compared to English. To use a basic example: I am becomes jsem in Czech. While one could emphasize the I part by writing ja jsem and match the syllable count in the process (and there are numerous ways to match other words in a similar manner), jsem as one syllable conveys just as much as I am with just one syllable. That, after accounting for the nonexistence of articles in Czech and other Slavic languages, allows much more meaning to be conveyed in a 10-sentence line, not to mention a four-line stanza, than in English, where articles and pronouns cannot be eschewed so simply.


Sometimes translators are able to shift the syllable count only slightly. Poet Karl Shapiro, for instance, subtracted one syllable in Baudelaire's poem La Géante, or Giantess (Baudelaire, 1989, 34).


Original French: Parcourir à loisir ses magnifiques formes;

English Translation: To feel at leisure her stupendous shapes,


A different translator, Wallace Fowlie, chose to remain truer to the syllable count of the original: Feel at my leisure her magnificent shape (Baudelaire, 2013, 69).


Both Shapiro's and Fowlie's translation styles differ radically in numerous ways, the greatest being that the former was translated by a poet and the latter by a professor of French. Fowlie is arguably the more successful translator in most respects. Though, while Fowlie succeeded at best reflecting the spirit of the original, Shapiros translation conveys a sharper and more compact spirit. The subtraction of a syllable not only hastens the rhythm but connects Baudelaire to the 10-syllabic iambic pentameter style popular throughout the history of the Anglosphere, increasing its relatability to the average Anglophone reader.


While Fowlie shows that a syllabic sacrifice is not always necessary, Shapiro shows that a sacrifice of syllables cannot always be ruled out. This is especially true if readership is more important than mirroring the original poets' artistry.


Idioms and Wordplay


Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Playing with Letters. [Media from Wix].

Much to the disappointment of language and literature admirers, the native speakers of the worlds’ languages do not invent idioms for the convenience of speakers of other languages. “Bring home the bacon,” for instance, was not invented under the presumption that every society in the world likes to eat bacon, or views bacon as akin to material wealth. The idiom was created for English speakers. This makes idioms and wordplay the most unique cultural content of a language and culture. This does, however, also make it the hardest content for a translator to deal with. Bassnett (2014), for her part, categorizes idioms and proverbs as "a test of the untranslatable" (147).


When we learn languages from phrasebooks and dictionaries, we tend to learn the core meaning. Those who first learn the phrase ”we all know who’s wearing the pants” may at first glance appear to refer to an outlying individual living in a nude colony who happens to prefer pants over his naked self. It is, of course, an idiom meant to refer to “the man” of the family, the one who makes familial decisions and so on. But more importantly: How does one deal with things like idioms and turns of phrases in poetry? While “pants” by now exist worldwide and make sense to people, it is not safe to presume that everybody understands the culture that produced this expression, however globally influential the culture in question may be. In order to determine the translatability of idioms, a case by case comparison must be made.

Bowers, J. (2018). Dramatic Lightening Captured in Ireland. [Photograph].

The idiom “under the weather” in Czech, for instance, is pod psa, or “under the dog.” Being “under the weather” – the image conveyed being exposure, particularly beneath, ongoing inclement weather such as rainfall or snowfall – is visually different from the image conveyed of being underneath a dog. Not only are you presumably a character from the movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids if you are tiny enough to be physically under a dog, being sick while you’re under a dog might be the result of the dog having to do something disgusting like urinating on you. This is assuming we do not consider the possibility that the dog is simply sleeping on top of somebody while in bed; an image that, while feasible, will relate less to "under the weather" than the previous image.


At the same time however, both are circumstances where, if one does not take precautions, a person can easily become sick. Because of this, it is perhaps safe enough for the translator to use pod psa in a Czech translation as it ultimately conveys the same thing in terms of core meaning. When it comes to imagery and flavor, however, the translator will have to decide if he or she wants the visual imagery of the poem to be so radically changed. In any case, apart from simply keeping the original English which could inappropriately jar with the flow of the language, a sacrifice will have to be made.


Rhyme


Jordan, B. (2020). Rhyme. [Stock Image].

What rhymes in English does not rhyme in other languages, and vice versa. Reflecting rhyme in a translation is a knotty problem that translators of novels seldom have. Take the famous rhyme from Dylan Thomas’ (2019) poem, for instance:


Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (stanza 1)


In Polish night is noc and light is światło. In French, we have nuit and lumière. In German, we have Nacht and Licht. In Welsh – the language of Dylan Thomas’ homeland – we have nos and golau.

Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Night scene. [Stock Image].

While the words in Polish are about as far from rhyming as Timbuktu is from Tokelau geographically, the elasticity of Polish would allow the second line to salvage the rhyme in a different form. At close of day could become pod koniec dnia. Światło becomes światła. Dnia. Światła. While the rhythm of the poem would be changed somewhat by maintaining a two-syllable word for light instead of a one-syllable alternative, the meaning and the rhyme would be preserved but in a different pattern.


The closest example given to an exact rhyme is from the German: Nacht and Licht. A translator intent on as literal of a translation of the poem as possible may find themselves content with a translation that only partially rhymes. It would, at least in spirit, reflect upon the original rhyme. But that might not be sufficient for a native German reader, without whom there would be no point of creating a German translation in the first place. It would depend on how important it is for German poetry to have exact rhymes in the judgment of German speaking peoples. Even so, using Lacht [laughs] in a poetic line meant to convey rage for the sake of the rhyme would be infinitely more ridiculous than an imperfect rhyme using Licht.


Conclusion


These three pitfalls are some of the challenges translators face not only in the craft of translation but in believing in a translations' authenticity. Ancient Greece scholar Willis Barnstone (2010) once wrote: "The translators' task...is to produce a faithful forgery" (pp. XXXI). Robert Fagles, acclaimed translator of The Odyssey, referred to previous translations from Ancient Greek and Latin not as "translations," but as "originals" (Storace & Fagles, 1999). While the word 'forgery' may be a bit much in terms of its criminal connotations, it is in situations like this where the translator quickly learns: at the end of the day, translating poetry is less of an interpretation and more of a compromise. And as is often the case in the world of human relations, compromise is always the safest path and solution.




Bibliographical References

Barnstone, W., & McCulloh, W. E. (2010). Ancient Greek lyrics. Indiana University Press.

Bassnett, S., & Routledge. (2014). Translation. Routledge.

Baudelaire, C. (2013). Flowers of Evil and Other Works : a Dual-Language Book. Dover Publications.

Baudelaire, C., Mathews, M., & Mathews, J. (1989). The flowers of evil. New Directions.

Hond, P. (n.d.). The Peculiar Perils of Literary Translation. Columbia Magazine (Winter 2021-22); Columbia University. Retrieved September 18, 2022, from https://magazine.columbia.edu/article/peculiar-perils-literary-translation

Storace, I. by P., & Fagles, R. (1999). The Art of Translation No. 2. Www.theparisreview.org. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/930/the-art-of-translation-no-2-robert-fagles

Synge, J. M., & Tracy, R. (1962). The Aran Islands, and other writings. Vintage Books.

Thomas, D. (2019). Do not go gentle into that good night. Poets.org. https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

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