The Art of Translating Poetry


Translating poetry is a polarizing subject if there ever was one. Let’s take a look at some options.

Translating poetry is a polarizing subject if there ever was one. Some might argue that poetry in itself does not have an intrinsic meaning and therefore translation isn’t needed, as the poem and the original words that comprise it are the only form in which it should exist.  Others believe that the benefits of allowing different cultures to enjoy this art form is reason enough to make some inevitable compromises.

While both arguments make sense in a way, sometimes a decision is made to translate a poem regardless. When faced with such a task, we can attempt to break it down in small goals that need to be accomplished in the final text. Let’s take a look at some options.  

Form over function, or function over form?

As stated earlier, the meaning of a poem can be rather hazy. Poetry is filled with allegory, metaphor, and wordplay, sometimes working in unison to make a translating job even harder than it should be. But often, the overall message of the poem takes precedence over the ways in which it twists and turns the language. We will have to interpret the essential points brought up in the text and attempt to translate the meaning rather than the delivery. This job can be made easier if the poem is by a living author we can communicate with. If the author is long gone, a hefty amount of research lies ahead of us, as misinterpreting the essence of the poem when already compromising in the name of clarity, isn’t going to fly.

When the message takes the back seat and form is the protagonist, deep knowledge of both languages will be a must. The use of obscure expressions and synonyms will no doubt help us navigate a few tight spots, and reading into the sense of place and emotional strength of the text will allow us to use alternative linguistic means to preserve the magic as much as possible. If the author is on board with some necessary changes, these alterations can help keep the essence of the poem intact.

To rhyme or not to rhyme.

On the other side of the “form over function” coin we have rhyme. While there are rare exceptions in which the words fall perfectly into place with the help of a massive synonym dictionary, generally speaking, a choice will have to be made regarding rhyme.

If we value consistency, the safer choice is to compromise rhyme and translate as literally as possible. This will help keep the text cohesive and within certain stylistic boundaries, making it easier to read and understand.

If we wish to preserve it, the compromise will inevitably be in the form of sweeping changes. We can also use rhyme when it’s possible and ignore it when it’s not, but unless the original poem is already written this way, it can lead to a rather disjointed and odd experience.

Cultural adaptation

Poems can come in many ways, ranging from the completely artistic to writings tailored specifically for commercial purposes. As with every localization job, the rules of cultural adaptation apply all the same. Use terms that the local culture is familiar with, and with a bit of luck there might even be certain rhymes or concepts that will translate smoothly.

Or course, this entirely depends on the liberties we are allowed to take with the translation, but a bit of research and local knowledge can help us find the right pieces for the puzzle. Sometimes they might even fit better than the original ones!

Parallel text

When the texts are so vastly different that any form of translation feels like heresy, a common solution can be to include the original text next to the translated one. It can be argued that it defeats the purpose of the translation altogether, but with help from a dictionary, readers can piece together certain hard to translate concepts that would have proved to be confusing if they only had access to the translated text.

This also allows for a more literal and practical translation, which can be a relief when tackling especially tough pieces. The final say on this usually depends on the medium used, as it will be very easy to include if it’s published exclusively online, but can be more complex if it’s destined to paper form.

A bit of practice

If you’re lucky enough to have an upcoming poem translation in your schedule, take some time to read other poem translations and analyze the solutions that make them work. You can even try your hand at re-translating them and see if you can come up with alternative workarounds that might even improve the outcome.

Practice makes perfect, and there is no such thing as too many tricks up your sleeve when translating something as unique as a poem.

Good luck!

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