The well-known comment by Robert Frost that “(p)oetry is what gets lost in translation” reflects the general idea that if translation as a whole is nearly impossible, then translation of poetry is truly so.
In 2004 at Poesidagarna, an annual poetry festival mentioned in the last post, the Dutch poet Michel Kuijpers, who publishes poetry under the pseudonym K. Michel, compared translation to taking apart a clock. If one wants to understand how a clock works, one takes it apart and studies the pieces before putting it back together. Similarly, if one wants to understand a poem, one takes it apart, studies it, and then puts it back together – in another language. The Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who teaches Russian and Lithuanian at Yale, seems to serve as both poet and clockmaker, since he mentioned that when someone is going to translate his work, he writes a detailed explanation of what he meant and what the implications of his word choices are and, if he knows the target language, he also writes a first draft of the potential translation. It’s true that many writers answer their translators’ questions when possible, but what is it about translating poetry that drives a poet to help his translator to such an extent as Mr. Venclova does?
Arguably more so than in prose, both the words and the form matter in poetry. Meter and rhythm are two features of poetry that some translators mention when discussing the difficulty of translating poetry. Prose also has meter and rhythm, of course, although they are often more obvious in poetry. Poetry may also have rhymes, which are quite difficult to translate well. Then there is the language. Poetic language is frequently imaginative and words are used economically, so the preciseness of the translation is especially noticeable and important. There is rarely plot in poetry, at least not in the same way as there is in a novel or a short story, and this makes the emphasis on each word even stronger.
So a translator has many decisions to make. Can the rhymes, the meter, the rhythm be retained? What must be left out or changed if any one of those is retained? And for the words, what images and feelings do they represent in the original language and is it possible to transfer those images and feelings to the target language? Or must replacement images and feelings that work better in the new language be chosen? After all, since languages and cultures don’t work the same way, if a poem is translated too literally, a poet’s whole meaning could be lost in translation.
The elements that make a poem are the same elements that make a poem challenging to translate. But what’s a translator to do? Our job is to find a way to say what seems impossible to say and we serve the writers and the readers by making texts available to a larger audience. We are, as Alexander Pushkin was quoted as saying, “the post-horses of enlightenment.” Although perhaps now we should say that we are the clockmakers of enlightenment.