Friday, July 03, 2009

Translating Poetry

I find this quote interesting:

Poetry, indeed, cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language. -Samuel Johnson, lexicographer

I think Samuel Johnson was a bit off here. Who in the world could realistically learn all the languages she or he wants to, all in order to read poetry in its original tongue? It sounds like an idealistic viewpoint and this is simply not possible.

Poetry can be translated and is translated. There's no way around the fact that if we want to read foreign texts (and we do and we should), we must have translation. Nevertheless, it is also obviously a good thing to learn other languages.


David McDuff said...

Some poets - Joseph Brodsky was one of them - learned English not only in order to read English and American poetry in the original, but also with the aim of dispensing with translators altogether and writing their poetry in English, as well as their own language. In Brodsky's case it didn't always work out quite like that, but it's an interesting and creative extension of Johnson's approach.

Ofer said...

Poetry can be translated but based on our experience it is the most challenging type of translation.
You have to be a real artist and a superb translator to translate poets

spanish school madrid said...

There is no doubt that poetry is the most challenging part of any language. Poetry can be translated but here needs more concentration and experience. You need to be very descriptive and you need to go very deeply in the poem.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you all for your comments!
Translators can never be fullly dispensed with, and we do our best!

Best wishes,

AF said...

It is my view that poetry cannot be translated in the way we normally think of, say, a legal document being translated. Along with the normal technical problems associated with translating poetry (aptness of metaphor, availability of rhymes etc.) Different cultures and language communities have different ideas of how poetry can function.

For example, the Hebrew poet is completely justified in assuming on the part of the reader a fairly thorough working knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah, the Hebrew prayer book and various other liturgical texts. Thus, when the Israeli poet T. Carmi wrote words that literally translate as "She is asleep but her hand is awake" the import of the lines would be lost on the non-Jewish reader who does not recognize the reference to the Song of Songs 5:2 "I was asleep but my heart was awake." When the same poem uses the words "The breath of every living creature" and the phrase "Peace to her dream," the non-Jewish (and/or non-Israeli reader) is not going to "get" these lines without knowing that "The breath of every living creature" is an opening phrase from a Shabbat prayer, and that "Peace to her dream" echoes a religious phrase "Peace to his/her dust" used when speaking of the dead.

Can one translate these expressions into English? Sure. But one can hardly expect such a process not to result in a much diminished product which doesn't necessarily communicate what the original does.

To take another, more extreme, example, there are languages like Arabic and Persian whose literary traditions have notions of what poetry is which are completely at odds with what we think of in the west. For example, even if a Westerner learns Arabic well, his/her first encounter with classical Arabic poetry (which favors wit and technical mastery rather than psychological realism and depth) is not likely to be amicable. What is an Arabic-learner (to say nothing of the translator) to make of lines that read:

Resolutions are measured against those who make them, and generosity against the giver
Littleness is aggrandized by little men and greatness belittled by the great.


You see the pepper-like dung of the white deer in enclosures and courtyards

I know of no way to make such lines palatable or even tolerable in English. Believe me I've tried.

That said, one can often create a poem which is not a translation per se, but which does what the original does, or something close to it. The task ceases to be one of creating equivalent words or sentences, but provoking (roughly) equivalent responses, or at least the same kind of response, as the original does. It is much easier to do with culturally kindred languages like French->English or German->English, but I believe it is not impossible even for such distant cousins as Persian->English. But it is never exact, anymore than one can shove an intimate knowledge of Judaic literature into the English-speaker's head for the purposes of understanding translations of Bialik's Hebrew poetry.

Re: David McDuff...Brodsky actually began learning English at quite an early age, long before he began publishing anything in any language, and long before he could have considered having his own work translated.

B.J. Epstein said...

AZF, should you be interested at any point, you are welcome to write a guest post here about translating poetry.

Best wishes,

AF said...

I'd be honored

AF said...

Any length requirements/limits?

B.J. Epstein said...

Write me privately via my website (

Best wishes,