On Translating Poetry

Translating poetry is, at best, a juggling act. Never forget that a poem is a literary work, in which the author uses language in an unusual way in order to create beauty.
Romina C. Cinquemani
Table of Contents

As you march along the rough path of translating literature, you might encounter a mountain quite harder to climb, when you attempt to translate poetry. Thousands of volumes have been written both on theory and practice of poetry translation. No one ever found the Holy Grail of such a titanic endeavor. Nevertheless, a few enlightened writers-poets-translators have achieved "partial" success in such a quest or, at least, have provided a rather more illuminating translation than the rest of us, mortals. As you probably guessed, the ones who fulfilled this task with excellence had a deep-rooted combination of talent both in the translation, and the poetry arena.

I find that there are two distinct realms when it comes to translating poetry. First, there is the almost tangible realm that includes all the previous knowledge you need to acquire before you even dare to start translating a poem. Within such area you can include: reading poetry in general in both source and target language, devoting quite some time to reading as many works as possible written by the author chosen by you or appointed to you, as well as his/her biography, learning poetry theory describing different styles, metrics, rhythm, rhyming definitions, schools of thought, representative works, etc.

The other realm is rather less noticeable and obvious, when you try to pierce its surface with your eyes or even your mind. This unfathomable kingdom is a non-physical world only ruled by a subtle and unique combination of intellect, sensitivity, and aesthetic appreciation-expression. It is the place where all the marked paths seem to blur and turn into an inside-out crossroads. The only key in order to enter such realm is literary alchemy. The chosen ones are those translators who already are poets, to begin with, and then devote a portion of their genius to translating poetry. Only those who are poets in their own right, even if they write as amateurs, are able to truly transport the original poem into the safest and most creative harbor of the target language.

Translating poetry is, at best, a juggling act. Never forget that a poem is a literary work, in which the author uses language in an unusual way in order to create beauty.

·  You need to translate fairly, but it is also important to respect the different shades of language embellishments which ornate the original text, aka, poetic resources.

·  You will also need to exercise a little Holmes of your own, in order to discover the true intentions of the poet, if any, when he/she wrote the piece in question. 

.  And you have to be ready to accept the totally plausible reality that you might never ever discover the above. It is quite a futile task most of the time. The secret lies within the search. Even when it may as well render no fruits at all, you can learn so much more about the writer and their work by becoming a poetry-driven Indiana Jones.

·  Try to avoid overthinking, but don't trust yourself either, when it comes to interpreting the author. It is always best to remain somewhat in the middle, instead of being too simplistic or too complicated, when you need to bring the poem to life by reading it, and then translating it. Do not oversimplify what needs to be complex, and do not complicate what is brilliantly simple.

·   You will find it useful, but not foolproof, to follow your gut and mind instinct when you are facing a poetry translation. This "feeling" needs to be informed by, as mentioned previously, all the actual knowledge of the field, and the author.

·   In time, with practice, you will find that there is always a bit of "re-creative margin" for new twists to the material in the target language.

·   In a way, translating poetry and achieving an aesthetic as well as an effective final target text is as mysterious as the multi-layer chemistry that makes us fall in love. There is no rational explanation to it, but I can assure you it does exist, at least for a few blissful ones within the human race.

·   I would advise to leave your ego at the doorstep, before you begin translating a poem. Pride is not a good companion in this field. We are at the service of the poem, if not the author, but it is quite a holy and pleasurable sacrifice.

·   Learn to let the poem become a part of your sensitivity. Focus on its essence with your mind's eye. Be the poem, regardless of how corny or outdated this sounds.

·   When you translate a poem, it is just like playing a song with another musical instrument, yet it is still the same piece of music, the same artistic expression, with a different tool set and a new "temporary master".

·   As you might imagine, the field of poetry translation does not involve huge amounts of texts in bulk, to fill your days with linguistic bliss and your pockets with gold. Not at all. If you really feel you have been stung with this specific translation bug, begin with short pieces written by renowned poets. This is a way of enabling self-revision and corrections, because you can always check your work afterwards, and compare it with the already published translations.

·   Do not cheat yourself by reading the approved and published translations first. Be loyal to your efforts.

·   Read both the original and your translation aloud. Compare their features; rejoice in their respective music and rhythm.

·   Consider yourself an invaluable ally to the poet, in your own path to re-create his/her art and enabling other readers to enjoy its magic.

·   Accept your mistakes and your right choices with the same self-respect and enthusiasm. Mistakes are only stepping stones in our way towards excellence.

You might think the above sounds like an incoherent pendulum of contradictory actions. Even if it does, translating poetry is all about trying to find harmony. You have to be willing to seek harmony between the original text and all its nuances, including deep meaning and literary resources applied, and the best possible version you could deliver for your target readers. The rest is dust.  

Romina C. Cinquemani
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