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Poetry in Translation

Although Robert Frost said that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” some of the greatest pieces of literature that we continue to study today are indeed translated. From the Odissey to the Divine Comedy, to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it seems like the poetry we all know, love and learn about is heavily translated and researched, and it keeps surprising scholars every day. Although Google tried to create a software that would be able to translate poetry (The Guardian) – unsuccessfully, it seems – translating this type of literature seems even harder than translating ‘plain old’ prose. With structures to respect and sounds to evoke and re-create, a poetry translator is tasked with the responsibility of generating the same emotions the original poem would give to people from often completely different cultures and sensitivities.


This is why some poet translators can also be people that don’t even speak and know another foreign language. Take Ted Hughes, for example: although he only knew English, he would collaborate with native speakers who would translate the literal meaning for him, and he would rework the poems and give them a new life.


In this issue, we are delighted to present to you some reviews and thoughts on translated poetry, a topic that is often overlooked.


As an incurable romantic, poetry has always had a particular fascination for me. After reading tomes and tomes of Italian and English poetry, I decided to start reading Spanish and French poetry, too – languages that I have studied but which I do not speak and read perfectly. Thus, I discovered the world of poetry in translation – a world very different from that of books in fiction. Reading poems in translation has a totally different affect: poetry is not just about the content. Each word chosen and every use of punctuation contributes to conveying a very specific message. After reading a Neruda book in Italian, I decided to try to re-read that same book in the parallel text edition. Let me tell you it was a completely new experience. Having the original text in front of you (even if you don't understand it) allows you to appreciate the musicality, the sweetness and the hardness of the words chosen by the author. And if you want to live the ‘complete experience’ you can often find the chosen text on YouTube to appreciate its correct pronunciation and finally understand what the author wanted to communicate.


Now you are ready to put all the pieces together, as you would do with a jigsaw: the sound, the text and the musicality to enjoy your chosen piece of poetry. 


Do you want to approach the world of poetry in translation? Here are some texts for you to start with:

  • 100 Love Sonnets / Cien sonetos de amor by Pablo Neruda and translated by Stephen Tapscott. University of Texas Pr; Bilingual edition

  • The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977 by Eugenio Montale and translated by William Arrowsmith. W W Norton & Co Inc

  • Preversities: A Jacques Prevert Sampler by Jacques Prevert and translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Commonwealth Books, Black Widow; Bilingual edition


“Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,

Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,

Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.”


These lines were translated from the ancient Greek poet Sappho by the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and formed my introduction to poetry in translation. I have since then been grateful to read so many poets in translation like, Yehuda Amichai, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos and Yu Xiang. But my travels in translated poetry barely scratch the surface of the vast treasures awaiting readers of translated poetry. The transcending and universal qualities of poetry as celebrated by one of literature’s great champions, Aristotle have long been appreciated by people everywhere from all walks of life, but as globalisation has enabled us to read more widely in translation, poetry is one genre that has not always undergone transference across languages very well. There are currently raging debates about whether poetry can indeed be translated or not. To add to this issue there are so many different types of strategies employed by translators when approaching poetry. For example, ‘Phonemic Translation’: reproducing the source language sound in the target language, or ‘Rhymed Translation’: transferring the rhyme of the original poem into the target language.


Despite the arguments, there are so many reasons to read poetry in translation. If we think of the myriad ways of looking at a painting – something made or created similarly to a poem – then maybe the fact of a poem’s translation is itself just one more meaning in translated poetry? Reading poetry in translation offers us a glimpse of each language’s singularity across the ages. As demonstrated by Argentinian poet, Alejandra Pizarnik addressing her fellow poet Emily Dickinson:


“Something cries in the air;

sounds are sketching out the dawn.

She ponders eternity.”