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Lost in Translation: Should Poetry be Translated?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UPR chapter.

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Writer, poet, and professor, Rita Dove once said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” By definition, poetry is a type of literature that conveys a thought, describes a scene, or tells a story in a concentrated, lyrical arrangement of words. In other words, it is a form of written expression used to share ideas, express emotions, and create imagery. Poetry is not limited to one specific form or language, but how can we understand poetry written in a foreign language? That is where poetry translators come in. Professor Francis R. Jones wrote that, apart from transforming text, “poetry translation also involves cognition, discourse, and action by and between human and textual actors in a physical and social setting.” In the abstract of the Oxford Handbook of Translation Studies, he added that “poetry translators are concerned to interpret a source poem’s layers of meaning, to relay this interpretation reliably, and/or to ‘create a poem in the target language which is readable and enjoyable as an independent, literary text.’”

So, that brings the question… should poetry be translated? Upon doing research, I found that the American Poet, Robert Frost once remarked, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Another quote that I found was by the lexicographer, Samuel Johnson that said “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.” But does poetry truly get lost in translation? Is it realistic to expect readers to learn all the languages in the world in order to preserve the original text? 

There is no doubt that poetic language is considered the most difficult to translate. ALTA Language Services, Inc. mentions that like medical or legal translation, literary translation requires a specific vernacular and skill. Because of that, I decided to interview a professional translator, the professor Jane Ramírez, to understand Frost’s and Johnson’s words. Though she is not specialized in poetry, she shared her thoughts as a professional translator and professor of translation at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. 

Q&A Section: 

Lizbeth Rodríguez: Why did you decide not to translate poetry?

Jane Ramírez: I never made a conscious decision not to translate poetry. In fact, I remember being assigned a poem to translate when I was a student at the Graduate Program in Translation at UPRRP in the 1990s. I enjoyed the challenge, and the professor praised my effort. In real life, however, I have received only one request to translate poetry. In that case, the poem consisted of song lyrics in English. I thought the Anglophone client merely wanted his Spanish-speaking wife to understand the meaning of the English lyrics, but, unfortunately, he expected my translation to be immediately singable in Spanish, using the same melody, while accurately conveying all the meaning of the original lyrics. It was an impossible task, and I turned it down. I like to read poetry, but I don’t write it. A translator needs to be a very good writer; a translator of poetry needs to be a very good poet as well. I am not.

LR: What do you consider to be the most difficult aspects of translating poetry?

JR:  I believe the most difficult aspects of translating poetry would be a) deciding on the form, and b) creating (or re-creating) a rhythm or meter and a rhyme scheme. In the class mentioned above, most of the students were native Spanish speakers who struggled with the concept of meter; as a native English speaker, I struggled with the concept of counting syllables. The translator has to analyze the form of the original poem, decide whether that form will even function in the target language, and choose the form that will best convey not only the semantic aspects (the meaning of the words) but also the mood and tone of the source-language poem. I said before that the translator of poetry needs to be a very good poet; it is also necessary to be well educated in the forms and styles of poetry in both languages. Can any poem in Spanish be adequately translated into English as a limerick, or a sonnet? If the translator chooses to use the meter and rhyme scheme of a sonnet, will there be English words available that both convey the meaning of the Spanish poem and also rhyme in all the right places? 

A translated poem needs to create in its readers/listeners the same effect that the original poem created in its own readers/listeners. It also must be a “good poem,” with a valid poetic form in the target language that still reflects the form of the original. That’s a very complicated order, and whatever the translator does, some of the readers will love it and some will hate it.

LR: How do you decide between a literal translation and a freer translation that captures and conveys an author’s feelings?

JR: Freedom versus faithfulness is an age-old debate in translation. In my opinion, there is no single “correct” answer to the question, and a translator rarely works at either extreme. As usual, it all depends on the context! Even a word-for-word translation usually fails the “faithfulness” test, because “no one ever talks that way.” Therefore, the meaning is not conveyed. An extremely free translation may carry all of the meaning, but lose the charm of the source text. Whether translating poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, you must analyze each text on its own merits and choose a spot somewhere on the continuum—on the imaginary line between faithful and free. A scholarly article, for instance, will probably be closer to the “faithful” end, because facts must be accurately stated in a formal register. Fiction, on the other hand, tends to lean more toward the “free” end, because it needs to sound natural in the target language. 

I learned from the interview that a poetry translator needs to be a very good poet and be educated about the styles and forms of poetry in both languages. ALTA mentions that literary translators have two options when translating poetry. The first option is to translate the work for accuracy, thus losing much of the beauty of the language (the “poetry”). The second option is to translate the poem for beauty, thus losing much of the accuracy. After the interview and research I concluded that yes, poetry can be translated. Lucía Román Canivell, in Can Poetry be Translated? mentions that translation is not necessarily a negative thing, as it is also a key element in the existence of world literature. Furthermore she presents that poetry itself is meant to transmit feelings, but these feelings are transmitted in a different way in order to reach a broader audience. 

So, Robert Frost and Samuel Johnson, I argue that poetry can be translated. It is a difficult process and many different aspects must be taken into consideration, including the opinion of the poet. Whilst there is room for error, it is more realistic to translate a poem and try to evoke the same emotion in both languages, than it is to learn a new language to understand a poem. In the end, the meaning will not be lost in translation, but rather celebrated around the world. 

Lizbeth M. Rodríguez González is a writer of the Her Campus at UPR chapter at the University of Puerto Rico,Río Piedras campus. She oversees the life, career, entertainment and culture verticals on the magazine’s website, focusing mainly on music, dramas, and relationships. Beyond Her Campus, Lizbeth works as a social media manager of the Students Council of the Faculty of Education at UPRRP. She manages the council’s social media platforms and plans and executes bonding events for the faculty. Currently, she is an undergraduate student majoring in English Education for Second Language Learners (ESL) K-12. In her free time, Lizbeth enjoys listening to music, swimming,reading books and keeping up with the latest trends of pop culture. She is a Korean Drama aficionado that has most probably watched almost every drama.