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Translating the poetics of the original poem


This is rather a controversial issue: time and time again, when I am editing translated poetry, I see that even experienced translators somehow don’t take the poetics of the original poem into account. They get the meaning really well, they get the English version to work poetically, but they fail to tie the meaning to the poetics. I am not sure why this happens.


Perhaps this is simply the most difficult part. Meaning in poetics is something so tightly entwined with the intricacies of a language, that it must be the most difficult part of translation to carry over this tight coupling to a completely new linguistic system. I would even go as far as to say that in some cases, it is simply impossible.

That’s not to say that it can’t be done, ever. If a poem’s meaning is tied to its poetics in a way that contemporary English can’t replicate, that’s not to say that future English won’t be able to. Or “neologistic” English. Sometimes, it might require a freedom with the language that some translators are not comfortable with.


Great points! I think nowadays we live more in a communication culture than ever before, but not necessarily one that leads to deeper understanding or meaning of the words we are actually saying. This, in some ways, is reflected in translators who are not willing to accept the huge amount of responsibility placed upon them. Of course, some translators look past the logical linguistic footsteps and set out to capture the spirit of the poet and powerfully project the original meaning the author had intended. (Instinct must play a huge part in this.)

Having said that, it must be quite strange to divide a poem up into small sections/verses/stanzas (which I imagine is quite subjective), and then take a step back to examine the text as a whole. Surely, the translator must adapt a more holistic way of thinking. This must take decades of practice.


It does take decades of practice, yes. That’s not to say it can’t be done without all those years of doing it, but it gets somewhat easier. And of course every poet is different. And do we really ever know what s/he intended? We can make guesses, for which we can provide lots of evidence, and maybe it’s the accuracy of that sort of guess, or interpretation, that really does improve with practice. There’s something common to all poetry: maybe just the fact that (rather than how) the poetic structure always relates to the meaning. The problem with some translations is that they treat the meaning and the poetic structure as though they were separate, and then try to transfer them separately. And you can’t do that, any more than you could write an original poem that way.


I shall further indulge my Wittgenstein obsession by quoting his story that when it comes to meaning, we tend to think that we have both the cow and the money to buy it with. We are natural dualists. In fact, we have only the money, with which we can buy a cow.

There are of course different ways of translating poetry: I first read German poetry in the Penguin Book of German Verse, which printed the poems with a plain prose translation below. No problem, as long as you can read German. I like the way that Arc publishes the source and target texts facing each other: you can keep an eye on the poetics, as it were.

Above all, translating poetics involves being a very good reader of the source text and asking all the time what makes it poetry: why did it have to be written like this? I think that really great poems had to be written. The same should apply to their translations.


But I’m not altogether sure that the the illustration of the cow (Jun 24, wilson) explains to the reader who may have little or no linguistic experience the problem for the translator except to say how enormously difficult it is particularly with poetry.
I would like to briefly comment on the note Ben (above) made; his first paragraph, to which I fully agree, meant I quite understood when a translator from the Russian said to me that it is impossible to do real justice to the poetry of Pushkin. I would suggest that the further in time we move away from the poets times not only is it more difficult to engage with the actual period in which the original was written but it still remains a conundrum when it comes to the translation of the texture and complexities of the actual words as originally written. Hence the impossibility of ever producing an “accurate” translation of a form that is basically alien to the target language. So having said that we surely have to strike a compromise and accept the translator be given the freedom to give a rendition as close in the meaning of the original as possible but with as poetic a dimension that will at least reflect something of the original. Luckily for us not all languages are as difficult or idiosyncratic as Russian, hence one can expect good if not very good results. It is also good to see a certain harmony within the ranks where j boase beier agrees with paris that an holistic approach is probably the best way forward in most instances.


I have just been reading Francis Jones on translating poetry and he says that most translators do indeed try to write a text that will represent the source text but that will also work as a poem. I think that Tony is right to say that this gets more difficult as time goes by, because readers no longer share the poetics of, say, Baroque German poetry (on which I am now working), so that the notion of accuracy does become problematic, and we need to look at transformation. But how far can transformation go before a poem no longer represents a source text?


Perhaps it is a cultural issue…?
I live in Brussels and translate poetry for English native writers into French.
Brussels-based, I often come across people who would like to understand what they are reading and to grasp the gist of certain poems.
Should you have any recommendations or advice for me on how to offer my services to writers, I would be very happy to hear from you.

Yours Sincerely,

Nicky FitzGerald


Good afternoon,

I live in Brussels and translate poetry for English native writers into French.
Brussels-based, I often come across people who would like to understand what they are reading and to grasp the gist of certain poems.
Should you have any recommendations or advice for me on how to offer my services to writers, I would be very happy to hear from you.
I suppose certain writers might even be flattered if somebody offers to translate their work…?

Yours Sincerely,

Nicky FitzGerald
European Space Agency
av de Cortenbergh 52
B-1000 Brussels


Hi Nicky, I have replied here: Help for new translators


i think it might be helpful to ban that phrase altogether:… “work as a poem”?? - surely a piece of writing either IS a poem or ISN’T! Reproduction of the parameters of rhyme, meter, stanza form and the rest in a translation have no value unless they are informed by a poetic imagination which has the added ability to resonate in sympathy with the original. Otherwise I can’t see that it has any more point than the (perfectly valid) alternative of a prose translation (to which one might add perhaps a footnote stating e.g. original in four iambic quatrains rhymed abab etc). Perhaps translations of poetry need a system of classification with regard to their intent with headings such as “informative” (e.g. prose translations), “artistic” (e.g. a translation that IS a poem in its own right) “version” (as “artistic” but much freer), etc. So many translations even in standard editions of major poets read in a kind of English that doesn’t exist anywhere else and can only be described as “translatorese”, full of bizarre vocabulary, archaisms and/or odd inversions of sentence order all of which wouldn’t matter so much if they were reflections of the original in some way. Unfortunately they generally aren’t !
(I’m not trying to be confrontational, just concerned!)


I think Francis Jones uses “work as a poem” to mean “be a poem”. That is, to be a poem and therefore to have the effects that a poem has.
I agree completely with Peter that the translated poem is informed by a poetics in sympathy with the original and would add that the translated poem therefore (this is what I have always assumed Francis means) will do the things that poetry does: cause its readers to stop and think, cause them to re-think, make them feel.
I don’t think Peter is being confrontational at all. Translations of poetry that are not poems and aren’t clearly labelled as something else don’t only give translation a bad name, they give poetry a bad name, as though it were something which could be expressed in some other way. I have heard people ask: what’s the point of poetry? Why not just write what you want to say clearly? That’s to misunderstand poetry, and when translators of poetry misunderstand it themselves, that really doesn’t help.


Maybe when you saw that the original idea is changed, you need to make some notes, that it is not what was in the original version. I think it also depends on where and by whom the translation was made. If only one person does it, then such misinterpretations will increase. If a special service or a company, where this process is done by more people, then it might reduce this misunderstanding. :smirk::slight_smile:

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