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Translating poetry

Watch Dr Nicoletta Asciuto detail the process of translating poetry.
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Often when we learn a new language we’re asked to trans- -late and what feels like a linguistic version of mathematics. X in Italian means y in English and perhaps z in Latin. But suddenly, it’snot the same as w in Spanish or French. But literary translation is much more than a string of odd equations. The English word ‘translation’ comes from the Latin ‘translatio’ meaning the action of moving a thing from one place to another. And German is the only language which I know that has kept this meaning quite literally, in the word ‘Übersetzung’ Which depending on where the stress falls in the word can either mean to translate or quite literally to carry something across.
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I like to imagine translators to be fairies carrying goods from one shore of an imaginary river to the other. When translating poetry, the finest formal expression of literature, thriving under the double, triple, and quadruple meaning of words and the importance of sound, rhythm and beat, translators have to think very carefully about what it’s worth retaining and what is not. To return to our fairy metaphor, it’s often said that some of the most expensive goods are lost in the crossing of this river of translation and they sink right to the bottom. In this sense, translation is a perilous business and the same time an act of diplomacy.
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Any good translation is always the result of compromises and negotiation between source culture and language. So the culture and language in which the original text was written and the terminal culture and language - the ones that belong to the receivers. Translators of poetry need to ponder whether they want to sacrifice sense over sound, rhyme for example, or simply rhythm, or drop metre and form in favour of poetic imagery instead. But perhaps more importantly, they have to try a balance between retaining as much as possible of the poet’s style and making the poems attractive and intelligent to readers who do not know the original language.
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These decisions will significantly determine the success of a translation and its value for contemporary and future readers. Translations often make or break the reputation of a sudden poet in literary traditions other than their own. The act of translating poetry is one of generosity and altruism which enables writers and readers living on the two different sites of linguistic and cultural divide to meet and collaborate. Translating poetry is an intensified reading experience which allows you to spend time with a poet’s words and develop a much closer relationship with the text. Translation ultimately makes us better readers.

In this video, Dr Nicoletta Asciuto details the process of translating poetry: the difficulties, the joys, and what it means to her.

Translation has an interesting relationship to intertextuality. Here, one poet or translator isn’t quoting or invoking another writer, but importing them wholesale (including their own intertexts and points of reference) into another language.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question – we look forward to hearing from you!

What do you think about translating poetry – does it change the poem?

Should the translator try to be as accurate as possible in getting across the meanings of words?

Or should their focus be on poetic form and techniques (finding rhymes where the original also rhymes, for instance)?

Or is translation more about feeling, and capturing the mood and meaning of the original?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Poetry: How to Read a Poem

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