Issue 2 | ,

The poetics of poetry translation

by on February 12, 2015

Should poetry be translated? This is an age-old question that has been asked and answered in different languages by different people across time. Like most questions, this one does not have a straightforward answer. Rather, discussions regarding the implications of translating poetry are still pervasive in academic discourse today.

As an English Literature student, this question has occurred to me several times. I find it amusing that although what I study is called English Literature, much of what I read comprises translations to English from an original text that was written in a different language. From Homer’s The Odyssey to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Gardener to Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Where would I, and other English Literature students like me, be without the art of translation? What would we be reading?

Despite the necessity of translation, it is worth considering the fact that translation is a significantly difficult task. This is because not only does the translator have to translate the language, but he or she also has to bear in mind the meter, rhythm, rhyme scheme and other structural elements of the poem itself. It is not enough to ensure that the meaning of the words remains the same across the languages, but the integrity of the poem’s composition should be retained in order for it to be a worthy translation. Many works of poetry are unique in their format, and their meaning does not exist solely in their words.  Rather, meaning can often be found in line lengths, rhyme scheme, punctuation etc.  Translation then runs the risk of losing some of that meaning when linguistic systems of the language change, which in turn, often alters the structure of the poem.

But does this mean that we should stop translating, give up, and demand of readers to have near-native fluency in a language in order to read its poetry? The Catch-22 here is quite similar to that inherent in the restoration of the ancient Ta Prohm temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Over the hundreds of years this temple has existed, the roots of the trees in the complex have grown around and in between the stones of the temple to such an extent that they have become an inseparable part of its structure. So what are the restorers to do? If they cut the trees down, the stones will collapse and the temple will become yet another pile of ruins. If they let the trees grow, over the next few hundred years, they may pull the stones apart and destroy the structure entirely.

Essentially, the idea is that translating poetry from one language to another is much like the task of restoring the Ta Prohm temple. Both tasks require extreme care and expertise, in order to maintain a particular structure. With the case of poetry, then, ignoring the meaning encoded in its physical structure would be akin to relentlessly deforesting Ta Prohm; the structure would fall apart and we would be left with ruins.

Take, for instance, the Haiku. A Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry, consisting of three lines with five, seven, and five syllables (or more technically, five, seven, and five moras, with two silent moras in between) in each line. Haikus were generally written about a man’s relationship to the nature around him. The minimalism of the poetic structure contributed in creating a form of writing that was more direct, appreciating the beauty of the smaller things in life in as few words as possible. Much of the Haiku’s beauty and purpose comes from its structure. Take, for example, a Haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827),

Oni to nari (5)

Hotoke to naru ya (7)

Doyoo gumo (5)

‘Gargantuan clouds during dog days (summer)
Take the shape of a demon,
Then change into the Buddha’ (trans. Yuzuru Miura)

Translating this from Japanese to English, then, not only introduces the concepts within the Haiku to the English-speaking world, but also introduces a structure of minimalism that had a profound influence on Modernist poets writing in English.

Ezra Pound, an American poet, developed the concept of Imagism from his studies of translated Japanese poetry and other cultural texts. Imagism placed value on clarity and precision of language. The most famous example of an Imagist poem, which Pound himself claimed was inspired by the form of the Haiku, is “In a Station of the Metro”. The poem goes,

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Although not strictly a Haiku, one can see how the minimalistic structure of the Haiku and its simple use of language informs the construction of this poem. The faces are directly compared to the image of the petals on a bough without, as we informally say, “any flowery language”. It’s like threading two different coloured beads on one string; they are separate but also attached. This simple, abstract and minimalist style of writing was characteristic of the early 20th century movement in literature known as Modernism, of which Pound was a major figure.

Another Modernist poem that is said to be inspired by the Haiku is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, a college friend of Ezra Pound and therefore no doubt just as influenced by Oriental translations. It follows,

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Prior to the early 20th century Modernist movement in English-language poetry, it was unthinkable, almost blasphemous, to write a poem like this, even though the Japanese had been writing Haikus since the 15th and 16th centuries.

My point is that, with the translation of Haikus from Japanese to English, the Anglo-centric world was introduced to a form of poetry that helped champion an entirely new movement in literature. A movement which shunned the flowery writing of the Romantic writers from the late 18th century for the direct minimalist simplicity in Modernist writing of the early 20th century.

Thus, it is important to note that when a translation happens from one language to another, it is also introducing the cultural norms of writing of that language to the culture of the people who read and write in the language in which the poem is being translated. In short, when you translate the poetry of one language to another, you introduce one culture to the other. This has powerful results. While notions of simplicity and clarity have existed in many forms of Japanese culture for a very long time, the translation of Haiku into English encouraged early Modernist English writers to experiment with the same minimal and precise use of words in their poetry. All of this has had an undeniable impact on Literature written in English.  Therefore, the possibility of learning and being inspired by poetic forms of other cultures, and using this to create new forms of poetry in different languages, is too valuable to stop translating poetry entirely.

However, when it comes to translation, it is not just the structure that the translator must be faithful to, but also the meaning. It is just as important that the subject matter of a poem is translated across, and so in discussions about poetry translation, the repeated concern I have come across is that of elements within the poem that cannot be translated into another language. Does attempting to translate one cultural element to another in some way alter the meaning of the poem? It is true that poets are products of their time and culture, and as a result their poetry will undoubtedly have an influence on their own cultural practices and experiences, which other languages may not be able to describe.

I first came across the problem of terms that do not correspond similarly across two cultures accidentally—while reading “In My Sky at Twilight” (1924), originally written in Spanish by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. I read the English translation by W. S. Merwin and a particular line, which perplexed me, was, “the lamp of my soul dyes your feet”. I could not understand what this was supposed to mean no matter what angle I tried to approach the line from, as I attempted to understand it in the English. How was the soul connected to feet? How is a lamp supposed to dye anything? I then went to the original Spanish line, provided next to the English translation in my edition of the anthology, which read, “la lámpara de mi alma te sonrosa los pies”, and asked my Spanish-speaking friends if the English translation was accurate. It was.

The line was equally perplexing in Spanish as it was in English. The solution to my problems was found in the tiny italicised sentence just below the title and above the poem, informing me that this poem was a paraphrase of a Bengali poem written by Rabindranath Tagore. Upon doing further research, I found that Tagore wrote a poem in Bengali, which Tagore himself translated into English and included it as the 30th poem of his collection titled The Gardener, published in 1915. Neruda then paraphrased the poem and wrote his own in Spanish, which was published in 1924 as part of his anthology titled Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair along with the English translations to all of the poems. So, essentially, we’re dealing with four poems here.

One particular line from Tagore’s translation to English, which I quote because I don’t know Bengali either, goes, “your feet are rosy-red with the glow of my heart’s desire”. This caught my attention because of the parallels with Neruda’s line. Both include a mention of feet and feature the image of glowing. In terms of structure, both lines were found in the second stanza in their respective poems. However, Tagore’s line easily resonated with me, perhaps because of my Indian background and exposure to Indian culture. Bengali brides colour their feet red with a dye known as alta. Knowing this, the line became much more poignant. Here, “lamp of my soul” in Neruda’s poem could not completely capture “glow of my heart’s desire”, because the concept of dyeing the woman’s feet and its association with marriage is foreign to the Hispanic cultures. And so, through translation, we don’t simply gain access to poems written in other languages, we also gain a sense of the specificities that make up the culture from which the language originates.

These are not the only issues associated with poetry translation. This isn’t even the beginning. But the more we discuss the issues, the more we are able to identify a need for translating poetry to our best abilities, not just into English but into as many languages as possible. Translating a poem from one language into another is not simply just sharing the writing, but also sharing cultural practices and ideologies across languages.  In today’s world where cultures, religions, and ideologies are constantly misunderstood and manipulated, a little bit of understanding has the power to go a long way. So the short answer to the question with which I began this article; should poetry be translated? Yes. Without a doubt.

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