Web Translation Projects/Translation of Poetry

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[project at the beginning stages of development]

The aim of this project is to provide learners with some insight into the theory and practice of translation of poetry. This project is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Please, do not expect to find definitive answers to "why's" and "how's" of poetry translation practice. Do not take this course at a face value. It is meant to - as could be gathered from subsequent parts of the project - to be an introduction.

Introduction to the Translation Problem[edit | edit source]

Difficulties of Poetry Translation[edit | edit source]

As a translation practice, poetry has the longest history (one could say that this is rather a truism since poetry is one of the oldest literary genres, thus its translation would, adequately, have a long history as well) out of all literary genres. In and of itself, the translation of poetry is alike and completely unlike the translation process of prose or functional texts. While the translation of those does entail numerous difficulties, the ones encountered while translating poetry are quite different in nature. Those issues could be identified as the following:

1. Linguistic Issues

  • Imagery
  • Similes
  • Metaphors
  • Phrasal verbs
  • Idioms
  • Puns
  • Grammar of the source language

2. Literary or Aesthetic Issues

  • The form of a poem – what type of literary convention we are dealing with.
  • Sound of a poem – alliteration, assonance, rhymes, meter…

3. Cultural Issues

  • Intertextuality
  • Cultural references
  • Humour
  • References to history of the region

Strategies of Poetry Translation[edit | edit source]

"The translation of poetry is the field where most emphasis is normally put on the creation of a new independent poem, and where literal translation is usually condemned." - Peter Newmark

There are several approaches to /how/ to translate poetry - some more theoretical, some more practical. Following Andre Lefevere's research on the topic, we can distinguish seven (7) differenet strategies of poetry translation that are in use, with varying popularity.

Strategies of Translation of Poetry by A. Lefevere (as in S. Bassnett, 2002, p. 87)
Type of strategy Explanation
phonemic translation "attempts to reproduce the SL sound in the TL while at the same time producing an acceptable paraphrase of the sense"
literal translation word-for-word translation
metrical translation "the dominant criterion is the reproduction of the SL metre"
poetry into prose self-explanatory; a poem is rendered in prose
rhymed translation a strategy where, as Bassnett says, "the translator 'enters into a double bondage' of metre and rhyme" - in other words, metre and rhyme become the most important feature of a poem for a translator
blank verse translation replacing the SL poetic features of the SL with a blank verse - a poetic form that allows for more liberties and at whole is a respectable form in the English language system
interpretation a distinction between versions of a text, where a "text is retained but the form is changed" and imitations of a text, which, in essence, are rewritings and all they have in common with the ST is the title and the general premise

In the table therein are presented examples of translations strategies based on the practice of poetry translation. We must note that the translation strategy will change depending on the skopos (i.e. aim, goal) of the translation and the theoretical approach that we discern as fit.

Additionally, Stanisław Barańczak in his work on translation of poetry (both for children as well as for adults) explicates the following important points about translation of poetry:

  • First, while translating poetry, one ought to be ambitious and aim to render as much as possible of the original.
  • Second, translation of poetry, at some level, will always be an act of interpretation.
  • Third, one cannot definitively separate the form from the meaning of the poem - often times, those two rely on each other.
  • Fourth, a translation should be faithful to the poetics of the era of the original. In other words, a translation should not be anachronistic to the original.
  • Fifth - a translator should pay attention to the semantic dominant and the stylistic dominant of a poem. The former means the main, core meaning of the poem (which can be realized by many means, from linguistic to, e.g. rymes in the poem, which could be essential to its meaning); the latter means the main formal characteristics of a poem. (Barańczak notes, that the ||type|| of poetry a translator is dealing with will suggest on what dominant they should focus. In case of translation of poetry "for adults" - semantic dominant takes precedent. In the case of translation of children's verse, in general stylistic dominant would take precedent, however, this always depends on the skopos of the poem. Before translating, one must evaluate what the poem is "doing" and what do we want to "do" in translation.)
  • Six, (which actually should be the first one) - never translate a poem into prose. Barańczak makes it clear that rewriting a poem into prose is the worst thing one could do to it.
  • Seven, (second?) - do not translate good poetry into bad poetry, i.e. do not translate poetry badly, or at least do not publish it in such form. It's an act of disservice to the original to do that.
  • Eight, a translation, in and of itself, irrespective of the original, should be a work of art. If a translation judged by itself, without knowing the original, has no artistic merit, then it is a bad translation - and should not exist.
  • Nine (although Barańczak does not explicate this as a separate point) - if you aim to stylize the language of translation, then do it either well and accordingly to the times of the original, or do not do it at all.
  • Ten - children's poetry should not be too foreign in translation, because that would make it incomprehensible to a child reader, thus distorting the point of the poem - if the original aims to be "familiar" culturally - some poems should be domesticated.
  • Eleven - children's verse is even more poetic than that aimed for an adult reader - thus, a translator ought to take note of the sonorous, linguistic aspect of an original.

Practical Examples of Poetry Translation[edit | edit source]

In the following section we will discuss the different practical examples of how a different translation strategy changes the final product.

Adam Mickiewicz and Pan Tadeusz[edit | edit source]

The first example is an excerpt from Adam Mickiewicz's epic poem Pan Tadeusz, and its chosen translations.

1) Maude Ashurst Biggs, Master Thaddeus or the Last Foray in Lithuania, London 1885 (blank verse)

2) George Rapall Noyes, Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania. A Story of Life among Polish Gentlefolk, London & Toronto, New York 1917 (prose)

3) Marcel Weyland, Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania, a Tale of the Gentry During 1811 – 1812, Blackheath, NSW 2004 (verse)

4) Leonard Kress, Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania: a History of the Nobility in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse, Philadelphia 2006 (10 syllables with 5 stresses, with alternating rhymes)

(the above data comes from here, where you can also find a complete list of all existing English translations of the poem - here are displayed just chosen examples)

Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz
An excerpt of the original Maude Ashurst Biggs's translation (corresponding excerpt, p. 3-5) Marcel Weyland's translation Leonard Kress' translation
Właśnie dwukonną bryką wjechał młody panek

I, obiegłszy dziedziniec, zawrócił przed ganek.

Wysiadł z powozu; konie porzucone same,

Szczypać trawę ciągnęły powoli pod bramę.

      We dworze pusto, bo drzwi od ganku zamknięto

Zaszczepkami i kołkiem zaszczepki przetknięto.

Podróżny do folwarku nie biegł sług zapytać,

Odemknął, wbiegł do domu, pragnął go powitać.

Dawno domu nie widział, bo w dalekiem mieście

      Kończył nauki, końca doczekał nareszcie.

Wbiega i okiem chciwie ściany starodawne

Ogląda czule, jako swe znajome dawne.

Też same widzi sprzęty, też same obicia,

Z któremi się zabawiać lubił od powicia;

      Lecz mniej wielkie, mniej piękne, niż się dawniej zdały.

I też same portrety na ścianach wisiały:

Tu Kościuszko w czamarce krakowskiej, z oczyma

Podniesionemi w niebo, miecz oburącz trzyma;

Takim był, gdy przysięgał na stopniach ołtarzów,

      Że tym mieczem wypędzi z Polski trzech mocarzów,

Albo sam na nim padnie. Dalej w polskiej szacie

Siedzi Rejtan, żałosny po wolności stracie;

W ręku trzyma nóż, ostrzem zwrócony do łona,

A przed nim leży Fedon i żywot Katona.

      Dalej Jasiński, młodzian piękny i posępny,

Obok Korsak, towarzysz jego nieodstępny,

Stoją na szańcach Pragi, na stosach Moskali,

Siekąc wrogów, a Praga już się wkoło pali.

Nawet stary stojący zegar kurantowy

      W drewnianej szafie poznał u wniścia alkowy,

I z dziecinną radością pociągnął za sznurek,

By stary Dąbrowskiego usłyszeć mazurek.

This very moment, in a two-horse chaise,

A youthful gentleman approached the gate,

And traversing the courtyard came before

The gallery. He lighted from the chaise.

The horses, left there, ’gan to nip the grass

Before the door, at leisure. Empty seemed

The house ; the doors were locked and fastened close

With bolts and padlock. But the traveller

Ran not unto the farm to call for servants;

But oped the door, and ran into the house.

He longed to welcome it, since he for long

Had not beheld his home. For in the city

Far off for education he had stayed;

The end long waited for had come at last.

He ran within, and eagerly he gazed,

And tenderly, upon those ancient walls

As old acquaintances. He viewed again

The self-same furniture, same tapestry,

With which he loved to play from swaddling bands.

But less of size it seemed, less beautiful

Than formerly. And those same portraits hung

Around the walls. There Kościuszko, clad

In the Cracovian czamara, raised

His eyes to heaven, and grasped a two-hand sword;

Such as when, on the altar-steps, he swore

He with this sword would drive the despots three

From Poland, or himself upon it fall.

And further Rejtan sat, in Polish dress

Grieving for freedom lost; he grasped a knife,

The blade towards his breast; before him lay

Phaedo and Cato’s life. Jasinski there

A beautiful and sadly-looking youth;

Beside him Korsak, his unsevered friend.

They stand on Praga’s ramparts, over piles

Of Muscovites, the foemen cutting down;

But Praga burned already round them. Even

The ancient clock with chimes the traveller knew

In wooden case, at the entrance of the alcove.

And with a childish joy he pulled the string

To hear again Dombrowski’s old mazurka[1].

In a two-horse chaise, just then, a young man approached;

After circling the courtyard drew up at the porch,

And then leapt from the carriage; the team, left to wait,

Ambled, nibbling the grasses, towards the front gate.

The manor house seemed empty; the door was pulled to

And secured with a staple, with a peg pushed through.

The Traveller did not run to the farm to inquire,

Unlatched it, ran in quickly, to greet it desired:

A long time now from home, in a far distant town,

He had worked at his studies, now laid his books down.

He enters, with eyes hungry regards those walls ancient,

With a tender regard, as his friends old and patient.

Sees the same bits and pieces, same hangings and covers

He had loved in his childhood; but now he discovers

They are smaller than once seemed to him, and less glorious.

On the walls the same portraits of patriots and warriors:

Here is Kosciuszko, wearing his Kraków cap, kneeling,

Towards heaven eyes turned, sword in both hands, appealing

To God at his high altar, and swearing defiance:

This sword shall drive from Poland the three mighty giants

Or himself will fall on it. There, in Polish dress,

Sits Rejtan, he at freedom's loss quite comfortless,

In his hand, point to breast, he is holding a knife,

Before him, open, 'Phaedo' lies, and Cato's 'Life'.

Further, grim-faced Jasinski, youth fair, near his tried

And inseparable Korsak, erect by his side

On Praga's ramparts, sabring the foes from a mound

Of dead Russians, while Praga's aflame all around.

He even the old chiming clock well recollected

In its wooden case, close by the alcove erected,

And with old child-like pleasure he pulled at the chain,

Old Dabrowski Mazurka to hear once again.

A young man raced his carriage through the yard,

halted his team by the porch and vaulted down.

His horses dragged the coach, and panting hard,

began to graze. The door was shut, the lawn

deserted--anxiously he rushed to greet

inhabitant and house alike, unlatched

the lock, dismayed he found no one to meet.


The youth was only recently dispatched

from a distant city where he'd gone to school.

Now finished with his studies, he relearns

the old floor planks, eager to roam and rule

halls hung with tapestries. Now he returns

to find that nothing is unchanged. The halls

all seem less grand, perhaps a little quainter.

The portraits he remembers still grace the walls:

Kosciuszko in Cracovian dress. (The painter

surely had in mind the time he swore,

clutching his sword, his eyes to heaven cast,

he'd drive the occupier from the door

of every Pole, or make this act his last.)

Rejtan was next, mourning his freedom's loss;

knife stuck in his own breast by his own hand,

(Plutarch's Life of Cato open across

his desk.) Next was Jasinski, his last stand:

the hero, young, handsome, and melancholy,

beside Korsak, comrades to the end.

(They stand in trenches aware of their huge folly:

dead Russians all around; they can't defend

Warsaw--engulfed by flames from the attack.)

Tadeusz sees the antique chiming clock,

recalling how he'd tug a string in back;

repeating it provides a pleasing shock,

the same Mazurka of Dombrowski plays.

original, in Polish alexandrines blank verse in the style of Milton[2] verse 10 syllables with 5 stresses, with alternating rhymes[3]
George Rapall Noyes' translation
A young gentleman had just entered in a two-horse carriage, and, after making a turn about the yard, he stopped before the porch and descended; his horses, left to themselves, slowly moved towards the gate, nibbling the grass. The mansion was deserted, for the porch doors were barred and the bar fastened with a pin. The traveller did not run to make inquiries at the farmhouse but opened the door and ran into the mansion, for he was eager to greet it. It was long since he had seen the house, for he had been studying in a distant city and had at last finished his course. He ran in and gazed with eager emotion upon the ancient walls, his old friends. He sees the same furniture, the same hangings with which he had loved to amuse himself from babyhood, but they seemed less beautiful and not so large as of old. And the same portraits hung upon the walls. Here Kosciuszko, in his Cracow coat, with his eyes raised to heaven, held his two-handed sword; such was he when on the steps of the altar he swore that with this sword he would drive the three powers from Poland or himself would fall upon it. Farther on sat Rejtan, in Polish costume, mourning the loss of liberty; in his hands he held a knife with the point turned against his breast, and before him lay Phaedo and The Life of Cato. Still farther on Jasinski, a fair and melancholy youth, and his faithful comrade Korsak stand side by side on the entrenchments of Praga, on heaps of Muscovites, hewing down the enemies of their country—but around them Praga is already burning.

He recognised even the tall old musical clock in its wooden case near the chamber door, and with childish joy he pulled at the string, in order to hear Dombrowski's old mazurka.




Ezra Pound's approach to translation of poetry[edit | edit source]

As an interesting example, that strays from the typical practice of poetry translation, we will discuss Pound's translations of Chinese poetry. Those translations are atypical in the sense that Pound did not know the Chinese language (in any of its dialects) and, while translating classical Chinese poetry, he used glossaries. What is exceptional is despite his lack of competence when it comes to the practical use of the Chinese language, his translations are regarded to be particularly good, if not excellent - some scholars deem them to be one of the best translations of classical Chinese poetry.

In the collection of his poetry Ezra Pound: Translations (1963), published by New Directions, his collection of translations from Chinese is introduced as: "Cathay. For the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga. (1915)"

As Bassnett says, Ezra Pound's "purpose in writing the poem, he claimed, was to bring a dead man to life". The phrase "bring a dead man to life" is of utmost importance here - it hints at what Pound's methodology in poetry translation - if we can ever call such practice as that - is. Pound does not claim to be translating a poem literally - his goal is to resurrect the author, to make him speak anew, to paraphrase and rewrite. Obviously, the particular poem Bassnett discusses (here) is a special case, we cannot claim that all of Pound's translations are like that - that would be an overstatement - nevertheless, it does hint at an attitude to translation that Pound represents.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  1. "Master Thaddeus; or, the Last foray in Lithuania : an historical epic poem in twelve books. Vol. 1 Last foray in Lithuania Pan Tadeusz - Kujawsko-Pomorska Digital Library". kpbc.umk.pl. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  2. Franzini, Greta. "English translations of Pan Tadeusz: a comparison with TRACER". Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  3. Franzini, Greta. "English translations of Pan Tadeusz: a comparison with TRACER". Retrieved 2021-05-04.