Saturday, 1 September 2012

Poetry translators – the heavyweights of the translation world?

Before beginning the MA in Literary Translation at UEA, I hardly ever had occasion to translate poetry; indeed, I didn’t really read poetry, having been scared stiff by what was probably inadequate teaching of John Keats and William Blake at secondary school. Finding myself on the MA, and required to produce essays, poems and translations thereof seemed to furnish good subject matter, being shorter and therefore easier to consider than a whole novel, for example. Thus it came about that I studied in depth German poems by Richard Dehmel, French poems by Baudelaire, and Dutch poems by Annie M.G. Schmidt and Ramsey Nasr. And lo and behold, I now find myself looking at 20th century German poems by women writers for my dissertation.

Since poems are characterised by condensed language that often has more than one level of meaning, with particular attention paid to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm, and imagery, poetry translation is clearly no mean feat. But how should we, as translators, decide which aspects of a poem we are going to pay particular attention to?

One area we might decide to focus on is the style of a poem: elements such as repetition, iconicity, metaphor and ambiguity. These features and devices merit close analysis because they represent choices on the part of the original author. Or maybe we might decide that what matters most is the sound or rhythm, especially if the poet sets high store by performing her or his poetry. And what should we do if the poem we wish to translate has a strict metre and rhyme - do we try and retain this, at the risk of parodying the original, or do we render it in free verse?

Maybe we might want to take the context of a poem into consideration, or not at all. If the poem is part of an anthology, we may decide it should stand on its own and that we do not need to consider the circumstances under which it was written. Again, we might want to focus on the content of a poem, if we decide this is the most important element. This could certainly be considered to be the case with some of the Holocaust poetry I am currently translating.

If the poems in question are for children, we might want to pay attention to the read-aloud quality of the original poem, and to humour. We might also be more inclined than normal to domesticate, in order to make the translations more accessible to children. Or we might side with Venuti and decide that what counts is to draw attention to the “foreignness” of the original poem, so as not to “erase the cultural values of the source text”.

Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Nonetheless, many poets and translators persist at this “impossible” task, and I have unwittingly found myself climbing into the ring and joining them.

Rebekah Wilson is a freelance translator from French, German and Dutch. For more information, go to