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Mission Impossible: Translating Poetry

Mission Impossible: Translating Poetry

Humankind has used various forms of art for centuries to express their feelings and thoughts: painting, music, literature. People also turn to poetry to express their feelings; however, at first glance, a poem appears as a solid structure formed by words, yet it is a very complex form of art that offers a different journey to each reader. Poetry has political, social, and cultural meanings and human emotions; poems are written to express one’s feelings and judge one’s origins and situation, either positively or negatively. As is often seen in Ottoman and English literature, eulogies were even composed to sing one’s praises. Poetry is complex because of its versatility, and due to its sophistication, poetry translation is considered impossible by some linguists.


Is Poetry Translation Impossible?

Poetry is a complex structure not only semantically but also stylistically. Therefore, it is essential to preserve the style and stay loyal to the source text when translating poetry. Sometimes the technique used is chosen by the poet for a purpose, so it must be preserved. However, preserving style in poetry translation is not as simple as it sounds; word plays, sound elements, or a metaphor used by the poet in the source language may not have a counterpart in the target language. For this very reason, some linguists feel that it is impossible to translate poetry, but in fact, it is not. Errors or deficiencies are often found in poetry translation, proving that it is impossible to do translation by remaining utterly faithful to the source text. Sometimes loss of meaning is experienced while preserving the style, and occasionally stylistic changes are inevitable when trying to stay true to the message.


To give an example of the changes that occur during the translation of a poem, one can compare the famous American poet Langston Hughes’ poem Christ in Alabama and its Turkish translation. It would be helpful to present the first lines of his poem titled “Jesus in Alabama” and Talat Sait Halman’s translation of Jesus in Alabama.

Christ is a nigger, İsa zencidir
Beaten and black: Silleyle sopayla dövülen kara:
Oh, bare your back! Ah, aç sırtını kamçılara.


As seen in the example, the insulting emphasis of the word nigger in American culture is absent in the Turkish equivalent because the word has a lengthy background in English history. In the second line of the source text, the poet emphasizes the beaten character and his skin color. However, in the target text, the translator added the tool used to beat the character. Also, to reflect the character’s skin color, the translator chose not to use the exact equivalent of the word black. In addition, the rhyme structure seen in the second and third lines has been preserved in the target language. As can be seen from this example, sometimes it is necessary to make changes, additions, or deletions when translating poetry.


Important Steps in Poetry Translation

  • Unravel the underlying meaning by reading the poem several times
  • Research the poet’s background thoroughly
  • Research the cultural elements of the poem
  • Localize any cultural elements so the target audience can understand without compromising originality
  • Carefully examine stylistic elements such as rhyme scheme and phonetic harmony in the source text
  • Stay as true to the source text as possible


What If They Didn’t Try to Achieve the Impossible?

Fortunately, we have translators who do the impossible! Otherwise, you need to know French to understand Aragon, Russian to understand Pushkin, English to understand Eliot, Italian to understand Dante, Spanish to understand Lorca? How could we have learned all these languages together with their culture and history? Poetry translation is difficult but not impossible.

Mission Impossible: Translating Poetry

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