Translating poetry

You can’t preserve every aspect of a text when translating. A strict word-for-word translation attempts to be faithful to the words but may be ungrammatical in the target language. An idea-for-idea translation is more readable, but still may not convey the style of the original. Translation reminds me of making maps. There have been countless ways to map a round Earth onto a flat piece of paper, each preserving one aspect of the globe at the expense of others. See, for example, the new Equal Earth projection.

Translating poetry is particularly hard because you want to preserve the meaning and the sound at the same time. Translations might choose to preserve the meter but not the rhyme scheme, or vice versa.

Eugene Onegin

Here are a couple poetry translations I find interesting. The first is Douglas Hoffstadter’s translation of the Russian epic Eugene Onegin. The poem has intricate patterns that one could imagine would be of interest to the author of Gödel Escher Bach. Erik Seligman recently described the poem and Hoffstadter’s translation on his podcast. The poem has three levels of structure:

  1. The ends of the lines rhyme in a pattern of ABAB CCDD EFFE GG.
  2. There’s also a FMFM FFMM FMMFMM pattern of “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes, i.e. stress on the ultimate or penultimate syllable.
  3. The poem is written in iambic tetrrameter, with 8 syllables in the lines with masculine rhymes and 9 in the feminine.

Hoffstadter preserves these patterns in his English translation, at the expense of a lot of paraphrasing. Seligman gives the following example, comparing a few lines Nabokov’s more literal translation

Hm, Hm, great reader,
is your entire kin well?
Allow me, you might want perhaps
to learn now from me
what “kinsfolks” means exactly?
Well, here’s what kinsfolks are:

to Hoffstadter’s

Hullo, hulloo, my gentle reader!
And how’re your kinsfolk, old and young?
Pray let me tell you, as your leader,
Some scuttlebutt about our tongue.
What’s “kin”? It’s relatively subtle,
But you’ll tune in if I but scuttle.

The Bible

Another translation I find interesting is a translation of the Bible called The Voice. In addition to the usual team of Greek and Hebrew language scholars, this translation project invited poets to pay attention to the sound of the English text. In particular, their goal was to translate poetic passages so that they sounded like poetry.

In some ways The Voice is reminiscent of the King James translation. The KJV remains popular four centuries later, in part because it simply sounds good. More recent translations have aimed to sound contemporary but not necessarily to sound beautiful.

Here’s an example comparing Psalm 23:4 in the New International Version

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

and in The Voice

Even in the unending shadows of death’s darkness,
I am not overcome by fear.
Because You are with me in those dark moments,
near with Your protection and guidance,
I am comforted.

The italics indicate words that are not explicitly in the text but are implied, and are added to make the translation flow.

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One thought on “Translating poetry

  1. I find both takes on Onegin terrible. They lack music.
    Poetry and mathematics are very interesting combination, has someone tried to render poetry with Fourier transformations instead of butchering it?

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