poetry translation

How Culture and Literature Intertwine During Poetry Translation

poetry translationIn the United States, a trainer is an individual who teaches skills. In Great Britain, it is an athletic shoe. A bog in the U.S. is a swamp. In Great Britain, it’s a toilet. In Oregon, a buggy is an old-fashioned term for a stroller, horse carriage or car. In North Carolina, it’s a modern term for a shopping cart.

Even when nations speak the same language, the cultures within it greatly influence what different words mean. When translating poetry, an individual must take a broad idea that can be interpreted in many different ways and translate it into a recognizable, familiar idea that remains true to the original text. The skill is a subject activity and multi-faceted process tangled with linguistic and cultural restraints that lends itself to new interpretations that the original poet may have never imagined.

Cultural Considerations When Translating Poetry

Literary and Cultural Understanding and Bias

One of the most challenging tasks when translating poetry is communicating culture-specific ideas because a translation isn’t just affected by the poet’s culture, but also the translator’s understanding of and biases toward the poet’s and target’s culture. Ancient Romans understood this during their conquests. To introduce Romans to Greek culture, for example, Roman translators carefully imitated Grecian stylistic elements to keep the literature as faithful to the original literature as possible. After conquering Greece, however, Roman translators did not feel the need to pay as much attention to preserving the integrity of the original texts. Instead, they adapted the texts as a way of demonstrating Roman literary achievements. As a result, the translations didn’t serve as an imitation or interpretation; they were the competition. The translations accommodated Roman views of Grecian society. This was not the first culture to do this, nor will it be the last.

Metaphors

Metaphors are one of the most important elements of figurative language and are often ripe with culture-specific undertones. They contain the core of a poet’s message and serve as a source of enrichment for the target audience. Because metaphors often relate to a culture’s customs and history, they may create unique difficulties in translations.

Metaphors born of traditions, religious beliefs, geographical surroundings, environment and historical events are sometimes difficult to translate. In English, for instance, the word dog is relatively neutral. An individual might say a lottery winner is a lucky dog. In Chinese, the word dog may have a derogatory connotation and be a word used to describe someone who is snobby or mean. When a metaphor in the original language does not make sense in the target language, an individual might have to translate metaphors using similes to retain the original idea or image.

Allusions

Allusions in poetry can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, to translate if the cultures in question did not share the same history or texts. When an Arab poet alludes to Qu’ranic texts, for example, a Western reader might not understand the scriptural origins. In such instances, a translator might have to provide a reader with footnotes, glossary or other notes to explain the context of the idea.

Translating the nuances found in poetry is a complicated yet vital task. When a translator sees culture as a collection of experiences that give daily life its form, the individual links more than just words; she links worlds.

What Happens When a Poem is Translated from the Original Language?

poetry translation

Languages are wonderful devices that have their own nuances that add to a poem’s depth. Rather than learn several different languages to enjoy the works of international poets, professionals translate them. While translations allow you get a general idea of what a poet communicates, they often don’t capture a poem’s true essence. By being aware of how translations change a work, as well as cultural considerations, you can derive a deeper meaning from the words on the page.

How Translations Change Poems

Missing Linguistic Equivalents

Every culture uses phrases that don’t make sense when directly translated into another language. In Spanish, for example, the phrase, “Nada que ver,” directly translates to, “Nothing to see.” In reality, the phrase means that one idea or circumstance has nothing to do with another (e.g., Missing lunch had nothing to do with getting a flat tire). If a translator is not aware of the linguistic nuances and its equivalents, a reader will not grasp the full meaning of a poem.

Linguistic Evolution

All languages evolve. This evolution gives birth to new languages. It sparks cultural revolutions and introduces one society to another.

When speaking English, individuals no longer say “thy,” “where for art thou,” and other phrases unless they’re intentionally using old English. If you don’t know what these phrases mean, it might be hard to understand Shakespearean works. Similarly, when modern interpreters translate ancient works and fail to account for the historical context of a poet’s words, the true meaning of the words might get lost.

Translator Inference

When translators interpret poetry, they change the words into something that they’re not so another audience can appreciate them. This makes the audience dependent on the translator’s understanding and knowledge of the poem, the poem’s original language, and the target language. If a translator lacks in any of these areas, the interpretation will not be as exact or faithful to original work. It becomes the translator’s poem, not what you necessarily intended to read.

Voice

A good translation maintains the original poet’s voice. Translators must choose words wisely to interpret and shape the text, and remain true to its rhythm, tone, logic, imagery and aesthetics. In this respect, a good translator must be as equally artistic as the poet is.

Cultural Considerations When Reading Translated Poems

Poets reference the world around them, making poems a means of cultural enrichment. A reader might not understand the significance of tin flatware or plain chipware in Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Bean Eaters, for instance, if they’re not familiar with household items that lower class Americans used in the 1960s.

Translating poetry is a subjective activity in which the professional is restrained by cultural and social factors. Professionals must understand the values, rules, attitudes, history and beliefs of the poet’s culture. They must understand how the poet felt and how the new audience will feel, as well as identify common cultural experiences and functional equivalents.

Culture-specific references in poetry include those about the names of places, foods, drinks, national pastimes, education, politics, art, history, legal systems, institutions, animals and religions. A translator must understand their significance when examining metaphors and allusions.

Grammar, gender and syntax are other important considerations when interpreting poetry. English is a gender-neutral language, while many other languages identify words as masculine or feminine. It also uses pronouns and punctuation marks differently than other languages. A translator must understand how the different grammatical elements in a work apply to a poem to provide an effective translation.

Examples of Famous Translated Works

Always

By Pablo Neruda

 

I am not jealous

of what came before me.

 

Come with a man on your shoulders,

come with a hundred men in your hair,

come with a thousand men

between your breasts and your feet.

Come like a river full of drowned men

which flows down to the wild sea,

to the eternal surf, to Time!

 

Bring them all to where I am waiting for you;

We shall always be alone,

we shall always be you and I,

alone on earth to start our life!

 

Dance

By Rumi

 

Dance when you’re broken open.

Dance when you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.

 

To a Creole Lady

By Charles Baudelaire

 

Translation I:

In scented countries by the sun caressed

I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,

and palm trees shedding slumber as they drowse,

a creole lady with a charm unguessed.

 

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;

Nobility is moulded in her neck;

Slender and tall she holds herself in check,

an huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

 

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory

along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit

to ornament some mansion famed in story,

 

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,

and breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,

tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.

 

Translation II:

I met, among the amber tamarinds

and lotus leaves, blue seas and empty space,

down on a sun-touched island’s scented sands,

a lady whose great charm seemed out of place.

 

Black hair, enchanting eyes and olive skin,

a bearing of aristocratic grace –

the long-limbed, slim young huntress, wild Diane,

with quiet self-assurance on her face.

 

Madam, if you should visit Glory’s land,

along the Seine, beside the green Loire’s strand,

our noblemen would beg you for your hand,

 

A thousand new love songs would germinate

in budding groves where poets meditate,

more docile than those slaves you now command.

 

Translating poetry is a difficult task. Rather than forego the works of international writers, immerse yourself in different translations to derive the poet’s original meaning for yourself.