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The Problems That Come with Translating Poetry and How to Succeed

Poetry in translation

The task of translating poetry has given rise to countless musings on how best to translate poems into different languages over the centuries. The ultimate goal of poetry translators is to convey the original poem’s intent, meaning and style as faithfully as possible. Of course, this is an almost impossible task, and one that has resulted in some extremely different approaches, many of which have produced memorable and disastrous results in equal measure. But why is translating poems so difficult? And are some techniques better than others?

Who’s best-placed to translate poetry?

Scholars and translators have long fought over the task of translating poetry. According to a rather ancient school of thought founded and developed in England during the Romantic period, only poets should translate poetry.

Proponents of this approach once claimed that only poets are equipped with the cultural and technical skills required to fully understand the original text and create a good poetic translation.

However true this may be, it happens all too often that a poet-translator’s own voice  suffocates that of the original poet-author due to excessive modifications rooted in their own perceptions and poetic style. These individuals are sometimes referred to as ‘traitor translators.’

When non-poets translate poetry

These days, most modern poetry in translation is written by professional translators who are not professional poets. Translators tasked with this sort of work can opt for one of two approaches: a service translation or a translation that remains faithful to the original.

Service translations are usually just literal translations of the original poem without any attempt to modify rhythm or style. These sorts of translations have very little to do with poetics and are best seen as literal poetry translations.

Translations that remain faithful to the original try to find a middle ground between a poetic translation and a literal translation. The ultimate goal is to approximately convey the poem’s literal and metaphorical meaning, along with its literary characteristics, such as verse length and rhyming structure.

Translators who choose this approach are faced with certain limitations that poet-translators don’t have to deal with. Translators specialised in poetic translations must try to keep their own impressions and experiences as far as possible from the translation by remaining entirely neutral. It’s only by adopting this particular approach that the original author’s own voice and perspective can be heard.

Poetry in translation: not just Shakespeare

When Italians think of poetry in translation, in all probability, they’ll think of foreign poetry translated into Italian. A classic example is Shakespeare, who curiously relied on the expertise of a non-professional translator, Goffredo Raponi.

Raponi originally trained in the legal field but was passionate about English-to-Italian translations and quickly became a point of reference for Shakespeare in Italian translation.

What’s more, Italian poetry translated into English is just as common as English poetry translated into Italian. As an example, the translation of Eugenio Montale’s works into English can be found on a website entirely dedicated to his most famous poems.

Redazione Eurotrad

January 28, 2020

Redazione Eurotrad

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