Is it true that "The easier to translate a poem, the lower its quality, i.e., untranslatability is the property of a good poem." Is that correct? Is there some trap in this statement? I need a...

Is it true that "The easier to translate a poem, the lower its quality, i.e., untranslatability is the property of a good poem." Is that correct? Is there some trap in this statement?

I need a comment on this concept of literary translation.

Asked on by esdras

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durbanville's profile pic

durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In assessing the possible truth behind the statement that "untranslatability is the property of a good poem" there are various factors to take into account.

Poetry is interpretative, and apart from the language skills required for any translation of material, it requires a critical analysis, as well as a consideration of its design, intention and use, and a knowledge of literary theory to be in a position to offer a suitable translation of poetry. Translating metaphor is quite a task for any skilled translator. Rabindranath Tagore translated his own works including poetry and this ensures that their integrity remains intact.

In assessing the ease of translation, consider Robert Frost's poetry. On the face of it, and because he does not use complex language in, say, The Road Not Taken, it is easy to translate. Does that then suggest that this timeless, much loved and anthologized poem is not good? 

The mood and the pace are very important in this poem, and both are affected by the rhyme scheme (abaab). In a translated version, it may be difficult to maintain the rhyme scheme which means that the poet's intention may be overlooked and the poem could turn into a rather mundane rendition of someone's deliberation over a worn (or not so worn) path. The metaphorical intent could also then be missed.

In Frost's poem, the intention to reveal the problems associated with choice, and whether equal deliberation is due over even minor choices (such as the narrator in The Road Not Taken), may be overlooked in a translated version because what may have a deeper or double meaning in the original poem may not retain that same depth of meaning on translation. In the poem, the narrator exaggerates about how his choice has "made all the difference" and how it may affect his descendants "ages and ages hence." In translating this, the suggestion that the effects are to be so deeply felt in the future could be minimized with words which do not translate easily in a more modern context. A diluted understanding of what "ages" might suggest and the translation of the word "hence" which has its own connotation and does not have a modern equivalent, could be lost in a modern translation.  

 It would also be arrogant to presume that those who have translated poetry lack the skill to do so. Those reading it have to rely on the expertise of the translator and have to accept that any distinctions made in the original have been preserved or allowed for in the translation. Furthermore, it is not only about the translator or translated version, but also about the reader and his ability to read a translation with an open mind and with his own vision. 

Therefore, to make a sweeping statement that "untranslatability is the property of a good poem" would, in my opinion, exclude so much good poetry that has been translated successfully. It is not about translating the words but transferring the meaning, message and intention. This is then perhaps the "trap" referred to in the question. A good translator needs to translate meaning because figurative meaning is crucial in poetry. 

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kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

The nature of poetry, even free-form and other non-classical styles of poetry, is that it relies upon compressed or condensed ideas and feelings; it relies upon idioms and word characteristics specific to the culture and language of the poet; it relies upon figures of speech, metonymy, synecdoche and tropes specific to the culture and language of the poet; it builds imagery and word associations that are understood in the language of the poet; and it is developed according to language's aesthetic form rather than according to language's semantic meaning.

Because of the foundational nature of poetry, poetry is difficult and sometimes extremely difficult to translate into other languages. As an example picked at random, consider Shakespeare's Sonnet 34. Lines 5 and 6 of the second quatrain read:

Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,

In English, rain is a common metaphor for negative emotions or negative experiences. This may not be as true in other cultures. In the Russian langauge, for example, rain may have stronger metaphorical connection to the end of negative hardship and the coming of relief (winter snow covers crops so they won't freeze and blacken, but spring rains bring life, growth and then harvest).

The couplet of lines 13 and 14 further illustrate this incompatibility of metaphorical language:

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
   And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

Other languages, perhaps Zulu, may not make the connection between rain and tears, or between tears and pearls. Consequently this highly aesthetic language, with compressed expressions and dense metaphor (trope), may be extremely difficult to translate into another language in a manner suited to what is aesthetically and metaphorically understood in that other language and culture.

These features of poetry do indeed make poetry extremely difficult to translate into other languages and it can indeed be said that the easier a poem is to translate, the lower is the poem's quality. This assertion can even be illustrated when you rewrite a poem as a paraphrase (form poetry into an equivalent expression in prose) because paraphrase almost routinely requires three times the space to express what is conveyed in one passage of poetry. What about poetry that "looks" simple because the vocabulary is simple and the figurative qualities seem subdued or absent? Does this assertion apply to this sort of poetry as well?

Robert Frost is noted for writing universally appealing poetry in simple English vocabulary. Here's the opening of "Birches":

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.

Look specifically at lines 4 and 5(a). In these lines, Frost introduces his underlying metaphor by symbolically equating "swinging" on birch trees during winter snows followed by rains with dreams. In this line-and-a-half, "But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay / As ice-storms do," Frost expresses the idea that a boy swinging gaily on the top of birch trees is equated with dreams of the future, while ice-storms that similarly swing birches down, but "bend them down to stay," is equated with real-life crushing those gaily imagined dreams. This extremely simple English language sentence proves extremely difficult to translate because, simple language notwithstanding, the ideas, emotions and expressions are so tightly compressed and so highly symbolic that hitting upon equivalent wording in another language is greatly challenging.

Consequently, because of the innate nature of poetry--and poetry that fails to demonstrate the intrinsic qualities of poetry is lower quality poetry--it is true that "untranslatability is the property of a good poem" and it is true that the "easier to translate a poem, the lower its quality." In other words, if a poem is easily translatable it lacks compression, it lacks trope and figurative speech, and it lacks reliance upon the aesthetic values of language while embracing the semantic (specific meaning) value of language.

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