Is it possible to translate poetry to a second language?Poetry is the most intense literary art form. Each word is weighted, each phrase carries layers of social references, literal meaning,...

Is it possible to translate poetry to a second language?

Poetry is the most intense literary art form. Each word is weighted, each phrase carries layers of social references, literal meaning, colloquial meaning, allegory, metaphor, imagery and so on. Is it possible to translate all the contents of a poem into a new language and still retain all this 'baggage'? (Not to mention the fluent beauty of the carefully chosen rhymes and words)

I am sceptical that we should translate poetry from one language to another, but I am not sure. Am I wrong?


Expert Answers
alexb2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One interesting case would be to consider various translations of Rumi's work into English. Early translations done by R.A. Nicholson and A.J. Arberry were more literal but failed to find a substantial western audience. 

One person who did read them, was intrigued, and went on to translate them himself was Coleman Barks, whose translations have proved to be very popular in the west and have introduced millions to Rumi. Some have said, however that in the process Barks has ignored some of the essential aspects of the original works. 

More info, including another translator who attempts to bridge the gap between the two, available here.

This article discusses how Rumi defies any translation, which goes more towards the idea that no translation will ever fully capture the original, suggesting that while it is possible to translate, it may be impossible to duplicate.  

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Absolutely! Think of the power of some Bible verses, songs, Epics, and other genres which, themselves, carry the poetic elements of description and lyricism can still transfer over beautifully in translation.

As a Linguist, however, I have translated poetry, and I have discovered a key element: The translator must be an expert in BOTH languages, AND a constant user of both languages in context. That is what is most important when it comes to bring out the spirit of the piece and keep the essence going.


kc4u | Student

Since poetry in any language is a very precise and refined expression within the frame of idiomatic uniqueness of the language concerned, it is definitely difficult to translate it. Even then, translations are made, and some of them are very good translations.

Translations are necessary to make poetry of one language known to the readers of another language. Its success should therefore be judged in terms of this necessity. Words and their order in poetry are often deviant and self-suuficient. Poetry is often violative of grammar and standard practices of language. Translating poetry from one to another language thus becomes very difficult. Even if the translator is equally skilled in both languages, many nuances in one language remain untranslatable in a second one.

krishna-agrawala | Student

No doubt, it is very difficult to translate poetry in a second language, and retain the original flavour capable of generating the same thoughts and emotions and as done by the original work. But, most certainly, it is not impossible - at least, not in all cases. I have come across, some very good translations of English poems in Hindi, where it is difficult for me to decide which of the two versions is better.

Even when it is not possible to retain the full beauty and impact of a poem in the translated version, it may still be better to translate it, so that people not knowing the language of original version can also partake at least some of the fare offered by original version.

One recent and well known example of the value of good translation of poetry is that of the lyrics of the song "Jai ho!" in the movie Slumdog Millionaire,which was awarded the Academy Award for the year 2008. Poet Gulzar wrote the original lyrics for the song in Hindi, and later translated in English, based on which decision on Academy Award was taken. Does this not show that the translated version was also very good, even if it may not have lacked some of the goodness of the original one.

On a much larger scale, we have the example of "Gitanjali" for which Ravindranath Tagore received Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. This book, containing a collection of poems, was originally written by Rvindranath in Bengali and later translated in English.

I hope, in future, there will more of good translations of good poetry, inspite of the many pitfall on the way .