Poetry In Translation

I really hate poetry in translation, to be honest.

A lot of people might think that that's an overreaction, and frankly I wouldn't blame them. Yes, it's always so much nicer to be able to read in the original language, but if you can't do that a translation will suffice.



I don't know how many people reading this appreciate the differences between languages - but they can be huge. I can understand English, Latin, French and Hebrew and each of them has a different way of describing an experience. Latin will quite happily mess around with syntax and uses tense and mood to powerful, precise effect; French has concepts that are difficult to translate into English, as does German; Hebrew is highly inflected, in some cases even more so than Latin as it uses a stupid amount of different forms for the second person singular pronoun depending on gender and context and uses this to great effect - for example, at times it can distinguish between concept and reality more easily than English can. Even prose translation is problematic because of these linguistic quirks, but poetry is even worse. Prose is there to communicate things, from the most practical and prosaic to the most fantastical fiction, but it communicates. Oh, you find some verbal pyrotechnics, but for the most part things are kept intelligible.

Poetry isn't so much there to communicate things as it's there to evoke things, to make writing and written experiences beautiful. It's far more elegant than prose and often far more abstruse - not just on a semantic level but on a linguistic level too.

Inigo Montoya saying "You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means"
At this point I've probably used some words wrong and probably confused people by talking about something that's abstruse on a linguistic level - by which I mean it exploits the quirks of a language for everything they're worth, in a combination of imagery, inflection, syntax and god knows what else that most native speakers probably wouldn't even think about. To me, the exploitation of those quirks is what makes great poetry - and it's also what makes great poetry so difficult to translate. You see, those quirks may not exist in the language you're trying to translate into, which goes double if you're translating from a more inflected language into a less inflected language; inflection may be annoying when trying to learn, but it also gives nuance that will then get lost in translation. Not even the most diligent and faithful of translators can overcome this, no matter how hard they try - and so they've got to compensate for it. Different translators and different methods of translating come up with different things, but the end result is the same: you end up with a perfectly serviceable poem in the target language, but it's not great. It's lost something essential that lay in the original poem's use of linguistic quirks.

And I can't stand that; I can't stand knowing that, and it really doesn't help if I'm not a fan of the translator's work. I can't stand reading the original and howling at what a mess the translation's made of it. So when it comes to poetry in translation, I usually give it a pass. I prefer to read in the original language, or to hear it aloud (of course, poetry stems from an oral tradition and not a written one, which is what people tend to forget). If I can't read in the original language but it's a Romance language, parallel texts will serve me decently - and if I really can't read then I'm stuck, which annoys me.