Is Poetry the Biggest Challenge for Translators?

Literary translation has always been considered one of the hardest forms of translation because of the complexity of the problems a translator can run into. The most complex form of translating literature is translating poetry which does not seem that hard at first. The American poet Robert Frost once said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.“

What makes translating poetry challenging?

There are a lot of things one should pay attention to while translating poetry. For the poem to keep the original message and meaning, the translator needs to keep them all in mind which is not an easy task. We have chosen some of the key obstacles and challenges that translators will inevitably encounter in every poem:

  • Poem structure
  • Rhythm and rhyme
  • Using metaphors
  • Cultural differences

We will briefly explain each point further in the text so you could gain a better understanding of what has to be done to get a quality poem translation in the end.

Poem structure

While reading every poem, it is easy to spot its structure, that is, how many lines it has, how many stanzas, is it written in free or structured verse, etc. Furthermore, various poets have specific styles they use and which make them recognizable. This is where the structure plays one of the key roles. For that reason, the translator has to keep the original poem structure in their translation. For example, if a line has ten syllables in the original poem, the translation should be the same.

Rhythm and rhyme

In the last paragraph, we mentioned free and structured verses. Free verses do not rhyme or have the same number of syllables, that is, there are no rules. The bigger problem for the translator are structured verses that are connected with rhyme and have specific number of syllables. A poet uses them to create a unique rhythm of the poem which gives it an additional meaning. It is already hard to come up with a rhyme that has a meaning in one language, but to translate it to another and keep the meaning is truly a daunting task. Translators should have an extremely large vocabulary and imagination. We can use the well-known Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare for comparison.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

Hoću li te s danom usporedit ljetnim?Ti si krasniji i blaži si od njega;

Svibanjske pupoljke stresu ljuti vjetri,

I prekratak rok imade ljetna žega.

Using metaphors

A metaphor is a figure of speech used for expressing a figurative meaning. It is one of the most used devices in literature and poetry is unimaginable without it. It is used to express comparison but without the actual comparison and using of the words “like” and “such as”. For example, when we say someone is “golden”, we do not want to say they are made of gold but that they popular and successful. “Temples” on our heads also have a metaphorical meaning. The problem is, of course, that the language construction determines the use of metaphors in it and we can almost never translate them literally. Some of the possible solutions are replacing the metaphor in source language with one of the metaphors in target language or translating the metaphor by describing it. Of course, when we take into account that we have to keep the same structure of the poem, translating metaphors becomes a much bigger problem.

Cultural differences

Culture specific terms are often used in poetry. That poses a problem because those cultural features get lost when translating into another language (another culture). In other words, they lose their meaning because they do not represent the same thing to people in a different culture. If you take a look at what various colors represent in different cultures, it will become clear why it is one of the important issues in translating poetry. For example, let us take the color white. In the Western culture it represents purity, peace, innocence and brides wear them to their weddings. However, in China and some other Asian countries, the color white represents death, sorrow and it is usually worn to funerals. From that it is clear that the translator would have to choose a different color when translating such a poem in order to convey the same meaning to the target audience.

Poetry is a very complicated artistic expression that comes from the soul of the poet and its aim is to leave a deep impression on the reader. Thus, the translators’ task is to convey those powerful emotions and images in another language so that they have the same effect in it. Of course, that is very difficult sometimes and now it became a bit clearer why Robert Frost made a statement we mentioned at the beginning of the article. However, with their efforts, the translators have to prove him wrong.

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