POETRY TRANSLATION: AGONY OR ECSTASY?

Translators and poets met at our latest workshop in May to explore the topic of poetry translation and, perhaps, to dispute Robert Frost’s dictum that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  BY NORMA KAMINSKY

Sidney Wade, professor of translation and creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a poet and translator of Turkish poetry, was the presenter at this workshop held at the Mechanics Institute. Under her guidance participants actively and enthusiastically explored a number of issues relevant to the art of translating poetry. Professor Wade began her presentation with the assertion that there is a great need, as well as an excellent reception, of poetry in translation.

Age old questions

During the course of the workshop some of the topics discussed were: Is the translation of poetry possible? Should the spirit or the words of a poem be translated? How does the translator deal with rhythm, rhyme, and form in a different language? Will the music of the original language be lost in the translation? Is translation really an “imitation,” as Robert Lowell conceived it? Must the translator be a poet herself in order to translate poetry? And, on a more technical note, “What the devil is a trot?” Well, the only question that was answered in any definitive way was the last one (a trot-also known as a pony or mule-is a literal word-for-word translation, the first rough draft to make sure the translator understands the basic meanings of all the utterances in the poem). The many other questions were all subject to debate, opinion, nuances, and a lot of “depends.”

For example, there was no consensus regarding the use of footnotes to explain culture-specific meanings and connotations; some participants thought that notes are essential to convey the meaning, while others found that notes interrupt the flow of the poem. There was clear agreement, however, about the idea that a translation of a poem must be able to stand alone as a poem itself, regardless of the translator’s decisions in terms of meanings, form, rhyme, and so forth. The translated poem should have a music of its own even if this music will, perforce, sound different from that of the original poem. Despite the lack of definitive answers, or perhaps because of this absence, varied opinions were expressed, and some opinions were even changed.

After refreshments graciously provided by Rafaella Buschiazzo, two courageous participants followed the presenter in reading their own poem translations into English and in hearing constructive criticism from the group. The interaction and exchange of ideas between poets, translators, and those who practice both arts was especially fruitful, as it brought to the table differences and similarities in approaches, perspectives, and practices.

The workshop was fun but, more importantly, the gathering was inspiring for all participants. It was also very meaningful that the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), oriented exclusively toward literary translation, and NCTA, with a more technical and commercial orientation, could join efforts and make this event a success. The event was possible largely thanks to CAT’s founder and president, Olivia Sears, and, of course, it would not have been such a success without the vibrant participation of all attendees.

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