Charles Baudelaire, Sei Shonagon, Dante Alighieri, Sunthorn Phu, Pablo Neruda…each of these names belong to an extraordinary poet whose reputation has stood the test of time. Each of the five poets mentioned wrote in a different language, none of which were English. How is it that their poetry can have such a profound effect on me–a native English speaker–who has never been fluent in another language? The question, in short, is this: what makes a poem universal? There are the obvious answers, of course. A poem that’s universal has to speak to an aspect of the human condition. The message has to transcend its particular era and geographic location in order to speak more broadly to a wide audience.
The essence of the poem can’t be lost in translation.
I never truly understood the painstaking labor that goes into poetry translation until I took a class on Asian poetry in grad school. So much of the poetry we studied seemed at odds with the way the Western mind tends to approach literature. As such, the translators who worked to bring poetry to life for English readers found themselves tasked with an extremely difficult job.
Our poetry professor, a skilled translator and poet himself, challenged us to try out various techniques to tease the meaning out of a poem in a different tongue than our own. These included the following:
1.) Work out of “trots.”
In translation work, trots are a literal word-for-word translation of a poem. Because the syntax in languages varies wildly, trots alone fall short of a satisfactory translation of a poem. They can, however, be used as a tool in tandem with the other items on this list to understand the meaning of a poem.
2.) Listen to the sonic structure of the poem.
Our professor challenged us to listen to someone read a poem in a foreign language on their own. By listening to the cadence and lilt of the words, we can often pick up on the prosody of the poem that we would otherwise miss. Does the poem have long, sing-song-y lines or are there short, staccato sentences? Is repetition used to make a pleasing, cyclical structure? Perhaps the sound of the poem doesn’t accentuate it at all. All these questions can help you to better understand the poem in its original language.
3.) Look at the poem in its original language on a physical page.
Is the poem sprawling with long lines that flow, one to the next? Or does the poem appear sparse on the page, with a minimalist approach? How is blank space used? Where are the line breaks, and what are the importance of them? Since some languages are read right to left, or top-to-bottom, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the language in which the original is written.
By combining these three techniques, you can approximate a decent understanding of what a poem means. But because a poem always means more than one thing, it’s easy for any one translation to fall short. In any case, these exercises can help you gain a greater appreciation for translated works as a reader.
As a writer, experimenting with translation can vastly improve your own writing, and help combat writer’s block. Charles Bernstein, the famous Language Poet, encourages writers to try out “homophonic translation,” in which they listen to a poem in another language and write English equivalents, as if the words were cognates. (I.E. “blanc” from French would “translate” to “blank” in English.) This can be a fun writing prompt in and of itself.
If you are able to read and write in a different language, give poetry translation a try. If not, perhaps try transcribing one piece of writing into a different form or medium, (i.e. light verse poet Wendy Cope made limericks out of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.)
By experimenting with translation, one can begin to understand, both as a reader and a writer, what makes a poem universal.