Poetry in Translation

We’ve all had trouble expressing our thoughts and sorting through our feelings from time to time. It’s nothing unusual. The human psyche is an intricate structure made of experience and personality. So, what happens when we try to sound something that goes on in there? Getting a bit lost happens more often than one might think, but what happens when we try to explain a thought or an idea in a foreign language? Dealing with the various language barriers that arise can be somewhat tricky. Now, imagine having to convey 500 pages of thoughts which aren’t even your own! Translating literature is an artform in itself and quite a delicate one at that.  

There are a few things to pay attention to when translating literary works. Among the most important ones are those sensitive to aesthetic and expressive values. The wording, figurative language and the general style of writing, all fall under the category of aesthetic values, while the expressive values keep the writer’s train of thought and emotions true. The approach to literary translation is not set in stone. However, the one that captures the core of it follows a two-step process. The text must first be interpreted, then, the composition of the narrative is formed in the targeted language.

Poetry, as it happens, requires a bit more attention than other forms of literature. Its structure differs completely from other genres and even from daily language itself. Maintaining the rhythm and rhymes through translation is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. As different cultures, naturally, have different phrasing and metaphorical structure, the logic of poetry makes it fairly demanding to carry a thought from one background into another.  

Even with all the details covered to offer a most authentic translation, there are some gaps which can never be bridged. Sure, the form of all literature is the same regardless of the language they were written in and the methodology was devised to try and cover up all the possible perplexity as subtly as possible, but there will always be more than a couple of grains of sand seeping through our firm grasp. No matter the number of languages in the world, we still use the same words to describe how we might feel towards our soulmate and dessert. You love both, no? Try to think of the limitations faced when attempting to adapt someone’s beliefs and ideas into a completely different setting. Those notions spread over thousand-page novels, stories, essays, delicately intertwine with the composition of poetry, and date back thousands of years. They depict memories long-forgotten and emotions buried too deep. A far too comprehensive venture to try and conform the reach of human passions.

A most blatant example of obstacles faced might be the translation of religious texts. Not only does the meaning of words get tossed around too freely and even mistranslated, but the many religious truths are too open to interpretation to successfully carry on the original idea. However, that’s the furthest I’m willing to go concerning that topic.

Linguistic limitations do not just stop at written texts, but continue to storm through the film industry as well. Taking on the form of dialogue, scripts and plots stay native to the region they were written in. As Bong Joon-Ho said, pointing out our shortfall, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Without touching on the aftereffects of californication, countless movies have been overlooked due to our incapability to broaden our minds. The artwork isn’t even vandalized with dubbing anymore, we have simply resorted to avoiding productions which cause discomfort by straying a bit from our own understanding. Fenced off by the barriers our own languages have set, we’re unable to even glance across.

I won’t rant on long for my closing remarks. Instead, as a finishing touch, I’ll leave you with some substantial words that helped open my eyes to what we have been faced with amidst our trials in breaking through the socio-semantic ceiling hovering over our heads.  

“Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”

Mirna K.

July 30, 2021

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