Lost and Found in Translation


I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?

15 thoughts on “Lost and Found in Translation

  1. Mick, I so totally agree with your thoughts about translation of literature.
    Factual literature is o.k., much easier to translate. Novels, a translator need to know the people to choose the right words and synonyms.

    As to poems I would totally agree that you need another poet to translate – and one who deeply knows the language.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that’s the problem with any translation! Because just changing a single word in a sentence can change the meaning of that sentence, and some languages have words that simply don’t translate well into English. But short of learning to read in multiple languages (not a bad goal, but it’s a talent I don’t have), I guess all we can do is read the translations and hope they are faithful to the original. Interesting post, Mick!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ishaan Sharma

    I completely agree. Many of the translated works remain meaningless. I find it true particularly of spiritual books. The orientalists translated hundreds of traditional books, but mistranslated almost everything, which further led to creation of stereotypes and misconceptions. I think the only way a spiritual book can be translated, is if it is done by a spiritual man himself.
    Also, I never get how poems can be translated. Poems are all about metaphors, and most metaphors are restricted to a particular group of languages. So the metaphors turn into senseles words.
    But alas, no one can learn every language so we are forced to reas translated versions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. Taking your point about spiritual works, they need someone with a knowledge of that spiritual school / dogma / whatever you wish to call it, in other words a specialist. So in poetry, the specialist would be a poet.

      Liked by 1 person

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