Translating poetry

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.


The passages quoted above have one thing in common: they are all poetry in translation. The first, is, of course, from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible, and, though formally set out in prose, is, effectively, poetry: few, I imagine, will deny its poetic qualities. For the second excerpt, I have chosen two of the most famous stanzas of all English poetry – except, of course, it’s Persian poetry: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. My third choice, a magnificent poem in any language, is Yeats’ rendition of a chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. I think it fair to say that English literature – by which I mean literature in the English language, rather than literature originating from England – would have been immeasurably poorer without any of the above.

In my last post here on translations, I focussed on certain aspects of poetry that resist translation, and may have given the impression that translation of poetry is not possible, and should not even be attempted. If that is indeed the impression I have given, it was entirely inadvertent on my part, and I apologise. The quote attributed to Robert Frost – that poetry is “what gets lost in translation” – is, Tom from the Amateur Reader blog tells me, a misquote; but, misquote or not, it does, I think, articulate part of the truth: there certainly are aspects of poetry that, for various reasons, resist translation. This is, possibly, particularly true of lyric poetry, where, to a great extent, much of the meaning is rooted in the actual sounds of the words, i.e. the very thing that is specific to a particular language. But while this misquote of Frost’s may articulate part of the truth, it is very far from articulating the whole truth; for it is demonstrable that poetry in translation can be of a very high quality, and can, as the above excerpts illustrate, become great poetry in its own right.

In short, the statement attributed to Robert Frost should not deter us from reading poetry in translation. If one wishes to have a grasp of 19th century French literature, say, one needs as much acquaintance with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud as one does with Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert; Pushkin’s verse is every bit as important as Tolstoy’s novels, and Rilke every bit as important as Mann. To miss out on such great pillars of Western literature as Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Goethe, etc. is to leave massive holes (assuming holes can have mass, which, I realise even as I am writing, they cannot) in one’s grasp of what literature is; and the innumerable lesser pillars are also worth pursuing, and getting to know.

Having dabbled a bit at translating poetry myself, I have come across a few conclusions about the nature of the English language, and what it can, and cannot, convey. For the purpose of translating poetry is, after all, to create poetry in the target language: if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle. But I do sometimes wonder whether my conclusions are correct. For instance, I had decided quite early that English cannot take too much alliteration – that if one overdoes the alliteration, one simply sounds contrived, and a bit silly. Shakespeare himself, after all, had taken the piss out of excessive alliteration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But if it is indeed true that the English language cannot take too much alliteration, it is hard to explain why lines such as the following, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the “Deutschland”, should be so powerful and affecting, and so self-evidently great poetry:

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.


Of course, Shakespeare’s lines are, intentionally, bad poetry, whereas Hopkins’ lines clearly aren’t, but since insistent alliteration is common to both, it cannot be that alliteration in itself determines the quality of the verse. There’s something else there – but damned if I can see what it is. Perhaps what makes poetry great is a mystery that ultimately defies analysis, but there is no reason why a good translator should not be capable of creating a mystery in the target language that is equivalent to the mystery created by the poet in the original. At the very least, Edward Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, and the anonymous translators of the King James Bible, demonstrate that it is, at least, possible.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl McLuhan on August 8, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Himadri: I’m so glad you haven’t decided to abandon FB just yet. You do have a following, even if people don’t get around to responding to your post. I’m sure that many, such as myself, who at least read and reflect on what you say, would like to leave an articulate response. You deserve at least that.

    This post on poetry made me think about the poetry that I have read in translation. One is always left wondering how close the targeted language poetry is to the original. I will read poetry in translation just because I want to know about the originator, at least the kinds of thoughts that the poet mulled over in his mind. All attempts at translating become worthwhile examples for comparison purposes, and of course, the pleasure of working over the language in English is also part of it. I tend to agree that much poetry in a foreign language cannot be captured; there is just too much magic wrapped up in the sound and the juxtapositions. That doesn’t stop the willful translator, however.

    Your consideration of poetic device (alliteration in this instance) is worth reflection. Such a device is often too easily manipulated (and therefore a good comedic device) but in the hands of a master, such as Hopkins, it becomes a major tool to capture his wonderful understanding of the language but also something to work into those mystical grooves to uproot his religious sensibilities. Thankfully, he had English as his language and didn’t need to worry about translation.

    Thanks for posting this morning. It gave me a chance to think about the poetry I’ve known and loved and written.


    • Hello Carl,
      As I said, I am just taking a break from Facebook for a few weeks I’d been spending far too much time on it. I am only going there to put up links to new blog posts, but I’ll certainly be back in a few weeks or so.

      I owe much to translators. I sometimes think of all the great literature I’d have been unacquainted with had it not been for the work of translators, and I realise how lucky we are.


  2. Posted by Janet on August 8, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    All writers “play” language like a musical instrument. We can sense when a writer is either unskilled or tone deaf. Prose writers are more subtle, but they do share all the devices of poetry. Good prose translators attempt to catch the rhythms and tones of the original work, though if you pick up half a dozen translations of War and Peace or Don Quixote, it is evident how much they struggle with the problem you identified:

    “…if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle.”

    I have favorite translations of various works, but I have no idea how well the original prose is represented. I devoured quite a bit of Sienkiewicz before reading that Curtin’s translations (the only ones available in English at the time) were considered stilted and over-literal. I see a lot of new translations of older works that are clearly striving to be easier to read than older translations–shorter sentences, more contemporary phrasing–but I can’t say for sure that these aren’t truer to the originals in some ways than their predecessors, which may very well have been packed with the literary sensibilities of English of their own time.

    I think I read somewhere that the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat is considered a pretty free adaptation–almost more Fitzgerald’s than Khayyam’s. But what the heck. He overcame the difficulties of translating poetry by borrowing wholesale and creating a new work of English poetry. The writer(s) of the Song of Songs may have done pretty much the same thing many centuries before, appropriating earlier Canaanite poems into a Hebrew form, producing a new work. The snippet you provided is among the highlights of the KJV, an uneven but overall pretty spectacular translation. The persistent rumor that Shakespeare had a hand in the translation (when he wasn’t busy being Bacon), though highly unlikely, has a nice ring to it. Apparently there were a number of extraordinary poets running around England, some of them working anonymously in faceless committees. Certainly the original must be gorgeous in its own right, and the KJV no doubt loses something. Here is Robert Alter’s translation of the same passage:

    My lover spoke out and said to me,
    “Arise my friend, my fair one, go.
    For, look, the winter has passed
    the rain has gone away.
    Buds can be seen in the land,
    the nightingale’s season has come
    and the turtledove’s voice is heard in our land.
    The fig tree has put forth its green fruit
    and the vines in blossom waft fragrance.
    Arise and go, my friend,
    my fair one, go forth.”

    This looks more like poetry because of the way the lines are broken, but as you noted, Hamadri, you can hear the poetry in the KJV without the help of line breaks. I’m pretty confident of the fidelity of Alter’s translation, and its very nice, but I can’t help feeling that the lady just got friended. There is a difference between “come away” and “go forth.” The dreadful New American Standard has “come along.” While I will stick by the KJV, having the variations infuses my experience of the Song with the bits that got left out of my old standby, deepening my understanding of the text itself. “My love” is all well and good, better than “my friend”; but the lady is not just an object of erotic desire here–she is also the lover’s friend (implicit in the original, lost in translation). The poem is erotic, but more than erotic. The mystical nature of the poem comes out in the ambiguity of “go” and “come.” If the lover were merely a mortal man, the lady might be getting the boot. Instead, she goes, but she goes forth with the lover. His is the voice (echoed by the cooing doves) luring her out into the green spring, which is loaded with religious and cultural and human meaning.

    You can read this as a religious poem with the full load, or you can read it as a love poem. It works either way. I don’t think there is any great hurdle in either version to trip up contemporary readers, except, of course, that turtle. I was stumped growing up, wondering what sort of musical voice a turtle might be thought to have in the ancient middle east. Did they even have turtles? It helps to know that the turtle is a dove, but I can’t help thinking that “the voice of the turtle” better conveys their murmuring coos than “the turtledove’s voice.” Onomatopoeically, the sound of the line in the KJV is smooth and low and captures the “turtleturrrtleturr” of the doves. That quality is not present to my ear in Alter’s translation. In fact, to my ear, the KJV sounds more like poetry than Alter’s carefully laid out lines. But that’s my ear. Alter’s translation may be vastly preferable for the poetic devices he employs to bring out the complexities of the Hebrew poetic tradition, which when illuminated, raise the Song of Songs from sometimes awkward love poetry to darn sophisticated stuff.

    Moral of the story: You gotta choose your poison, but at least you also get to choose the wine.


    • Hello Janet, and thank you very much for your comments – though why I should thank you for it, I am not sure, as your comments rather upstage the post they’re ostensibly commenting on! 🙂

      I have herd also that Fitzgerald’s verses are very far from literal translations of Omar Khayyam. I have no problem with that, especially as I don’t think literal translations of poetry are particularly desirable, but clearly, there is a point beyond which we cannot really call it a “translation” (although I am not sure what other term to use). Similarly, closer to our own times, Christopher Logue’s War Music is not a “straight” translation of Homer – but it is magnificent nonetheless, and, if commentators who know Homer in the original are to be believed (I am in no position to judge this for myself, obviously), Logue’s free rendering captures the “feel” of Homer. But whether it does or not, it is magnificent poetry in English, and I guess that’s all that really matters.
      It is very tempting to imagine that Shakespeare may have had a hand in the KJV. Well – why not? Apparently, in the KJV translation of Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake”, and the 46th word from the end is “spear”. And so, obviously, it was Will putting his signature on his work. I mean, it really is so obvious, isn’t it? I try to imagine the kind of person who would actually spot something like that…

      In Anthony Burgess’ book Enderby’s Dark Lady, there’s a scene near the beginning where Shakespeare and Jonson have a drink together, and they talk about the forthcoming translation of the Bible. There is a marvellous bit where they speculate on how the translation might read if John Marston were to work on it:

      “In the initialities of temporal entities, the Omnicompetent fabricated the celestial and terrene quiddities…”

      I use to be confused by the “voice of the turtle”, till I realised that it was a turtle-dove that was meant. But “turtle-dove” is an awkward work, and difficult to incorporate into verse or into elegantly phrased prose. Shakespeare also shortened “turtledove” to “turtle” in that deeply enigmatic late poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I read that poem once in a while to see if I can make sense of it.

      With works as frequently translated as Don Quixote or War and Peace, there should, I think, be room for different approaches to translation. I personally think a good translator should attempt to preserve what I call the “tone of voice” of the author – that intangible quality of the writing that distinguishes the authorial personality. And if that means departing from the literal meaning from time to time, then so be it. If, say, we are translating from language X to Language Y, and if Language X can accommodate long sentences better than Language Y can, then it is better to split some of the long sentences in X to shorter sentences in Y rather than attempt a literal sentence-for-sentence translation and suggest a long-windedness that isn’t present in the original. (Conversely, if we are translating from Y to X, it may be worthwhile joining some sentences together to make longer sentences.) There are so many things to consider!

      Recently, I have been reading Tony Harrison’s translation of Aeschylus Oresteia, and while (comparing with other translations) it is far from a literal translation, it is utterly enthralling. But more of that in a later post …

      So yes, one chooses one’s wines and one’s poisons. And isn’t it wonderful that we have these choices available?


      • Posted by Janet on August 9, 2016 at 4:24 pm

        Thank you. Yes. And would you consider posting or publishing your translations?

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