Translating Poetry (or Rolf’s Muse)

Written on June 11, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Smurfs_color_pictures_poet_smurfI confess I was going to write today a post called Gutemberg 2.0, repeating the same ideas of the last two Tuesdays with another example, and thus provoking in the patient reader that mixture of annoyance and boredom which in Spanish is supremely expressed by the phrase “que sí, que sí…” and which I confess I don’t know how could be translated to English. You say “que sí, que sí…” when you hear something very long which does not add anything to what you already know. But Rolf’s last post, one of the best ones I have read in this blog, acted like a war trumpet on an old battling horse. Or like the Muse in a poet. So many good sentences and quotations in dead and modern languages shake out any temptation of falling into repetition and routine, and bring back the primeval enthusiasm of the ST blogger. So forget about the invention of the printing press (it’s easy to imagine what would have been said in that post which now will never be) and let’s follow Rolf’s thread. Let’s talk poetry. Is there a higher subject?

Many good poets lose much when translated to another language, or when read by someone who does not know the cultural context of his or her poems. But a great poet like Rumi stands well translation, and even when deprived of his rhymes, meter and vocabulary. Those are the classics, those poets whose voice reaches far beyond languages and cultures: Homer, Shakespeare, Calderón. You don’t need to know much literature to like their poems, you just have to open your mind and spirit to their winged words. They did not sing for an esoteric circle of learned scholars, but for all –and they know that their public, in fact, reaches far beyond their immediate audience, language, society. It goes even beyond literary prizes.

Of course, this does not mean that a deeper knowledge of the original metrics, language and context does not help to understand the poem: I say this because I can see Julian’s sceptical eyebrow-raising (Julián, like Ortega, believes in intelligent pleasure). But since not everybody has time to study in depth Middle Persian metrics, most of us will enjoy Rumi in translation. And that’s where the translator becomes essential.

The role of the translator has traditionally been despised. The Italian saying traduttore traditore is justly famous. No translation will be a faithful reflection of the original. But on the other hand, traditore is not only the “traitor”, but also the “transmittor”, the one who makes the traditio. His choices will be good or bad, but they are fundamental. So when translating poetry, the translator needs to be as inspired by the Muse as the poet was.

There are different choices the translator can make. He can substitute the original metrics for those of his language: for example, translating Greek hexameters into endecasyllabic English or Spanish verses. The other extreme is avoiding to interfere with the original text, accepting the losses of translation as an unavoidable burden, and just translating the poem into prose.

My favourite system is a middle way between both extremes, which is avoiding any metrics and rhyme in the modern language, but keeping in the greatest possible degree the line division and word order of the original poem. A verse is not only an addition of syllables, it is also a line with a sense of its own which can be respected. For example, the first two lines of the Iliad:

Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos
oulomenen, he muri’ Achaiois alge’ etheke

Look at this English translation:

            Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians

And also at this Spanish translation:

            La cólera canta, oh diosa, del Pelida Aquiles

            maldita, que causó a los aqueos incontables dolores

In both translations, the Homeric effect of beginning the second line with the adjective oulomenen is kept. The first line stands alone in her majestic announcing of the theme of the Iliad, and the second line continues the syntax of the sentence and at the same time introducing a new subject with an epithet which in that position is heavily emphasized: a very peculiar kind of enjambment, skilfully kept in the translation.

            The English translation is that of Richmond Lattimore, the Spanish one that of Emilio Crespo (ed. Gredos). Both are excellent, and the best way to be as close as possible to Homer’s poetry without knowing Greek.

            This middle way for metrics is also advisable, in my opinion, for those elements which belong to the context of the poet. For example, Achilles’ name, Peleides, meaning “son of Achilles”. I think the best way is to leave it just like that, “Peleides”, because it echoes better the fosilized “surname” that it was for Homer than the whole phrase “son of Peleus”. But the other extreme, i. e. translating it to a modern surname, would also be unpoetic: a Spanish translation once called him “Aquiles Peláez” (in English it would be something like Achilles Peleusson). You don’t want your epic hero to sound like a character from a TV serial, do you?

            Anyway, all this is just an opinion. The important thing is: just do whatever makes you enjoy more a poet. Homer would agree. In the famous Italian film Il Postino Pablo Neruda’s fisher friend says a good phrase which summarizes ancient Greek attitude towards poetry, which is the opposite to philological purity, but it’s quite true: “poetry does not belong to the one who makes it, but to the one who needs it”.

And with this I end today’s post. I don’t want the patient reader to start muttering “que sí, que sí…”. By the way, I don’t know yet how to translate that.


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