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Sense Transferring Through Poetry Translation

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Study's Purview:

Interpretation of Poetry
Translation of
the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám


One of the features found in translation of poetry is interpretation. It may lead translator to go far from the real meaning to interpret the poem and in many cases it brings about some changes of the original concepts completely. In such cases the output is not a comparable work with the original text. Another important factor is translator's knowledge about the target language. Sometimes, translator's writing is different from the source text and he is not that faithful to it. But many believe that the translation should transfer sense of the poem without considering the fact that the translator properly understands the poet's intention or not.


Translation of poetry is known as a very hard and somehow impossible point in some translators' minds. As if those who take steps to translate poetry especially versified translation are real successful translators. But there are critical comments on some of these translators' writings. Although translating poetry sounds hard, some translators work on it. The outcome sometimes seems nice and gets good mark; however, it faces some literary criticisms later.

Historical notability of translation

Translation used to be considered an inter-language transfer of meaning, which is the point of departure for research and study. Many earlier definitions demonstrate this, using source language and target language as their technical terms. Moreover, translation theories strictly confined themselves within the sphere of linguistics. For many years the popular trend in the translation circles had been perfect faithfulness to the original both in content and in form and it had been regarded as the iron criterion as if from the holy Bible for translators to observe. The godly status and the impossible idealistic belief were not altered until new thoughts arose with the respect of consideration of target readers, the unavoidable translator subjectivity and the purpose and function of translations. This thesis, starting to look from new angles such as the accommodation to target cultural conventions, the translator's consciousness of linguistic and cultural adaptations to make it easy for readers to understand translated works without too much pain and effort, and translation as a purposeful endeavor. Translation is then understood as a much more complicated activity with a much broader scope.

Studying the history of translation helps those who are interested in translation, literature, and cultural studies to better understand the contribution of translation to civilization and to the development of all cultural and intellectual life. Translation is closely related to progress in that all the awakening periods in the history of nations have started with translations. Translation introduces nations to various perspectives on their paths to modernization and intellectual advancement.
In order to justify translation as an independent discipline, it is necessary to first construct a history of translation. By doing so, we bring to light how the cultural and intellectual interactions between people and civilizations took place throughout history. Regarding this, French theorist Antoine Berman wrote: "The construction of a history of translation is the first task of a modern theory of translation."

The ancient Greek word for translator-interpreter is Hermêneus, directly related to the name of the god Hermes. The verb Hermêneuo means to interpret foreign tongues, translate, explain, expound, put into words, express, describe, and write about. The many further meanings of the Greek word for translator-interpreter (mediator, go-between, deal-broker, and marriage-broker) suggest that interpreters almost certainly had to exist during prehistory - the period before writing was even invented.
In ancient times, ideas and insights used to be transferred from culture to culture primarily through travelers and tradesmen. Gradually, translation began to play, and continues to play, a key role in the development of world culture. For example, translation has played a major part in the movement of knowledge from Ancient Greece to Persia, from India to Arab nations, from Islam into Christianity, and from Europe to China and Japan.
There have been two great historical examples of how translation introduced one culture to another. One is the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from various Indian languages into Chinese. The second is the translation of Greek philosophical and scientific works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic, thereby introducing them to the Islamic world.
A history of world culture from the perspective of translation reveals a constant movement of ideas and forms, and of cultures constantly absorbing new influences because of the work of translators. It dispels the assumption that everything starts in the West and undermines the idea of rigid boundaries between East and West.

Major periods in the history of translation tend to coincide with eras when a major differential or inequality exists - or is perceived to exist - between two cultures or two peoples speaking different languages. One of these peoples perceives the need to absorb greater or higher knowledge from another, whether this knowledge is conceived in political, religious, or scientific terms.
All throughout history, the task accomplished by translators has acquired an extraordinary importance in the development and transmission of the cultural heritage of humankind. European culture, with all of its great wealth of knowledge, could not have been possible without the significant translation efforts of just a handful of countries: China, Greece, Iran, India, Iraq, Spain, and Ireland.

Translation is a fundamental human activity; literary translation forms the basis of most readers' acquaintance with world literature. This course will combine theory and practice to approach translation in its full complexity as both an art and a science. In reading, discussion and practice we will draw on the points of view of creative writing, linguistics, and literary theory.

Merely translating literal meaning from one language to another can prove difficult.  Translating literature, however, from its native language to some target language is, in some senses, impossible.  Literature is an art that utilizes words as its tool--words that are confined to the language in which they exist.  Thus, translating a piece of art work that owes its being to one language into some other language removes it from what it "is."  Translation is the process of changing something into what it is not so that it will be itself--but for another audience, in another time. 

Literature exists not only within a language, but also within a culture.  And thus to translate literature is often to translate culture, probably often improperly. Translators must choose whether to imitate ancient techniques, though they may not affect modern audiences in the same way they affected ancient audiences, or whether to simulate an analogous experience using modern poetic techniques since the ancient authors' techniques were modern when they wrote. Translation should maintain the poets' basic literal meanings.

A translation must stand in a responsible relation not only to its original but also to the literary situation of the translator's own day.  There is, of course, no rule that translation must be 'modern' . . .  How far the resources of modern poetry are to be used is a matter for each translator to settle for himself; but that he should ignore them altogether and still succeed is almost unthinkable.

In order to render impact into other languages, translators must first decide what gives literature "impact" in its native language, and then find some analogous way to translate that into the intended language.  Rarely, or possibly never, can translators convey every aspect of impact in their translations?  Once again, decisions must be made.  Translators of Latin poetry might choose to convey any of a host of poetic elements, including word order, word choice, rhythm, structure, alliteration, assonance, tone, humor, succinctness, suspense.  Indeed, much of a translation's outcome depends on how the translator understands and values certain aspects of the original work and the work as a whole in its original language.

The role of interpretation in translating poetry

Translator's inference of the poem he reads affects the output, for sure. In other words, translator's knowledge about the poem and his understanding of it can be considered as the most important factor in translating poetry. Being familiar with both source and target language can help translator in rendering the poem. Although a translator may be knowledgeable enough for his task, we can't ignore the role of interpretation during rendering. It may be proper to say that some poems need to be interpreted in order to be more understandable for the target language readers, because they make no sense in readers' minds. Literal translation in some cases has such problems.

But interpretation should not be so far from the main point presented by poet. Translator should not change the poem in his own taste. He have to be faithful to the source text, however, he may be authorized to write valid and reliable interpretation at times. Here I'd like to present and study one of the quatrains of The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam I translated into Turkish before:

"Man hich nadaanam ke maraa anke seresht
Az ahle behesht kard ya duzakhe zesht

Jaamiyo botiyo barbati bar lab kesht
In har se maraa naghd, to ra nesye behesht
".  Omar Khayyam

Apart from everything came to the poet's mind in this quatrain, I translated it into Turkish (Azerbaijani) by interpreting and explaining the meaning of it. This is my own inference and the way that I could understand the quatrain above:

"Heç bilmeyirəm o məni saimiş yaradan sən
Jənnət qumaşindan tanidib yoxsa sol əldən

Jam eilə boti bərbəti yaxmiş dodağ üstə
Ariflə bu üç abidə məhşərdəki gülşən" . Asadi Kangarloo (1998 )

The last Turkish line which I highlighted its words in bold type, is the issue I want to talk about. The words "Arif" or (theosophist) and "abid" or (worshipper) are not in the source text. So, I considered the poet (Khayyam) as a theosophist, and the reader of the poem as only a worshipper or devout. This can be a real mistake made by translator in such cases, because it was possible to translate literally and I could use Turkish equivalents of Farsi words, as I did the same task for the previous line. Although there's a deep concept within the line, I translated it literally. On the other hand, the last line which is following up its prior line changed completely in the target text. Translator should notice such problems and avoid making such mistakes. 

But there is another aspect of translating poetry; cultural communion as a very good point for a translator. This factor makes the translation process easier, because there's no need to interpret the line of verses at all.

Translator knows that readers of the target texts are as the same position as the source ones. In this case, translator does his task literally and without any trouble.

Let's have a look at the other translation of the abovementioned quatrain.

This one is Azerbaijani too. But the factor mentioned above considered here in this new translation: 

Heç bilmədim o tanri yaradanim dən
Jənnət gedənəm ya ki buraxmiş əldən?!

Yaxmiş dodağa jami boti bərbətlən
Bu üç mənə var sənlə beheştdə gulşən
. (Asadi Kangarloo). 4/14/1999

View points about English translation of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, by Fitzgerald

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Edward Marlborough Fitzgerald (March 31, 1809June 14, 1883) was an English writer, best known as the poet of the English translation of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is notable for the frequency and ubiquity of quotations from it and allusions to it. Its popularity, still high, is in decline; but for about a century following its publication; it formed part of the mental furniture of most English-speaking readers.

Of the 107 stanzas in the poem (fifth edition), the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2nd edition) quotes no less than 43 entire stanzas in full, in addition to many individual lines and couplets.

The most familiar stanza is surely:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness was Paradise enow!

Lines and phrases from the poem have been used as the titles of many literary works (Nevil Shute's The Chequer Board; James Michener's The Fires of Spring; Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness—slightly misquoted). Allusions to it abound in the short stories of O. Henry. Saki's nom-de-plume is a reference to it. In 1925, when Billy Rose and Al Dubin wrote the popular song A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You, they surely expected listeners to catch the reference to the famous quatrain quoted above.

Dr. Saeed Saeedpoor believes that Fitzgerald's rendition is not quite exact and faithful. Many of his quatrains do not correspond with anyone of the rubai's and cannot be identified with it. He had studied cycle of rubai's as a whole and then adapted them in his own inert-related stanzas.

He thus changed the form and style of most rubai's .Whereas, in literature (as in all art) form and content are not distinct separate entities, but organically crystallized into each other. This is the fact established half a century ago by, among other, Stanley Burn Shaw in the poem itself. As a result of such adaptations Fitzgerald's quatrains often fall short of the powerful paradoxical impact of the originals. Some of them lack the sweetness of the despair and exude too much and air of decadence and nostalgia (much to the taste of his contemporary pre-Raphaelites) to create the fin balance of melancholy and felicity. The Rubaiyat in general warns against grief, urging the audience to seize the fleeting chance of life and delight in its beauties, usually women, wine and nature.


Translating poetry has many beautiful features, however, some translators made some real mistakes by presenting their own tastes and interpretations during translation. Interpretation can be used only for difficult concepts, but in that case translator whether refers to a reliable and valid source or inserts his own interpretation in his translation. As a matter of fact, interpretive translation may lead translator to go far from the real meaning of the original text. Because of this literary translation in translating poetry seems necessary. Although interpretive translation can be more useful than literal in the case of transferring the sense of poetry.


1. Encyclopedia Britannica dictionary

2. Saeedpoor Saeed (2001), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Iranian National Commission for UNESCO




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