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Methods in Translating Poetry

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Sugeng HariyantoTranslating literary works is, perhaps, always more difficult than translating other types of text because literary works have specific values called the aesthetic and expressive values. The aesthetic function of the work shall emphasize the beauty of the words (diction), figurative language, metaphors, etc. While the expressive functions shall put forwards the writer's thought (or process of thought), emotion, etc. And the translator should try, at his best, to transfer these specific values into the target language (TL). As one genre of literature, poetry has something special compared to the others. In a poem, the beauty is not only achieved with the choice of words and figurative language like in novels and short stories, but also with the creation of rhythm, rhyme, meter, and specific expressions and structures that may not conform to the ones of the daily language. In short, the translation of poetry needs 'something more' than translating other genres of literature. This simple writing will present in brief some considerations in translating poetry and the eight-stage procedure to translate a poem.

The Methods

In general, there are a lot of methods in translating a text, but not all of them are appropriate to use in translating a poem. Andre Lafevere (in Bassnett-McGuire, 1980: 81-82) noted seven methods adopted by English translators in translating Catullus's poems: phonemic translation, literal translation, metrical translation, verse-to-prose translation, rhymed translation, free verse translation, and interpretation.

Phonemic translation attempts to recreate the sounds of the source language (SL) in the target language (TL). And at the same time the translator tries to transfer the meaning. According to Lafevere, in general the result sounds awkward and sometimes leaves some parts of the original meaning behind.

Literal translation means word-for-word translation. This method will not be able to transfer the original meaning; while the phrase and sentence structures tend to fall by the wayside in the TL.

The metrical translation emphasizes the reproduction of the original meter into the TL. And because each language has its own specific stressing and pronunciation system, this method will result in the inappropriate translation in terms of meaning and structure.

Verse-to-prose translation has also some weaknesses. The outstanding weakness is the loss of the beauty of the original poem.

The next method is rhymed translation which emphasizes the transferring of the rhyme of the original poem into the translation in TL. The result will be appropriate physically but tend to be semantically inappropriate.

The sixth method is free verse translation. With this method the translator may be able to get the accurate equivalents in the TL with a sound literary value of the result. On the other hand, the rhyme and meter tend to be ignored. So, physically the result is different from the original, but semantically it seems the same.

The last method noted by Lafevere is interpretation. According to him there are two types: version and imitation. A version of a poem in the TL will semantically be exactly the same with the original, but physically totally different. Further, an imitation is exactly a different poem, but the title, topic, and starting point are the same with the original poem.

Lafevere's explanation of the above methods seems to reemphasize Cluysenar's opinion that the weaknesses of the poetry translation methods are due to the emphasis given to one or some of the poetic components in the process of translating. The literal, metrical, and rhymed translation seem to emphasize the "form" or "poetic structure" of the poem; while the rest emphasize on the transferring of the precise meaning into the TL. It seems no methods described above will cater the poetry translators' needs appropriately.

According to Suryawinata (in Aminuddin, 1990: 140), among several translation methods proposed by experts the communicative and semantic translation are worth noting. The two are even said to be the only methods that fulfill the two main aims of translation: accuracy and economy (Newmark, 1981: 22, 1988: 47).

The term communicative and semantic translation themselves are proposed by Newmark (1981: 38-56, 62-69). Communicative translation attempts to render the exact meaning of the original in such a way that the readers may not find difficulties in understanding the message of the translated text. In communicative translation, therefore, the translator can generously transfer the foreign element in the SL into the culture of the TL where necessary. This type of translation is best used for general argumentative and scientific texts, which are also called informative and vocative texts by Newmark.

The semantic translation, on the other hand, attempts to reproduce the precise contextual meaning of the original by taking more account of the aesthetic values and expressive component of the original poem, such as peculiar choice of words, figurative language, metaphors, sounds, etc. This type of translation is best used for imaginative literatures, which are also called expressive texts by Newmark. The writer, however, agrees with Suryawinata (in Said, 1994: 41-42) stating that a poetry translator, in fact, frequently functions as the mediator of the communication between the poet and the reader. Therefore, the translator should take the readership into account. In short, he should try to make the content and the beauty of the original poem ready for readership.


Aminuddin., ed. 1990. Pengembangan Penelitian Kualitatif dalam Bidang Bahasa dan Sastra. Malang: YA3

Bassnett-McGuire. 1980. Translation Studies. NY: Mathuen & Co. Ltd.

Finlay. F. Ian. 1971. Teach Yourself Books: Translating. Edinburgh: The English Universities Press Ltd.

Frawley, William., ed. 1953. Translation: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives. Associated University Press.

Newmark, Peter. 1981. Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Newmark, Peter. 1988. Textbook of Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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