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Basically, poetry translation should be semantic translation for a poem is typically rich with aesthetic and expressive values. The translator may face the linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems in translating it. The linguistic problems include the collocation and obscured syntactic structure. The aesthetic and literary problems are related with poetic structure, metaphorical expressions, and sounds. While the socio-cultural problems arise when the translator translates expressions containing the four major cultural categories: ideas, ecology, behavior, and products. This article shows some basic considerations on how to solve them.  

Key words: translation, aesthetic values, expressive values, collocation, poetic structure, metaphorical expression, sounds.

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.



About translating problems, Suryawinata (1982) finds that in general a literary translator faces linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems. In translating a poem, one of the literary genres, the translator are also likely to face similar problems.

1. Linguistic Problems

In term of linguistic factors, according to the writer, at least there are two points to consider: collocation and obscured (non-standard) syntactical structures. The word "collocation' used here refers to words or word groups with which a word or words may typically combine. The combination may by syntagmatic or horizontal, like make a speech (not say a speech), run a meeting (not do a meeting), etc. Something to remember is in different languages the collocates tend to be different. The Indonesian phrase for run a meeting is not melarikan rapat but mengadakan rapat.

The other class of collocation is pragmatic or vertical. This consists of words belonging to the same semantic field or be semantic opposite. Different from the first class, the collocates in this class may be the same for several languages. Land, sea, air are exactly the same as tanah, laut,   udara.

Whatever the reason is, where there is an accepted collocation in the SL, the translator must find and use its equivalent in the TL if it exists. But a closer attention should also be paid to the collocation with similar form in the SL and TL, but different meaning. See this line, for example:

I find you in every woods and gardens.

The words woods and garden are collocates, and the Indonesian equivalents are very similar, hutan and kebun. Even the form is very much similar, the translator must examine first whether the meaning is the same. As it is known, the word woods in US is not exactly the same as hutan in Indonesia in term of the characteristics, area, location, etc. In addition, garden is not always the same as kebun. It may mean taman. The clear examination can only be done if the translator understands the contextual meaning.

The second point to consider in term of linguistic matters is obscured (non-standard) syntactic structures. Such kinds of structures may be intentionally written in a poem as a part of the expressive function of the text. Hence, such structures should be rendered as closely as possible.

The first step to deal with this problem is to find the deep (underlying) structure. According to Newmark (1981: 116), the useful procedure is to find the logical subject first, and then the specific verb. If the two important elements are discovered, the rest will fall into place. After that the translator can reconstruct the structure in the TL as closely as possible to the original structure. Besides, the structure of each phrase or clause should be examined clearly also.


2. Literary or Aesthetic Problems

Aesthetic values or poetic truth in a poem are conveyed in word order and sounds, as well as in cognitive sense (logic). And these aesthetic values have no independent meaning, but they are correlative with the various types of meaning in the text. Hence, if the translator destroys the word choice, word order, and the sounds, he impairs and distorts the beauty of the original poem. Delicacy and gentleness, for instance, will be ruined if the translator provides crude alliterations for the original carefully-composed alliterations. So, the problems in translating a poem is how to retain the aesthetic values in the TL text.

The aesthetic values, according to Newmark (1981: 65) are dependent on the structure (or poetic structure), metaphor, and sound. Poetic structure includes the plan of the original poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual sentences in each line. Metaphor is related to visual images created with combinations of words, which may also evoke sound, touch, smell, and taste. While sound is anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme, rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, etc. A translator cannot ignore any of them although he may order them depending on the nature of the poem translated.


2.1. Poetic Structure

The first factor is structure. It is important to note that structure meant here is the plan of the poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual sentence or of each line. So, it does not have to relate directly to the sentential structures or grammar of a language, even in fact it is very much affected by the sentential structure. Thus, maintaining the original structure of the poem may mean maintaining the original structure of each sentence.

The simple examples below show one stanza of Chairil Anwar's Senja di Pelabuhan Kecil and its two translations: the first is done by Boen S. Oemarjati and the last is by Burton Raffel. Try to compare which one is better? (Do not consider the semantic aspect for this stage.)


1.a  Ini kali tidak ada yang mencari cinta

     di antara gudang, rumah tua, pada cerita

     tiang serta temali, kapal, perahu tidak berlaut,

     menghembus diri dalam mempercaya mau berpaut

          (Kasbolah, 1990: 4)

1.b  This time there's no one looking for love

     among the sheds, old houses, near the tale

     of the masts and riggings. Ships (and) boats (that) have not gone to sea

     are puffing themselves (out) in the believe (they) will be united.

                 (Kasbolah, 1990: 13)

1.c  This time no one's looking for love

     between the sheds, the old house, in the make-believe

     of poles and ropes. A boat, a prau without water

     puff and blows, thinking there's something it can catch

                  (Kasbolah, 1990: 12)

The translations of the first line both are good in the sense that they put the adverb, "this time" first, but the translation of the main clause in the second translation is better for it tries to maintain the "poetic structure" of the line. The further we read the lines, the better we can catch the importance of maintaining the structure as an attempt to maintain the beauty of the poem. And finally we may agree that the second translation is more successfully in maintaining the poetic structure.


2.2. Metaphorical Expressions

Metaphorical expressions, as the second factor,  mean any constructions evoking visual, sounds, touch, and taste images, the traditional metaphors, direct comparisons without the words "like' and "as if", and all figurative languages. Intentionally, the writer does not use the term metaphor in the sub-heading since it has different meaning for some people. What is generally known as (traditional) metaphor, for example, is not the same as metaphor meant by Newmark.

To understand the meaning of metaphor as proposed by Newmark, it is advisable to understand the following terms: object, image, sense, metaphor, and metonym. Object, called also topic, is the item which is described by the metaphor. Image refers to the item in terms of which the object is described. It is also called vehicle. The next term, sense, refers to the point of similarity between aspects of the objects and the image. Metaphor here means the word(s) taken from the image. And finally, metonym refers to one-word image which replace the object, which is in many cases figurative but not metaphorical.

In the expression "rooting out the faults", for example, the object is 'faults', the image is 'rooting out weeds', the sense is (a) eliminate, (b) with tremendous effort, and the metaphor is 'rooting out'. The expression 'the seven seas' referring 'the whole world' is not metaphorical. It is figurative and a metonym.

Newmark (1981: 88-91) proposes seven procedures to translate metaphors in general. The first procedure is reproducing the same image in the TL if the image has comparable frequency and currency in the appropriate register. This procedure is usually used for one-word metaphor, e.g. ray of hope. Ray of hope can be simply translated into sinar harap.

The second procedure is replacing images in the SL with a standard TL image within the constraints of TL cultures. The English metaphor 'my life hangs on a thread', with this procedure, can be translated into Indonesian 'hidupku di ujung tanduk'.

The next is translating a metaphor by simile, retaining the image in the SL. This procedure can be used to modify any type of metaphor. The 'my life hangs on a thread', with this procedure, can be translated into 'hidupku bagai tergantung pada sehelai benang'.

And the rest of the procedures, translating metaphor (or simile) into simile plus sense, conversing metaphor into sense, deleting unimportant metaphor, and translating metaphor with some metaphors combined with sense, are not considered appropriate for poetry translation.

The possible question arising now is 'how far a translator can modify the author's metaphorical expressions?' It depends on the importance and expressiveness. If the expressions are very expressive in term of the originality, the expressions should be kept as close as possible to the original, in terms of object, image, sense, and the metaphor.

And then what about the culturally-bound metaphors or expressions?

As it is known, there are two kinds of expressions: universal and culturally-bound expressions. Universal expressions are the ones which consist of words having the same semantic field with that of most cultures in the world. Engkaulah matahariku, for example, is a universal expression for every culture sees the sun as the source of light, source of energy, source of life. Therefore, the expression can be simply transferred into 'You are my sun'.

See the example below. The poem in 2.a. is written by Sapardi Djoko Damono and the translation in 2.b. is done by John. H. McGlynn. The expression "matahari yang berteduh di bawah bunga-bunga" can be transferred directly. The expression "ricik air yang membuat setiap jawaban tertunda" is modified slightly. The metaphor "membuat (jawaban) tertunda" is changed into "postponing (each and every answer)", which literally means "menunda (setiap jawab)"; here the translator reproduces the same image in the TL, but does not transfer it directly.

             2.a Taman Jepang, Honolulu

        inikah ketentraman? Sebuah hutan kecil:

        jalan setapak yang berbelit, matahari       

        yang berteduh di bawah bunga-bunga, ricik air

            yang membuat setiap jawaban tertunda        

                    (McGlynn, 1990: 100)

             2.b Japanese Garden, Honolulu       

            is this peace? A small glen: 

        a winding footpath, the sun

        resting beneath the flowers, rippling water

        postponing each and every answer.          

                    (McGlynn, 1990: 101) 

2.3. Sound

The last of literary or aesthetic factors is sound. As stated before, sound is anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme, rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, etc. A translator must try to maintain them in the translation. As Newmark (1981: 67) further states, "In a significant text, semantic truth is cardinal [meaning is not more or less important, it is important!], whilst of the three aesthetic factors, sound (e.g. alliteration or rhyme) is likely to recede in importance -- rhyme is perhaps the most likely factor to 'give' -- rhyming is difficult and artificial enough in one language, reproducing line is sometimes doubly so." In short, if the translation is faced with the condition where he should sacrifice one of the three factors, structure, metaphor, and sound, he should sacrifice the sound.

On the other hand, the translator should balance where the beauty of a poem really lies. If the beauty lies more on the sounds rather than on the meaning (semantic), the translator cannot ignore the sound factor. See the following part of a poem written by Effendi Kadarisman (example 3.a). Can a translator ignore the rhyme and assonance? In this case, he has to maintain the two.


             3.a  Are you the bubble-bubble gum?

         Are you the jumble-jumble hum?

         Are you the rumble-rumble drum?

                Well, folks

                Poems are serious jokes

                Just say those nonsense words

                And sing with the mocking birds


In other cases where sounds is not such important, he should try to maintain them first in the TL before he decides not to transfer the sound into the TL. This means he should try to keep the beauty of the sound where possible. In example 4.b, the translator tries to maintain the rhyme but still he puts meaning in the first consideration. 


             4.a  Dalam tubuhmu kucari kepastian

         tapi yang tertinggal hanya kenangan

         Bisikan-bisikan segera fana

         Tak sedikit pun tercatat, meski hanya kata-kata

               (Rosidi, 1993: 200)

             4.b  In your body, I searched for certainty

         but what's left was only memory

         Whispers soon faded away

         Nothing's noted, even words only

3. Socio-cultural Problems

Words or expressions that contain culturally-bound word(s) create certain problems. The socio-cultural problems exist in the phrases, clauses, or sentences containing word(s) related to the four major cultural categories, namely: ideas, behavior, product, and ecology (Said, 1994: 39). The "ideas" includes belief, values, and institution; "behavior" includes customs or habits, "products" includes art, music, and artifacts, and "ecology" includes flora, fauna, plains, winds, and weather.

In translating culturally-bound expressions, like in other expressions, a translator may apply one or some of the procedures: Literal translation, transference, naturalization, cultural equivalent, functional equivalent, description equivalent, classifier, componential analysis, deletion, couplets, note, addition, glosses, reduction, and synonymy. In literal translation, a translator does unit-to-unit translation. The translation unit may range from word to larger units such as phrase or clause.

He applies 'transference procedure' if he converts the SL word directly into TL word by adjusting the alphabets (writing system) only. The result is 'loan word'. When he does not only adjust the alphabets, but also adjust it into the normal pronunciation of TL word, he applies naturalization. The current example is the Indonesian word "mal" as the naturalization of the English word "mall".

In addition, the translator may find the cultural equivalent word of the SL or, if he cannot find one, neutralize or generalize the SL word to result 'functional equivalents'. When he modifies the SL word with description of form in the TL, the result is description equivalent. Sometimes a translator provides a generic or general or superordinate term for a TL word and the result in the TL is called classifier. And when he just supplies the near TL equivalent for the SL word, he uses synonymy.

In componential analysis procedure, the translator splits up a lexical unit into its sense components, often one-to-two, one-to-three, or -more translation. Moreover, a translator sometimes adds some information, whether he puts it in a bracket or in other clause or even footnote, or even deletes unimportant SL words in the translation to smooth the result for the reader.

These different procedures may be used at the same time. Such a procedure is called couplets. (For further discussion and examples of the procedures, see Said (1994: 25 - 28) and compare it with Newmark (1981: 30-32)).

The writer does not assert that one procedure is superior to the others. It depends on the situation. Considering the aesthetic and expressive functions a poem is carrying, a translator should try to find the cultural equivalent or the nearest equivalent (synonym) first before trying the other procedures

See the first stanza of Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII below.


             5.a  Shall I compare thee with a summer's day?

         Thou are more lovely and more temperate

         Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

         And summer's lease hath all too short a date;



It is understood that "summer" is very beautiful for temperate countries, and it implies distinguished beauty. But the cultural equivalents or near equivalent of "summer" does not mean so for Indonesia, for example. And to translate any expression containing such words, the translator should, once again, consider each expression carefully in term of the importance and expressiveness. If the expression is very important seen from the whole meaning of the poem and very expressive seen from the originality of the expression, there is no reason not to supply the cultural or near equivalent in the TL (See Newmark, 1981: 50).

In the above case the translator does not have any choice; he has to supply the cultural equivalent in the TL. Let the reader learn and understand what a certain word means for others in the other part of the globe. "Summer's day" is a day when the sun shines brightly and the flowers, especially the sweet-scented roses, are blossoming everywhere in England. Meanwhile, the Indonesian "musim panas" means agony of life where irrigation channels are dry, the rice fields crack all over, and the dust scatters everywhere. Later, however, the reader will learn the beauty pictured with "summer" or "musim panas" when he notices that the poem was written by an Englishman.



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Kasbolah, Kasihani. 1990. Linguistics and Literature: a Translation Analysis of "Senja di Pelabuhan Kecil. Unpublished paper.

McGlynn, John H., ed. and trans. 1990. On Foreign Shores. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation.

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

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

Reaske, Cristopher C. 1980. How to Analyze Poetry. Monarch Press.

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Said, Mashadi. 1994. Socio-cultural Problems in the Translation of Indonesian Poems into English (A Case Study on "On Foreign Shores"). Unpublished Thesis. IKIP Malang.

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Widyamartaya, A.. 1989. Seni Menerjemahkan. Yogyakarta: Penerbit Kanisius.

Wills, Wolfram. 1982. The Science of Translation. Gunter Narr Verlag Tubingen

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