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Steps in Translating Poetry

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Sugeng HariyantoIn general, there are two main stages  taken in translating a poem: reading and writing. In reading stage the translator reads the original poem to get the message as well as the feel of the text. The translator must be able to get the real message and wish the poet wants to convey through the poem. This stage is similar to "tuning" step proposed by Bathgate (in Widyamartaya, 1989: 48). In this stage the translator has to understand the basic elements of a poem such as rhyme, meter (if any), metaphor, choice of words, figurative language, etc. in order to get the poet's style.

The next important stage is (re)writing the gotten message in the TL. Hence, the quality of the result of the writing process is subject to that of the reading. In this writing process the translator should always remember the very broad but important hint, "be faithful to the original!".

The above mentioned hints are the basic consideration to translate a poem. And the actual procedure can be different from one translator to the others. The following is the technique proposed by Robert Bly (in Frawley, 1953: 67-89) and its application.

To start with, the writer chooses a simple poem by Gunawan Muhamad as follows:

Berjaga Padamukah Lampu-Lampu Ini, Cintaku

Berjaga padamukah lampu-lampu ini, cintaku
yang memandang tak teduh lagi padamu
Gedung-gedung memutih memanjang
membisu menghilang dari sajakku

Tapi kita masih bisa mencinta, jangan menangis
Tapi kita masih bisa menunggu. Raja-raja akan lewat
dan zaman-zaman akan lewat
Sementara kita tegak menghancur 1000 kiamat

The first stage is setting down the literal version of the poem in the TL. In the stage, nothing should be worried about. Don't worry about the flat phrases of the "translation". Dumpy and prosaic phrases are fine. So the result of the first stage may be as follows:

Do the lights take care of you, my love

Do the lights take care of you, my love
that stare at you with no more affection
Buildings get whiter and longer
dumb, disappearing from my poems

But we still can make love, don't cry
But we can still await. Kings will pass by
and ages will pass by
While we are steadily destroying 1000 doomsdays

Secondly, the translator should try to dig up the real meaning of the original poem. This is the stage where the translator can apply all his knowledge and skill he got from his literature courses to get the meaning of the poem. He may also get help from his friends and the native speakers of the language used by the original poem. There the translator will uncover why the poet uses certain symbol, etc. In short, from this step, the translator gets the idea of the poem. The poet expresses his belief in eternal love. In the first stanza he portrays the cold unfriendly environment (the awaken love staring at the girl with no more affection and the whitening long building which disappear from the poet's poems). But in the second stanza, the poet assure the girl that despite all the cold unfriendly environment, they are sure to be able to love each other forever.

In the next stage, the translator should return to the literal version, the result of the first stage, compare its meaning and the original meaning just got from the second stage. There he would see where the literal version lost the original meaning. Then he should redo the literal version and get it into good TL construction. If in the first stage the translator may follow the order of the original poem, in this stage he should reconstruct it into good TL in term of structure (good does not always mean standard). The result may be still awkward.

Following the above example, the translator may reconsider the following points. The first is the meaning of the word "berjaga". In the translation as a result of the first step, it is translated into "take care". In fact, the word "jaga" means "take care", "guard", "keep" or even "awake". If the prefix is "men" and the word is "menjaga", the meaning is surely "to guard" or "to take care". If the prefix is "ter" and the word is "terjaga", the meaning is "awake" or "waken up". And the word in the poem is neither "menjaga" nor "terjaga". This is something new. But, seeing the context, the translator concludes that the word means "awake".

The second is about the word "membisu". The word has been translated into "dumb". But someone who does "membisu" is not "bisu" or "dumb". He is able to speak, but he does not want to speak for some reasons. So the closest translation is "silent" not "dumb".

The next is about the word "bisa". In the structure, the word can be translated into "may", "can", or "able". But in the original poem, the word emphasizes the ability because it has been contrasted with the cold unfriendly situation. So, the choices are "can" or "able". Considering the original line (see again the discussion on poetic structure), the translator should choose the word "able".

The fourth point to reconsider is the word "menangis". The word actually can be translated into "cry". But "cry" evoke the image of loud noise. While the atmosphere created in the poem is not noisy; it is silent night. So, the translator should find another word to evoke the same image. The closest word would be "sob".

And the last point to reconsider is the word "akan lewat" in line six and seven. This structure implies a future event. And the poet seems very sure about it. Considering the atmosphere created throughout the poem, the translator may conclude that the construction "akan lewat" also emphasizes the process. Fortunately, there is an English construction that can carry the ideas. The construction is the "present progressive tenses" that refers to the future events. So the result is "are passing by".

And at the end of this third step, the result is as follows:

Are the lights awake for you, my love

Are the lights awake for you, my love
staring at you with no more affection
Buildings get whiter and longer
keep silent, disappear from my poems

But we are still able to love, don't sob
But we are still able to wait. Kings are passing by
and ages are passing by
While we are steadily destroying 1000 doomsdays

In the next stage, the awkward version in the TL is perfected into fresh "living' language spoken by the society of the TL. If the language in the original poem is formal, the translation should stay formal, if it is informal in spoken style, in the TL should be so. In the example above, the lines are quite good. But, the fifth lines, "But we are still able to love", may need a little revision. Since people usually do not say the long standard line but shorten the words "we are" into "we're". So, it is better for the translator to revise the line into:

But we're still able to love, don't sob
But we're still able to wait. ........

In the fifth stage, the translator should also utilize his ears. This time the ears should not be turned outwards to 'living' language in the society, but turned inwards to the complicated feelings the original poem is carrying with the sounds. Each poem has a different mood; this mood should be retained in the translation. The pleasant happy lines in the original poem should remain pleasant and happy also in the TL. This is the stage where the translator needs his ears to balance each sounds and rhythm, his settled mind to scale the poetic structure. To do this well, according to Robert Bly (in Frawley, 1953: 77), a translator needs to have written poetry himself; he needs the experience in writing from the moods, the pleasant or sad, the elegance and delicate or rough, high or low, dark or light, serious or lighthearted moods, etc. In short, within this stage the translator modifies errors that may have come in with the emphasis on the spoken 'living' language to present the real tone of the poem.

In general the original poem is quite serious, romantic, and a little slow. Referring to the poetic structure of the original, the translator may revise the third line. He may make it longer and slower by changing the tense into present progressive tense. The fourth line also needs polishing. The current translation is not as slow and romantic as the original. It may be changed to continue the third line, as it does in the original. And the end of the fifth line "don't sob" sounds too rough. It can be changed into "don't you sob." And the word "steadily" in the last line seems to need revision. Then it can be replaced by "steady" which has stronger image when we read the whole line.
At the end of this step, the translator gets this:

Are the lights awake for you, my love

Are the lights awake for you, my love
staring at you with no more affection
Buildings are getting whiter and longer
silently disappearing from my poems

But we're still able to love, don't you sob
But we're still able to wait. Kings are passing by
and ages are passing by
While we are steady destroying 1000 doomsdays

In the next stage, the translator should pay attention to sounds. The rhythm of the poem should be kept in the TL. Bly (in Frawley, 1953: 81) suggests a very simple method to get the rhythm: "memorize the original poem, then say it to yourself, to friends, to the air."

For him, rhythm is something different from meter. A translator cannot transfer the rhythm by just transferring the meter. Not only rhythm should be paid attention to, assonance and resonance are also important. Bly (1953: 86-87) believes that to get the internal rhymes across is possible, but the translator should not insist on end rhymes. In this stage, the translator may stand within the tension of meaning and sound; and only he himself knows which one is to win.

Referring to the current example, the translator finds difficulty in transferring the rhymes right away. He can only preserve the delicate sound as well as possible. The ends of the first and the second line do not sound quite nice. The end of the second line should be changed; and the translator can put the words "no more" at the end. The same case happens to line three and four; the translator changes the word "poem" into "verse".

Coming to the second stanza, the translator finds that the word "sob" sounds too rough. He has to change it into "cry" even though he has thrown this word aside. And the result of this step is:

Are the lights awake for you, my love

Are the lights awake for you, my love
staring at you with affection no more
Buildings are getting whiter and longer
silently disappearing from my verse

But we're still able to love, don't you cry
But we're still able to wait. Kings are passing by
and ages are passing by
While we are steady destroying 1000 doomsdays

The seventh stage is asking the native speaker of the SL to go over the translation to find the errors or inappropriateness. Of course, he needs a native speaker capable in literary matters. The translator, then, should revise the translation whenever necessary. By the end of the stage, he starts bringing the translation alive.

In the final stage, the translator himself should go over the translation again and again to make the final revision. This is the time to make the final adjustment within 'unlimited' time.

To conclude, it is important to remember, as stated by Sir John Denham, that the business is not alone to translate language into language, but 'poesie' into 'poesie', and 'poesie' is of so subtle a spirit that in the pouring out of one language into another it will all evaporate; if a new spirit is added in the transfusion there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum. And this article is meant to be the path towards translating 'poesie' into 'poesie' alive with its spirit.


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

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

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

Rosidi, Ajip. 1993. Terkenang Topeng Cirebon. Jakarta: PT. Dunia Pustaka Jaya.

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

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