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Poetry Translation

By Hashim G. Lazim,
Assistant Professor,
Ajman University of Science and Technology Network,


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From time immemorial, poetry has been part and parcel of people’s lives. It immortalized ancient civilizations through epics such as Gilgamesh, the Illiad, the Iniad, Beowolf, pre-Islamic poetry, especially The Mu, alaqat, etc. Poets, however, gained special dignified status. What is poetry, then? What makes it so highly evaluated?

Poetry, to begin with, is meant to express the emotions and touch the feelings and depths of listeners or readers. It adds something essential to their experiences. The poet, therefore, has to be fully aware of the capacity of language to make his message highly effective. The words of the poem surpass their textual denotations; they take new shades of meaning dictated by the poetic context.

Be that as it may, poets resort to diverse devices to serve their intentions. They apply a variety of figures of speech; there is rhythm, rhyme, tone; there is deviation from the institutionalized linguistic code, and there is musicality expressed through meters and cadence.

Poetry; translatable?

Poetry, possessing all the above components, aroused doubts and queries on the possibility of its translatability. Whereas some people look at it as a sacred entity, others dared to conquer its impregnable fortifications!

The opponents of poetic translation such as W. B. Bateson and Turco propose their reasons: when poems, especially philosophical ones, satires, lyrics, etc, are translated into another language, they become not only flabby poems, but rather new ones in a new language. They stress that poetry in translation surely loses its basic elements. Such views go with the belief that poetry is wholly lost in translation.

Professor H. G. Widdowson in his book Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, 1975, appears less extreme. He assumes that the translation of poetry is extremely difficult because of "the patterning of sound and sense into a single meaning."

Arabic views have been expressed in this respect. Al-Jahedh, for instance, believes that poetry is untranslatable; in case it is translated, its meter will be distorted, its tone disturbed and pleasure disappears. This view stems from the fact that each language has its own poetic meters and music.

Verse Translation vs. Prose Translation

Should we, then, refrain from translating poetry, or should we attempt at translating it irrespective of all precautions? The second view is advocated here for if poetry is left inaccessible to translation, mankind would be deprived of a huge number of poetic works which are masterpieces themselves.

One may wonder whether the translation be in verse or prose. A variety of views have been proposed in this regard. Theodore Savoy in his book The Art of Translation, 1968, mentions some of these views. He says that people such as Carlyle, Leigh Hunt and Professor Postates believe that poetry cannot be translated into a form other than poetry, for its aesthetic impact is expressed through meter. Others such as Mathew Arnold and Helaire Belloc expressed the possibility of translating poetry into prose for a prose form can still have its poetic essence.

It is supposed here that since poetry has its distinctive features, it cannot be rendered into pure prose. The poet is mainly concerned with the connotative force of words. The translation of poetry into poetry entails preserving the rhyme, figurative language and the general tone of the original. This cannot be achieved unless the translator has a special talent and introspection. Some poetic translations, so deep and original, have impressed readers in the other languages. Few of the translated versions have been deemed even more illuminating than the original. Professor Nickolson’s translation of Jamil Buthayna’s poems is but a lucid example:

Oh, might flower a new that youthful prime
And restore to us, Buthayna, the bygone time.
And might we again be blest as we want to be
When thy folk were nigh and grudged what thou gavest me.
Shall I ever meet Buthayna alone again?

The difficulty of poetic translation leads many to think that the translator of poetry must himself be a poet otherwise he should not dare to square the circle! There appeared also other attempts to translate poetry into rhythmic prose. Khalil Mutran, for instance, translated some of Shakespeare’s plays applying rhythmic prose. Yet, pure prose translations are not recommended as much of the music of poetry is lost.

To conclude, poetry can be translated by those who have deep interest in poetry and who possess the poetic feel and sensation, in addition to their mastery of the other language. The poet, in this regard, is a leading translator. But, how many poets, who master a foreign language, can be found?

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