Saturday, 6 October 2007

Problems translating poetry

In the preface to Modern Poetry in Translation No. 19: Iraqi Poetry Today Saadi Simawe argues that:

"translating poetry requires not only familiarity with the two languages, but also knowledge of the poetic sensibilities of the peoples and literary traditions of those languages... Since absolute translation is a myth, and since the literal translation is spiritless if not meaningless in most cases, collaboration [between native speakers] is essential in establishing a linguistic and cultural conduit between the two languages."

This applies not only to poetry, but to all writing. Subtle ironies, metaphors, historical allusions, cultural context are lost in translation. The words, rhythm, flow and meaning are all gutted by poor attempts at absolute translation. That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it, but it does mean that you won't learn anything from it.

Omar Pound, with a mastery of Persian, Arabic and English poetry elegantly and sympathetically translated 40 classic Persian and Arabic poems for a 1970 volume Arabic & Persian Poems. He addressed the problem of an absolute translation and in some of the poems he updated the allusions and references to more contemporary characters and events (although almost 40 years later they are now out of date). Here are some of the best ones:

The earth outside
spun within
when they told me
she had married him

Now I know it's over
but Allah,
     Why did you let her go?
To pity what is left of me
and emphasise you still control?

Be merciful to her
     through him

He must have been poor indeed
to need her more than I.

Muzahim al-Uqaili (reminiscent of Rupert Brooke). There is a 1920 collection of his poems The poetical remains of Muzahim al-Uqaili edited and translated by F. Krenkow.

White hairs
are the voice
of the wind of death
and with them comes

they shudder the willow
of my heart—and moan:

What! Still asleep!
You're no longer needed here,
it is time to leave for home.

Jama Isfahani (died 1192).

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