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Poetry and Prosody in Translation

By Preston Waddoups

For a functionally monolingual person, I find questions about translation oddly fascinating. Or maybe it’s not odd at all for the same reason that people who are unable to travel have the most reason to read about foreign countries. Much of my reading consists of translations, and sometimes I like to imagine that reading a translated text is like watching a foreign film with subtitles: the words are different, but you “see” the same thing as everyone else. But this is probably too optimistic of a view, as the most accurate movie to use as an analogy, in this case, would be a silent one that consists of nothing but subtitles. What, then, survives the process of translation?

I can’t answer the question outright, but it seems like concrete and simple phrases have the best chance of surviving translation. A line in Spanish and an expertly translated line in English describing a landscape in a literal fashion would conjure up similar mental images in readers of either language, images probably as nearly similar as those formed in the minds of two readers using the same language. Even between readers of the same language, we can’t have absolute certainty that one signifier always leads to the same signified thing, but this doesn’t seem to be worth worrying about the vast majority of the time. When people make a good faith effort to understand each other, or if there is a capable translator, language seems like it does its job well enough most of the time. But poetry poses a unique problem as, even more so than any other category of language, it isn’t solely about communicating a verbal idea or creating a cognitive image. It seems hard, or even impossible historically, to distinguish poetry from prose unless sonic or formal elements are mentioned, and these elements seem much more difficult to translate. Talented translators may be able to approximate a speaker’s voice and tone, and effects like long-windedness or conspicuous line breaks can be reconstructed in a second language, but prosody seems to present the greatest challenge of all. Formal aspects of poetry seem to get much of their meaning and force from the connotations they receive in the historical circumstances they’re used in. Even if a translator could make a structurally analogous translation of an old Icelandic poem in court meter, the meter couldn’t have the same meaning to modern readers as it did to people who recognized it as court meter in actual medieval courts. Similarly, a “true” verse translation of Homer is impossible, as English poetry is practically always read with accentual-syllabic rather than quantitative meter, and English audiences wouldn’t hear dactylic hexameter and automatically think that they were being told historical or divinely inspired poems about gods and heroes like many ancient Greeks would have.

While some translators opt to sacrifice prosody for literal meaning in light of this difficulty, others pick a distinct meter or form with similar connotations to the meter or form in the original language and culture. For example, Bernard Grebanier, the translator of the French play Phaedra, wrote that “the rhymed couplet, so noble and elegant on the French stage in the hands of its masters, is in English stilled and artificial; I, therefore, thought it best to use the noblest medium of our own stage, blank verse.” This strategy is undoubtedly difficult to implement, and it requires a broad knowledge of literary history and the artistic or linguistic culture present readers exist (a task made even more difficult in an age of free verse and unprecedented access to the literature of all types), but I think it’s certainly a fascinating approach to translating poetry.

All of this aside, I think it’s also okay for poetry translations to “fail” (if that’s really the right word). In an everyday, functional language, miscommunications are practically always failures, and they’re often easy to recognize. If I ask a waiter for pasta and he brings me a fork, something has clearly gone wrong, and we’ve both failed at achieving what we intended. However, this model doesn’t seem to apply to poetry translations (or poetry generally). If a translation is beautiful or thought-provoking, it has succeeded at something, even if that something has little to do with the original poem as it appeared in the poet’s mind or to their foreign audience. In that case, it may be more accurate to call it an original but historically inspired poem, or perhaps a strange sort of ekphrastic poem, but neither designation precludes the poem from being good on its own merits.

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