As translators and interpreters we aim to render meaning as faithfully as possible. Every field of translation has its difficulties. Technical, field-specific language must be mastered before working in those areas. Company slogans can go badly wrong. Likewise, jokes and slang are notoriously difficult to translate.
An Impossible task?
Perhaps no task is a challenging as translating poetry. There are so many variables to consider! Some believe it is an impossible job, and that each translation of a poem is a new work in its own right. It might be better thought of as ‘recreating’ rather than ‘translating’ a poem. Translators of poetry must navigate the balance between conveying the words faithfully and creating the same atmosphere as the original. If the original poem rhymes, does the translation need to? Meter is also incredibly difficult to preserve. The pacing and flow of syllables influences how a reader experiences the words of a poem.
Translators must thoroughly understand the source material. They must internalize the rhythm as well as understand every nuance. While the author may have been able to assume a level of cultural fluency from her original audience, the translator cannot. For example, readers of a poem translated from Afrikaans may not know that red is a color of mourning in South Africa. A poem that features a series of red objects might have connotations of death and mourning that slip between the cracks.
In 2016 the Man Booker International prize announced that it will now be awarded to both the author and translator. Each will receive equal billing and prize money.
The US-based National Book Awards created an entire category last year for translated literature. It is now the fifth category, the others being fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young-adult literature.
While translated work remains a small percentage of literary sales, its share seems to be increasing. The organization Literature Across Frontiers recently took a look at two decades of data. Director Alexandra Büchler reported:
General translations grew by 53% between 1990 and 2012 and literary translations by 66%… Also encouraging is the diversity of source languages with small European languages like Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch among the top ten translated languages alongside two non-European languages, Arabic and Japanese.
Likewise, research commissioned by the Man Booker prize found that UK sales of translated fiction increased 5.5% in 2018. The category of ‘general/literary fiction’ grew an impressive 20%.
Different Approaches, Different Solutions
Some anthologies present the translation side by side with the original. Bilingual readers will obviously benefit most from this presentation, but it also serves to give an impression of things like meter, the density of words, or rhyme scheme.
Consider a selection of results from an excellent exercise run by Modern Poetry in Translation. An original poem in Estonian is presented alongside a literal translation. A selection of the many excellent translated submissions appear below. To get a sense of the variety of choices literary translators have to make, the first stanza of each version is presented below:
Orb (Original poem in Estonian by Marie Under)
Maadligi, vettligi maja,
külgpidi sees –
laeni täis lainete kaja,
kajakad läve ees.
Orphan (Literal Translation by Maarja Kangro)
A house bent to the ground, bent to the water,
One side sloping —
Filled with the echo of waves up to the ceiling,
Seagulls in front of the threshold.
The Orphan (Version by Galyna Usova)
A house, all sagging and kneeling
Over the beach;
Waves echo hitting the ceiling,
And seagulls screech.
The Waif (Version by Leonardo Boix)
House kiss the ground, water
a slipping wall—
overflows with the roar of the sea
seagulls at the door.
Bereft (Version by Gabi Reigh)
Stooped to the sea, crouching in dirt,
Ringing with tides straining within
As seagulls, watchful, wait:
The Orphan (Version by Huw Davies)
By the sea’s edge, a house, kneeling,
sloped on one side.
Waves echo up to the ceiling,
seagulls appear outside.
Reading one translation after another sheds light on how much impact a translator can have! The full poem (and many other translations can be found here.