Translating Poetry – What are the Main Challenges?

National Poetry Day is coming up soon in the UK, and events will be held all around the country to celebrate this art which was once described by Thomas Gray as thoughts that breathe and words that burn.

So why not take advantage of this unique event, which happens but once a year, and immerse yourself in some of the most famous rhymes and metaphors?

Poetry has been known for centuries as being able to give shape to feelings and emotions like no other genre of literature can. It might not be as intuitive as prose – since it doesn’t give away as much as the latter does – but it is definitely more powerful and hence soul-stirring.

We felt so inspired by this special national date that we decided to dedicate this post to poetry translation. Read on to discover the most salient features of poetry and find out how they constitute the main challenges of translating verse.


Apart from masterful technique, what makes poetry so unique?

You might be wondering: why are poems so exceptional that they deserve special treatment in translation?

From a formal point of view, poetry is different as it plays with words more than any other genre (more on that later!). Think metaphors and similes, and not just rhyme.

However, one of the features that makes poetry even more special is to be found on a “deeper” level. The thing about poetry is that it manages to explore the author’s feelings and express them in such an overpowering way, that it does so with a twist.

The trademark of poetry, in fact, is that it resonates with the reader’s feelings too. And even if unable to fully appreciate the intricate meanings and messages hidden in a certain use of words, readers’ emotions are triggered by a simple word or rhyme, or even by the associations made by their own imagination.

Learning to fully appreciate the meaning of poetry is hard enough for native speakers (don’t assume interpreting Shakespeare is easy for British people!), let alone if you are reading verses in your second or third language!

Translating poetry is therefore necessary in order to be able to enjoy poetry and all its references to the full.


Nothing’s harder than to mime the sound of meter, rhythm and rhyme

As mentioned earlier, on the formal level, rhyme constitutes one of the features of poetry that proves particularly challenging in translation. While it is clearly possible to find words that rhyme in the target language, being able to fit these into the puzzle of meanings of the whole poem is, on the other hand, a difficult task.

There is also a further complication embedded in rhyme which lies in choosing the right words for rhymes. Often, words in a poem do not rhyme fortuitously, but have rather been chosen by the author because they hold specific meanings that are related to the overall theme of the poem.

The rhythm of a poem, which is achieved with the use of rhyme as well as other stylistic devices such as assonance, consonance and onomatopoeia, is hard to reproduce in another language as it also depends on the structure of the whole poem.

Even though free verse prevails in modern literature, other types of meter characterise most of classic poetry. This is another aspect of poetry translation, since each language has a different metric system based on a variety of features such as accent and number or length of syllables.

All of these traits contribute to making the overall sound of poetry, which is among the challenges one must tackle when translating poetry.


Nothing makes for better verses than a metaphor that submerses

The factors above, as well as others, are all involved in producing, on a “technical level”, a good translation of any poem. However, in addition there are also other figures of speech that make up, or contribute to, the beauty of poetry and are not strictly related to sound but rather to meaning.

Metaphors and similes are devices that involve making a comparison – implicit in the first case and explicit in the second – to describe specific emotions or situations. And even though these figures of speech are used in prose too, they certainly constitute one of the major features of poetry.

Whether they consist of a whole sentence or simply a phrase, metaphors and similes are extremely common in poems, as they allow the author to delve deeper into his or her feelings and convey these to the reader.

However, rendering metaphors and similes in another language can prove a particularly arduous task, as they are often language- or culture-specific.

The choice then becomes either finding a metaphor in the target language that conveys an equivalent meaning or feeling, or translating it in a way that allows the reader to see and feel the same correlation between the components of the original metaphor, and the images contained in it too.

It certainly is a challenge!


While it’s tricky to translate, poetry is something to cultivate

Translation of poetry is by no means a straightforward task, and is certainly not as easy as many people might think. All types of translation can be tricky, but translation of poetry proves even more exacting due to all the stylistic features that come together to make up its beauty.

It takes time, experience and mental effort to produce a good translation of a poem. The final result, however, can be truly brilliant and bring about something mesmerising that will last for centuries, just like the original poem.

Poetry is part of every country’s cultural heritage and should therefore be cultivated like a precious seed. We hope you enjoy this year’s National Poetry Day by reading lots of poems, be they translated or in the original language!

Image Credit: Erik Tjallinks via Flickr