“Rules” in Translation

Recently, a friend of mine was venting her frustration with people who believe that writing poetry is easy and anyone can do it. She argued that while poetry is a freeing, expressive art it does have rules and if those rules are not followed, it is possible to write “bad” poetry. As an aspiring writer I’m not sure if I agree. Some of the greatest poets “broke” the rules (such as my favorite, T.S. Eliot); that’s how we ended up with blank verse, free verse, and other poems without strict forms.

This conversation led to me to wonder if there are supposedly rules for writing poetry, what rules might be in place for translating poetry, particularly Latin? If so, what are they? How can we use them or possibly break them?

I spoke with Patrick the librarian for ideas on how to search for answers to these questions. We determined that while there may not be as much information regarding the translation process for Latin poetry, there would certainly be information about translating poetry in general. After using the mamma.com search engine for the phrase “poetry in translation” I found the Modern Poetry in Translation Magazine. MPT is a print and digital magazine that offers readers the chance to learn how to translate and submit their translations (and don’t be put off by the word “modern”, they accept translations from all eras). The site is supported with public funding by the England Arts Council; I imagine that if a government is willing to put money toward the arts in this way, the website is reliable.

The example poem for teaching visitors how to translate that I looked at is written in Punjabi. The writers of the site assured me, “You do not need to have translated poetry before to have a go at translating this poem, nor do you need to speak Punjabi.” I then followed the steps for their idea of translating, listening to the sounds, following the glossary, observing the differences and similarities between Punjabi and English. Although I was capable of translating the poem, I felt extremely disconnected from it.

While there were no actual “rules” for translating the poem, the series of steps were a helpful guide. I’m not one to stifle anybody’s inner muse, but I do believe that there are some guidelines necessary for a “good” poetry translation and a “better” poetry translation. My guidelines stem from personal experience, so as I continue to translate these guidelines may change, increase in number, or disappear completely.

One of my concerns when translating the poem in Punjabi is that I don’t feel like I know Punjabi much better than I did before. I truly believe that in order to translate a poem well, you have to be comfortable in the language. When we immerse ourselves in Ovid through sight translation and continued practice of translation we build up a fluency and an understanding of the language. At this level, we can recognize when he plays on words [ i.e. in Amores 1.4, line 27 “tange manu mensam, tangunt quo more precantes”, where mensam can mean table or altar]. In my opinion, a translator totally unaware of the quirks of the Latin language would miss essential pieces of the translation and therefore have a translated poem with only some of the meaning.

My second concern with translation is a lack of understanding of the culture where the language is spoken. I recognize that none of us will time travel back to Ancient Rome, but we do know the history of the people. We understand the culture of love, sex, and marriage, and we apply this knowledge to our translation. If someone without any idea of Ancient Roman dinners where the woman is laying on top of the man took a stab at translating Ovid 1.4 they likely would not be able to understand the playfulness of the poem and deliberate word choice.

The best translations are the ones that grab readers today and connect them with an alternate culture. Who would know better about Ancient Roman culture than classics students? Yes, an eager poet can try to translate the words of Ovid, but in the end, those who know the language can best share the poems in the way he intended.

A. Hoffman


4 thoughts on ““Rules” in Translation

  1. Steve Maiullo

    Thanks, Allyson, for your work here. I think you are raising some really critical issues about translation. I do not understand how one can translate a poem without being able to read the language in which it was originally written. I will say, though, translation is a hard concept. Might I suggest checking out this interview with Stanley Lombardo, where he talks about his process.


  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Allyson, thanks for your post, it was really well written and interesting to read! Your post reminded me of a quote from the movie Ratatouille, have you ever seen it? Well in the movie, a main premise is that “Anyone can cook” and at the end of the movie, that statement is amended to say that “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great”. And I like applying that idea to this concept of translation. I think that yes, anyone can translate, and perhaps anyone can write poetry (although the only reason I would feel this statement is false is that I don’t think I can write poetry). However, I would agree with you that knowledge of the language of origin as well as an open mind and other qualities are what can make a translation become incredible and speak more volumes than simply words on a page can. A great artist can come from anywhere, but there are certain aspects of a translation that I feel add validity and depth to it, and without these aspects it would be hard to create a translation that spoke to us as much as we would like it to. I guess what I’m saying is I agree with you and think that there would be a superficiality to translations if they were made without knowledge such as language and context that allow our minds to be blown by the incredible wit and complexity of authors like Propertius. I do also think that in this context, colleagues are a resource that we should use for inspiration and discussion to not only cleave every bit of meaning we can from a translation, but also for feedback and encouragement as we move into the sometimes daunting world of taking a genius’s words and trying to forge them with our own. One final question to possibly make you think, if there are multiple translations, and they all go in different directions and interpret the original work in vastly different ways, are they all valid in a literature evaluation sense of the word? Even if some of the paths are obscure, bizarre, even downright offending? I would tend to think that they are, but then again… what do you think?

  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I love this! I’ve always agreed that language is intrinsically tied to the culture of its speakers. One without the other, in my not so humble opinion, would severely hamper any attempt to grasp at a work of literature’s meaning. Of course that could get you into “the author is dead” and buckets of debates like that, but on the whole, I believe that the best interpretation, is the original author’s. If not to know why the poem was originally written in the first place. And all you’re points are valid, concise, and articulate. Great job. :3



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