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Old 09-06-2001, 09:04 AM
Solan Solan is offline
Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: Grimstad, home of Ibsen and Hamsun
Posts: 833

I have decided to translate two poems I like very much over the next half year. I give myself half a year, since I want to do the poems at least some justice, and because I know I will be a better poet in four months' time than I am today.

The languages are very close, since the one poem in in German and the other one is in English. The target language is Norwegian.

But I need to know:
  1. Should I stick to the original meter?
  2. Should I stick to the original rhyme scheme?
  3. How "permissible" is it to alter the order of elements in a poem?
  4. What other advice do you have for translating poetry?


Svein Olav

.. another life

[This message has been edited by Solan (edited September 06, 2001).]
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Old 09-06-2001, 07:28 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Location: Fargo ND, USA
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Dear Svein, I shall ask Professor Mezey to return and answer your just questions. Nobody associated with the 'Sphere is better qualified to respond. Should he decline this assignment, Alan Sullivan or I shall respond, but we're really not in Robert's league.
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Old 09-07-2001, 12:33 AM
Solan Solan is offline
Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: Grimstad, home of Ibsen and Hamsun
Posts: 833

Thank you, Tim. Bob would be the right person to answer: One of the poems is Bob's Tea Dance. The other is the Goethe poem I posted in the Mastery forum. I know: Magician's apprentice and so on. But I want to give it a try.

In the first, just literal translation, I noticed two things: The syllable count wanted to grow by 20% or so. But more surprisingly, the words took on a far more intimate character or sound in Norwegian. I don't know if that is an aspect of Norwegian language "per se," or if I get this impression simply because it's my native tongue. It's a source of fascination for me now, anyway.


Svein Olav

.. another life

[This message has been edited by Solan (edited September 06, 2001).]
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Old 09-07-2001, 06:43 PM
Michael Juster Michael Juster is offline
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Location: Belmont MA
Posts: 4,699

Well, while we're waiting for the real thing, let me give everyone a few things to shoot at. First of all, there is no "right" answer. I translate Petrarch using the original rhyme scheme--nobody else has bothered to do it in quantity for more than fifty years. There HAVE been blank verse and free verse translations, and many people admire them. However, if you love form, you try to replicate the original form to the extent you can. I almost always duplicate rhyme schemes exactly, which even some purists like Len Krisak consider insane. In Latin, where there was no rhyme until the corrupted medieval period, I think you have more flexibility. I translate Martial, and I think comic verse demands the conventions of English light verse but no particular rhyme scheme or form. Narrative Latin verse seems to fit best with blank verse, and lyrics seem to fit any rhyme scheme or none at all, depending on the poem.
I think duplicating meter is trickier, and you should look to the spirit of the original rather than the letter. I have this argument from time to time with folks about Latin and Greek, and I fail to see the point in duplicating the meter when what controlled classical meter was syllable length, which we can't hear. But some disagree...Likewise, the French alexandrine generally needs to be condensed, usually into iambic pentameter, because what is delightful with longer French words becomes leaden in English.
I also think the best advice I can give is to translate sentence by sentence, and not word for word. Failure to do this limits your rhyme choices, and usually ends up creating pieces as wooden as a translation in a second year Latin class ("Is it the case that a pencil was given to you by me?"). I would not, however, reorder sentences--that for me does too much violence to the original text.
The balances between faithfulness to the text, faithfulness to the form, and faithfulness to the beautiful intensity of the language (why bother working on a bad poem?) inevitably require disappointing tradeoffs. As you take translation more seriously, it can become very depressing because you always end up judging your work by the extent to which it fails--it is impossible not to lose something important from the original. It is, however, fun in the way a crossword puzzle is fun, great practice in technique and patience for any young poet, and a joy when it comes together well.
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Old 09-07-2001, 11:00 PM
Solan Solan is offline
Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: Grimstad, home of Ibsen and Hamsun
Posts: 833

Thank you, Michael. I will work on a sentence-by-sentence or line-by-line basis. One sentence,

But they danced here sixty-five years ago!

can't be crammed into the line's IP in Norwegian. However,

De danset her i nitten tjuefem
(They danced here in nineteen twenty five)

is plain IP. If I add the word "Men" ("But") at the beginning of the line, I get an anapestic first foot. I wonder if that is OK.

In general - a question I should have asked - should a translator also try to follow the substitution pattern of the original poem to the extent that he can? If the original poem uses many inverted first feet, should the translator strive to do so as well, in an attempt to achieve similarity of flow?

In the example above, I would have translated translated trochee-trochee-trochee-iamb-iamb into either regular IP or anapest-iamb-iamb-iamb-iamb.

Svein Olav

.. another life
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Old 09-08-2001, 04:19 AM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Claremont CA USA
Posts: 573

Oy, Svein, what questions! Very hard to
answer. I agree with almost everything
Michael Juster says. In general, I don't
think you have to stick to the rhyme
scheme of the original, but of course if
you're translating Petrarch's sonnets, of
course you must try to do them in Petrarchan
sonnets. And as Michael says, to translate
a sonnet into free verse is (usually)
ridiculous. (There are exceptions to
everything, except for God's generalizations.)
But in general, getting the rhyme scheme is
a matter of sheer luck; it's pure velvet if
it happens, but it rarely does. I'm very
happy about two or three Borges sonnets in
which all my rhymes were perfect and followed
his scheme, but most of the time I had to
accept variations. Almost all of Borges'
poems in quatrains are rhymed abba and
I try to stick to that, but most of the time
I'll get the abba in, say, twenty
quatrains but have to settle for abab
in two or three. But that's preferable to
changing Borges' meaning. No, you don't
imitate the original meter unless you have
the same meter in your own language (and
it's used in much the same way)---you look
for a reasonable equivalent. For example,
Borges' meters, like all Spanish meters, are
syllabic; but Spanish is accented, even if
not so strongly as English, and most of Borges'
hendecasyllables have about five beats---so,
iambic pentameter is a very good equivalent.
But on occasion, for the hell of it and to
get a particular effect, I did his syllabic
lines in English syllabic lines. And once
I translated a hendecasyllabic poem into
iambic tetrameter---Spanish uses a lot more
syllables to say a thing than English does,
so pentameter, even though it sounds more
natural for hendecasyllables, requires a good
deal of careful skillful padding. (Probably
I should have tried one in English hendeca-
syllabics, like Frost's "For Once, Then,
Something"---maybe I'll go back to one and
see how it turns out.) As for reordering
elements, it depends, it depends. Sometimes
you can do it without altogether violating
the plot of the original, but usually you
can't. Easier of course to reorder small
elements, though even there you have to
watch your step. It goes without saying
that you want to be as faithful as you can
be, but if close fidelity results in the
loss of most of what makes the original as
beautiful as it is, then I say the hell with
it. The most important thing is to make the
reader understand why you had to translate
that particular poem or poet---you have to
communicate something of the excitement and
vitality of the original or you're wasting
your time. As for general advice to a young
translator just setting out? Don't do it,
unless you love misery and frustration. I
happen to love it. And every once in a while
you have the illusion that you have written
a beautiful poem that mirrors almost exactly
the beautiful original, and it's delicious,
like all illusions (while they last).

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Old 09-08-2001, 05:05 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

I have to agree with Bob that Mike's about nailed it, though I wish to add one caveat: If you're going to translate the Beowulf or the Elder Edda, you better transpose sentences and fragments thereof. Here's a chunk translated word for word, from the great dirge at the end of the Wulf:

Constructed there weather people
barrow on headland that was high and broad
to wayfarers far visible
and timbered in ten days
battle-bold's monument fire-leavings
wall built around so it worthily
most clever men find might.

Here's the original, breathtaking in its beauty:

Gewohrten tha, Wedra leode
hleo on hoe, sa was heg ond brad
weg-lithendum wide gesyne
ond betimbredon on tyn dagum
bedurofe's becan. Bronde lafe
wealle beworten swa hit weorthlicost
foresnotre men findon mighton.

I've done that from memory, and my Anglo Saxon orthography leaves much to be desired. Now, how do you translate such glorious verse, that transliterates so horribly? Here it is in our translation:

High on the headland they heaped his grave-mound
which seafaring sailors would spy from afar.
Ten days they toiled on the scorched hilltop,
the cleverest men skillfully crafting
a long-home built for the bold in battle.
They walled with timbers ...etc.

Sometimes languages are so far apart that the translator must reorder matters to suit his hearers. One of Mike's most interesting experiments is his translation of Petrarch into tetrameters, not pentameters. And of course Wilbur gives us the French Alexandrines as pentameters. So sure, Svein, try anything and see if it works. I think the point is to reproduce as closely as we can the poetic effect of the original--not slavishly to reproduce it.--Tim

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Old 09-09-2001, 02:30 PM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2001
Posts: 1,013

What smart, useful things are being said about translation here! I'd like to add that what I'm finding a serious challenge is the translation of tone, the invisible "facial expression" you imagine on the poet's face as you picture him speakiing his poem to you. I've been trying to get some Frost poems into Spanish, and have been stumped by the dry humor that I now requires the verbal equivalent of a twinkle in the eye. There's so much dead-pan humor, so much deliberate ambiguity that almost amounts to malice!

I've done "The Silken Tent," which I expected would be wicked, and it wasn't half as much trouble as "Mending Wall," which doesn't even have rhyme to worry about! That long, silken, single-sentence sonnet was easier to convey in Spanish than the "New Hampshirese" of Frost's fence-maker haggling with his neighbor over why they do or don't need a fence at all, which is a matter of tone. That surprised me.
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