wildfillysama: Translating Poetry

Translating poetry is a whole bag of nope.

Not only do you have to translate the literal meaning of each part of the poem (literal formalism), you also have to be aware of the original rhythm and technical innovations of the source poem, and find some way of putting those into the translated version (dynamic equivalence). This means that you need to be confident with both languages, their contexts/nuances, poetic techniques, and also have some abilities as a poet yourself in order to make these all come together in a recognisable way.

In short, you’re going to have a bad time. If you’re lucky, the poem will turn out wonderfully and work as a conduit between the original and new audience, the original poet and translator poet. If you’re not lucky, the poem will look like an unholy abomination that the original poet would rather set fire to, and possibly you as well afterwards. As insult to injury, often the best feedback that a translator can expect is “it’s an accurate translation”. End of comment. A little bit soul destroying, but better than nothing, I suppose?

To show just how “fun” translating poetry can be, here are a few poems that I’ve translated:

Sappho Fragments in Aeolic Greek

Ἠράμαν μὲν ἔγω σέθεν, Ἄτθι, πάλαι πότα
Σμίκρα μοὶ παῖσ ἔμμεν ἐφαίνεο κἄχαρισ [fr. 49]

Οἴαν τὰν υάκινθον ἐν οὔρεσι ποίμενες ἄνδρες
πόσσι καταστείβοισι, χάμαι δ’ ἐπιπορφύρει ἄνθος. [fr. 105A]

Ἄτθι, σοὶ δ’ ἔμεθέν μεν ἀπήχθετο
φροντίσδην, ἐπὶ δ’ Ἀνδρομέδαν πότῃ. [fr. 131]

Τίς δ’ ἀγροιῶτίς τοι θέλγει νόον
οὐκ ἐπισταμένα τὰ βράκε’ ἔλκην ἐπὶ τῶν σφύρων; [fr. 57]

.… Ἔμεθεν δ’ ἔχεισθα λάθαν [fr. 129A]
Ἤ τιν’ ἄλλον
[μᾶλλον] ἀνθρώπων ἔμεθεν φίλησθα. [fr. 129B]

Σκιδναμένας ἐν στήθεσιν ὄργας
μαψυλάκαν γλῶσσαν πεφύλαχθαι. [fr. 158]

Ἕχει μὲν Ανδρομέδα κάλαν ἀμοίβαν [fr. 133]


Transmission/”Stitching Up”

I loved you dearly long ago, Atthis, when
you seemed to me a little, graceless child

such as the hyacinth on the mountain that
shepherd men press underfoot, breaking the blossom

but thoughts of me, Atthis, are grievous to you,
you have fled to Andromeda.

What rustic girl charms you now,
not having the wisdom to arrange her skirts?

You forget me,
or maybe you love some man more than me.

When anger swells in my breast,
it is better to guard my idly barking tongue.

Andromeda has indeed a beautiful reward.


This particular translation leans heavily towards literal formalism rather than dynamic equivalence. Each stanza doesn’t appear like this in Sappho’s original poetry: this poem has been built out of the smallest fragments of Sappho’s surviving work, hence the title. Despite literally translating the meaning of each original Greek poem, the structure is new and so is the plot, so there is a dynamic undercurrent that also comments on the extremely subjective nature of Sappho’s recovery. That kind of thing is fun for me. Sorry.


In this poem, “L’Impossible” by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, I have slipped into formal meaning as opposed to dynamic equivalence. Because the original poem has a regular rhyme scheme, this is particularly tricky to render into English without losing out on meaning. I’ve compensated by working in occasional rhymes, but I still consider this poem to be a pretty lame translation as a result.

Qui me rendra ces jours où la vie a des ailes
Et vole, vole ainsi que l’alouette aux cieux,
Lorsque tant de clarté passe devant ses yeux,
Qu’elle tombe éblouie au fond des fleurs, de celles
Qui parfument son nid, son âme, son sommeil,
Et lustrent son plumage ardé par le soleil !

Ciel ! un de ces fils d’or pour ourdir ma journée,
Un débris de ce prisme aux brillantes couleurs !
Au fond de ces beaux jours et de ces belles fleurs,
Un rêve ! où je sois libre, enfant, à peine née,

Quand l’amour de ma mère était mon avenir,
Quand on ne mourait pas encor dans ma famille,
Quand tout vivait pour moi, vaine petite fille !
Quand vivre était le ciel, ou s’en ressouvenir,

Quand j’aimais sans savoir ce que j’aimais, quand l’âme
Me palpitait heureuse, et de quoi ? Je ne sais ;
Quand toute la nature était parfum et flamme,
Quand mes deux bras s’ouvraient devant ces jours… passés.



Who will return to me those days when life has wings
and flies, flies like a lark up to the skies,
when so much lightness passes before her eyes
that she falls dazzled deep into the flowers
perfuming her nest, her soul, her sleep,
and her feathers shine in the sun!

Heaven! One of those golden threads to weave in my day,
debris from that prism of brilliant colours!
Deep in those beautiful days and those fine flowers,
a dream! Where I’m free, a child, barely born,

when my mother’s love was my future;
when none yet died in my family,
when everything lived for me, vain little girl!
when living was heaven, or remembering it!

When I loved without knowing why I loved, when the heart
pulsed happily inside me, and why? I don’t know;
when all nature was perfume and flame,
when my two arms opened before those days… past.


The flowery nature of Desbordes-Valmore’s language is what I focused on most heavily here, but when I eventually rewrite this translation, I’ll need to find some way of preserving the meaning while also encoding her original rhyme scheme. That sounds like fun for another day…








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