Translation: “unravelling, unpicking, loosening the seams…”

Jigsaw-map-of-world-by-let-Ideas-CompeteImage by Let Ideas Compete

Translating poetry is a complex and thrilling project, which often involves two separate poets, not one original poet and a person with a dictionary. This feature looks at some of the slippery and exciting issues of translation and challenges you to have a go!

Poets have been translating for hundreds of years – for example, many of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Othello) are extended translations and adaptations of Italian stories! Translation is a vital art form, encouraging dialogue between cultures and eras and offering readers a new way of looking at different ways of life. We asked Sarah Hesketh from the Poetry Translation Centre about the act of translating, and she told us why it is so important:

Poetry thrives on translation: it’s impossible to imagine English poetry without it. From Chaucer, via Wyatt, Dryden and Pope, to Ezra Pound’s Cathay, translation has been its life-blood, bringing new forms and thoughts into the language. Translation allows us to visit new countries and see the world through different eyes. For many cultures around the world, the Arabic world for example, poetry is the most highly prized art form. In these cultures, people write poetry when they have something important to say, so understanding their poetry is vital for understanding society. Translating poetry into English also allows us to share something of the culture of our neighbours.  For nearly 4 million people in England, English is their second or third language. You only have to step onto the street in the UK to hear Polish, Chinese, Hindi, Turkish and hundreds of other languages being spoken.

Sarah also explains why you have to be thoughtful about translation:

Translating poetry does have some special challenges though. How do you capture the often very complex images and sounds of a poem and replicate them in English? The answer, I think, is to embrace your failure early. Accept that you can never create a perfect version of a translated poem in a new language. There will always be words, or ideas, that just don’t translate: that’s what makes a culture unique. Instead, concentrate on capturing the spirit and movement of the original poem. If your poem doesn’t sing in English, then you’re doing the original poet and poem a big disservice. English has more synonyms than any other language – there as so many possibilities! Consider translation a creative, rather than a technical act, and you can help the world share poems that deserve to be widely heard.

Do you speak more than one language (you might have learned it at home, or be learning it at school), or do you know someone who does? They might be able to recommend a poet, and offer help with a translation. If you don’t speak another language, don’t worry – translation doesn’t just have to be from one language to another. Poets are also interested in using the work of poets working in older versions of their own language. Simon Armitage recently published a modern English version of the Middle English poem Gawain and the Green Knight, and Patience Agbabi has reworked several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You could also consider an updated version of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

Have a go

Here are some things to think about and try out when translating poetry – and once you’ve had a go, you will no doubt be able to add more…

– Choose your poem. Then try translating the poem word for word using a dictionary (or your own knowledge!). You’ll find that even this is tricky – lots of words have slightly varying meanings, in the original and in the new language. Would you translate the French word ‘petit’ as ‘small’, ‘little’, ‘tiny’…? What makes you choose a particular word over another? Notice how even synonyms have a different tone. ‘Terrified’ has more impact than ‘scared’, but then sometimes ‘scared’ might be more appropriate.

– The initial translation you create probably won’t seem very poetic – so now is the time to go through and find a fresher, more interesting way to represent the ideas in the poem. Think about the tone of the original and what it was trying to convey. Was the speaker excited, frightened, sad, passionate…?

– Alternatively, you could read the poem to get a sense of it, and then try and recreate that sense (of imagery, tone, atmosphere, voice…) in the new language without doing a word for word translation. What does this bring to your translation? Is it more of a ‘version’ than a translation? What do you think the reader wants from a translation – is it some kind of access to the original poet, or is it a new, hybrid poem? What do you want?

– As Sarah mentioned, the original poet may have used language which cannot be translated word for word – are there metaphors, phrases or idioms in the original which just don’t make sense in the new language, or sound silly? Imagine a poet trying to translate an English poem word for word which contained the phrases ‘dead ringer’ or ‘field day’! Think about whether there’s a phrase in the new language which captures something of the original.

– Look at the form of the original poem – was it a sonnet, or rhyming couplets, or something else? Will you try and recreate the original form, or will you use a different form – and why?

– Will you use the same situation described in the original poem, or will you change the setting? You might be looking at a Roman poet who describes going to the Forum or the Baths to meet with friends – perhaps your new speaker will go to the shops instead?


 Image by Nicholas Nova

George Szirtes has written a great feature on getting to grips with translating and translated poetry, which looks at the different roads you can go down with your own translation. George wrote this for the Times Stephen Spender Prize, for a poem translated into English from any language, classical or modern. The Prize has categories for 18-and-under and 14-and-under, and is free to enter if you fall within this age range. (There is an adult category as well.) There are some great prizes, so think about entering the 2014 competition!

There is also a wonderful article by poet and translator Sasha Dugdale in the summer 2013 issue of Poetry Review. In it, Sasha describes how her father laid the groundwork for her work as a translator, by inventing words and languages which only the family understood, and taking them on railway journeys (rather than destinations) as their holidays. This gave Sasha a rich appreciation of the relationship between language as something private and language as something shared, and also of language and the poem as something full of motion, never arriving at a final destination. Now is the editor of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, founded by by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort.

Translation involves two poets. When you read to translate you see and hear the original poet’s own root pattern of words. You see them and know them because they radiate with incomprehensible energies, but they are not yours and they resist translation, as they are too deeply rooted in another person with his or her own memories and past. And yet there is something in every good poem that wants to be translated and released, something that is turned towards you, the listener and reader, and that is where you must begin unravelling, unpicking, loosening the seams…

The Challenge

This challenge is now closed – but to be inspired to try your own translations, see these fantastic new poems from young poets:

Sonnet 146 by Phoebe Walker

Unexpected Situation by Vasiliki Skarlopoulou

Untitled by Amber Burbidge

Autumn Twilight by Maria Calinescu

Lament for Chaucer by Alice Cattley

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sabrina Hogan

The Butterfly’s Love of Flowers by Saga Ringmar

Suicide by Pratyusha Prakash

The Crime of the Prison Door by Eric Aupperle

The Time by Jessica Hilbert

Clocks by Jacob Silkstone

Little Girl by Lisa Santika Onggrid

Other translation opportunities

Mother Tongue Other Tongue is an amazing nationwide competition being run at the moment, with regional events and competitions taking place throughout 2013. Mother Tongue encourages children, who do not have English as a first language, or who speak a different language at home, to share a lullaby, poem or song from their Mother Tongue and to explain what it means to them. Other Tongue encourages children learning another language to use that language creatively by writing a poem in that Other Tongue.

The Corneliu M Popescu Prize is run by the Poetry Society, and is awarded every two years for a volume of poetry translated from a European language into English. Poets, translators and publishers can nominate their book – do you know anyone you could encourage to enter? Find out more about the Popescu Prize and follow the shortlist and the winners!

Published July, 2013

34 thoughts on “Translation: “unravelling, unpicking, loosening the seams…”

  1. This competition looks great, and I’m really interested, since I translate a lot of Baudelaire in my spare time. I was wondering if there was a maximum number of entries a person could submit?

  2. I love reading poetry just as much as writing it, so this competition is perfect. But, feeling very dumb who do I email to enter?

        1. Hi Hanne, it’s been a busy time at YPN, so we haven’t chosen the winning poems yet. Everyone will get an email when we have, either way.

  3. Also, can you enter translations in a language other than English? Or do all the poems have to be originally in a foreign language and then translated to English only?

    1. Hi Janelle, the original poems can be in a language other than English, or an older version of English (e.g. that used by Shakespeare or Chaucer). The majority of your own translation should be in English, otherwise we won’t be able to judge it.

  4. Hey suppose i enter my poem in hindi-so should that be written in hindi alphabets or can that be written in english alphabets but pronounced in hindi? and then write its translation below it in complete english?

    1. Hi Sara, either is fine, as long as the translation is written mainly in English (you could include some Hindi words in the translation if you chose). Have fun!

  5. Thanks….but plz i just want to confirm it a girl is called ‘ladki’ in hindi so while translating should i write it like this ‘ladki’ or ‘लङकी’ like this?

    1. Hi Sara, when writing your English translation, please use ‘ladki’. Looking forward to reading your poem!

    1. Hi Sara, we are asking for translations of poems into English as otherwise we won’t be able to understand them! The idea is that you translate someone else’s poem.

    1. Hi Molly, the Stephen Spender prize conditions of entry specify that your poem must not be published elsewhere. So if your poem was published on YPN, this might cause problems if it then went on to win the Stephen Spender Prize. Hopefully you will have enough time to write another translation!

  6. Have You selected and emailed the Winners of the Foyle’s young poet?
    If yes, then can you please reveal the first stanza of any winning poet? I am dying to hear one!
    Thanking you in advance for your reply.

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