The impossibleness in translating poetry

Beyond the changed words, the foreign language translation of a poem alters and often destroys the original poem. With rare exception the translation of a beautiful poem can be similarly beautiful or literally faithful, but not both.

Poetry is uniquely tied to the native language– the unique word definition, culture, diction, rhyme, sound, meter, feel and even physical length of words and phrases. Due to the literal and figurative differences between languages, a foreign language translation of a poem not only changes the literal words but the poem. It is not possible to change the language and perfectly preserve the original meaning.

This is elementally illustrated by the translation of simple rhyming poems. While ‘dog’ and ‘fog’ rhyme, the standard Spanish translations of ‘perro’ and ‘neblina’ do not. To make the translation rhyme, the translator must take liberties with the literal meaning. To keep intact the literal meaning, he must omit the rhyming.

In order to preserve artistic meaning, many translators consciously dismiss literal translation. The translation is often as much the artistic creation of the translator as it is of the original poet.

The reader of a translation is not reading the original poem. The translation may be closely related and beautiful and profound, but it’s something different. This illustrates the problem with those who take literally modern translations of ancient texts.

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