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Translating Poetry

 As translators, we know that one of the hardest things to translate is poetry.Rhyme, meter, cadence, word selection, rhythm: we could spend weeks on end trying to translate one short poem. A poem emerges from the unique combination of select words and makes use of the music of a specific language. How, then, should we face the task of translating poetry?

In his text “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” Roman Jakobson affirms that poetry – by definition – is untranslatable. Being thus, upon taking on a poem we should forget about translating, and rather bring forth a “creative transposition.” Burton Raffel sustained that poetry in translation, if it is not poetry “reborn,” is nothing.

The poem “Digging,” by Seamus Heaney, constitutes a clear example of the difficulty of translating poetry. It starts thus:

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down […]”

For example, the writer and translator EzequielZaidenwerg translated this initial part the following way:

“Entre mis dedos índice y pulgar
cargo la pluma fuente, como un arma.

Entra por la ventana un ruido áspero
—la pala que entierra en la gravilla—
Y me asomo: mi padre está cavando”.

As we can observe, Zaidenwerg’s translation contains significant changes. Nonetheless, in a case such as poetry, it is exactly what needed to be done. Personally, I find Zaidenwerg’s translation exceedingly good. By altering even the punctuation marks, he achieves a new version of the poem: as Raffel says, he has created it anew.

Nevertheless, another question comes up: How much freedom is too much freedom? Upon assuming that the translation of poetry is impossible and that, as translators, it is in our hands to create a new product, what is the limit (if there is one)?


(Versión en español: La traducción de poesía)