Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry


Recently I took part in a panel discussion about the art of translating poetry. It was chaired by Connie Bloomfield from UCL and held at the Enitharmon Gallery in Bloomsbury. I was joined by David Harsent (translating Yannis Ritsos), Emma Wagstaff and Nina Parish (co-editors of Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry) and Jane Duran (translating Lorca). Part of the evening was spent comparing our differing approaches to translating a poem in Catalan by Josep Lluis Aguilo. Inevitably, we differed on our approaches both to the specific and general issues raised by poetry translation. But it has prompted me to gather up these 20 thoughts on the issues in this blog post.

While preparing it, I also happened across further observations on the issue as quoted in the recently published Peepal Tree Press translation of Pedro Mir’s Countersong to Walt Whitman. The late Donald Walsh is quoted as saying “The translator’s first task is to discover exactly what the author has said . . . He must try to re-create in his language the miraculous fusion of thought and expression that produced the original work . . . the translator’s role is humble and secondary . . . he must do his best to circumvent obstacles . . . his duty is to express not himself but his author”.

As what follows will suggest, I find myself largely in agreement with such views – though the compromising, tentative, humble processes that Walsh describes here and the inevitably pyrrhic kind of victories one can expect from them are unlikely to make for dramatic headlines in literary journals or publishers’ blurbs – but I believe this is what the best translators do.


Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

  1. Ask the big question: can we translate a poem? Because there are so many uncertainties, so many sacrifices, the absolute and perhaps only truly safe reply is to say: ‘No – too much will be lost’. But see #13 below – and now go to #2 (who wants to be safe anyway?)


  1. Ignore such crushing absolutism as expressed in #1. Roll up your sleeves and, like Shakespeare’s Ferdinand believe “some sports are painful, and their labour / Delight in them sets off”. Whatever the apparent obstacles, just do it: start shifting those logs of poetry translation if only because you want the challenge, if only because it’s a fascinating process – but mainly because it’s important (see #20)


  1. Know that to translate is to incur guilt. The moralistic tone in discussions of translation proves the importance of the task and suggests the passionate intimacies involved in this weird relationship between source author, translator and reader


  1. Define translation broadly (1): responding to the emoji on my phone is an act of translation. Plus, it is not merely to transpose to another language, but from one language period to another, one language level to another (formal to vernacular), to paraphrase with clarity, to lay out logical and grammatical links more clearly, to interpret signs, symbols, gestures, facial expressions


  1. Define translation broadly (2): any good poem is a form of translation. Transtromer saw poems as manifestations of invisible poems written beyond languages themselves. Rita Dove says translators often understand best that any poem is merely a silhouette of our attempt to capture elusive original communications – like stepping stones across a river, the better to hear the silence


  1. Think of turning the original source into something in the target language with the same information and with the same force as the original


  1. Use these simple methods (naturally used by native speakers to achieve greater clarity in communication – thanks, David Bellos) to begin to convey information and force:
    1. Synonymy – word for word replacement (literal translation)
    2. Expansion – replacement of problematic words with longer versions in the target
    3. Contraction – replacement with nothing, elision, skipping, abbreviations – turning a blind eye
    4. Topic Shifting – rearranging the sequence of the expressions for more clarity
    5. Change of Emphasis – other methods of making parts of the original expression stand out from the rest, in order to assist communication
    6. Clarification – adding expressions (not in the original) – making what was implicit in the original more explicit


  1. Accept it – poetry is poetry so its translation is mostly a question of force – the shades and emotional colours, the rhetorical temperature, the ramifications of meaning of a word/phrase/form


  1. Discuss this: force is what Robert Frost called the sound of sense – poetry’s confessedly ineffable tones, gestures, interrelations, patterns – and to convey it we need to match such constituents (though not necessarily preserve them like lifeless bones)


  1. Measure the force in a source poem via a process of triangulation – determine your direction of travel via multiple reference points connected to the source text – not only the text but also good old-fashioned literary interpretation, wider cultural perspectives, the source author’s wider oeuvre, anything you can lay your hands on


  1. Empathise and keep ego quiet – imagination is the major part of this triangulation process: so work hard to imagine what motivated the poem, re-live the act which gave rise to it and is enmeshed in it (thanks, Yves Bonnefoy). In translation we hope to release it from its source form into a new form that resembles/matches its original intention, intuition, yearning


  1. Measure the success of your empathetic act not by a term-for-term resemblance to the original poem (thanks again, Yves) but by the ontological necessity of your new words/forms/images


  1. Contradict my #1 – so it turns out, translation is possible if, with Bonnefoy, we regard the process of translation as poetry re-begun                                                                       . .
  2. Be inspired by Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the task: we look to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind


  1. Close the source text, says Michael Hofmann, rightly, once your translation is beginning to gain some height in its flight. Close it!


  1. Don’t confuse translation with versioning – the permission we give ourselves is different. To translate puts us in a position of responsibility to both the source text and a working English poem, equally. Versioning puts us in a position of responsibility only to a final working English poem


  1. Ask yourself how might I like my own poems to be treated – translation or version? Will you feel well served or misrepresented? Pleased or aggrieved? I’m not pre-judging your choices, but they will affect your view of your own translating processes


  1. Discuss this: Peter Robinson argues versions result in failures of tone or meaning, that they impoverish and almost invariably lower the tone, reducing the complexity of the original. But surely, such radical revisions might equally result in a better poem than the original? Still – neither will be a translation


  1. Label versions and translations appropriately – we have a responsibility to the paying public who, in my experience, are always very clear about what they want to read


  1. Keep translating – because the desire to translate and read in translation is optimistic, humanistic and hopeful. Contra Babel, it provides evidence of a powerful urge towards community and communication. It shows there is more that unites us than divides us


Rita Dove / Local Library Love

Here’s a shaggy dog story.

J—–, my 17 year old daughter was travelling on the London Tube between social engagements a week or so ago. She and her friends were all a bit girly giggly – by her own admission after pre-drinking at somebody’s house – and her mobile phone got left on the train. Her unsuspecting parents – probably on the sofa that Saturday night, catching up on Wolf Hall or something similar via the i-Player – get a phone call (from a friend’s mobile) with the bad news. Oh bloody hell, full-on disapproval voice, we’ll have to cancel the contract before calls are made to Mars or Outer Mongolia, but let’s just try ringing J—-‘s number on the off chance it’s been picked up by an angel.


After a few hopeless attempts, someone answers sounding less angelic, more Eastern European. And yes, the phone is in their hands, and yes we are welcome to come and pick it up, maybe tomorrow, in some side street near Balham Tube, way across London of course. By dint of masculinity and eminence of age, it’s me who sets off next day for south London. The phone bit of the story goes rather cold here I’m afraid (uneventful, after wandering a few streets, knocking on a door, a young couple, full of the smiles of the unthinkingly virtuous, hand over the phone and I press a box of grateful chocolates into their reluctant grasp).

But Balham High Street has an Oxfam Bookshop – the kind I can never resist – and hidden away on the poetry shelves (between Everyman’s Robert Herrick, old copies of Poetry Review and a suspiciously large selection of First World War poetry) I pick out a hardback, signed first edition of Rita Dove’s 1999 collection, On the Bus With Rosa Parks, published in the US by Norton. Just reward for the unnecessarily put-upon, I think to myself.


‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’ is one of the best poems in Dove’s book and as I rocked northwards on the Victoria line I drifted back to late 1960s, early 1970s, to my own beloved local library in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. In those days it was in a grand building not far from the central bus station (though opposite Jimmy Ladd’s hardware store) and we paid weekly visits there. My tastes were un-literary, nothing out of the ordinary, books on fishing and rugby, Tolkein, John Wyndham. I remember one occasion I went there searching for addresses of poetry magazines but this must have been a few years later when I’d begun to scribble verse. I probably sent some ill-tutored nonsense to The Times Literary Supplement and of course heard nothing back.

Later still, a TV programme on Vincent Van Gogh sent me off to borrow a book on the artist who I felt sure I resembled, my certainty expressed through vigorous claims to admire him as a painter, poet, thinker and man. Looking back, it was a rather escapist Van Gogh whose observations I copied into a diary: “We are entitled to entertain a certain hope that there may be other and better conditions for painting than here on earth – conditions that can be attained through a change that need not be more surprising than the metamorphosis of a chrysalis into a butterfly. [This] sphere of activity . . . might conceivably be one of the many stars which after death are probably no more difficult to reach than the small black dots on a map which in our earthly existence mark towns and villages. . .  It seems to me that it is far from impossible that diseases . . . are in fact heavenly means of transport . . . In that case, to die quietly of old age is to go on foot”. What I loved about this was the other-worldliness, the sense of the creative artist, the presence of death not as the end of things but as a transition to a better place. Misunderstood or not, my mind was moving beyond the limits of my home town, its confining little black dot, the piddling River Biss, Bowyers pork sausages and bloody Watneys Red Barrel. Love your local library! Click here for information about the local libraries campaign:

And here is Rita Dove reading ‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’: 

Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967

For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty

to do: Browse the magazines,

slip into the Adult Section to see

what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic,

décolletés, and the plague of too much money.

There was so much to discover—how to

lay out a road, the language of flowers,

and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.

There were equations elegant as a French twist,

fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf;

I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure

of a pineapple Jell-O mould—or take

the path of Harold’s purple crayon through

the bedroom window and onto a lavender

spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle

and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch

the rough curve of bound leather,

the harsh parchment of dreams.

As for the improbable librarian

with her salt and paprika upsweep,

her British accent and sweater clip

(mom of a kid I knew from school) —

I’d go up to her desk and ask for help

on bareback rodeo or binary codes,

phonics, Gestalt theory,

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,

the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;

I would claim to be researching

pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,

but all I wanted to know was:

Tell me what you’ve read that keeps

that half smile afloat

above the collar of your impeccable blouse .

So I read Gone with the Wind because

it was big, and haiku because they were small.

I studied history for its rhapsody of dates,

lingered over Cubist art for the way

it showed all sides of a guitar at once.

All the time in the world was there, and sometimes

all the world on a single page.

As much as I could hold

on my plastic card’s imprint I took,

greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss,

the stuff we humans are made of:

words and sighs and silence,

ink and whips, Brahma and cosine,

corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels—

I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminium siding

and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,

someone had scrawled:



Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s

what I’m gonna do!

Maple Valley Branch Library

To give some impression of concluding my original narrative: as you can imagine, J—– was suitably grateful at getting her mobile back, dashing off to text friends that she was back on line and thankfully in touch with the world again. I remember we always tried hard while she and her brother were younger, taking them to Hornsey library most weeks and happily (with or without our help) they both acquired habits of reading. Even so, the local library is not really on their radar any more. It’s obvious why.

A little experiment to conclude:

bareback rodeo – about 57,800,000 results  in 0.44 seconds.

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire – about 479,000 results in 0.51 seconds.

pre-Columbian pottery – about 403,000 results in 0.46 seconds.

blood sugar levels – about 29,600,000 results in 0.32 seconds.

Why would you trek to the library, however close by, when you can worship at the God Google’s shrine? Yes – I use Google every day and bless it (it tells me an unsigned copy of Dove’s book might be worth 30 US dollars!). But at the same time we are well aware that such a sublime volume of information, arranged in ways not within our own control and perhaps not even within our understanding, has its drawbacks. Here’s Eddie Izzard on google, wikipedia, i-Tunes, up-dates, terms and conditions and how we blindly play along: