Some thoughts on poetry translation

Why translate poetry?

Language itself, both written and spoken, is an attempt to translate thought, emotion, ideas into a form that can be understood by another human. To translate poetry is to attempt to understand.
Here is Clare Pollard, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation.

‘Without translation, we are muting most of the world. This matters: for our politics, our planet, but also our poetry, which becomes formulaic and complacent. Every time I learn about one of the poetries of the world – its tropes, its techniques, its essential difference from our own – I feel that thrill of entering a new way of thinking.’

To translate seems a positive and optimistic act. Poetry works across space and time, across borders, cultures, centuries. Translation of a poem involves being alerted to difference but also to similarities in experience, regardless of setting; to engage with expressions of histories and mythologies that may be unfamiliar and to find the familiar in them. Poetry is often concerned with human dignity, with what makes us human. So translation is a humanistic act.

Poetry often seems to exist in opposition to the imposition of authority, to ideas of absolute certainty. The precision of language in a poem often means that it carries the intensity of lived experience, a sense of the consciousness at work behind the poem. Poetry allows access to life that exists beyond official versions. Poetry often (if not always) exists in opposition to dogma and orthodoxy. It allows access to individual experience and philosophy. It can speak of and for those without access to podiums, soap boxes and amplification.

To work on the text of a poem and to consider all the possible ways it might be translated is to be taken on a journey into language and meaning. To challenge yourself to look outwards as well as in, to be open to possibility of meaning, to listen to the voice of the original poem and to be alert to your own identity in relation to that voice. It is to exercise humility since, as I understand it, it is the work of the translator to serve and honour the original poem. Translation is not to be undertaken lightly. The quality of attention required to focus on the meaning, music, rhythm, and atmosphere of the original is intense and demands dedication and discipline. I don’t have the time or energy levels required at this moment to embark on a new translation (you can read some of my previous translations here and here) so I’m setting down these thoughts instead.

Here David Constantine articulates the sense I get that poetry translation allows the translator to merge with the greater body of poetry.

‘poetry is larger, more connected, more far-reaching than the poet. I want my own dialect and my own local habitation and my few years in the twentieth century and fewer in the twenty-first to belong, how-ever insignificantly, to a wide and various republic of letters.’



  1. One of these days I really must go and try to read ‘The implied reader’…Wolfgang Eiser. I’ve tried before and failed. The business of translation between languages and cultures in wonderful, baffling, fraught. A really interesting read, Roy.


    • Thank you John. I meant to follow this up with some more pieces, and maybe even get translating again but it’s all I’ve managed to do for now so glad you found it interesting. Didn’t know the Eiser book. Will look it up.


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