What you’ll need: fluency in at least two languages, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Speak My Language by The Cure

Further reading: The Craft of Translation

I got my dad a book of poems for Christmas by the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Tomas Tranströmer. The poems in this edition are translated from their original Swedish into English by several different people, including poet Robert Bly.

This got us to talking about the translation of poems–is it possible? What’s the best method? Who best to do it? I brought up American poet Jane Kenyon who translated twenty of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s poems…without knowing any Russian. She had a fluent Russian speaker create English transliterations–direct translations of each word, with notes on subtleties–and from those she created her own poems.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a translation. Perhaps it seems like Kenyon was using Akhmatova’s poems more as inspiration than subject. Or perhaps it seems presumptuous that Kenyon did not need the original language to create poems loyal to the originals.

Unfortunately, loyalty is one of the most controversial and difficult subjects in the field of translation. To whom does the translator owe the greatest loyalty–to the author, the work of literature, or the audience for which the new work is being created? As the Italians say, Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor).

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

For a college course on translation, I did a project on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a brilliant Mexican woman who entered a convent so as to continue her studies, and wrote biting criticisms of the sexism rampant in her 17th century society. One of her most famous poems, Hombres Necios (Foolish Men), attacks the hypocrisy of those men who condemn prostitutes for their sin and yet are the same men who frequent brothels.

Translating this poem was difficult enough–she writes in a very formal style with strict rhythm and rhyme scheme, which is hard to pull off in English. To add to it, though, I also decided to translate a parody of the poem, Hembras Necias (Foolish Females). In translating the parody, I realized I had to parody my translation. Which is to say, the parody that I wrote in English related more to my translation of Hombres Necios than to the parody in Spanish, so that English readers might see the connection and understand the puns involved. This led to me another conclusion: all translation is, in a sense, parody (so long as we think of parody not necessarily mocking the original work but being created in its form).

In this project, I used the theory of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who said that all literature and indeed all language is in continual dialogue with everything that has come before and will be changed by everything that comes afterward. Nothing is said or written in a vacuum. Translations, then, are just a part of this dialogue. “Perfect” translations cannot exist, because words in different languages are not equal–they have different connotations, different histories, different users. So perhaps there is no correct way to create a translation of a poem. As the translator does not wish to replace the original, the best she can do is submit a new work in the ever-shifting landscape of literature and hope the it continues the dialogue in some meaningful way.