Highlights: On Translating Poetry

February 1, 2023

How do we rate translations of poetry? Should we preserve form at the expense of meaning? Or is the poetic experience itself what the translator seeks to recreate? I don’t know; here are a bunch of thoughts, mostly other peoples’, about translating poetry.Parts of this copied from my letters to PP and SB.

One way around this problem is to assign yourself a very specific goal — this 2010 paper from three Google engineers attempts to produce machine translations of poetry which conform to common rhyme and meter constraints. They are not interested in the quality of the output,‘We have no objective means of ‘poetic’ quality evaluation.’ but trying to machine translate the rhythm. Their results are really impressive! Look at the two verses from Oscar Wilde on the top of page 8.

This is cool, but the machine translation of poetry hasn’t advanced much in the past decade. Human translation is I’ve translated poems between English and Spanish, and from Bangla to English,I have never come across a poem which I wanted to put into Bangla, certainly out of a feeling of inadequacy. and found it a rewarding experience. These attempts have been motivated by a desire to understand the poem more deeply or to see it from a different angle.

Some translators focus on the poetic experience.I’m certain there’s jargon here, I don’t know it and I’m not interested.
These translators seem more drawn towards perfection of experience, which is of course impossible. Ezra Pound was sure that “No one has succeeded in translating Catullus into English,” and not for lack of trying: “I have failed forty times myself so I do know the matter.” I was curious, and found two of Pound’s translations from Catullus. They are not faithful; they’re colloquial and condensed. His Catullus 85:Warning: I so don’t know Latin.

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but

It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache.

Catullus (trans. Pound), LXXXV

I can’t emphasize how much I don’t know Latin — I’m comparing Pound’s translations to Green’s and Michie’s, which are both interesting and well-regarded. Green, for example, turns the second line (“nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”) into “I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.” Google Translate gave me “I do not know, but I feel it happening and I am tormented.”

Pound isn’t as interested in the words (“excrucior,” “I am crucified,” “I am tormented” are rendered as “I ache”) as he is the experience of reading a poem about a passionate love affair. The translation is a function of Pound’s experience reading the poem more than the poem itself. From Borges:

[T]he first reading of a poem is a true one, and after that we delude ourselves into the belief that the sensation, the impression, is repeated.

Pound is Catullus’ reader; we are Pound’s reader, and we are reading Pound’s poem, not Catullus’ poem.

I don’t mean to condemn this. Faithful translations fail because words lose and gain meanings, as denotation changes and connotation changes more quickly still. Borges takes a famous example:Borges asserts in the same essay that ‘‘I have no Greek,’’ and ‘‘I am no good at all at abstract thinking.’’

Let us take an adjective that once was commonplace. I have no Greek, but I think that the Greek is oinopa pontos, and the common English rendering is “the wine-dark sea.” I suppose the word “dark” is slipped in to make things easier for the reader. Perhaps it would be “the winy sea,” or something of the kind. I am sure that when Homer (or the many Greeks who recorded Homer) wrote it, they were simply thinking of the sea; the adjective was straightforward. But nowadays, if I or if any of you, after trying many fancy adjectives, write in a poem “the wine-dark sea,” this is not a mere repetition of what the Greeks wrote. Rather, it is a going back to tradition. When we speak of “the wine-dark sea,” we think of Homer and of the thirty centuries that lie between us and him. So that although the words may be much the same, when we write “the wine-dark sea” we are really writing something quite different from what Homer was writing.

When a translator chooses how to deal with Homer’s seas, they are making a choice for their reader, too. The wine-dark seas are Homer’s, as no reader today has seen a wine-dark sea. When we hear “wine-dark,” we don’t think of seas that can tear shops apart, we think of Homer. Translating poetry requires constant choices, but this problem is particular to poetry which has traveled millenia.‘Matthew Arnold advised the translator of Homer to have a Bible at his elbow. He said that the Bible in English might be a kind of standard for a translation of Homer. Yet if Matthew Arnold had looked closely into his Bible, he might have seen that the English Bible is full of literal translations, and that part of the great beauty of the English Bible lies in those literal translations.’ Virginia Woolf tells us that, when coming from Ancient Greek, “Translators can but offer us a vague equivalent; their language is necessarily full of echoes and associations.” There’s a surprisingly good Wikipedia page on this question.

Borges is full of these elusive, allusive metaphors, the necessities of translating poetry:

I remember that very common kenning which calls the sea “the whale road.” I wonder whether the unknown Saxon who first coined that kenning knew how fine it was. I wonder whether he felt (though this need hardly concern us) that the hugeness of the whale suggested and emphasized the hugeness of the sea.


If I am not mistaken, the Chinese call the world “the ten thousand things,” or — and this depends on the taste and fancy of the translator — “the ten thousand beings.” We may accept, I suppose, the very conservative estimate of ten thousand. Surely there are more than ten thousand ants, ten thousand men, ten thousand hopes, fears, or nightmares in the world. But if we accept the number ten thousand, and if we think that all metaphors are made by linking two different things together, then, had we time enough, we might work out an almost unbelievable sum of possible metaphors


Burton translates Quitab alif laila wa laila as Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, instead of Book of the Thousand and One Nights. This translation is a literal one. It is true word for word to the Arabic. Yet it is false in the sense that the words “book of the thousand nights and a night” are a common form in Arabic, while in English we have a slight shock of surprise. And this, of course, has not been intended by the original.


[T]he Hebrews had no superlatives, so they could not say “the highest song” or “the best song.” They said “the song of songs,” even as they might have said “the king of kings” for “the emperor” or “the highest king”; or “the moon of moons” for “the highest moon”; or “the night of nights” for the most hallowed of nights. If we compare the English rendering “song of songs” to the German by Luther, we see that Luther, who had no care for beauty, who merely wanted Germans to understand the text, translated it as “das hohe Lied,” “the high lay.”

Borges loved metaphors about webs — see the poem at the bottom of this page for a particularly interesting use of “urdir.” Alastair Reid, his friend and translator, writes of about Borges’ “webbed scheme” — “a web of people and places, threads of curiosity, wires of impulse, a network of the people who have cropped up in our lives, and will always crop up.” And in a lecture entitled “The Metaphor,” Borges tells us about

a very fine Norse and — strangely enough — Irish metaphor about [a battle]. It calls the battle “the web of men.” The word “web” is really wonderful here, for in the idea of a web we get the pattern of a medieval battle: we have the swords, the shields, the crossing of the weapons. Also, there is the nightmare touch of a web being made of living beings. “A web of men”: a web of men who are dying and killing each other.

I would also quote the entirety of Borges’ essay on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald.” It’s only three pages, and one of my favorite bits of literary history.

At risk of this being just a wall of Borges quotes, I’ll end with something instead from his translator Reid:

It is an odd exercise of spirit, to enter another imagination in another language and then to try to make the movement of it happen in English. Untranslatability that no ingenuity can solve does arise, which is to say that some poems are untranslatable. (I keep a notebook of these untranslatables, for they are small mysteries, clues to the intricate nature of a language.) Borges learned English as a child, read voraciously in English, and has been influenced in the formal sense more by English writing—Stevenson, Kipling, Chesterton,From Borges: ‘If we are in a Chestertonian mood (one of the very best moods to be in, I think), we might say that we can define something only when we know nothing about it.’ Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the English poetic tradition—than by Spanish literature. […] In his poems, Borges leans heavily on English verse forms and on many of the formal mannerisms of English poetry, so that translating his poems calls for technical ingenuity and prosodic fluency, precision being all-important. His poems are so thoroughly objectified, however, that no great leaps of interpretation have to be made in translating them. It requires only the patience to refine and refine, closer and closer to the original.


[Borges’] work has been translated by many hands, giving English readers a choice of versions, and a chance to realize what every translator must: that there is no such thing as a definitive translation. […] As might be expected, translation has always mesmerized Borges. In an essay on versions of Homer, he has a sentence that is also destined for my wall. “No problem is as consubstantial with the modest mystery of literature,” he writes, “as that posed by a translation.”

And buried, here, after all of these quotes, I’ll include my own translation of a Borges poem. I love this poem, and I like my translation.


A Haydée Lange

Se abre la verja del jardín
con la docilidad de la página
que una frecuente devoción interroga
y adentro las miradas
no precisan fijarse en los objetos
que ya están cabalmente en la memoria.
Conozco las costumbres y las almas
y ese dialecto de alusiones
que toda agrupación humana va urdiendo.
No necesito hablar
ni mentir privilegios;
bien me conocen quienes aquí me rodean,
bien saben mis congojas y mi flaqueza.
Eso es alcanzar lo más alto,
lo que tal vez nos dará el Cielo:
no admiraciones ni victorias
sino sencillamente ser admitidos
como parte de una Realidad innegable,
como las piedras y los árboles.

A familiar simplicity

For Haydée Lange

The garden gate opens
with the ease asked of a page
in a much-loved book;
inside, our gaze
has no need to linger on the things
already firmly fixed in memory.
Here, I live in the habits and souls
and that private language
woven by every small group of friends.
There is no need to lie
or pretend to be what I am not —
this house and these people know me well,
my anxiety and my frailty.
This is the best we can hope for,
what perhaps Heaven will grant us:
not praise or success,
but simply to belong
as part of an indelible Reality,
like stones and like trees.

Highlights: On Translating Poetry - February 1, 2023 - Joseph Levine