Translation in poetry

Teoría de la literatura # Poems interpretation

  • Enviado por: Monica Galiano
  • Idioma: inglés
  • País: Colombia Colombia
  • 8 páginas


In this essay, I'm going to try to prove the
possibility of translation in poetry. There are many
theories about translating poetry: Some authors
believe that it is not possible and some think that it
There is no theory to solve that question: Is it
possible to translate a poem?
I personally think that this type of translation is
possible to a certain extent. I mean, when someone is
going to translate a poem, the first step the
translator must do before starting to translate a text
is to understand the original text, in this case, a
The problem is that a poem can have different
interpretations depending on the focus, or the point
of view it is read.  There are several examples of one
poem translated into different languages, at different
periods of time, by different translators, and only
one of those translations from the same poem has
succeed, but not the original text.
How is it? Well, that's because as we can see, some
poems have more than one interpretation, and the usage
of poetic vocabulary with some words that have more
than one meaning, creates ambiguity and sometimes it's
very difficult to know what the author of the poem

There are two ways of translating poetry:
-One way is to translate word by word, without caring
much about the structure of the poem, which is a
literal translation.
-And the other way would be (as many authors would
say,) creating a new poem with the same structure and
rhyme although the words wouldn't be the same used in
the original poem, but the sense would be the same.
Some authors think that the first way of translating
is the best one, because it keeps the words that the
original author wrote, so it's more closed to the
original poem. However, most of times, you cannot
translate versus literally because they wouldn't make
much sense, and that's when the second way of
translating is much better; because it keeps sense
and, as I see it, that's the most important part in
That is why some people say that the translator, who
has finished translating a poem in the second way, is
not only a translator but also a poet, because many
authors believe that that's a poem in another
language, a new poem, not the same.

In my opinion, a good translation of a poem needs to
rhyme if the original poem does, and also needs to
have the same meaning than the original text.
It's true that sometimes poems have more than one
meaning, but that's a problem that comes across in
poetry translation, as there are also many other
difficulties translating prose.
In the following pages, I've tried to verify my
'theory' about translating poetry using a well-known
poem as an example of difficulty in this type of

In the following lines, you can read the poem I chose.
Its title is 'AIR AND ANGELS'. The author of that poem
is John Donne, a famous poet who wrote "Songs and

Air and Angels

Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see:
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That I assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.

Whilst thus ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught;
Every thy hair for love to work upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scattering bright, can love inhere:
Then, as an Angel, face, and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure, doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
Just such disparity
As is 'Twixt Air and Angels'purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's will ever be.


This poem is divided in two paragraphs. It consists of
14 verses each paragraph and both parts follow the
same structure. The structure is formed by verses of
about eight or ten syllables although there is an
exception in both paragraphs, in the third verse
beginning by the end which has just six syllables.  I
think that the author wrote it like this on purpose,
to emphasise the verse.
Along the poem we can see that it keeps the same rhyme
in both paragraphs:
We can find five different endings in each paragraph.
The first verse  (-thee /-thought) rhymes with the
fourth (-be/-overfraught) and the sixth
(-see/-sought), while the second one (-name/-gone)
rhymes with the third
 (-flame/-admiration)  and the fifth (-came/-upon). In
the verse seven there is another ending (-is/-things)
which rhymes with the ninth verse. And in the eighth
verse, we find another ending (-do/-inhere) which
rhymes with verses ten (-too/-wear) and eleven
(-who/-sphere). The last ending is the same in the
last three verses of each paragraph. (-now, -allow,
-brow; / -disparity, -purity, -be).

So as we can see, the poem follows a structure rhyme
and length of verses repeated in both paragraphs.
To keep also a nice rhythm along the poem and make it
look nicer, the author uses several commas,
semicolons, colons. and starts each verse with capital


Air and Angels is written in old English, which means
that there are some words that we don't usually use
(nowadays). Moreover, the language used in this poem
is poetic language, so there are also some ambiguous
words, which have more than one meaning.  When we
translate it we will have to be careful, and try to
find the right word in the other language which should
have also more than one meaning.
I will only translate the first part of the poem, I
think that's enough to show how difficult can be
sometimes to translate such a poem.
In the following lines you will find how I understand
the first part of the poem below each sentence of the
original poem:

Twice or thrice had I loved thee
I had loved the idea of you two or three times

Before I knew thy face or name;
Before I knew how you were, or: before I met you

So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be;
Like in a voice or in a flame without shape, angels
appear in a similar way.
Angels affect us often and we worship them (although
we don't know how they are, in that guise.)

Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
And also when I came where you were (every time I came
to the place where you were so manifested)

Some lovely glorious nothing I did see:
I saw something quite indeterminate, and I had never
seen something that was more beautiful and splendid
than this (the idea of you).

But since my soul, whose child love is,
But since love is the descendent of my soul (love is
my soul's child)

Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
My soul has taken on a body (limbs of flesh) and
without the body (the human body) it would be useless
(could do nothing else)

More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
Love shouldn't be more subtle or ethereal than the
soul is (the parent, which is more superficial), but
should also assume your body

And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
And so I ordered my soul's child enquire what sort of
person you were and who you were, and now

That I assume thy body, I allow,
I allowed Love to assume your body

And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
And I allowed Love to be set in your lips, eye and
brow. (I allow it to take up its permanent abode in
your face).

This could be a possible translation of the first part
of the poem. If we analyse that and compare it with
the original poem we can see that the length of verses
is exactly the same:


T'he estimat dos o tres cops
Abans de conèixer com eres
Era una veu, una flama sens forma
Els angels que ens afecten i adorem
I quan, on tu eres, vaig venir
Alguna cosa preciosa vaig veure
Però des que Amor, fill de ma ànima
Adopta un cos i no pot fer res més
Serà més subtil que sa mare
Però ha de posseir un cos com ella ha fet
I doncs, el que eres i quí eres
L'Amor fa preguntar .
He permès a l'Amor posseir el cos
I que s'estableixi a la teva faç

Another possible translation of the first part would
be the following, which does not follow the same
structure (length of verses), but is more

T'he estimat dos o tres vegades
abans de conèixer el teu nom o el teu aspecte:
Una veu. una flama amorfa.
Com els angels que sovint ens afecten i nosaltres
I doncs, quan vaig venir a trobar-te on eres,
vaig veure quelcom tan bonic i esplendit que en ma
vida havia vist.
Però des que la meva ànima té un fill que es diu Amor;
ha posseit un cos i res pot fer sense ell,
Més subtil del que és l'ànima mare
L'Amor no ho ha de ser, però també ha de posseir un
I per tant, ara faig que l'Amor pregunti:
           -Quin tipus de persona eres?.Qui.?
Que assumeix el teu cos i jo ho permeto
I s'estableix en els teus llavis, ulls, I celles.


As you may have noticed after reading this essay, it
is very difficult to translate a poem. Of course there
are easier poems to translate, which probably can be
translated without any difficulty, but it is also true
that by choosing this poem I realised that sometimes
the theory of the possibility of translating poems is
limited.   Before I did this essay, I was sure that it
is possible to translate anything, but now I'm sure
that it is not always possible. I still believe that
we can translate some poems, but as far as we
understand them perfectly, I mean those poems that can
only be interpreted in one way.
As you have seen I did two translations: The first one
is more closed to the structure of the original poem,
while the second one is just a translation of the
meaning. It's not a literal translation because we
wouldn't understand anything, but it is, at least, how
I would interpret the poem in Catalan.

I have also tried to keep the rhyme, but I really
couldn't do it. Maybe a very good poet could, but
anyway, it wouldn't be a translation but a new poem.
 The fact is that it is possible to keep the same
structure and the same endings in the beginning, but
as you go along the poem things become more and more
difficult. And if you have to keep the rhyme and the
same length of verses, it's impossible. Moreover it
depends on how similar you want to do the translation,
I mean:
-Following exactly the same structure of the original
-Follow another similar structure.
-Or make up another different structure, independent
from the original poem, but following a structure,
just to show the reader of the translation that the
original poem was following a rhyme.


-John Donne 1956. Songs and Sonets. London: methuen
and co. ltd

-Arthur L. Clements. 1962. John Donne's poetry. New

-Collins Gem. 1998. Diccionario inglés. Glasgow:

-Diccionari de l'enciclopèdia. 1997. Diccionari anglès
català. Barcelona: Enciclopèdia  catalana.

- El periódico de Catalunya. 1997. Diccionari de la
llengua catalana multilingue.        Barcelona:
Enciclopèdia catalana.