Can Poetry Be Translated?

Apr 15, 2018
Originally published on April 16, 2018 11:02 pm

Is it possible to translate poetry from one language into another without losing meaning?

To paraphrase Robert Frost — not really. "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," the American poet is often quoted as saying. In other words, the meaning the reader extracts from a poem can never be a replica of the writer's intent.

Then again, I'm just translating.

But poet and award-winning literary translator Aaron Coleman tells NPR's Michel Martin that the impossibility of translation shouldn't stop us from appreciating the art of the verse.

Allow Coleman to elaborate with a few poems of his choosing. But first, some background for our newcomers: Every week during National Poetry Month (April, as it's oft referred to), All Things Considered is asking a professional poet to read from some of your mini poems that caught their eye on the #NPRpoetry Twitter feed.

It's Coleman's turn — here's how the bilingual poet translates a work by Catherine Hulshof: "I am the wind pushing you. I spend my days drawing waves and goodbyes. Songs between window blinds and white cement."

He breaks down his method: "I loved that little opening metaphor of calling herself the wind."

Then, the trickiness of translation comes out to play. In Spanish, "tiempo" means both "time" and "weather." Coleman says, "We don't have that opportunity for metaphor in English, so I did 'days' instead of 'time' in order to get at weather and also the passage of time."

A Sound Language

Coleman shares another poem from Laurel Katchatag. With lingo like "muktuk" and "tuttu," it's fair to say that some of her words — in the Inupiaq language of her native Alaska — ring unfamiliar to many:

Does it matter?

"That's the thing about poetry — it's as much a thing of words as it is a thing of sound," he says.

Upon first listen, "I'm sort of blown away by the rhythm and the momentum that she gets from mixing together two languages. And mixing together languages is the reality for many people."

Translation As Transformation

Though the art form, in translation, is subject to lose its accuracy, integrity and beauty, Coleman argues that the process invites new opportunities to parse, and thus meditate on, any lingual and cultural disparities.

"I approach translation even knowing that it can't quite be what it is in the original language," he says.

The language lapses that inhibit an ideal interpretation can ultimately be "a creative, productive failure," he adds. "Maybe it can open up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me, or whatever the original language is."

Instead, translation can be transformation. "I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it's really a process of transformation," Coleman says.

Finally, Barbara Valentina, manages, in English, to touch on this very theme in under 140 characters:

She addresses the caveats of translation "in the fact that she can't tell him what her name means," he says. "At the same time, she's still able to create something beautiful in English. 'I am a ghost holding up the Earth' is an incredible line for any poem."

April isn't over yet. We're still accepting submissions to Twitter with hashtag #NPRPoetry. Remember, this is not a contest — it's a community project — the point is not to win or lose or even to get your poem on the air. We want to create a space where listeners can share their poems and read the work of others.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, it's time to talk poetry. April is Poetry Month. And on this program, we like to go big on poetry by going small, which is to say we invite your original submissions of tweet-length poems. Each week, a different professional poet is selecting some of the submissions on Twitter to share with our audience.

And this week, our poet curator is Aaron Coleman. He is an award-winning literary translator. He's taught poetry to young people both in the U.S. and abroad. He's a graduate of the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis, and he still lives there. And he's with us now from St. Louis Public Radio.

Aaron Coleman, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

AARON COLEMAN: It's great to be here, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So you've been looking through the hashtag #nprpoetry on Twitter. And this week has a special twist. You are also looking for poems in Spanish, which is awesome because you are bilingual and you are a translator. So why don't you just get us going? Tell us some of the poems that caught your eye.

COLEMAN: Yeah, sure. You know, I actually wanted to point out one by Catherine Holsholf (ph). I'll read it in Spanish first, and then I'll read my translation, which was a little tricky.

Here it is. (Speaking in Spanish). And I translated that as I am the wind pushing you. I spend my days drawing waves and goodbyes. Songs between window blinds and white cement.

And you know, I just thought that was really beautiful and simple. And I loved that little opening, metaphor of calling herself the wind. And then there's these little tricky things that happened, too because tiempo - paso el tiempo in Spanish - is both time and weather. So we know we don't have that sort of opportunity for metaphor in English, so I had - I did days instead of time in order to get it weather and also the passage of time.

MARTIN: I love that. So this is one of the things I wanted to talk with you about. And I want to talk a little bit more about how we translate poetry or how you translate poetry. First of all, let me play you - for you, a submission that we received from Laurel Katchatag from Alaska. Here it is.

LAUREL KATCHATAG: Dreams of dried salmon, hearing eggs, black mukduk, fresh dukduk, wild ukfix, 3,000 miles away, just an inukback in the city.

COLEMAN: Wow.

MARTIN: I know, right? I think it's fair to say that some of the words in this poem are unfamiliar to most of us. Does it matter in order to appreciate the poem?

COLEMAN: You know, that's the thing about poetry. It's as much a thing of words as it is a thing of sound. And so when we - at least when I encounter that - and that's my first time hearing it - I'm sort of blown away by the rhythm and the momentum that she gets from mixing together two languages. And mixing together languages is the reality for many people.

MARTIN: You know, the poet Robert Frost once said poetry is what gets lost in translation. So humbling (laughter).

COLEMAN: Oh, yes. (Laughter) Right, right.

MARTIN: Is it ever really possible to translate poetry from one language into another? Do you just have to accept that the thing itself, in translation, is going to be a different thing?

COLEMAN: Yeah, I think it's the latter that you point out there. I mean, I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it's really a process of transformation. And so when I approach translation, even knowing that it can't quite be what it is in the original language, hopefully it can be a creative, productive failure. Maybe it can be something that opens up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me - or whatever the original language is. So yeah, I really think that translation is about transformation, and it's also about approaching that creatively.

MARTIN: That is poet and translator Aaron Coleman. He's based in St. Louis. Last month, he released his first full-length book of poetry. It's called "Threat Come Close." Aaron Coleman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COLEMAN: Oh, thank you so much, Michel. It was a pleasure.

MARTIN: And remember, April is not over yet, so we are still accepting submissions to Twitter with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. And if I may, remember, this is not a contest. It is a community project. The point is not to win or to lose or even to get your poem on the air. We want to create a space where listeners can share their poems and read the work of others, so please take a deep breath and get writing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.