On the Translation of Poems
The strange thing about translations of poetry is that they always feel as if they’re missing something. If the results read too nicely, you wonder what’s been lost to achieve that. And, if it reads badly, it’s no fun at all. Moreover, as there is no perfect poem (as If there was, nobody would bother writing more), you wonder what imperfections have been smoothed over, or given more weight than they deserve. There are three solutions to this dilemma.
The first is to pick a translator and trust them, not worrying too much if it’s all wrong. But that’s difficult to do and you’ll find that, before long, doubt inserts its knfe, as Betjeman put it.
The second is to read every translation you can get your hands on, and try to absorb a sort of ancestral meaning, which is fine, but it’s hard work and will take a long time if you rely on the libraries.
The third way is to translate them yourself. That might sound like hard work too, but it really isn’t. Poets, of most times and languages, have had a certain licence to ignore almost all of grammar, which means it doesn’t really matter if you don’t know any. Sure, there all sorts of nuances you might miss, but the best poems are ambiguous anyhow. That means there’s no right answer, and thus no wrong answer. They’re all good, if only to the folk that wrote them, and, with half an hour and an online dictionary, you might do as well as some dusty professor with a shelful dictionaries and tedious journals.
I’m not saying the results will be any good, but no poem is entirely untranslatable, and although it’s unlikely that you’ll produce a perfect piece of translated verse, you’ll end up with a much better, and more personal feeling for the poem.
To put my money where my mouth is, and because I know a little German, I’m starting with this well-known little piece from Goethe:
Tell no-one but the wise ones,
For the crowd will only sneer,
That I praise each living thing
That longs for death in fire.
In the cool of nights of love,
Where, conceived, you too conceive
You feel an eerie touch descend
When the silent candle shines.
You stay no more encircled
By the shadows of the night
But, wrenched by new desire,
Toward a higher union fly.
No distance makes you weary
You fly, enchanted, near
Until, at last, avid for light
Are you, the moth, consumed.
And while you’ve not yourself attained
Extinction and Rebirth!
You’ll only be a sombre guest
Upon the shady earth.