Kids’ Poetry: Lost in Translation?

I am currently reading a book that contains a number of poems translated from other languages. This got me thinking about the process of translating poetry; how difficult it must be not only to execute a translation, but for the original writer to have written a poem worth translating in the first place. Simple rhymes do not survive the translation process directly. Through the lens of translation, other elements become magnified … metaphor, mood, pace, precision of language. There is so much more to poetry — kids’ poetry included — than just rhyme and meter. I cannot help but ask myself … are my poems “translation-worthy”?

How about you:

Do you read translated poetry?

Have any of your poems been translated?

Have you ever translated the work of another poet?

Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this topic. Comments welcome below …


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  • Katya

    I’ve translated poetry since I was a tween and it is almost more challenging that writing poetry. It’s so hard to get the balance between the feel of the poem/ the structure of the poem/ and the unique language/phrasing the poet uses. I think I’ve only done a handful of translations I’ve been happy with. Russian is especially difficult to translate because endings and prefixes can give words untranslatable nuance.

    • Ed DeCaria

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Katya. Very interesting.

      I recently read a poem with multiple translations — one poetic and one literal. What was fascinating was how DIFFERENT they were, i.e., how much value the poetic translator added to the literal translation.

      The poem I have in mind is titled “Song of the Last Meeting” from Evening by Anna Akhmatova (née Anna Gorenko); poetic translation by Stephen Berg, literal translation by Joanna Trzeciak.

  • Bridget Magee

    Interesting question to ponder…I don’t know that any of my poems are worthy, but I do enjoy writing (and reading) poetry – translated or not. Thanks for sharing. =)

  • Violet N.

    Good questions to think about, especially “are my poems translation-worthy”? I always enjoy your perspective!

  • Iza Trapani

    Interesting question! I was born in Poland and moved to the US at age 7. I write rhyming picture books for children (mostly extended nursery rhymes), and I would love to translate them- or have someone translate them- into Polish but it is not easy to translate rhyme. A while back I was reading a book of poetry by Wislawa Szymborska, which includes the poems in both Polish and English. Though they were good and true translations, and though my Polish vocabulary is more limited, I still “got” the Polish versions more. So somehow, something got lost in translation….

    • Ed DeCaria

      Poland, eh? Mention that a few more times on this site and you’ll find yourself with a number of new fans! (Lots of relatives lurking about.)

      You should try to translate one of your own favorites, just to see how it goes. I’d love to hear about your experience.

  • Ruth

    I do read quite a bit of poetry in translation. Pablo Neruda comes immediately to mind. I always wonder what I am missing. As far as translating goes, I’ve done a lot of prose (French/English) but not poetry. I should try it!

  • Renee LaTulippe (@ReneeMLaTulippe)

    My husband writes poetry in Italian that I often translate just as an exercise. Sometimes they come out really well, sometimes they fall flat. It’s literal translation that’s the killer – I just don’t see how a poem can be translated literally and still maintain the poetic essence of the original. This means often wandering off the literal track to get to that essence….but then, is it really the original writer’s poem? Creative translation is not for sissies. :)

    • Ed DeCaria

      Right — the value added above literal translation is immense. It requires a poet, not just a translator. The example I cited above (“Song of the Last Meeting” from Evening by Anna Akhmatova) shows it clearly. I’m sure much of the original Russian poem was lost even in the poetic translation (sadly, I’ll never know!), but at least the poetic translation moves like a poem and captures some emotion. The literal translation was more like reading a story synopsis.

  • Katya

    Oh goodness. That’s a poem that I have actually memorized (in Russian). And one I’ve tried to translate.

    Akhmatova is devilishly hard to translate. Her use of word so precise and nuances… and the rhythm she creates is so strong.
    I really, really, really don’t like the Berg translation — it’s too cold and flat. And wrong.
    I don’t know the Trzeciak, but the one excerpt I found was problematic. “The whisper of autumn among the maples”… autumn is an adjective describing whisper… so “autumnal whisper” would be amore accurate translation.

    This is a fairly accurate translation, if a little forced:

    I don’t like that almost everyone uses “evil” in the 3rd stanza but I struggle to come up with a better word in English.

    And here’s someone who tries to combine three translations and ends up with a somewhat successful result:

    • Ed DeCaria

      That last link with the experimental translation by referring only to other translations was very interesting. Sort of like reverse engineering a piece of technology without any design documents.

      So between those four, plus the two I had already seen, that’s six versions of the same poem … all different. And you say all different than the original! (I’d love to see your translation of it, Katya. Maybe e-mail if you don’t want to post it? If not, no biggie.)

  • Gloson Teh

    Hmmm… this reminds me of a song in the Hindi film “3 Idiots”.

    ^ They managed to translate the rhyming Hindi song into English and make it rhyme as well! I was amazed at this fact at first.

    This also reminds me of the translation process of Les Miserables from French to English. Quoted from wikipedia:

    The English language version, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and additional material by James Fenton, was substantially expanded and reworked from a literal translation by Siobhan Bracke of the original Paris version, in particular adding a prologue to tell Jean Valjean’s backstory. Kretzmer’s work is not a direct “translation” of the French, a term that Kretzmer refused to use. A third of the English lyrics were a “rough” translation, another third were adapted from the French lyrics and the final third consisted of new material.

    Hope my comment has been…interesting. LOL.