Tips for Translating Poetry

Translating poetry, a subset of literary translation, may be the most difficult form of translation. If a translator does not understand the text fully, he or she may end up misinterpreting the text in terms of structure, grammatical rules and how the translated text should sound when you read it. There has always been a good deal of dispute about the methods that can be used and what the aim of such translation is.

The first thing that needs to be done when translating a poem is to read the poem several times in order to understand it well and catch its rhythm. The pauses, the beats, the pace and the swirls of energy should be easily recognizable

The second thing to do is to learn more about the author. If the poet is no longer living, finding a biography to learn about his or her life and interests is helpful. If the author is still living, try to contact them. Being familiar with the poet will help a translator understand the poem’s nuances.

Another thing that is important when translating a poem is reading poems in your native language that are similar to the poem you are translating. I suggest finding authors and poems in your country that have a similar writing style to the translation you are working on.

By its very nature, poetry is untranslatable. There are two main ways of translating a poem: one way is to adhere strictly to the original, and the other way is to take the poem’s meaning, imagery and spirit and reproduce them appropriately in the new language. I think the second method is preferable.

Here is an example of a Macedonian poem by Iskra Doneva that I translated into Polish and English during college.


Screenshot 2014-06-19 09.33.43

Polish Translation:

Screenshot 2014-06-19 09.30.01



English Translation:

All my poetry

The ink inhales life

In the dead bleach of the paper,

Like my Parnassus

For words flame rage in me.

The paper is then a coast

on which wild waves

of passion brake,

carving and leaving fine sand.

And when all my poetry will soar

to the heights of the Gutenberg galaxy,

every grain of sand

will remain framed in eternity.

As you can see, the word order in the translation from Macedonian to Polish is more or less the same. This is because Macedonian and Polish are both Slavic languages. The English translation is a different story, though. The word order is quite different and there are many words that cannot be translated into an equivalent term in English and, therefore, words that approximate the meaning of the original must be used.

In general, it is not possible to convey a poem’s originality in translation, and translators are aware of this because they have the opportunity to read and feel the poem in both languages.