Translation in Context: Transforming Poetry

“I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it’s really a process of transformation.” -Aaron Coleman

Periodically, the Multilingual Connections team gets together to discuss articles relevant to the translation world. Recently, we got together to discuss this segment from NPR. We shared an idea that poetry goes further than reproduction.

A while back in our post about the art and science of translation, we had three translators translate the same content and compared the very different outcomes. For this experiment, we asked one of our staff members to prepare an interpretation of the following text and then compare it to the translation of award-winning poet and literary translator, Aaron Coleman.



by Catherine Hulshof

Soy el viento empujándote.

Paso el tiempo dibujando olas y despedidos.

Canciones entre cortinas y el cemento blanco.

 Aaron Coleman

I am the wind pushing you

I spend my days drawing waves and goodbyes.

Songs between window blinds and white cement.

MC Staff

I am the wind

that pushes you.

I greet the waves

and wave goodbye.

I sing through shades,

the white cement.

The word choices and syntax, though subtle, make all the difference in how readers envision a passage. Our in-house translator took a fair amount of creative license when it came to the form, choosing to render the translation in iambic dimeter — a recognizable meter for American readers. Additionally, while Coleman’s translation does not adhere to a strict meter and renders the lines in free verse, our translator broke up the verses, once again, in iambic diameter; this means that each verse is composed of two metrical feet per line of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, allowing the average reader to easily digest the entire poem in one go.

While on the page the Spanish word “olas” means simply “waves,” there is no acoustic difference between “ola” and “hola,” (a physical wave and the common greeting). While our translator wasn’t able to find a word in English that meant both a greeting and an ocean wave, as the Spanish does, he decided to render that double meaning by using the word “wave” in two different instantiations.

All different. Yet, purposefully said. That’s what allows poetry to be so intimate, despite its variation.

Multilingual Connections believes that the art of transformation is rooted in understanding the intent behind a message. While it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of grammar and punctuation, it’s equally important to remember that translation is an active, creative process.

Translators transform the text and awaken the words in its new language. The process and the production of translating require interacting with the text, and collaborating with the words to convey the appropriate message.

 Experienced translators and linguists value accuracy, but also recognize that true expertise surpasses that. Professional translations will be met on all fronts — the feel, the tone, the context, and the integrity — as well as retain that human touch from native speakers.

But, to be literal and accurate is one thing — the strength of quality translation is rooted in its masterfulness. Mastering the words, the emotion, and mastering the interaction between an audience and an author.

Multilingual Connections is here to help you achieve your translation goals. Contact us to learn more!

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