Discussions: Poems in Translation

A friend bought a English translation of a poem originally written in Shona by Tavengwa Kaponda along to a workshop. This sparked several discussions that couldn’t be crammed into the space the workshop had.

There’s a school of thought that maintains translations should only be carried out by those fluent in both languages. But that ignores the fact that not all linguists are interested in poetry and not all poets have the time or motivation to become fluent in at least a second language. A German teenager may want to find out what her favourite band are singing or watch her favourite US TV show in English rather than badly dubbed into German. Whereas her British counterpart has no such incentive and languages aren’t treated as a priority in English schools. The Poetry Translation Centre pairs a British poet (who may not have any knowledge of the poem’s original language) with a translator fluent in both English and the original language. The translator provides a literal translation of the original poem and gives feedback on the translated poem so the British poet can be confident they’ve not strayed from the intentions in the original.

There are also two basic approaches to translating a poem. The translator can either work from a literal translation and try to reshape it into the original line lengths or sound patternings in the original. Or a translator can start with the sound patternings and rhythms and write a new poem loosely based on the literal translation, focusing on capturing the spirit of the original rather than the precision of the translation. Both approaches are valid.

There are additional complications when two languages do not have the same roots and also different cultural backgrounds. Some words don’t have an English cultural equivalent so are only translatable by providing an explanation rather than a short phrase. That can be done in prose but is difficult in poetry.

My workshop friend is fluent in both English and Shona so had no need to rely on a translator. However, a discussion about the difficulty of translating “nhemamsasa” from Shona into English became an introduction for others to have a go at translating the poem. Here I ran into two barriers 1) I have no knowledge of Shona and 2) online dictionaries are incomplete so, whilst they could give me an idea of what the original poem was saying, they couldn’t provide a literal translation. I did however have the workshop discussion and my friend’s translation so could combine Ambrose Musiyiwa’s translation, my snippets of literal translation and trying to keep the original structure.

The original poem:

Gwenyambira angakande mbira
.          mudziva otya kusara nechitima chechimanjemanje
.          Mutinhimra nhemamsasa mutasvi wenguva
.          anowana wakamumirira
pachiteshi paanodzikira

Tavengwa Kaponda

My translation:

The player might throw his mbira
.           in the river. Fearful he’ll miss the train, his heart beats
.           an inherited, ancestral tempo, rides through time,
.           where finds the mbira rhythm in wait
at the station when he gets off.

Translation will always be a compromise between what the original poet is saying and how they intended to say it. However, not translating leads to insularity. Reading only sonnets encourages the view that sonnets are the only poems worth bothering with, so, although translating is problematic, it is still worthwhile. No matter which individual languages we speak or don’t speak, they pale against the universal desire to communicate and connect. Mary Ruefle suggests the first translation “was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry, and had to decide in an instant what it meant.”


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– The haiku has to follow the 5/7/5 syllable structure

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The full rules and details are here: http://design.printexpress.co.uk/the-print-express-haiku-competition/


3 Responses to “Discussions: Poems in Translation”

  1. E.E. Nobbs Says:

    Thanks, useful points. And now I have found out what a mbira is 🙂

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Yes: translation isn’t just about language, it opens out to an exchange and understanding of cultures too.

  3. theorangutanlibrarian Says:

    Definitely agree with your conclusion- it’s never going to be perfect- but it’s worth doing for the sake of spreading poems from different cultures!

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