Web Translation Projects/Translation of Poetry

The aim of this project is to provide learners with some insight into the theory and practice of translation of poetry. This project is descriptive rather than prescriptive. This project is meant to be an introduction. I encourage you to do your own research as well.

Introduction to the Translation ProblemEdit

The Polyphonic Character of LanguageEdit

Before delving into a more systematized enumeration of more overt obstacles that a translator might — and most likely will — encounter whilst "having a go" at translating poetry, we must take account of a bigger, more overarching aspect of the language of poetry that might cause some trouble to the inexperienced translator. This aspect could be defined as the polyphonic character of language.

Linguistic polyphony is an utterance act theory, and in its principle, it is a part of the more extensive study of pragmatic studies and linguistics. Linguistic polyphony as a theory has its roots in many systematic studies of 'various voices' that we can detect - be it in music or literature.[1] Most notable of grandfathers of linguistic polyphony is Mikhail Bakhtin, with his in-depth study of dialogism and polyphony of voices in literature (his main focus being Dostoyevsky). Further elaboration on dialogism and Bakhtin's work is way beyond the scope of this project, however, if you wish to learn more, basic information about Bakhtin you can find here, and about the Bakhtin circle ("a 20th century school of Russian thought which centered on the work[2]") here.

Literary language by itself is polyphonic - unlike the language of e.g. law, literature encourages the appearance of the multiplicity of meanings and allows for the polyphony of not only voices, but also meanings and interpretations. Poetry is a form of literature that embraces the polyphonic aspect of utterances to its fullest - it is precisely the multiplicity of striking and yet logical meanings that seems to characterize poetry. It is the polyphonic aspect of language that allows for multiple readings of poems.

A translator must remember this feature of language - poetic language. It most likely is impossible to render the polyphony of meanings and interpretative fields of the orginal in translation. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the polyphony of meanings in language in order to be able to properly interpret the poem they are translating.

With that in mind, we can go on to a more systematic enumeration of possible issues — linguistic, literary and cultural — that one certainly will encounter while dealing with the translation of poetry.

Difficulties of Poetry TranslationEdit

In and of itself, the translation of poetry is alike and completely unlike the translation process of prose or functional texts. While the translation of functional texts does entail numerous difficulties, the issues one may encounter while translating poetry are quite different in nature. Those obstacles could be identified as:

1. Linguistic Issues 2. Literary or Aesthetic Issues 3. Cultural Issues
  • Imagery
  • Similes
  • Metaphors
  • Phrasal verbs
  • Idioms
  • Puns
  • Grammar of the source language[3]
  • The form of a poem – what type of literary convention we are dealing with.
  • Sound of a poem – alliteration, assonance, rhymes, meter…[3]
  • Intertextuality
  • Cultural references
  • Humour
  • References to the history of the region[3]

Strategies of Poetry TranslationEdit

"The translation of poetry is the field where most emphasis is normally put on the creation of a new independent poem, and where literal translation is usually condemned."[4] - Peter Newmark

There are several approaches to how to translate poetry - some more theoretical, some more practical. Following Andre Lefevere's research on the topic, we can distinguish seven (7) differenet strategies of poetry translation that are in use, with varying popularity.

Strategies of Translation of Poetry by A. Lefevere (as in S. Bassnett, 2002, p. 87)[5]Edit

Type of strategy Explanation
phonemic translation "attempts to reproduce the SL sound in the TL while at the same time producing an acceptable paraphrase of the sense"
literal translation word-for-word translation
metrical translation "the dominant criterion is the reproduction of the SL metre"
poetry into prose self-explanatory; a poem is rendered in prose
rhymed translation a strategy where, as Bassnett says, "the translator 'enters into a double bondage' of metre and rhyme" - in other words, metre and rhyme become the most important feature of a poem for a translator
blank verse translation replacing the SL poetic features of the SL with a blank verse - a poetic form that allows for more liberties and at whole is a respectable form in the English language system
interpretation a distinction between versions of a text, where a "text is retained but the form is changed" and imitations of a text, which, in essence, are rewritings and all they have in common with the ST is the title and the general premise

In the table above are presented examples of translations strategies based on the practice of poetry translation. We must note that the translation strategy will change depending on the skopos (aim, goal) of the translation and the theoretical approach that we deem appropriate.

Stanisław Barańczak's approach to translation of poetryEdit

Stanisław Barańczak in his work on translation of poetry (both "for children" as well as "for adults") explicates the following important points about translation of poetry:

  • First, while translating poetry, one ought to be ambitious and aim to render as much as possible of the original.[6]
  • Second, translation of poetry, at some level, will always be an act of interpretation.[6]
  • Third, one cannot definitively separate the form from the meaning of the poem - often times, those two rely on each other[6].
  • Fourth, a translation should be faithful to the poetics of the era of the original. In other words, a translation should not be anachronistic to the original.[6]
  • Fifth - a translator should pay attention to the semantic dominant and the stylistic dominant of a poem. The former means the main, core meaning of the poem (which can be realized by many means, from linguistic to, e.g. rymes in the poem, which could be essential to its meaning); the latter means the main formal characteristics of a poem. (Barańczak notes, that the "type" of poetry a translator is dealing with will suggest on what dominant they should focus. In the case of translation of poetry "for adults" (if there even is a thing that could be called that) - semantic dominant takes precedent.[6] In the case of translation of children's verse, in general stylistic dominant would take precedent, however, this always depends on the skopos of the poem.[7] Before translating, one must evaluate what the poem is "doing" and what do we want to "do" in translation.)
  • Six (which actually should be the first one) - never translate a poem into prose. [6]Barańczak makes it clear that rewriting a poem into prose is the worst thing one could do to it.
  • Seven - do not translate good poetry into bad poetry, i.e. do not translate poetry badly, or at least do not publish it in such form. It's an act of disservice to the original to do that.[6]
  • Eight - a translation, in and of itself, irrespective of the original, should be a work of art. If a translation judged by itself, without knowing the original, has no artistic merit, then it is a bad translation - and should not exist.[6]
  • Nine (although Barańczak does not explicate this as a separate point) - if you aim to stylize the language of translation, then do it either well and accordingly to the times of the original, or do not do it at all[6].
  • Ten - children's poetry should not be too foreign in translation, because that would make it incomprehensible to a child reader, thus distorting the point of the poem - if the original aims to be "familiar" culturally - some poems should be domesticated.[7]
  • Eleven - children's verse is even more poetic than that aimed for an adult reader - thus, a translator ought to take note of the sonorous, linguistic aspect of an original.[7]

Ezra Pound's approach to translation of poetryEdit

Ezra Pound (1958)
Ezra Pound - Cathay Title Page 1915

As an interesting example, that strays from the typical practice of poetry translation, it is worth mentioning Ezra Pound's translations of Chinese poetry. Those translations are atypical in the sense that Pound did not know the Chinese language (in any of its dialects) and, while translating classical Chinese poetry, he used glossaries. What is exceptional is despite his lack of competence when it comes to the practical use of the Chinese language, his translations are regarded to be particularly good, if not excellent - some scholars deem them to be one of the best translations of classical Chinese poetry[8].

In the collection of his poetry Ezra Pound: Translations (1963), published by New Directions, his collection of translations from Chinese is introduced as: "Cathay. For the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga. (1915)[9]"

As Bassnett says, Ezra Pound's "purpose in writing the poem, he claimed, was to bring a dead man to life." The phrase "bring a dead man to life" is of utmost importance here - it hints at what Pound's methodology in poetry translation - if we can ever call such practice as that - is. Pound does not claim to be translating a poem literally - his goal is to resurrect the author, to make him speak anew, to paraphrase and rewrite.[5]

In other words, we could say that Ezra Pound's approach to translation is quite evocative of that of the people like John Dryden and Alexander Tytler[10] - he focuses on the spirit of the original, and to him the meaning and the essence of the original are more important than technical linguistic obstacles.

Practical Examples of Poetry TranslationEdit

In the following section we will discuss the different practical examples of how a different translation strategy changes the final translatum.

Adam Mickiewicz and Pan TadeuszEdit

Adam Mickiewicz's Portrait

If you wish to read more extensively about the author, you can do so here. Similarly, if you wish to learn more about the poem itself, I invite you to take a look at its Wikipedia page.To showcase diffrenet strategies of translation I provide an excerpt from Adam Mickiewicz's epic poem Pan Tadeusz and chosen translations.

1) Maude Ashurst Biggs, Master Thaddeus or the Last Foray in Lithuania, London 1885 (blank verse)[11]

2) George Rapall Noyes, Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania. A Story of Life among Polish Gentlefolk, London & Toronto, New York 1917 (prose)[11]

3) Marcel Weyland, Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania, a Tale of the Gentry During 1811 – 1812, Blackheath, NSW 2004 (verse)[11]

4) Leonard Kress, Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania: a History of the Nobility in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse, Philadelphia 2006 (10 syllables with 5 stresses, with alternating rhymes)[11]

(the above data comes from here, where you can also find a complete list of all existing English translations of the poem - here are displayed just chosen examples)

Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz
An excerpt of the original Maude Ashurst Biggs's translation (corresponding excerpt, p. 3-5) Marcel Weyland's translation Leonard Kress' translation
Właśnie dwukonną bryką wjechał młody panek

I, obiegłszy dziedziniec, zawrócił przed ganek.

Wysiadł z powozu; konie porzucone same,

Szczypać trawę ciągnęły powoli pod bramę.

      We dworze pusto, bo drzwi od ganku zamknięto

Zaszczepkami i kołkiem zaszczepki przetknięto.

Podróżny do folwarku nie biegł sług zapytać,

Odemknął, wbiegł do domu, pragnął go powitać.

Dawno domu nie widział, bo w dalekiem mieście

      Kończył nauki, końca doczekał nareszcie.

Wbiega i okiem chciwie ściany starodawne

Ogląda czule, jako swe znajome dawne.

Też same widzi sprzęty, też same obicia,

Z któremi się zabawiać lubił od powicia;

      Lecz mniej wielkie, mniej piękne, niż się dawniej zdały.

I też same portrety na ścianach wisiały:

Tu Kościuszko w czamarce krakowskiej, z oczyma

Podniesionemi w niebo, miecz oburącz trzyma;

Takim był, gdy przysięgał na stopniach ołtarzów,

      Że tym mieczem wypędzi z Polski trzech mocarzów,

Albo sam na nim padnie. Dalej w polskiej szacie

Siedzi Rejtan, żałosny po wolności stracie;

W ręku trzyma nóż, ostrzem zwrócony do łona,

A przed nim leży Fedon i żywot Katona.

      Dalej Jasiński, młodzian piękny i posępny,

Obok Korsak, towarzysz jego nieodstępny,

Stoją na szańcach Pragi, na stosach Moskali,

Siekąc wrogów, a Praga już się wkoło pali.

Nawet stary stojący zegar kurantowy

      W drewnianej szafie poznał u wniścia alkowy,

I z dziecinną radością pociągnął za sznurek,

By stary Dąbrowskiego usłyszeć mazurek.[12]

This very moment, in a two-horse chaise,

A youthful gentleman approached the gate,

And traversing the courtyard came before

The gallery. He lighted from the chaise.

The horses, left there, ’gan to nip the grass

Before the door, at leisure. Empty seemed

The house ; the doors were locked and fastened close

With bolts and padlock. But the traveller

Ran not unto the farm to call for servants;

But oped the door, and ran into the house.

He longed to welcome it, since he for long

Had not beheld his home. For in the city

Far off for education he had stayed;

The end long waited for had come at last.

He ran within, and eagerly he gazed,

And tenderly, upon those ancient walls

As old acquaintances. He viewed again

The self-same furniture, same tapestry,

With which he loved to play from swaddling bands.

But less of size it seemed, less beautiful

Than formerly. And those same portraits hung

Around the walls. There Kościuszko, clad

In the Cracovian czamara, raised

His eyes to heaven, and grasped a two-hand sword;

Such as when, on the altar-steps, he swore

He with this sword would drive the despots three

From Poland, or himself upon it fall.

And further Rejtan sat, in Polish dress

Grieving for freedom lost; he grasped a knife,

The blade towards his breast; before him lay

Phaedo and Cato’s life. Jasinski there

A beautiful and sadly-looking youth;

Beside him Korsak, his unsevered friend.

They stand on Praga’s ramparts, over piles

Of Muscovites, the foemen cutting down;

But Praga burned already round them. Even

The ancient clock with chimes the traveller knew

In wooden case, at the entrance of the alcove.

And with a childish joy he pulled the string

To hear again Dombrowski’s old mazurka[13].

In a two-horse chaise, just then, a young man approached;

After circling the courtyard drew up at the porch,

And then leapt from the carriage; the team, left to wait,

Ambled, nibbling the grasses, towards the front gate.

The manor house seemed empty; the door was pulled to

And secured with a staple, with a peg pushed through.

The Traveller did not run to the farm to inquire,

Unlatched it, ran in quickly, to greet it desired:

A long time now from home, in a far distant town,

He had worked at his studies, now laid his books down.

He enters, with eyes hungry regards those walls ancient,

With a tender regard, as his friends old and patient.

Sees the same bits and pieces, same hangings and covers

He had loved in his childhood; but now he discovers

They are smaller than once seemed to him, and less glorious.

On the walls the same portraits of patriots and warriors:

Here is Kosciuszko, wearing his Kraków cap, kneeling,

Towards heaven eyes turned, sword in both hands, appealing

To God at his high altar, and swearing defiance:

This sword shall drive from Poland the three mighty giants

Or himself will fall on it. There, in Polish dress,

Sits Rejtan, he at freedom's loss quite comfortless,

In his hand, point to breast, he is holding a knife,

Before him, open, 'Phaedo' lies, and Cato's 'Life'.

Further, grim-faced Jasinski, youth fair, near his tried

And inseparable Korsak, erect by his side

On Praga's ramparts, sabring the foes from a mound

Of dead Russians, while Praga's aflame all around.

He even the old chiming clock well recollected

In its wooden case, close by the alcove erected,

And with old child-like pleasure he pulled at the chain,

Old Dabrowski Mazurka to hear once again.[14]

A young man raced his carriage through the yard,

halted his team by the porch and vaulted down.

His horses dragged the coach, and panting hard,

began to graze. The door was shut, the lawn

deserted--anxiously he rushed to greet

inhabitant and house alike, unlatched

the lock, dismayed he found no one to meet.

The youth was only recently dispatched

from a distant city where he'd gone to school.

Now finished with his studies, he relearns

the old floor planks, eager to roam and rule

halls hung with tapestries. Now he returns

to find that nothing is unchanged. The halls

all seem less grand, perhaps a little quainter.

The portraits he remembers still grace the walls:

Kosciuszko in Cracovian dress. (The painter

surely had in mind the time he swore,

clutching his sword, his eyes to heaven cast,

he'd drive the occupier from the door

of every Pole, or make this act his last.)

Rejtan was next, mourning his freedom's loss;

knife stuck in his own breast by his own hand,

(Plutarch's Life of Cato open across

his desk.) Next was Jasinski, his last stand:

the hero, young, handsome, and melancholy,

beside Korsak, comrades to the end.

(They stand in trenches aware of their huge folly:

dead Russians all around; they can't defend

Warsaw--engulfed by flames from the attack.)

Tadeusz sees the antique chiming clock,

recalling how he'd tug a string in back;

repeating it provides a pleasing shock,

the same Mazurka of Dombrowski plays.[15]

original, in Polish alexandrines[11] blank verse in the style of Milton[11] verse[11] 10 syllables with 5 stresses, with alternating rhymes[11]
George Rapall Noyes' translation
A young gentleman had just entered in a two-horse carriage, and, after making a turn about the yard, he stopped before the porch and descended; his horses, left to themselves, slowly moved towards the gate, nibbling the grass. The mansion was deserted, for the porch doors were barred and the bar fastened with a pin. The traveller did not run to make inquiries at the farmhouse but opened the door and ran into the mansion, for he was eager to greet it. It was long since he had seen the house, for he had been studying in a distant city and had at last finished his course. He ran in and gazed with eager emotion upon the ancient walls, his old friends. He sees the same furniture, the same hangings with which he had loved to amuse himself from babyhood, but they seemed less beautiful and not so large as of old. And the same portraits hung upon the walls. Here Kosciuszko, in his Cracow coat, with his eyes raised to heaven, held his two-handed sword; such was he when on the steps of the altar he swore that with this sword he would drive the three powers from Poland or himself would fall upon it. Farther on sat Rejtan, in Polish costume, mourning the loss of liberty; in his hands he held a knife with the point turned against his breast, and before him lay Phaedo and The Life of Cato. Still farther on Jasinski, a fair and melancholy youth, and his faithful comrade Korsak stand side by side on the entrenchments of Praga, on heaps of Muscovites, hewing down the enemies of their country—but around them Praga is already burning.

He recognised even the tall old musical clock in its wooden case near the chamber door, and with childish joy he pulled at the string, in order to hear Dombrowski's old mazurka.[16]

Excerpts shown above all showcase different strategies of poetry translation - with different results. Biggs's translation, which coincidentally is the oldest one, evokes the epic character of the original through Miltonian blank verse, taking from Milton's role in English poetry and attempting to evoke some of the spirit of his epic poems, such as Paradise Lost. He also takes from the tradition and the role of blank verse in general in English poetry. Here Baraczak most likely would argue that this is too much of the "artistic" liberty of the translator - because Milton is not Mickiewicz's contemporary, and thus this translation can be seen as anachronistic. Weyland's translation is in verse, in rhyming couplets, which is an attempt to be faithful to the rhyming pattern of the original, however one could argue that Weyland's translation loses some of the spirit of the original - the original is an epic poem in its genre, but also the story and the form are epic - whilst the translation is just composed of mere rhyming couplets. Kress' s translation is a notable one - and one Branczak would describe as ambitious. Kress attempts to evoke the rigid formal aspects of the original (written in Polish alexandrines) through the strict formal constraint of 10 syllables with 5 stresses per line. Finally, Noyes translates the epic original into prose, and consequently strips the original off of its epic layer - the poem becomes a quite enjoyable novel with not that innovative plot. In other words, we can say that through such a drastic act, Noyes strips Mickiewicz off of his Mickiewiczness. On the other hand, Noyes makes Mickiewicz's work more approachable.

All of those strategies produce different results that filter the original though a different lense. Ultimately, it is up to the translator to choose the strategy and choose what they deem fit for a particular translation. We could hark back to Baranczak and his ideas about translation of poetry here and say that if a translation holds up on its own, then, we can say that it is a successful one, irregardless of translation strategy applied by the translator.

Questions to the readerEdit

  1. Should poetry be translated?
  2. As a translator, would you be more for literal translation or more for rewriting?
  3. Which of Lefevere's strategies you do not agree with? Why?
  4. Do you think that Barańczak is right, when he calls a translator who gives up on a certain apect of the original lazy? Why?
  5. What is your opinion about Ezra Pound's approach to poetry translation? Do you think that a translator should be fluent in the language from which they are transating or not necessarily?
  6. Can you think of any examples of poems that significantly change in translation (in terms of their form, meaning or both)?

If you wish to expand this project (e.g. provide diffrent examples of interestaing cases of poetry translation), feel free to do so - after contacting the project designer. Thank you!


  1. Nølke, H. (2017). Linguistic polyphony: the Scandinavian approach: ScaPoLine. Brill.
  2. "Bakhtin Circle, The | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Belushi, Aicha & Zid, Mounir. (2016). Unknown Problems of Poetry Translation from the Perspective of Translation Students. English Language and Literature Studies. 6. 51. 10.5539/ells.v6n4p51. Derived from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311164641_Unknown_Problems_of_Poetry_Translation_from_the_Perspective_of_Translation_Students
  4. Newmark, P. (1988). The Translation of Poetry. In A Textbook of Translation (p. 70). Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bassnett-McGuire, S. (2002). Poetry and Translation. In Translation studies (3rd Ed., pp. 86–114). Routledge.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Barańczak, S. (1994). Mały, lecz maksymalistyczny manifest translatologiczny. In Ocalone w tłumaczeniu: Szkice o warsztacie tłumacza poezji z dołączeniem małej antologii przekładów (pp. 13–63). Wydawnictwo a5.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Barańczak, S. (1994). Rice pudding i kaszka manna: O tłumaczeniu poezji dla dzieci. In Ocalone w tłumaczeniu: Szkice o warsztacie tłumacza poezji z dołączeniem małej antologii przekładów (pp. 67–77). Wydawnictwo a5.
  8. "Cathay (poetry collection)". Wikipedia. 2021-05-26. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cathay_(poetry_collection)&oldid=1025251780. 
  9. Pound, E. (1963) Ezra Pound: Translations, New Directions, p.187
  10. Bassnett-McGuire, S. (2002). Translation studies (3rd Ed.), Routledge.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 Franzini, Greta. "English translations of Pan Tadeusz: a comparison with TRACER". Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  12. Mickiewicz, A. (2020) Pan Tadeusz, czyli Ostatni zajazd na Litwie, wolnelektury.com, Derived from: https://wolnelektury.pl/media/book/pdf/pan-tadeusz.pdf
  13. "Master Thaddeus; or, the Last foray in Lithuania : an historical epic poem in twelve books. Vol. 1 Last foray in Lithuania Pan Tadeusz - Kujawsko-Pomorska Digital Library". kpbc.umk.pl. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  14. "Pan-Tadeusz-eng-book01". web.archive.org. 2007-01-03. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  15. Mickiewicz, A. (2006), Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania: a History of the Nobility in the Years 1811 and 1812, HarrowGate Press
  16. Mickiewicz, Adam. "Pan Tadeusz". www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2021-06-06.