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Some general notes on translating poetry

Entering the Stephen Spender Prize: advice from the judges
George Szirtes’ attempt to categorise translated poetry
Christ’s Hospital school’s school-wide translation project
Poetry translation activities
The Stephen Spender Prize 2015

Anyone who has ever translated anything, be it prose or poetry, will know that there are two main parts to the process: first a decoding, as the translator teases out the sense of the source language, then repeated revision and polishing to ensure it reads as naturally and pleasingly as it can in the target language. Early on, consciously or sub-consciously, the translator will have noted the register, style, mood and cultural references of the original text; at every stage they will be trying to stay true to those while re-creating it in a language that may be utterly different from the original one. It is said that no one reads more closely than a translator.

Translating poetry brings with it an additional layer of difficulty: the translator will also be noting the form of the poem, comparing it with other poems they have read in English or other languages, and listening to the music of it before they make the many decisions they will need to make.

If the original poem has a particular form – a regular metre, for instance, or a rhyme scheme – the translator has to consider:
Teachers will want to point out to their students that in languages such as Spanish, Italian and French rhyming is easier than in English because there are fewer word-endings. If you want to rhyme throughout in English you need to make sure you choose sounds with a lot of rhymes in English. Rhyming on one syllable is usually easiest, and rhyming dictionaries can be found online, for example or

It is worth warning students that, unless done very skilfully, rhyming in poems carries with it many pitfalls: tortuous inversions to achieve a rhyme will make the reader wince, and rhyming couplets can all too easily sound like the worst kind of greeting-card doggerel. You want your rhyming to sound as natural as possible.

Everyone's translation will be different. Some translators of poetry place the utmost importance on fidelity; others acknowledge how far they have strayed from the original by sub-titling their version 'After [insert name of poet]'. Each translator is making their own new poem in English. Each writer has to feel free to do their own thing, to experiment. There is no such thing as 'getting it wrong' any more than there exists a perfect translation.