Beyond Words - Language Blog

A Poem Translated Into Any Other Name

The UK Guardian’s Books Blog recently posted an interesting challenge to it’s readers for the beginning of September: share a bit of your own translated poetry with the other readers of the blog. The responses range from adaptations or translations of well-known poets like Neruda or Baudelaire to updated takes on “Frere Jacques”:

Hey bro, Jack,
like cut me some slack.
Sleep if you will,
but I’m gonna chill.
Cos something really gels
when I’m hanging – and those bells
Well I just lurve their song.
They’re just like – Ding, Dang, Dong.


The request stems from a musing on the long-standing tradition of translation in English poetry. Opening with Robert Frost’s famous quotation, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” the blog outlines famous translations in English poetry from Chaucer’s lost manuscripts of Romaunt of the Rose to Ezra Pound’s Chinese “translations” in Cathay (notably Pound did not know any Chinese, so he developed his own method of translation in order to complete the manuscript). Although I question the author’s statement, “The poets of English high Romanticism were not much given to translation,” (didn’t Percy Bysshe Shelley translate Plato’s Symposium and Ion, as well as some Homer and Dante, as one commenter correctly points out?) the quick bits of translation history in the article are spot-on and useful.

What the article brought to my mind, though, was a question of how much poetry is being translated by poets working in the English language and what languages are most represented? As far as I can tell, there is no comprehensive best seller list of translated works.’s lists give best sellers in different languages or in the category of “world literature,” but it’s impossible to organize the list by publication date — a cursory glance at the 2010 translation awards was the best I could do.

The 2010 poetry award for The Best Translated Book Award was given to The Russian Version, a book of poetry translated from Russian to English by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. Another major award in poetic translation, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award through The Academy of American Poets, gave Stephen Kessler the 2010 award for Desolation of the Chimera, a book of poetry by Spanish poet, Luis Cernuda. Several PEN Translation Grants and Awards were given for translations of poetry: Piotr Gwiazda’s translation of Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wroblewski (Polish) and Akinloye A. Ojo’s translation of Afaimo and other Poems by Akinwumi Isola (Yoruba).

While other awards undoubtedly abound, it’s easy to see that contemporary translation focuses on a diversity of languages. While historical English translation projects focused on the antiquity — Plato, Homer — or on Dante, Li Po, etc., contemporary poetic translation is centering on the lesser known — the Russian, Polish, Yoruba, Czech, and Latin American poets. It’s not that ancient languages aren’t relevant, it’s just that they’ve been translated time and again, and there are still thousands of poets waiting for an English treatment to give them access to the English-reading world.

Undoubtedly, there is much to be said about the state of contemporary English poetic translations, but I think the Guardian’s approach is the most open-minded and exploratory:

Given that he knew no Chinese but worked from prose cribs, Pound is an example to all of us who would like to be translators but may not possess the linguistic skills to work from originals… thanks to Ezra, you don’t need to be to tackle this August challenge to share your own versions of foreign-language poetry. Your sources range from Norse to Klingon, Malay to the entirely-made-up-on-the-spur-of-the-moment; one way or another, all translations are welcome here.

And through the comments I’ve discovered poets I’d never heard of — Else Lasker-Schuler, Andreas Gryphius, and Cui Hao, among others. Translation, adaptation, interpretation — whatever you name it, it’s all poetic, and all, as Frost argued, involved in the meta-loop of poetic translation. Take poetry, translate it, it’s lost — but then again, it becomes an entirely new poem in the end.