There are many translated Persian/Farsi poems in English like The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam, the famous Iranian poet, philosopher, and mathematician, translated by Edward FitzGerald. Unfortunately these kinds of translations were shallow and couldn't properly convey the deep meaning or purpose of poet to audiences, which can damage a poem or diminish its value. There are many English speaking audiences who enjoy reading the translated versions of Khayyam's Rubaiyat, but us Iranians can find how much these translations are wrong and even off topic!

Is there any special method/source or institute to guide poets who want translate their own poems into English, and how can you find your audiences' ideas about your translation are correct and professional?

  • 2
    Your question seems a bit unclear. I understand the first part explaining the question, but the question itself is a little vague. What do you mean by "how can you find your audiences' ideas about your translation are correct and professional?" That can be interpreted in two ways: 1) how to determine if your audience is interpreting it correctly (dealing with individual interpretations), or 2) how to ensure that the poem will be interpreted correctly (dealing directly with translation). Which is it? Clarification would greatly help improve this question. – JMcAfreak Apr 8 '13 at 20:33
  • The second one! I got best answers. There is no vague matter in this question. I hope it is clear for you too. – Persian Cat Apr 9 '13 at 12:27

A special method? No. There surely are guides, but I doubt their value.

Poetic translation is one of the most difficult tasks of the writer craft (and probably the most difficult of the more common ones) often topping writing original poetry in means of difficulty. A guide or resource may help, but you need very, very much talent and perform a painstakingly difficult work to get it right - sometimes getting it right will be impossible.

My first advice is to pick a common poem that has at least three different translations and see how they differ and tackle the problems.

Think what sacrifices you are willing to make. Keeping the meter of the original, number of lines, and direct relation line-to-line will be possible only in the simplest, child-level poetry. In serious poetry you will have to reorder some lines at the very least. Quite often phrases will be a whole strophe away from their original location, but sometimes you'll change the rhyming scheme or the meter, and use considerably different forms.

In essence, you don't translate. You write the poem from scratch, trying to retain the original message and spirit. Don't try to translate it word-for-word or sentence-for-sentence. Start with taking the deepest meanings, the mood, the message, the impact of the original - things that made the original a worthy piece of art and not just a piece of rhyming text. Think which metaphors of the original translate well into the foreign language and try to save them, work them into the new text - but if the metaphor is unclear, say, because the English word carries different emotional connotations, replace it with something that works better. If there are puns, or thoughts dependent on double meaning of words, that just don't translate, don't hesitate to replace them with comparisons, replace the one word with two where they convey both meanings. And never hesitate to add your own if it works well - sometimes the translation can improve upon the original, as the target language may have expressions that describe given things even better than author's native language.

Try to keep the same style. If the original uses flourishing extensive comparisons, use these. If the original is very dry and skimping on stylistic forms, skimp on stylistic forms. If the original is a sonnet, you must make your translation into a sonnet. If the original is dactylic hexameter, you don't really need to keep the translation a dactylic hexameter - pick dactylic pentameter or iambic hexameter, something of similar "stature"; translation of ancient epic poetry into iambic tetrameter would be quite inappropriate. The content may be significantly different, but not only the message but also the style - the language, the form should be as similar to the original as you can make it.

Note there are various words that have different connotations in different languages. An item that is the symbol of royalty in one language may be a symbol of laziness in other. If you translate the noun directly, you will lose the original meaning. Don't. Sacrifice factual adherence to literal meaning, to retain the symbolic meaning. Use a different symbol that has the same meaning rather than the same symbol that translated has a different meaning. Say, the direct translation of given character's role is "witch", but her role is more of a shamaness, a person of deep wisdom and good will. Call her "Priestess" and discard the loaded "Witch" and unenlightened "Shamaness" altogether.

Then, in the end, give it rhythm and make it rhyme.

In short, what you must retain, translate and keep in the translation, in order from the most important to the least important:

  1. Deep meaning.
  2. Mood.
  3. Form/Style.
  4. Objects, subjects and events.
  5. Rhythm, meter.
  6. Metaphors, double meanings, poetic expressions.
  7. Sequence, ordering.
  8. Rhymes.

I found working with both a thesaurus and an online rhyme dictionary helps immensely. Also, trying to stick to the same metaphors gets you stuck. Try to find a better metaphor, a different form that says a similar thing better, rather than trying to repeat the old one word for word and lose the meaning or break the meter in the process. Don't try to translate - write a new poem that tells the same thing.

  • For some audiences, it may be appropriate to include a phonetic transliteration of the original, an introductory explanation of the forms used by and of the general context of the original, and footnotes to handle word-play and less familiar specific historical or cultural references. – Paul A. Clayton May 24 '13 at 21:50

Several song-writers here in Egypt write lyrics in both English and Arabic, Maher Zain and Cat Stevens also do this. Their ability to do so is because they are just about as skilled with English as they are with Arabic. If a poet wants to translate their own poems I would suggest they locate a poet who adequately understands both the source language and the target language. In a sense, it wouldn't be a translation per se; more of a re-witing in the target language, but in that way you get something that is both poetic and conveys the intended meaning.

  • Interesting site! I wish there was such thing for Farsi/Persian language and English too! – Persian Cat Mar 28 '13 at 14:31

Short answer: I don't think it's possible to really translate a poem.

Some translators will create a "prose translation". That is, they translate the poem much as they would non-poetic language, trying to retain the meaning, while sacrificing rhyme, rhythm, and so forth. The result usually sounds nothing like a poem but simply like ... well, usually not ordinary narrative, because it will often have a heavy reliance on turns of phrase, mood, and so on, and it will end up being a little disjointed, because things that contributed to rhyme and rhythm and so on in the original will still be there, but no longer serving any purpose.

Take just one element: Suppose the original poem rhymes. Of course if you translate the words, the chance that two words that rhyme in language A will translate into words that rhyme in language B is very small. So what do you do? You might be able to find a different word with a similar meaning that does rhyme. You might be able to re-arrange the word order some to put a word that rhymes at the end of the line. But at best that will be difficult, and it would often be impossible to do without losing the meaning.

As others have said, you could basically re-write the poem in the target language. That is, try to write a poem in the target language that conveys the same general meaning and tone and as much of the same phrasing as you can. But it's barely legitimate to say that this is a translation, it's more like an imitation.


@Persian My experience to translate poems and book from my native language into English lead me to some considerations, for instance:

  1. I have to learn more about the audience/reader.
  2. I have to observe more about the expressions in English.
  3. If possible, learn the culture of the audience/reader.

So as I realize, to translate is not only focus on the words, but how to apply it in the nature of the audience/reader, particularly if the audience/reader is foreigner. For my case, am translating a novel with its Eastern plot for Westerner as the reader.

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