Poetry Translation, a Bridge across Cultures

The status of translation within the process of teaching a foreign language is still much debated. However, lately, there has been a renewed interest in the hidden potential of such a method as teachers have discovered that even traditional manners of doing things are not without their benefits. The situation becomes even more intriguing, and even more rewarding, when it comes to exploiting the advantages of using poetry translation during the English class. Since the process of translating proper is a difficult one and is usually attempted by the more talented students, the focus should be on analysing samples of translated poetry (different stanzas or poems belonging to different authors) with a view to raising awareness of linguistic and cultural differences and getting a better understanding of those around us.

The following interesting aspects can be emphasised in the process of analysing fragments of translated poetry:

1.  Linguistic aspects: It is not always possible to follow the structures present in the original text because of linguistic differences (each language has a different manner of encoding reality); it is not only a matter of syntax, but also of grammatical categories (gender is expressed differently in Romanian and in English, for example).The use of idiomatic language, such as particular expressions, proverbs, and, in the case of English, phrasal verbs, usually reflects a specific cultural perspective on different aspects of the world; each culture has its own manner of perceiving and linguistically encoding reality and this forces the translator to find a suitable equivalent performing a similar function in the target culture; in such a case, the linguistic structure of the idiom is not important, its function or role is the prevailing factor in translation.

2. Cultural aspects: Cultural references are generally difficult to deal with, but the difficulty increases when they appear in poetry because, in this case, the process of rendering them has to take into account all the other dimensions (stylistic, prosodic, semantic, structural) that make up the complex poetic construction. The students can find instances of adaptation (finding a situational equivalent in the target culture), foreignizing (transferring the word directly, which results in borrowing); naturalizing (adjusting the word according to the target language rules of spelling and pronunciation), using a classifier (supplying a generic or superordinate term for the original word; also called generalization); when all this fails, compression (not translating the word at all) is also an option.

3. Stylistic aspects: If the translation of idioms requires finding an equivalent which already exists in the target language, rendering stylistic devices involves creating a suitable equivalent because these devices, and especially metaphors, introduce elements of semantic novelty for which there is no immediate correspondence in a different language. Therefore, just like the original authors, the translators themselves have to come up with something original in the target language, something having the same function as the stylistic device used in the original text. The students can analyse the effect that the same stylistic device, rendered in two different languages, has on them.

4. Prosodical aspects: Rendering the rhythmical pattern, the rhyme scheme, the enjambment, the stanzaic pattern is essential in translating poetry; a prose translation of a poem would only preserve the original meaning, but all the other dimensions would be lost. In poetry, it is the musicality and poetic quality of the lines that elicit a certain response from readers, rather than the expressed meaning taken in isolation; therefore, semantic features are generally sacrificed for the sake of style and prosody as long as the overall meaning is not affected; the students can evaluate the translated fragment from the point of view of musicality and lyrical quality, arguing for or against the use of a certain prosodical element.

Eminescu’s creative genius has undoubtedly tested the skills of numerous translators aiming at “transferring” his artistic spirit into a different linguistic and cultural context. For an illustration of the manner in which translated poetry can be used during the English class we can ask the students to focus on the first stanza of the poem Sara pe deal and analyse the difficulties that have to be faced and the solutions that can be found in the process of translation:

„Sara pe deal buciumul sună cu jale,
Turmele-l urc, stele le scapără-n cale,
Apele plâng, clar izvorând în fântâne;
Sub un salcâm, dragă, m-aştepţi tu pe mine.”

(Mihai Eminescu, Poezii, p. 160)

“On hills, the alp-horn mourns as evening ends the day,
Flocks climb them just as stars flicker and light their way,
In wells the waters weep while springing pure and clear;
Under a tree, for me, you have been waiting, dear.”

(Translated by L. Puiu)

The students, with the help of the teacher, can notice the following linguistic, cultural and prosodic differences:
1) „pe deal” → “on hills” − the adverbial of place is fronted, replacing the original time reference; its use in the plural illustrates an optional shift as the Romanian word is also a noun, but in the singular form.
2) „buciumul” → “the alp-horn” − a simple noun is replaced by means of a compound one; translating the original simply as horn would cause both a semantic loss and a cultural one since the traditionally Romanian musical instrument is associated with national history and identity.
3) „sună cu jale” → “mourns”  − the original sequence, which is made up of two elements, is rendered by a single main verb in English but, despite the structure shift at the level of the verb phrase and clause, the chosen verb is close in meaning to the original.
4) „sara” → “as evening ends the day” – the Romanian word is a regionally-marked noun difficult to render in English; the translator resorts to amplification by means of syntactic expansion, thus introducing, instead, a note of poeticity in order to compensate for not rendering the regional colouring; this expansion determines a structure shift at the level of the sentence, which turns from a compound one in Romanian into a compound-complex one in English by the introduction of a temporal clause; the same type of change occurs in the second line, where an originally main clause („stele le scapără-n cale”) is rendered again by a temporal clause (“just as stars flicker and light their way”).
5) „Turmele-l urc, stele le scapără-n cale,/Apele plâng, clar izvorând în fântâne” → “Flocks climb them just as stars flicker and light their way,/In wells the waters weep while springing pure and clear” − the alliterations present in the second and third lines of the original stanza (the repetition of the sounds /t/, /s/, /l/, /p/, /r/) are rendered by alliterations based on the sounds /t/, /l/, /w/, /r/ and /l/ again, thus preserving the musicality and rhythm of the text as much as possible; the presence of the word pure illustrates an addition for the sake of preserving the rhythmical pattern, but the semantic feature introduced through translation does not change the original meaning significantly.
6) „sub un salcâm” → “under a tree” – the translator uses a super-ordinate term (tree) instead of the specific word used by Eminescu (salcâm), which illustrates a case of generalization; the fact that a word so rich in poetic associations is replaced, in translation, by a general word obviously leads not only to semantic loss but also to a stylistic shift as the word salcâm is used repeatedly in the original poem, setting up a certain pattern of imagery.
7) „dragă, m-aştepţi tu pe mine” → “for me, you have been waiting, dear” – instead of present continuous, the translator resorts to present perfect continuous, thus laying emphasis on duration and introducing a different temporal perspective; the order of elements in the clause is different: although the English line starts, just like the original, with the adverbial of place, the translator introduces some changes by placing the prepositional phrase “for me” almost in front position for emphasis, and by placing “dear” at the end; the re-positioning of elements is one of the options available in order to render the emphasis on pronouns present in the original since English does not possess the binary set of stressed vs. unstressed pronoun forms.

The students, guided by the teacher all throughout their analysis, can observe that, despite the departures from formal correspondence, which result in a lower degree of syntagmatic or syntactic equivalence, there are other types of equivalence that can be detected by comparing the two texts, for example the semantic and stylistic types. This enables the translator to produce a similar effect on the target text readers to that produced on the original readers. This type of equivalence is considered to be the most important one in translating poetry since the quality of a poem may be judged according to the intensity of the readers’ response. The students can draw their own conclusions as regards the similarity of effect, the linguistic and cultural differences distinguished during the process of analysis, thus acting as mediators between cultures, together with the translator and the teacher alike.

1. BASSNETT, Susan (ed.), Translation Studies, Third Edition, Routledge, Taylor&Francis Group, London and New York, 2005.
2. CROITORU, Elena (coord.), English Through Translation: Interpretation and Translations–Oriented Text Analysis, Editura Universităţii ,,Dunărea de Jos” din Galaţi, 2004.
3. EMINESCU, Mihai, Poezii, Editura Tineretului, Bucureşti, 1967.
4. MUNDAY, Jeremy, Introducing Translation Studies. Theories and Applications, Third Edition, Routledge, Taylor&Francis Group, London and New York, 2012.


prof. Lenuța Puiu

Liceul Tehnologic Anghel Saligny, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/lenuta.puiu

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