notes about poetry

Looking back through old notebooks at the weekend, I found some notes I must have made after talking to Joan Margarit back in 2002, I think. The conversation was in Spanish, and the notes (made later in English) are my personal interpretation of what he was trying to say.

There were two points about translation that I hadn’t remembered:

Form, metre, rhyme etc. are superficial elements of a poem. What gets translated is something more essential.


(Re-reading that, I wonder whether the original talked of ‘essential’ or ‘essence’.)

If a poem can’t be translated, maybe it’s because it doesn’t say anything in the original.

Taking the two together, I think we can infer a criticism of poems that rely solely on technique.

Sometimes a piece doesn’t seem to warrant the word ‘poetry’ although, superficially, that’s what it is. I’ve written sonnets, for example, that obey the rules and yet don’t seem to be more than doggerel or elegant word games.

Maybe what’s lacking is the poetic ‘essence’. And maybe that’s what the translator should look for first and try and identify clearly, so that it doesn’t get forgotten in the search for rhyming words or other poetic ‘accidents’ of form.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

14 thoughts on “notes about poetry”

  1. Surprise, surprise: I disagree!

    Form, metre, rhyme etc. are superficial elements of a poem. What gets translated is something more essential.

    It may be necessary to transform the form, metre and rhyme in order to give some idea of their effect in the original, but to regard such aspects of a poem as non-essential is to reduce the poem to the level of prose.

    If a poem can’t be translated, maybe it’s because it doesn’t say anything in the original.

    Why should a poem “say” anything? A poem is something that is, not (except non-essentially) something that does.

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      1. How did you manage to write a reply without reading the post???
        (Well, the stats page says you didn’t read it.)

        Perhaps I’m omniscient as well as omnipresent?

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    1. Form, metre, rhyme etc. are superficial elements of a poem. What gets translated is something more essential.

      It may be necessary to transform the form, metre and rhyme in order to give some idea of their effect in the original, but to regard such aspects of a poem as non-essential is to reduce the poem to the level of prose.

      ‘superficial’ isn’t non-essential.

      Of course we try and find the right poetic techniques to make the poem work in the language in which we write it, but that may not be the way it should be translated.

      Rhyme is fundamental to Spanish poetry (yep, a generalisation) but if you translate a romantic rhyming poem from Spanish to English in any kind of literal manner, you may well end up with a Hallmark verse – all moon & June and heart & soul.

      Sadly, most readers think that if the original is (e.g.) a sonnet, so should the translation be, despite the fact that sonnets have a very different cultural connotation in different languages.

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      1. Sadly, most readers think that if the original is (e.g.) a sonnet, so should the translation be, despite the fact that sonnets have a very different cultural connotation in different languages.

        In approximate order of their invention, there are Sicilian sonnets (hendecasyllabic ABABABAB CDCDCD and variants), Tuscan sonnets (hendecasyllabic ABBAABBA CDCCDC and variants), English sonnets (iambic ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and variants) and French sonnets (alexandrine ABBA ABBA CCD EED and variants). Oh, and Robert Frost’s experiments with terza rima may have produced distinctively American sonnets (ABA CBC DCD EDE FF).

        Ought we perhaps, when translating a French sonnet into American or vice versa, to translate the form too? And what do we do as translators when a French author (such as Mallarmé) deliberately uses elements of a “foreign” form? (See “Feuillet d’album” for an example of a tetrameter sonnet written in French that uses the “English” rhyme scheme.)

        It’s complicated. Fortunately, complicated things are interesting.

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      2. Ought we perhaps, when translating a French sonnet into American or vice versa, to translate the form too?

        As a matter of interest, what do you think should be done when translating Shakespeare in to (e.g.) Spanish now? Should the translator try and use the style of the Spanish writers of the Golden Age? (A style which is, presumably, as hermetic and incomprehensible to modern Spanish children as Shakespeare is to modern British brats.) Or should the translation include modernisation? And if it does, can it be considered a translation or is it a transformation?

        Of course, if we suggest that the Spanish might be allowed to enjoy modernised Shakespeare, the question is raised whether we should modernise the works in English, too.

        Like you said, “It’s complicated.”

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  2. Oooops! Geeez! What stats are these that tell you whether people read your text?!

    Great poetry does not translate, and some of the greatest prose doesn’t either.

    “…………y bajo las arcadas
    de piedra ensombrecerse las agujas plateadas
    del Duero.

    El Duero cruza el corazòn de roble
    de Iberia y de Castilla.

    ¡Oh tierra triste y noble,
    la de los altos llanos y yermos y roquedas,
    de campos sin arados, regatos ni arboledas;
    decrépitas ciudades, caminos sin mesones
    y atònitos palurdos sin danzas ni canciones
    …………”

    No way, even if it were only for that drum beat rhyme of “roble” and “noble”.

    It was Goethe who said that whatever is inside, that is also outside, meaning that form is essence. Voilà tout.

    But in case that is hard to get, just let’s all sit down and consider new ways of translating “Caminante, no hay camino”: try walker, pedestrian :-D, traveler and tourist; “sleepwalker” would be pretty good in the larger context of things where Machado often said we never wake up y la vida es un sueño etc….

    However, I read Sophokles thanks to Hölderlin, and I once “stumbled upon” great Shakespeare texts in Spanish just when I was looking for examples to show that Shakespeare cannot be translated.

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    1. ‘Caminante’ could well be ‘Traveller’, but none of the English words have a usefully close noun.
      “Traveller there is no pre-trod trail” just doesn’t have the same ring to it!

      “Verde, que te quiero verde” has always struck me as one of the most difficult phrases.

      But the fact translation is often pretty much impossible won’t stop some of us from trying.

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  3. Goethe said that if he did write a sonnet, it would anyway end up looking as if in the end he had had to use a little glue to make it stick.
    This is very loosely quoted from memory.

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  4. By mistake I landed here first as “Joxe82”, but that blog is to try out things. The red giraffe is my real avatar.that represents two blogs, one called “fishing” and the other “shoptalk”, and the second one is, hmmmm, bilingual.

    I am from Switzerland and more or less lost my German to learn English to get a degree as a translator, but was partly brought up in French and came to Spain just to learn Spanish and stayed on.

    So now, as you might guess or already have seen, I am no longer sure footed in any language, very slow, very careful, too.

    As to poetry, I really know only Machado and a few things by Alberti plus one or two of Lorca’s plays.

    I would have thought that sonnets always owe more to the artisan and his craft than to their theme.

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    1. Ah, the problems of multiple personalities on the web!
      I wondered about your mother tongue, although I know plenty of native speakers who can’t express themselves as well as you can in English or Spanish.

      Sometimes I fear I will become non-lingual rather than bi-lingual, but the advantage of feeling detached from the language may be that you can see it objectively, which I think may be interesting from the point of view of a writer: instead of writing without thinking, you can try and step away and use strange/new juxtapositions and combinations.

      A second language provides an insight that a mono-linguist doesn’t usually get. LIke the day I realised that ‘black sheep’ was quite simply oveja negra: it gave me a feeling of having discovered the English expression for the first time!

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  5. As to writing without (apparently) reading:

    At the end of the day you see something, take a copy, read it later on your laptop and answer it there and, later again, copy that answer “to” or “onto” the comment section of the place where you had seen something….

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