A Pet Theory of Poetic Translation
Updated: Nov 6
The following text was adapted from pieces of an academic essay I wrote on the translation of the Old-English text, 'The Battle of Maldon.' In it I tried to develop a personal terminology for the description of strategies to translate poetic elements. The terminology in question was developed solely independently from any pre-existing academic work on the topic. Any similarities with other academic works on the topic are purely incidental.
The choice to use my own terminology and designations for the relevant translation strategies instead of adopting strategies as they are mentioned in secondary sources was primarily motivated by two factors. Firstly, the abundance of divergent and contradictory strategies and methods of translation both in academic literature in and outside of the discipline of Translation Studies and secondly the fact that I am mainly concerned with the ‘translation’ of poetic aspects, which does not always relate to translation as it is defined in most academic literature.
The inextricable link between meaning and form that is commonly seen as the bedrock of what is and is not considered poetry can create considerable challenges for any translator who desires not only to accurately translate the meaning of a poetic text, but also wishes to translate or transfer its usage of poetic language. In the translation of poetic language there are many aspects to consider: word order, line breaks, metre, (language or genre specific) phraseology, lexicon, imagery and so forth. Furthermore, as one considers each aspect and weighs it against the other aspects and against the degree of literal accuracy to which one desires to translate the content of the text, various strategies can also be followed to various degrees for the translation of each (poetic) aspect.
I identified the following common translation strategies: approximation, substitution, compensation, omission and addition. I imagine these strategies not as strictly separated categories but as the demarcations of a spectrum of translation that exists between the translator’s intent and execution to recreate/reconstruct a pre-existing text in a new linguistic (and often cultural) context and to create an original piece that can stand on its own.
I would define approximation as the attempt to preserve the poetic aspect as it is appears in the source language as authentically as possible in translation; an example of this strategy would be if an epic poem written in Ancient Greek featured the dactylic hexameter in the source language and the translator chose to use the same metric system in the target language.
Substitution is the attempt to translate a poetic aspect of the source language not in a literal or exact fashion, but instead by using a substitute that could be argued to be its equivalent in the target language, for example if the translator of the aforementioned unspecified epic poem decided to use the iambic pentameter in his/her translation into English, because of this metre’s connection to the tradition of narrative or epic poetry in English.
Compensation could be defined as the attempt to compensate for not strictly including a poetic aspect in one’s translation by adding elements that are only indirectly evocative or referential to the aspect in question, but do not aim to replicate or reflect the original form that this aspect took in the source language, i.e. original inventions, expansions and elaborations that bear no direct resemblance to anything in the source language, but are artistic liberties taken by the translator to compensate for any aspects that were lost in translation or simply to expand on the original text where the translator’s sensibilities feel it is needed or desirable. This would be the case if a translator did not attempt to approximate the dactylic hexameter of Ancient Greek epic poetry in his/her English translation, nor chose to use an appropriate substitute, but chose instead to loosely evoke the rhythm of the original source language (either in every verse or only in certain verses where the rhythm is of particular importance or prominence) while writing in free verse and consequently not adhering to any metrical system.
Compensation can also be done across different aspects, an example of this would be if the omission of the metrical aspect was compensated for by the inclusion of rhyme schemes or aesthetic additions that were not present in the source text, for example when contemporary translators opt to disregard metre or rhyme in favour of free verse with more elaborate imagery and opulent phraseology than the original text as an attempt to both compensate for the omission and adapt the poetic aspect to modern sensibilities. Of course, when compensation is done across poetic aspects in certain cases it becomes difficult to distinguish from omission or addition, as it becomes harder to observe the exact degree to which a poetic addition was made to compensate for an alteration or as an addition for its own sake.
Omission can easily be defined as the complete omission of a certain poetic aspect that is present in the source language in its translation to a target language without any attempt to either substitute or compensate for this loss. When applied to the example that I have been using, this would result in an English translation of an Ancient Greek epic poem that does not incorporate nor acknowledge (neither directly nor indirectly) any of the metrical features of the
original nor compensate for their absence with the inclusion of aesthetic additions, e.g. a prosaic translation that seemingly has no attention to rhythm nor attempts to add any original poetic flourishes to make up for its omissions.
Addition can be seen as a different side of the same strategy that includes omission. Where the latter implies the erasure of textual elements without substitution or compensation, the former adds new elements that have no textual precedent. Both terms are linked to the same intent and execution that prioritises the artistic and creative function of the translator. As with omission, it can become difficult to distinguish admission from other strategies such as substitution or compensation depending on ‘how new’ the additions are perceived to be by both the translator him/herself or by the reader. What separates the additions from the expansions in my opinion is the level of dissonance that can be observed between the original and the translation. If a translator uses more or different words to say the same thing as his source, then I believe this should fall under compensation or substitution. However, if a translator adds entire segments that are not found in the original text, nor are hinted at by historical or cultural context, then I would classify this as addition. Examples of pure additions are not exactly common since most new elements in translations have some link to what is written in the original and are mostly there as elaboration or expansion. However, clear examples of pure admission can still be found in some translations of fragmentary texts, whereby the translators in question chooses to fill in missing words, sentences or even paragraphs.