Translating poetry: how can meaning be preserved?

I’m so enamored with Sebald that I got a book of his poetry, Across the Land and the Water (from the library, just in case it turns out I’m not a poetry kind of guy.) I’ve not read much of any poetry, by anyone,  but Sebald’s writing is just so damn poetic anyway, I figured if I was going to like poetry by anyone it would probably be him.

Before I started reading the poems, though, there was an introduction by the translator about the origins of the poems and the process of translating them, and I thought, oh yeah… Sebald wrote in German. This isn’t something I thought much about while reading his books, but when I think about reading poems that were originally written in another language, it seems to me somehow… impossible that they could be faithfully preserved, even if he had still been alive when they were translated.

A novel (or whatever you want to call Sebald’s books) has so much text in it, that it seems far more likely that a translation will preserve the tone, intent, and message of the author. But some of the poems in this collection are only a couple dozen words long. Here is one example, the first poem in the book:

For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.

I love this. It had a memorable effect on me when I first read it (just a couple days ago in the library.) I imagined myself on a train looking out at the passing landscape, then suddenly, with the final line of the poem, things have reversed and it is the landscape that is watching me. The train vanishes into the distance, with me still aboard, and only the landscape is left, mute and timeless. I had visualized, for some reason, snow-dusted pine trees and a frozen lake, and I felt a moment of isolation and quiet stillness.

But what was this poem like in the original German? Did the original have the same number of syllables per line? The same spare writing style? The same pace and number of words? Do any of these things matter? How did the translator decide to use ‘understand’ instead of ‘know’ or ‘comprehend’? Why ‘hard’ instead of ‘difficult,’ why ‘mutely’ instead of ‘silently’ or ‘quietly’? How many different ways could one write the above six lines, and at what point is it no longer the same poem, and only an ‘inspired by the original’?

Of course, one could ask these same questions of any translated work. But it seems much more impactful when the piece you are translating is so very short.

Regardless, I am enjoying the collection. Knowing it’s translated has only added an overlay of curiosity, rather than ruin anything for me. Sebald is fast becoming one of my favorite writers, and may even climb up past Nabokov on whatever internal literature ladder I keep in my head. Highly recommend reading anything by him!



3 Replies to “Translating poetry: how can meaning be preserved?”

  1. Translation, especially of poetry, more than perhaps anything else, is such a challenge. I’ve tried to translate a few little things from German to English at times, and it’s a balancing act of trying to match style and tone in the target language with trying to match grammar and literal interpretations. As a former German instructor, I tip a bit more towards the second.

    If you are a fan of Hesse at all, I recently wrote a post where I attempted a translation of one of his poems after stumbling across it in a song. The final line of the thing, while seemingly simple, was the absolute hardest for me to translate. How does one handle “gesunde” in the sense that it’s used there? I’ve even included links to Hesse reading it! Anyway, have a look:

    1. That is very cool, I never knew you were a teacher! I’ve been teaching myself Spanish, and my bar for ‘success’ is when I can read Borges in the original. Even then, though, can I really know the differences from the two versions unless I grew up speaking the original language, and am infused with it so to speak? Interesting to think about.

      1. What can I say? I’ve had a bit of an odd life story and have meandered through some different things. We should chat about yours and mine at some point. 🙂

        That’s a good question. I think that it depends. I definitely get a sense of nuance and feel from my time having learned German, but I do think that there are levels of nuance that I don’t have, having learned German very late and not as thoroughly as my perfectionist standards would like. There’s always something to be lost in translation, even in ones own head. Then again, some more skeptical philosophy of language arguments would claim that there are valences of meaning that aren’t communicable between conversation partners even speaking the same language, and at times, in some conversations, I get the sense that my feeling for certain words is different than those with whom I converse, and sometimes, this leads to its own difficulties of connection and understanding.

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