Here we have poetry translation from the "try as little as possible" school, and there is no doubt that this can produce enjoyable doggerel. There is another school though. A school that dares to Try Harder.

Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot describes and provides samples for four different English translations of the Russian verse novel, Eugene Onegin. And a friend of DRH and native speaker of Russian had this to say about one of them:

        Of course Falen's is the best, hands down!
        when I looked at the translation samples, it
        caught my eye at once, and -- oh, miracle! --
        The Russian verse popped up in my head!  It's
        just perfect.  The very same playful spirit.

And here's a small sample:

Was this the Tanya he once scolded
In that forsaken, distant place
Where first our novel's plot unfolded?
The one to whom, when face to face
In such a burst of moral fire,
He'd lectured gravely on desire?
The girl whose letter he still kept --
In which a maiden heart had wept;
Where all was shown . . . all unprotected?
Was this that girl . . . or did he dream?
That little girl whose warm esteem
And humble lot he'd once rejected? . . .
And could she now have been so bold,
So unconcerned with him . . . so cold?

How's that for a translation of poetry? Most people can't write it that well the first time around.

Of course in order to be able to translate so well, to "try harder", it's pretty much mandatory that you be fluent in both languages involved... (I guess that puts me squarely in the Babelfish school too. Though, a parody is in some ways like a translation, and I like to think I can "try harder" in that realm on occassion.)

This is a haiku
I translated it from Spanish
Oh crap

[Note: I didn't write this.  It's from a Metafilter thread on translating poetry, and I think it's wonderfully appropriate here.  The poster's name is whatnotever.  If that's you, and you want me to take this down, dash me a /msg.  I'll throw in a very contrite apology for no charge.  Thanks.]

Translating poetry is difficult for a number of reasons. There are a few different threads which, when you translate, you take in one hand and try to master simultaneously. First, there is meaning. Yes, attempts at literal translation of the entire work may be futile, but some words, some phrases, are so rich in meaning, and so precise in expressing that meaning, that we feel that none of it should be lost by translation. Take Kavanagh’s “the spirit-shocking wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill”, or Severyanin’s “вхожу в столичную тоску”, for example. Faced with words so rich in meaning and weighty with expression, we have two choices: try to squeeze the meaning out of each word and assemble the results; or sidestep them with a metaphor. Severyanin’s words above, for example, I have translated as “I melt into the madding crowd”, which dispenses, unfortunately, with the aches and pangs of suffering in the Russian "тоска", now merely fossilised in the English ‘madding’.

That is, probably, but one aspect of “meaning”. In general, however, one can say that here, as everywhere in translation, sacrifices must be made, but, as opposed to non-fiction, meaning is oftener sacrificed to style, and not the other way round.

Next, problems arise with rhyme and metre. With rhyme we must make a basic decision: whether the translation should rhyme. A positive answer complicates things, but does give us a framework within which to work, and, in a way, a guide. This choice may be influenced by the presence of rhyme in the original.

Regardless of whether our translation rhymes, some sort of internal rhythm is likely to prevail. The reproduction of this or a similar rhythm in the translation is determined by our choice of sounds, both vowel and consonantal, and of words with the necessary stress.

Even, taking just ‘meaning’, ‘rhyme’ and ‘rhythm’ – and the problems of translating poetry don’t end there – we can see that the essence of translating poetry lies in the successful mastery of all of these: having found an exact word for "стрёмный" in English, we must make it fit both the rhyme and rhythm, as well as, if all goes well, achieving the elusive aim of having the translation “sound” and produce the same effect as it would in the original.

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