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Translation of Poetry & Song Lyrics - mission impossible?
Thread poster: Jack Doughty

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:09
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Sep 18, 2001

A discussion developed in the KudoZ questions, Russian-English, under the heading Âîëîãäà (Vologda) about the problems of translating poetry and song lyrics. The view was expressed that a source language translator could not express the nuances of the target language properly, and a target language translator could not comprehend the spirit of the original sufficiently well - in fact, Mission Impossible!

There is some truth in this but it should not be taken to mean that it is never worth making the effort.

Has anyone any views to express on this subject?



_________________



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Maya Jurt  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 12:09
Member (2002)
French to German
+ ...
Mother tongue vs. multicultural background Oct 3, 2001

Spielbälle ihrer Leidenschaften,

als deren hehrste mich der Trieb dünkt,

müssen sie zwiespältig sein,

wie das Wollen der Natur selbst



Tossed like a toy by their passions,

whose most sublime is desire,

or so it seems to me,

they are men/women of contradictions,

as is nature\'s wish itself.



A short poetic sentence translated from German into English. The tongue of my mother is German, but my background is multicultural.



It is the eternal question you ask yourself when you read \"only native speakers need apply\".



If you studied the Russian language not only through radio broadcast, but have looked for the Russian soul, then you can adapt it. A translation alone for literature and poetry cannot stand on its own. You need to adapt it. To get the gist of it, you probably need a poetic streak yourself.

Greetings

Maya


[addsig]


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athena22  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:09
Member
English
+ ...
Not quite a Mission Impossible, but very demanding Oct 3, 2001

I\'m a musician (opera singer), and bilingual on my good days () in French and English. I\'ve been translating lyrics in 5 or 6 languages for many years. I think that it is much more important that the target language be one\'s mother tongue, as in most translating, and also that one\'s writing skills and \"comperative literature skills,\" so to speak, be excellent. Then one needs to be able to get into the flavor of the poetry and lyrics, which takes longer and requires more \"stewing over\" than a prose translation, I think. But it can be done; it just takes some extra sensitivity!



Of course, a singing translation is also different from a translation for meaning, which is also different from a \"poetic\" translation i.e., from poetry into poetry, in which the translator had best be somewhat of a poet him or herself. Both Vikram Seth and Stephen Mitchell do an excellent job of straight poetry translations, and there are other writers who have published excellent translations of song lyrics for meaning. But this is just my opinion, one singer/translator\'s worm\'s eye view.


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GoodWords  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 05:09
Member (2003)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Le Ton beau de Marot Oct 5, 2001

A great deal of what could be said on this subject has already been written by Prof. Douglas R. Hofstadter in his book \"Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language\". This book, UNLIKE the poem which forms the core around which this fascinating and far-reaching book is crystallized, is *untranslatable*. (In spite of the title, the book is in English.) I highly reccommend this book to all translators; an essential textbook in the Translation School of Life.

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jgal  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:09
French to English
+ ...
a question of character Oct 5, 2001

some people are not literary-minded, no matter what their language ability. To undertake this type of work in the first place, one has to have a certain flair for (and interest in) literature/poetry.



The original argument given is probably only true for \'acquired bilinguals\' (there was another thread, I think, somewhere, on how one should define \'bilingual\'), but personally, although I am one of the lucky \'true\' bilinguals, I still find I have certain aptitudes in certain language combinations...



In other words, there are certain fields in which I will only translate in one direction and other fields where I am most comfortable in the other direction.



Literary translation - and in particular poetry/lyrics - is a very specialised field and only people with a real feel for it are likely to succeed.


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Bilingualduo  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 12:09
English to Italian
+ ...
mission impossible indeed! Oct 10, 2001

Not only is the subject very demanding, it\'s definetely impossible.

I see words on the page and they convey a meaning, of course, but they also bring a sound and that sound has a meaning of its own.

Poets also look for pattern of sounds, if we change their words, we change their poetry too.

Therefore I really think that it is impossible to get to the core of a poetry; we can translate words and concepts, but we cannot translate the pattern of sound.

Personal opinion, of course.



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Bilingualduo  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 12:09
English to Italian
+ ...
oops, sorry Oct 11, 2001

To be read:

\'Poets also look for patterns of sound\'.

\'it is impossible to get to the core of a poem\'

More speed, less haste.


[addsig]


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Xiaoping Fu  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 03:09
Chinese to English
+ ...
It is impossible, but still worth trying. Oct 19, 2001

The impossibility of translation of poetry is not existing in the difficulty of mastering both languages at a very high level. It is hard, but not impossible. I agree with jocca: \"we can translate words and concepts, but we cannot translate the pattern of sound.\" No matter how exellent we could be, we cannot do it at the very core of poems.



The sound pattern is more like music. We have experienced difficulties in understaning music of other nations, because different patterns of sound have been used by different peoples to express same feelings and other cultural meanings, not mention the fact that every nation has unique cultural meanings which cannot be fond in other nations. We don\'t translate music simply because it is totally impossible. There is nothing other than patterns of sounds in music. It is also because music is much easier to adept to, that is, to learn.



I am a Chinese native speaker. China has a great heritage of poetry. Efforts have been taken to translate some most important classical Chinese poems into other languages, because we love them so much. We want to share them with other peoples so much. But it is really a mission impossible. You have to learn Chinese language, not only the speechs, but also the characters, to enjoy classical Chinese poems. Because of the fact that Chinese is one of the most difficult language to learn as second language, I am afriad that classical Chinese poetry is basically unknown to the West World. It is sad, but it is true.



Look at the following lines: ( It doesn\'t matter if they show up in your browser properly. You can see the pattern anyway.)



·ãÇÅÒ¹²´ £­£­ÕżÌ



ÔÂÂäÎÚÌä˪ÂúÌ죬

½­·ãÓæ»ð¶Ô³îÃß¡£

¹ÃËÕ³ÇÍ⺮ɽË£¬

Ò¹°ëÖÓÉùµ½¿Í´¬¡£



The first line is the title and author\'s name. The body of the poem is a 7 X 4 array of characters. As many people know, each chinese character has its fixed tone and there are 4-8 tones depending on different dialects and times. And more importantly, each position in the array has to be filled with a character in certain tone and thus to form a fixed pattern of tones which is extramly important for classical Chinese poetry. Can any body translate this pattern into any other language? No way.



Even the appearance of characters matters. Chinese poems are not only for reading and listening, they are also for hand-writing by calligraphers and posting on walls for people to look at. This feature is even more impossible for translators to conserve.



Why we keep trying to translate poems if it is literally impossible? I would say, it is like opening doors and windows of a restaurant to attract people to come in for the foods. Translation is the smell coming from the windows, and orininal poems are the real foods.


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Berni Armstrong  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:09
Member
English
+ ...
With hard work.... Nothing is impossible! Oct 23, 2001

I spoke on translating lyrics at the Proz.Com Conference in Italy.



Basically I argued that not every translator can do this without honing certain skills. Those are basically songwriting skills!



I argued that if you develop songwriting skills in your own language then you can apply these to producing a singable version of the original that is as faithful as you can make it to the original lyrics AND still manages to master the rhythms of your target language when sung.



Of course, I also mentioned the extremes where the original is thrown out of the window... like the seventies popular English version of \"Viva España\" the lyrics of which had nothing whatsoever to do with the original praise for the uniqueness of the nation... a literal version of which incidentally, would have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon with a foreign audience at a time when nationalism was not cool. Sometimes being faitful to the original can lead to producing nonesense in the target language... and is that then really being faithful?



So, my point? Wanna do it? Get down to it in your own language first and then when you feel confident, have a go. Songwriting is a craft that can be learned and honed...



Berni



PS You can judge my songwriting skills by visiting:



http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/72/berni_armstrong.html



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Gilbert Ashley
English to Spanish
+ ...
Nothing is Impossible Dec 21, 2001

I think literary translation is obviously the most delicate and highly-nuanced of all translation challenges. Translating poetry is even harder if you try to meet the goal of respecting the meter and rhyme. And translating songs is even more difficult as it still must be singable and have near-perfect phraseology.

The problem with Chinese poetry would seem to be the same as with song translation- carrying forward all the cultural significance, the meter, rhyme AND tone.

This is certainly no area for the weak at heart!

Some songs and poems translate fairly easily and others are near impossible. I\'ve always admired lyricists who write to record in two languages such as Gloria Estefan.

I think this whole area really deals with what is called interpretation instead of translation. Could there ever be a computer program that could translate a poem or song?

Not in our lifetime! Luckily, this should mean continued demand for literary interpreters.

I agree that one must BE a poet to translate poetry and one must BE a songwriter to even think of translating a song. We surely are of a very rare breed and don\'t forget it! And don\'t give up on that \'tough one\'. Sometimes it takes a very lot of investigation into the culture or the intended meaning of the author in order to get it right. But we\'ll sooner reach world peace this way than through translations of legalese!


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Lester  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:09
Member
Portuguese to English
+ ...
When it works, it is like magic. Dec 31, 2001

I was lucky enough to be invited to a panel discussion on literary translation in which a father-daughter team presented and discussed their work.



She was the writer. The poet. He was the translator. Their personal connection influenced greatly the outcome of their collaboration. Listening to them was inspiring on both personal and professional levels, but what impressed me the most was their approach to translating poetry.



The daughter gave her father freedom to be creative in his work, and he took it to the point where one could not tell which was the original work, which the translation. And, she revealed, at times his translations spoke more to her than her own original words.



Wish I had a recording of that session...



on the other hand ...



I read a translation of Isabel Allende\'s \"Daughter of Fortune\" and it was so badly done, I had to put the book down many times out of frustration. Allende\'s style was lost, the poetry of the Spanish language was lost, there was no consistency in language-era relationship. . . Could I have done it better? NO WAY! But as a reader I have expectations and as a professional I have the bad habit of dissecting what I read.



I have been a translator since 1980. Never tried my hand on literature for sheer fear of failure. And the more translated works I read, the more fearful I become.





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alitalia
United States
Local time: 06:09
Italian to English
+ ...
not always the translator's fault May 6, 2002

Quote:


On 2001-12-31 14:06, Lester wrote:

I was lucky enough to be invited to a panel discussion on literary translation in which a father-daughter team presented and discussed their work.



She was the writer. The poet. He was the translator. Their personal connection influenced greatly the outcome of their collaboration. Listening to them was inspiring on both personal and professional levels, but what impressed me the most was their approach to translating poetry.



The daughter gave her father freedom to be creative in his work, and he took it to the point where one could not tell which was the original work, which the translation. And, she revealed, at times his translations spoke more to her than her own original words.



Wish I had a recording of that session...



on the other hand ...



I read a translation of Isabel Allende\'s \"Daughter of Fortune\" and it was so badly done, I had to put the book down many times out of frustration. Allende\'s style was lost, the poetry of the Spanish language was lost, there was no consistency in language-era relationship. . . Could I have done it better? NO WAY! But as a reader I have expectations and as a professional I have the bad habit of dissecting what I read.



I have been a translator since 1980. Never tried my hand on literature for sheer fear of failure. And the more translated works I read, the more fearful I become.





Some translators are better than others to be sure, but editors must sometimes share the blame for poor translations. There are editors (familiar only with the target language) who butcher with their pens. If I were you, I would try translating something I love. The experience is overwhelming. Patrizia

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Sylvia Valls  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:09
French to English
+ ...
´Tis the music, Bilingualduo, that come first... May 17, 2002

Quote:


On 2001-10-10 04:42, Bilingualduo wrote:

Not only is the subject very demanding, it\'s definetely impossible.

I see words on the page and they convey a meaning, of course, but they also bring a sound and that sound has a meaning of its own.

Poets also look for pattern of sounds, if we change their words, we change their poetry too.

Therefore I really think that it is impossible to get to the core of a poetry; we can translate words and concepts, but we cannot translate the pattern of sound.

Personal opinion, of course.



Hi, Bilingualduo, from my now quite ´´ancient´´ experience, you start with the first phrase, evoking the music...thats where the choice of words comes in...ánd it´s amazing how many combinations are possible to render the same idea in the same metrics as the original...as long as the choice of words is good, there are many tricks to getting them to fit the metrics...and, of course, one must be as flexible with the words as inflexible with meter. Some poems I would never attempt. It´s that first line that gets you going...you don´t search for it, it simply finds you. The rest is ´´pan comido´´...it rolls like soft butter on your toast!

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Sylvia Valls  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:09
French to English
+ ...
If nothing is impossible how do you translate Le Ton Beau de Marot? May 17, 2002

Quote:


On 2001-12-21 19:20, gnashley wrote:

I think literary translation is obviously the most delicate and highly-nuanced of all translation challenges. Translating poetry is even harder if you try to meet the goal of respecting the meter and rhyme. And translating songs is even more difficult as it still must be singable and have near-perfect phraseology.

The problem with Chinese poetry would seem to be the same as with song translation- carrying forward all the cultural significance, the meter, rhyme AND tone.

This is certainly no area for the weak at heart!

Some songs and poems translate fairly easily and others are near impossible. I\'ve always admired lyricists who write to record in two languages such as Gloria Estefan.

I think this whole area really deals with what is called interpretation instead of translation. Could there ever be a computer program that could translate a poem or song?

Not in our lifetime! Luckily, this should mean continued demand for literary interpreters.

I agree that one must BE a poet to translate poetry and one must BE a songwriter to even think of translating a song. We surely are of a very rare breed and don\'t forget it! And don\'t give up on that \'tough one\'. Sometimes it takes a very lot of investigation into the culture or the intended meaning of the author in order to get it right. But we\'ll sooner reach world peace this way than through translations of legalese!

Le Ton Beau de Marot, could well be translated: Marot´s Beautiful Tone...but how do you inject into that line, or any other one meaning the same, that subliminal inuendo of death where only a slight change of accent transforms the meaning to the ear so and, what we´re very nearly hearing is, Le Tombeau de Marot? Marot´s tomb!

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Sylvia Valls  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:09
French to English
+ ...
May 17, 2002

Quote:


On 2002-05-17 18:37, Dr. SM Valls wrote:

Quote:


On 2001-12-21 19:20, gnashley wrote:

I think literary translation is obviously the most delicate and highly-nuanced of all translation challenges. Translating poetry is even harder if you try to meet the goal of respecting the meter and rhyme. And translating songs is even more difficult as it still must be singable and have near-perfect phraseology.

The problem with Chinese poetry would seem to be the same as with song translation- carrying forward all the cultural significance, the meter, rhyme AND tone.

This is certainly no area for the weak at heart!

Some songs and poems translate fairly easily and others are near impossible. I\'ve always admired lyricists who write to record in two languages such as Gloria Estefan.

I think this whole area really deals with what is called interpretation instead of translation. Could there ever be a computer program that could translate a poem or song?

Not in our lifetime! Luckily, this should mean continued demand for literary interpreters.

I agree that one must BE a poet to translate poetry and one must BE a songwriter to even think of translating a song. We surely are of a very rare breed and don\'t forget it! And don\'t give up on that \'tough one\'. Sometimes it takes a very lot of investigation into the culture or the intended meaning of the author in order to get it right. But we\'ll sooner reach world peace this way than through translations of legalese!

Le Ton Beau de Marot, could well be translated: Marot´s Beautiful Tone...but how do you inject into that line, or any other one meaning the same, that subliminal inuendo of death where only a slight change of accent transforms the meaning to the ear so and, what we´re very nearly hearing is, Le Tombeau de Marot? Marot´s tomb!

This posting has appeared under the wrong quote...I was answering specifically the notion that ´´nothing is impossible´´´...

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