Translating poetry is nearly impossible; you can retain something of the literal meaning, but the music and nuances of the original language are, by definition, not portable to other languages. As an example, take this straight translation of one stanza of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from the original Persian:

Everywhere that there has been a rose or tulip-bed, It has come from the redness of the blood of a king; Every violet shoot that grows from the earth Is a mole that was once on the cheek of a beauty.

Try reading that aloud, and you’ll experience the poetic equivalent of a rotting melon hitting the sidewalk. With translations like this, it’s no wonder Khayyám was ignored for centuries by English-speaking audiences.

The best that can be done is for someone with a poetic ear to take up the translation as raw material and reform it completely, using the music of the new host language. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald did for the lines above:

I sometimes think that never blows so red, The Rose, as where some buried Caesar bled; That every Hyacinth the Garden wears Dropt in her Lap from some once-lovely Head.

As poetry, this was and is a huge success, despite being something of a travesty as a translation. Fitzgerald summed up his own approach in few words: “Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.”1 The new poem is much less Khayyám and more “Fitzgerald, inspired by Khayyám”. He has drawn criticism for inserting so much of his own creation into his “translation”, but I much prefer that poetry be poetry; it cannot be the same poetry it was in the original, so let it be changed into a new thing that can still live.

From the little I have seen, I have hopes that J. R. R. Tolkien’s soon-to-be published translation of Beowulf may do the same thing for the Old English poem that Fitzgerald did for the Persian. For example, here’s Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation:

Fyrst forð gewát flota wæs on ýðum bát under beorg beornas gearwe on stefn stigon -- stréamas wundon, Time went by, the boat was on water, in close under the cliffs. Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank, sand churned in surf…

Tolkien does something much better with his version:

On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft. Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.

How much of this is Tolkien and how much is the original? At the time of this writing, we don’t have much to go off of2, and I know very little Old English, so I could be mistaken; but if Tolkien can look at, for example, “stréamas wundon” and derive, in English, the music of “breakers pounding ground the shingle”, it seems reasonable to hope that the rest of the thing will be real English poetry: that is, a living sparrow rather than a stuffed eagle.

Further notes to this page will focus on other examples of translated poetry (what about the German hymns? what about Dante?), as well as more thoughts links about Tolkien’s translation once it is released next week.

  1. Letter to E. B. Cowell, Apr 27, 1859

  2. These lines are about half of the excerpt that is currently all we have to go on: a few lines Tolkien included in an introductory chapter to a 1940 edition of John R. Clark Hall’s Beowulf translation. (Notably, Hall, too, took the poetic approach to translation we are advocating here, and was criticized for it.)

May 26, 2014 — Well, the book was released last Thursday, and I’m still reading through it and enjoying it, but one thing is clear: the translation is absolutely not the “real English poetry” for which I had hoped. Tolkien’s translation is completely prosaic.

In an early draft of the above post, I wrote of my hope that “while Tolkien’s linguistic horse may pulling the wagon, his poetic instincts are holding the reins”, and I was led to this hope by the early sample mentioned. The now-released translation, however, is a thoroughly linguistic endeavour from cart to horse. Tolkien simply wanted to render the literal meaning of the original as accurately as possible in modern English. Much of the original’s rhythm and majesty is carried through due to this approach, but the result is not poetic.

When Tolkien wrote the small excerpt above published in 1940, he was engaged in a poetic exercise. It was appropriate to the book to which he was contributing at the time, but, as it turns out, it was no indicator about the approach he was taking with his own complete translation. Christopher Tolkien addresses this in the Introduction:

Abandoning his fragmentary work on a fully alliterative translation of Beowulf, imitating the regularities of the old poetry, my father, as it seems to me, determined to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem, far closer than could ever be attained by transliteration into ‘alliterative verse’, but nonetheless with some suggestion of the rhythm of the original.

I have found nowhere among his papers any reference to the rhythmical aspect of his prose translation of Beowulf…he designedly wrote quite largely in rhythms founded on ‘common and compact prose-patterns of ordinary language’, with no trace of alliteration, and without the prescription of specific patterns.

Fortunately I enjoy linguistics, so I’ll get almost as much pleasure out of the commentary and notes, the ins and outs of translation, as I would have out of a good poetic re-creation. But to experience the music of a real Beowulf-themed poem, there may be nothing for it but to learn enough Old English to enjoy the original.

Joel (Author) ·

The Radiolab podcast has a terrific 15-minute segment on poetry and translation.

When Douglas Hofstadter was 16, he read a poem. Just an innocent little poem, a few short lines, nothing special. But the poem burrowed deep into his brain, and many years later, he set out to translate the thing…
(Radiolab: “100 Flowers”)

Douglas translates the poem, then sets about getting everyone he knows to attempt their own translations, eventually published in his book Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

Who can nail the form and still capture the essence? — The very challenge I wish Tolkien would have taken with his Beowulf.

Joel (Author) ·

This translation of a Greek poem, from a tweet by Charles McNamara, is a beautiful little example of Fitzgerald’s “live sparrow”:

For comparison, a more literal translation would have run something like “The moon has set and the Pleiades / It is the middle of the night / Time passes by / And I sleep alone.”

Many translators have offered their own treatments of this poem, some more literal and some more poetic.

Joel (Author) ·