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:
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:
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:
Tolkien does something much better with his version:
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.
Letter to E. B. Cowell, Apr 27, 1859↩
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.)↩