The challenge of translating poetry

Translating poetry is an act of creativity. It is a complex work consisiting of making continuous choices, not only of words, but also of colours, smells, sounds and texture to give to a poem when translating it from one language to another, from a culture to another, from a world to another. It is also a way of wearing the skin of the author himself (like an actor does), trying to absorb the emotions before carving them out in of words in another language without knowing beforehand the forms they may take, the picture they will draw. There are of course numerous challenges to this including the translation of metaphors, rthythm, rhyme, onomatopoeia. In another language these aspects might be flat so one needs to recreate others to compensate and maintain poetic balance. Translating poetry is also a very subjective activity and everything depends on the sensibility of the translator. A poem translated by five different people will be in five different versions.

Albert Gatt, many are those who believe that to translate poetry you must be a poet yourself. You are Senior Lecturer and  Director of the Institute of Linguistics and Language Technology at the University of Malta and also have a solid experience in translating poetry from Maltese into English. What is your position?

I have never fancied myself a poet. Put differently, I don’t write with the intention of producing something others would recognise as poetry. I suppose this means that, to the extent that my translations of poetry are successful - that they somehow manage to convey to the reader something of the experience of the reading of the poem that I have had in the original - I’m an exception to the rule you mention. But of course, such broad characterisations often don’t matter in any case.

For me, the translation of poetry is first and foremost an aural activity. The first thing I need is to be convinced that I’ve somehow got the poem’s rhythm and music (however discordant this may be). I think of that as the poem’s pulse, thrumming underneath the skin of words. That is what I need to grasp before I begin to translate. A big part of the translation then is to find another music to carry that pulse. And my choices undoubtedly depend on the sources through which my ear for poetry was formed, perhaps not as a poet, but certainly as a reader of poetry. I think I must have learned a few lessons too from some of the composers whose work I admire and listen to again and again.

Conversation with Albert Gatt, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Institute of Linguistics and Language Technology at the University of Malta.

Initially published in Arabic in the 6th issue of the Publisher Weekly Arabic "Al Nasher Al Usboei" magazine, by Sharjah Book Authority, April 2019.

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