Overcoming Barriers: Poetry in Translation

On January 5, 2020, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho walked on the stage of the Golden Globes to accept the award for Best Foreign Language Film. During his acceptance speech, the Korean director sent a message to all Americans: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” His earnest commentary echoed across platforms, encouraging the American audience to reflect on its relationship with foreign artistic works.

Bong Joon Ho’s point about Americans’ attitudes toward foreign films made me think of their equally great diffidence and disinterest in foreign literary work. As an international student from Italy who grew up reading mostly translated work, I was shocked to learn about the statistics for translated work published in America. In fact, less than 3 percent of all the books published in English are translated from another language. Growing up reading translated literature, particularly poetry, has allowed me to learn about cultures radically different from mine, broadening my understanding of others’ experiences and ideas.

Translated poetry has the ability to create tight connections between two languages more than any other kind of translated literary work. In this post, I want to explore the dynamics of poetry in translation, drawing from the testimonies of working translators, and to hopefully inspire the Ooligan audience to trust the beauty of translated poetry, read more of it, and acknowledge its importance in our historically non-diverse Western publishing world.

When researching the causes behind Americans’ lack of interest in translated poetry, I often came across the notion that poetry is fundamentally “untranslatable.” The translation of sophisticated word interplays, evocative images, and culturally relevant language is feared to be inaccurate and deemed to lose beauty when transformed from one language to another.

Poet and award-winning literary translator Aaron Coleman disagrees with this common fear in an interview with NPR. According to Coleman, the process of translating poetry invites “new opportunities to parse, and thus meditate on, any lingual and cultural disparities.” A translated poem is, therefore, the result of a close relationship between the translator and the piece. This relationship transcends distances and cultural challenges, creating an equally powerful transformed product. The artistry of a poem’s author engages with the cultural, emotional, and linguistic mediation of the translator, who is committed to preserving its original voice, lexicon, and structure.

Poetry translation is a work of metamorphoses, where there is no space for literal translation, according to translator Edith Grossman. The intrinsic meaning and sounds of a poem are painted anew by the translator, who engages in an artistic transaction between languages. Not every single element of the piece can be transposed, but it’s instead rearranged to create something as close as possible to the original, and as brilliant.

Poetry in translation becomes especially important when looking at the colonizing efforts of the English language. The enforced erasure of native languages during colonialism helped establish English as the most accessible and international language. In an article published by the Poetry Translation Center, writer Lola Olufemi affirms that during colonial domination English served as a method of “reaffirming the intellectual and artistic superiority of western power.” The devaluing and erasure of languages has meant the silencing of the stories and voices of the colonized. Olufemi also asserts that poetry is one of the main mediums used by members of former colonies to express themselves and regain ownership of their language today. The translated poetry of authors in the Global South and in non-Western countries allows for the preservation of these targeted languages, while simultaneously disseminating art, ideas, and voices of those who have been systematically silenced.

Are you interested in reading more translated poetry? Check out Modern Poetry in Translation, a literary magazine founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in an effort to “get poetry out from behind the Iron Curtain into a wider circulation in English and to benefit writers and the reading public in Britain and America by confronting them with good work from abroad,” or The Poetry Translation Center, which focuses on poetry from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.