Friday, May 4, 2012

Problems in Translating Poetry : Some Structural ,Textural And Cultural Issue

Varsha Singh

Literary translation has always been seen as more perplexing than the translation of other texts, such as business documents or instruction booklets for machinery or equipment. The translation of poems has traditionally been seen as even more difficult, and there has always been much dispute about methods that can be used and the kind of result which is the aim of such translation work. According to the definition of Robert Frost, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” This statement could be considered as a truthful one to a certain extent because there is no one-to-one equivalent when comparing two languages. Even if the translators obtain a profound knowledge in the source language (SL) they would not be able to create a replica of the original text. What should be preserved when translating poetry are the emotions, the invisible message of the poet, the uniqueness of the style in order to obtain the same effect in the target language as it is in the source. This is the conception which makes Ranga Rao call the process of translation as the transmission of creative energy. When talking about the translation of poetry we could not but mention some of the numerous problems encountered during this process. Many writers have struggled to define the difficulties of translating poetry. Shelley once declared that:
it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower… and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel. (S. Basnett & A. Lefevere 2001:58)

Issues in Translation of Poetry
As discussed, that, of all types of translation, the most elusive one is translation of poetry. Two of our distinguished scholar-critics Sri Aurobindo and K.R.S. Iyengar have cautioned us while translating poetry into a second language. Iyengar says:
Poetry by its very nature is untranslatable. Ideas can be translated from language to language, but poetry is the idea touched with the magic of phrase and incantatory music. Competent translator can, however, play the good broker between the poet and the reader, and surpassing the mere prose of statement can give intimations of the poet’s sovereign utterance. Good translation can create trust and stimulate interest.

Sri Aurobindo is of the opinion that there are two ways of translating poetry: “one to keep it strictly to the manner and turn of the original, (and) the other is to take its spirit, sense and imagery and produce them freely so as to suit the new language.” To Aurobindo the second method of translating poetry is preferable. But this is a more difficult path, as is evident from the following admission from Krishna Srinivas, himself an able translator. He preferred the second method to the first.

Gayatri Spivak in her essay The Politics of Translation discusses translation as the most intimate act of reading. She writes, “I surrender to the text when I translate.” This surrendering to the text brings out several issues in translation which are mainly on three levels:
1- Linguistic Issues
2- Literary or Aesthetic Issues
3- Cultural Issues

Linguistic Issues
The linguistic problems in translating verse is twofold; the words and meaning on one hand, whereas the flow and rhythm on the other hand.

The words and meaning embody certain issues related to the images, similes, metaphors, culture-specific words, phrasal verbs, idioms, punned expressions, enjambment and grammar of both the TL text and the SL text.

According to Ezra Pound, “an ‘image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In Pound’s definition, the image is not just a stand in for something else; it is a putting-into-word of the emotional, intellectual and concrete stuff that we experience in any given moment. It is also important to note that an image in poetry, contrary to popular belief, is not simply visual. It can engage any of the senses. And in fact, for it to be an image, it must engage at least one of the senses by using sensory detail. This is a great challenge for a translator, as s/he has to put the same sensory effect in the translated form as well.

Another problem in translating poems is regarding the metaphors. Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. A metaphor is a figure of speech that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas, the analogy is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word. Metaphor is or was also occasionally used to denote rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance (e. g. antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile, which are then all considered types of metaphor).

The most difficult challenge while translating literary texts is found in the differences between cultures. People of a given culture look at things from their own perspective. Larson notes that “different cultures have different focuses. Some societies are more technical and other less technical.” This difference is reflected in the amount of vocabulary which is available to talk about a particular topic (Larson 1984:95). Larson adds that there may also be both “technical and non-technical” vocabulary which is available to talk about the same thing within a given society. Therefore, if the SL text originates from a highly technical society it may be much more difficult to translate it into the language of a nontechnical society. However, in the case of similar cultures the conditions are not the same:
When the cultures are similar there is less difficulty in translating. This is because both languages will probably have terms that are more or less equivalent for the various aspects of the culture. When the cultures are very different, it is often difficult to find equivalent lexical items. (Larson 1984:95-6)4

Other difficulties of translation are regarding the idioms and phrasal verbs. An idiom is an expression peculiar to a language and not readily understandable from its grammatical construction or from the meaning of its parts. It is considered that the living language of any country is idiomatic. In other words, idiom means a group of words having unique meaning of the individual word in the group. Similarly, “phrasal verb” is a combination of “verb + adverb or preposition or verb” to have different meaning compared to the meaning of the verb. The unique meaning of the idioms and phrasal verbs become difficult to translate.
Punned expressions have appeared in literature since the time of Homer (8th century B.C.). Shaw defines this term as “a play on words; the humorous use of a word emphasizing different meanings or applications. However, it does not seem appropriate to consider puns as merely a humour device. According to Nash (1985:137), “we take punning for a tawdry and facetious thing, one of the less profound forms of humour, but that is the prejudice of our time; a pun may be profoundly serious, or charged with pathos.” Hence, translating these expressions into another language becomes another problematic issue.

According to the structuralist point of view, grammar is the study of the rules governing the use of a language. That set of rules is also called the grammar of the language, and each language has its own distinct grammar. Hence, for any translator, grammar becomes a matter of concern. As the complete language system of any society depends on its grammatical rules, so, for the translator, grammatical knowledge of both, the TL and SL becomes necessary.

Flow and rhythm cause another problem in translation. As the rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc, produce musicality in any poem, hence its existence becomes important. But most of the time it is observed that these musical elements, that are the beauty of the poems, are somewhat lost in translation.

Literary or Aesthetic Issues
Aesthetic values or poetic truth in a poem are conveyed in word order and sounds, as well as in cognitive sense (logic). And these aesthetic values have no independent meaning, but they are correlative with the various types of meaning in the text. Hence, if the translator destroys the word choice, word order, and the sounds, s/he impairs and distorts the beauty of the original poem. Delicacy and gentleness, for instance, ruins if the translator provides crude alliterations for the original carefully-composed alliterations. So, the problem in translating a verse is how to retain the aesthetic values in the TL text.

The aesthetic values, as Newmark says (1981:65) are dependent on the structure (or poetic structure), and sound. Poetic structure includes the plan of the original poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual sentence in each line. While sound is anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme, rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, etc. a translator cannot ignore any of them although s/he may order them depending on the nature of the poem translated.

The first factor is poetic structure. It is important to note that the structure meant here is the plan of the poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual sentence of each line. So, it does not have to relate directly to the sentential structures or grammar of a language, even in fact it is very much affected by the sentential structure. Thus, maintaining the original structure of the poem may mean maintaining the original structure of each sentence.

Another literary or aesthetic factor is sound. As stated before, sound is anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme, rhythm, assonance; onomatopoeia etc. a translator must try to maintain them in the translation. As Newmark (1981:67) further states, “In a significant text, semantic truth is cardinal [meaning is not more or less important, it is important!], whilst of the three aesthetic factors, sound (e.g. alliteration or rhyme) is likely to recede in importance... rhyme is perhaps the most likely factor to ‘give’-- rhyming is difficult and artificial enough in one language, reproducing line is sometimes doubly so.”  In short, if the translation is faced with the condition where s/he has to make a sacrifice, s/he should sacrifice the sound. 

On the other hand, the translator has to balance where the beauty of a poem really lies. If the beauty lies more on sounds rather on the meaning (semantic), the translator cannot ignore the sound factor.

Cultural Issues
Words or expressions that contain culturally bound word(s) create certain problems. The socio-cultural problems exist in the phrases, clauses, or sentences containing word(s) related to the four major cultural categories, namely: ideas, behaviour, product and ecology (Said 1994:39). The “ideas” includes belief, values, and institution; “behaviour” includes customs or habits, “products” includes art, music, and artifacts, and “ecology” includes flora, fauna, plains, winds and weather.

In translating culturally-bound expressions, like in other expressions, a translator may apply one or some of the procedures: Literal translation, transference, naturalization, cultural equivalent, functional equivalent, description equivalent, classifier, componential analysis, deletion, couplets, note addition, glosses, reduction, and synonymy. In literal translation, a translator does unit-to-unit translation. The translation unit may vary from word to larger units such as phrase or clause.

One applies ‘transference procedure’ if s/he converts the SL word directly into TL word by adjusting the alphabets (writing system) only. The result is ‘loan word’. When s/he does only adjust the alphabets, but also adjust it into the normal pronunciation of the TL word, s/he applies naturalization.

In addition, the translator may find the cultural equivalent word of the SL or, if s/he cannot find one, neutralize or generalize the SL word to result “functional equivalents”. When the translator modifies the SL word with description of form in the TL, the result is description equivalent. Sometimes a translator provides a generic or super ordinate term for a TL word and the result in the TL is called classifier. And when the translator just supplies the near TL equivalent for the SL word, s/he uses synonymy.

In componential analysis procedure the translator splits up a lexical unit into its sense components, often one-to-two, one-to-three, or more translation. Moreover, a translator sometimes adds some information, whether he puts it in a bracket or in other clause or even footnote or even deletes unimportant SL word in translation to smooth the result for the reader.

The writer does not assert that one procedure is superior to others; it depends on the predicament considering the aesthetic and expressive functions a poem is carrying. A translator should try to find the cultural equivalent (synonym) first before trying the other procedure. It also depends on the translator that s/he should say both- what the author says and what s/he means. Otherwise, translation would forfeit its splendour and the translator, his/her credibility.

1.      Basnett, Susan and Andre Lefevere. 2001. Constructing Cultures – Essays on Literary Translation. Shanghai : Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. p. 58.
2.      Iyengar, Krishna Srinivas. 1988. “On Translating Poetry,” Creative Forum.
p. 52.
3.      Spivak, G.C. 1993. “The Politics of Translation,” Outside the Teaching Machine. New York : Routledge.
4.      Larson, Mildred L. 1984. Meaning- based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. pp. 95-6.
5.      Newmark, P. 1981. Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press.  p.65.

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