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Daljit Nagra

Translating Poetry to become a better Poet By Daljit Nagra
22 Mar 2011 - 11:25 AM

I found translating poetry a useful way to develop my writing skills. Translating another poet's work meant I had to learn their mannerisms and attitudes before I could translate their work. This took me out of my comfort zone and when I came back to my own poems I had acquired a slightly new set of styles for writing my poems.

I worked with the Dutch poet Jan-Willem Anker a few years ago and I am working with him again. We are translating each other's work. He sends me literal prose versions of his poems and then I try and shape them into English. I look at his Dutch versions for the general and local shape of the poem to help with me the layout. I found that Jan-Willem writes very differently from me and I had to step out of my usual box of tricks to learn his. Also, when he was translating my poems I had to explain in considerable detail what I was doing at each stage of my poems. This helped me detach myself from my work and consider my style from the confused eyes of my translator. Both of these methods have improved my writing skills. Even if you do not have access to a living poet, I think it's important to focus an a single poet and enter their poetic world closely by translating their poems. Has anyone else translated poems? What do you think about this process in terms of aiding your own skills? What do you think about the art and/or ethics of translating poetry? What were the problems you encountered?

8 Comments at the moment

Christian Ward at 23 Mar 2011 - 10:01 PM

I enjoyed translating poetry because I love the feeling of intimacy, of entering a world that slowly makes itself known once you've made a notch in the original language. I've done a few, especially Mexican poets such as Amado Nervo (http://www.cerisepress.com/01/02/en-paz-in-peace)

Daljit Nagra at 24 Mar 2011 - 07:10 AM

Yes I agree Christian, the world of the culture or of the poem slowly makes itself known to us. It's the intimate contact with each line that makes us think about what lies behind the surface.

Anthony Costello at 28 Mar 2011 - 11:05 PM

I'm not sure writing versions of poems from prose crib sheets is translation?

Daljit Nagra at 29 Mar 2011 - 09:44 AM

Turning a prose literal of the original poem into a poem in English probably makes it a version. I would regard my 'translations' as nearly-translations, if such a thing can exist, because I do not speak Dutch so I relied on additional comments from the poet I was 'translating'. Hopefully the translator wouldn't solely rely on a 'prose crib-sheet' as they would hopefully have access to the original poem and would be in some position to decipher some words and see how lineation, syntax and layout work in the original poem to help them with their 'translation'.

Ana Hudson at 2 Apr 2011 - 11:32 AM

I translate Portuguese poetry and many poets have told me that reading their poems in translation brings a new dimension to their writing www.poemsfromtheportuguese.org - you may like to have a look

VERONICA PAMOUKAGHLIAN at 3 Apr 2011 - 06:06 PM

Interesting point. As a multilingual writer, the first poems I translated were my own. This experience taught me that what I had to translate was this elusive cloud of poetic imagination, whatever the words concocted and evoked in my mind's eye, rather than the words themselves. Afterwards, I have applied this successful (albeit magical method) to translating poetry -and prose- by others, and it has worked for me. Best luck with your residency. Wishing you great poems to come! Veronica http://facebook.com/musicpoetry http://thewanderlife.com

VERONICA PAMOUKAGHLIAN at 3 Apr 2011 - 06:08 PM

Interesting point. As a multilingual writer, the first poems I translated were my own. This experience taught me that what I had to translate was this elusive cloud of poetic imagination, whatever the words concocted and evoked in my mind's eye, rather than the words themselves. Afterwards, I have applied this successful (albeit magical method) to translating poetry -and prose- by others, and it has worked for me. Best luck with your residency. Wishing you great poems to come! Veronica http://facebook.com/musicpoetry http://thewanderlife.com

David Sissons at 5 Apr 2011 - 12:44 PM

I sympathise with Anthony Costello's question. To translate a poem I think a deep knowledge of two languages and their poetic traditions is needed. I don't think that Sean O' Brien has much knowledge of Medieval Italian or that Simon Armitage has much knowledge of Ancient Greek or Middle English, so I would question the nature of what they are promoting as translations. I think both have looked at somebody else's prose or verse translations and have just reworked them. I don't see any harm in that so long as they are honest about what they are doing, but unfortunately honesty does not always help your literary CV, a major concern of both so-called 'poets'.

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