Translating Poetry

5 11 2012

As an experienced and specialist translator I must say I don’t often get asked to translate challenging topics (deadlines, however, are always challenging). There is little novelty in terms of vocabulary and topics after you’ve been translating medical and business articles for so long.

Anyway, last week I was faced with the unusual challenge of translating poetry. My client is a Portuguese artist who wrote about the issue of alcoholism in Portugal. His book uses images and poems to convey the extent of the problem, the domestic violence that follows and etc.

I had time and decided to take on the challenge of adapting the poems to English. My first approach was to have a 1 hour session on skype with my client to make sure I was understanding what he meant by the artwork and the poems. I must say that I found it very interesting, because discussing poems is not usually a part of my routine.

Following this conversation, I sat down and translated line by line of each poem. I then sent this initial version of the translation along with a few remaining questions to my client, who made comments and helped me with the unclear meanings.

Whilst I was waiting for my client’s feedback, I did a bit of research on English poems to get into the mindset and rhythm of poems in this language.

I then went back to the poems with a different approach, now looking at them as a whole, not isolated verses, to feel whether there was a rhythm to the reading, whether it was understandable in English, etc. I must say I was very please with the result (and so seemed the client!).

It is fantastic as a translator when I have the opportunity to work closely with my clients to convey their message. I am able to connect to the client and the project and this makes the work so much more interesting and personal for me.

One important aspect of ensuring the success of this project was making sure the client understood that I am not a poet, therefore I could translate what he meant and make it sound natural in English, but I could not transform it into English poems.

In any case, I don’t think the poems should sound like English poems anyway, because they are the thoughts of a Portuguese poet looking into some of the most significant social issues in his country. The poems have to convey some of his Portuguese soul, some of his way of feeling and expressing himself. If he sounds like an Englishman, it makes no sense…

I believe that this is the main difference between translating medical and business reports and poems. With the first, your goal is accuracy, ensuring everything is translated with precision and the professional tone is maintained; whereas with the second, your goal is to convey the emotion, but you still want the voice of the poet to pervade the translation. I cannot thank my client enough for the challenge and for his confidence in me. I had a thoroughly enjoyable week at work!

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