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Poetry is what is lost in translation

A common misconception is that translation is simply a question of transferring information from one language to another, via a sort of linguistic algebra, and that there is therefore such as thing as the ‘right’ translation of any given text. This is broadly speaking true in the case of simple statements like ‘today is Tuesday’ or ‘I am hungry’, but things get much more complicated as soon as we want to translate more complex information. Even a relatively straightforward text can often be translated in several different but equally correct ways, particularly when the translation is between languages which reflect different cultures.

This is particularly evident in translations of texts which are by definition imprecise, suggestive or evocative – in short, texts which are meant to do more than just transmit information. Take the example of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: the French title is particularly tricky, because it involves an untranslatable play on the word perdu, which could mean both lost and wasted. The first English translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff hit on a wonderfully resonant solution, Remembrance of Things Past, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste…

One feels Proust would have approved. Later translations, sadly, have opted for the more prosaic In Search of Lost Time, which beside being rather unidiomatic in English, totally misses the double sense of perdu.

But more than any other type of writing it is poetry that presents the greatest challenges to the translator, so much so that Robert Frost was moved to observe that ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’. Despite, and doubtless partly because of, this difficulty, poetry is a particularly fruitful field for translators. Here are the first verses of five versions of the Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ by Canadian poet Christopher Bök (as well as his commentary on each version). The first is a ‘classic’ translation, which reproduces the sense and structure of the original; the subsequent versions are increasingly experimental, but always manage to preserve a kind of counterintuitive fidelity to the original.

Here is the French:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles…

“Vowels” is a semantic translation of “Voyelles” by Arthur Rimbaud, preserving the rhyme scheme of the original, while enforcing the rigorous, syllabic contours of the alexandrine line:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells…

“Veils” is a homophonic translation of “Voyelles,” preserving, from the original, the sequence of the sounds, but not
the meanings of the words—the two poems sound alike when read aloud.

Anywhere near blank rage
you veer, oblivial.

Jade array, calico azure
evanescent talents.

Unaware, corrosives flow
to my shackled hand.

Key bombing an auto tour
to paint her colour…

“Phonemes” is a homovocalic translation of “Voyelles,” preserving the sequence of vowels from the original,
while replacing all the other components of the poem with different consonants.

Phantoms, infernal,
without refuge or return—phonemes.

We will hark if such
resurgent souls ordain a dreamt verse:

A (offspring of perfect
murders, so unseen that stranglers

fulfill no crime, and thus
mourners must call the unjust schemes…

“Vocables” is a perfect anagram of “Voyelles,” permuting the lexicon of letters from the original.
(I suppose that this poem owes a debt of gratitude to the “Sonnagrams” of K. Silem Mohammad.)

Eternal, you beguile love or ruin—vocables.
Jejune vassals quote ten codas in reliquaries:
A (the ceaseless verses at occult monasteries;
requiems of dust, bound to nebulous particles…

“AEIOU” literalizes the referent to the title of “Voyelles” by removing from the original everything that is
not itself a vowel (including consonants, punctuation, and letterspaces).


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