Translating Poetry


Literature has a special place in the world of translation. Far away from the fields of technical and professional translation, translation of literature has completely different goals. Aesthetics become as important as accuracy, if not more so. Never is this more apparent than when translating poetry.

The most remarkable example is the story of Cathay. First published in 1915, Cathay is a collection of fifteen ancient and classical Chinese poems translated by the famous modernist poet Ezra Pound. Many Chinese scholars still consider Pound’s version the best English translation of these poems to date. This wouldn’t be that remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that Pound never spoke or understood a word of Chinese in his life. Now there’s something that will never happen to a technical translator: working from a language you have no notion of whatsoever, but still managing to create “the best translation ever!” To achieve this feat, Pound worked from the posthumous notes of an American art historian who had studied the poems in Japanese translation with a Japanese teacher. So between Cathay and its source material stood at least three different people and two major linguistic divides. Yet somehow it still worked out.

Khaled Mattawa on the other hand is a much more traditional translator of poetry. Born in Libya, he migrated to the United States as a teenager and grew up to become a professor of English and Creative Writing. He’s one of the foremost translators of Arabic poetry into English, and his approach is more familiar to any other translator: “You can’t really veer off. You can’t just change the adjectives because you just want to.” Still, what he has in common with Ezra Pound is that he has written and published highly acclaimed poetry of his own. Clearly you can’t translate a poet without being one yourself.

In this video by the MacArthur Foundation, Mattawa talks more about his work and reads some fragments of his translations. Do give it a watch!

by Brecht Savelkoul

Communication Trainee at TermCoord