In the translation world, it is well-known that certain genres of text are more difficult to translate than others. Some of the easier text genres for translation are narrative (telling about an event) and descriptive (giving details about someone or something). A far more difficult text genre is poetry. This post will briefly describe what makes poetry so difficult to translate.
Much of what makes poetry poetry is quite language-specific. Though poetic features can differ between languages, some of the most common ones include rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration, assonance, euphony, and cacophony. While each of these features can be used to make poetry beautiful in any given language, the effect is almost certain to be lost when that poem is translated to another language. As an example of how poetic effects are lost in translation, let’s look at a portion of a German poem by Christian Morgenstern.
Das aesthetische Wiesel
saß auf einem Kiesel
tats um des Reimes willen
And now, a literal translation of the poem into English.
The Aesthetic Weasel
sat on a pebble
in the midst of a brook's ripple.
know why? …
did it for rhyme's sake.
Perhaps some of you can read and understand the original German poem. The rest of us must rely on the English translation to understand what the poem is saying. We read what the weasel did and why he did it, but then we ask, “What rhyme?” In German, the words translated into English as weasel, pebble, and brook’s ripple all rhyme. That rhyme is completely lost in the literal English translation. Since the rhyme is lost in the English translation of the poem, we could argue that it is a poor translation. After all, the rhyme was a very significant facet of the poem … it can hardly be called a poem without it.
A writer named Ulrich Fleming offers the following in an attempt to translate the poem while maintaining a rhyme.
put some teasel
on top of an easel.
did it just for the rhyme.
This is nice, as it allows us to sense the original author’s playful imagination of an intelligent weasel who did a thing just so it could sound pleasant when written down. The downside is that the weasel’s actions in the English version are quite different from the weasel’s actions in the German original. Is it permissible to make changes to the literal meaning of the poem in order to preserve the features which make it poetic? This is a question faced by anyone attempting to translate poetry.
Poetry in the Bible
As you probably know, large portions of the Bible are made up of Hebrew poetry. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are all composed entirely or almost entirely of poetry. Poetry can also be found inserted in the narrative books (like Exodus and 1 Samuel) and in the prophetic books (like Jeremiah and Zephaniah). All this poetry must be translated during the task of Bible translation, regardless of the difficulty.
Certain Hebrew poetic features can typically be easily carried over into the target language, such as parallelism (repeating or restating something for harmonious effect) or chiasm (where the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed).
However, Hebrew also makes use of some of the common poetic features mentioned at the beginning of this article; features which are nearly always lost in a literal translation. Another frequent Hebrew poetic technique is acrostic, where the first word of each line begins with a certain letter. A well-known example of this is Psalm 119, where each of the verses in the first group of eight begin with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, each verse of the second group with the second letter, and so on. Replicating an acrostic in translation is typically impossible.
So what should the Bible translator do? In order to faithfully translate the Bible, translators may not take liberty with changing the meaning of the poetic portions in order to replicate poetic features. These poetic passages communicate truth about God and His will which we are not free to change. At the same time, in order to faithfully translate the Bible, those poetic portions should remain poetic in the translation.
How this is accomplished will look different in each translation scenario. The task of the translator is to understand what makes poetry poetry in the target language. The translator must then carefully transfer the meaning from the Hebrew poetry into target-language poetry. Perhaps some poetic features will be dropped along the way; this is inevitable. Perhaps the translator can add some new poetic features to compensate for those which are lost. The important things are that the original meaning is maintained and that the translation is poetic. Those who read the translation should experience the power and beauty of poetry as they read about the might and majesty of God in the Psalms, the soul-searching sorrow of Job, and the prophetic pronouncements of Jeremiah.
Next time you read some of the Bible’s poetry in English, think about the work which went into translating that poetry, and pray for those who are struggling to translate the Bible’s poetry into more of the world’s languages.