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Can Poetry Be Translated?

We've been devouring your miniature poems in honor of National Poetry Month. Keep tweeting us your verses using the hashtag #NPRpoetry.
Getty Images
We've been devouring your miniature poems in honor of National Poetry Month. Keep tweeting us your verses using the hashtag #NPRpoetry.

Is it possible to translate poetry from one language into another without losing meaning?

To paraphrase Robert Frost — not really. "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," the American poet is often quoted as saying. In other words, the meaning the reader extracts from a poem can never be a replica of the writer's intent.

Then again, I'm just translating.

Aaron Coleman, a literary translator, interprets a few <a href="https://www.npr.org/2018/04/07/600413104/tweet-us-your-best-whether-dark-or-in-jest-poems-up-to-140-and-well-do-the-rest" data-key="25">mini poems</a> submitted to NPR's National Poetry Month hashtag, #NPRpoetry.
/ Courtesy of Aaron Coleman
Courtesy of Aaron Coleman
Aaron Coleman, a literary translator, interprets a few mini poems submitted to NPR's National Poetry Month hashtag, #NPRpoetry.

But poet and award-winning literary translator Aaron Coleman tells NPR's Michel Martin that the impossibility of translation shouldn't stop us from appreciating the art of the verse.

Allow Coleman to elaborate with a few poems of his choosing. But first, some background for our newcomers: Every week during National Poetry Month (April, as it's oft referred to), All Things Considered is asking a professional poet to read from some of your mini poems that caught their eye on the #NPRpoetry Twitter feed.

It's Coleman's turn — here's how the bilingual poet translates a work by Catherine Hulshof: "I am the wind pushing you. I spend my days drawing waves and goodbyes. Songs between window blinds and white cement."

He breaks down his method: "I loved that little opening metaphor of calling herself the wind."

Then, the trickiness of translation comes out to play. In Spanish, "tiempo" means both "time" and "weather." Coleman says, "We don't have that opportunity for metaphor in English, so I did 'days' instead of 'time' in order to get at weather and also the passage of time."

A Sound Language

Coleman shares another poem from Laurel Katchatag. With lingo like "muktuk" and "tuttu," it's fair to say that some of her words — in the Inupiaq language of her native Alaska — ring unfamiliar to many:

Does it matter?

"That's the thing about poetry — it's as much a thing of words as it is a thing of sound," he says.

Upon first listen, "I'm sort of blown away by the rhythm and the momentum that she gets from mixing together two languages. And mixing together languages is the reality for many people."

Translation As Transformation

Though the art form, in translation, is subject to lose its accuracy, integrity and beauty, Coleman argues that the process invites new opportunities to parse, and thus meditate on, any lingual and cultural disparities.

"I approach translation even knowing that it can't quite be what it is in the original language," he says.

The language lapses that inhibit an ideal interpretation can ultimately be "a creative, productive failure," he adds. "Maybe it can open up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me, or whatever the original language is."

Instead, translation can be transformation. "I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it's really a process of transformation," Coleman says.

Finally, Barbara Valentina, manages, in English, to touch on this very theme in under 140 characters:

She addresses the caveats of translation "in the fact that she can't tell him what her name means," he says. "At the same time, she's still able to create something beautiful in English. 'I am a ghost holding up the Earth' is an incredible line for any poem."

April isn't over yet. We're still accepting submissions to Twitter with hashtag #NPRPoetry. Remember, this is not a contest — it's a community project — the point is not to win or lose or even to get your poem on the air. We want to create a space where listeners can share their poems and read the work of others.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]