Significance of translation in poetry

Poetry can be loosely defined as language in its most distilled and powerful form. It can be in any of the 6500 languages of the world, and is a really powerful form of expression.

That said, it would be ignorant to assume that the limited number of languages an average individual knows will effectively expose him to all the amazing literature that can possibly come out of the brilliance of human mind.

In literal terms, it can be understood as not being able to enjoy sunshine if you live in snowy areas or not being able to delve deep into the oceans because you hail from the deserts. Such a world will die due to the stagnancy of thoughts.

Reading a piece of literature and instantly viewing your thoughts mirrored in the words of the author is one of the best joys of life – joy that can make a millennial feel connected to a Persian poet of the middle ages (read Omar Khayyam), or seek solace in an originally Russian masterpiece (War and Peace). Translation is thus a truly delicate and hugely underrated work. You have to translate the words and still keep the meaning intact, and that requires skill. As an example, read these famous lines by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Now here is an equally magical translation for it done by Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, one of the best hindi poets of all time. If you can understand hindi, you can see just how powerful it is:

गहन सघन मनमोहक वनतरू मुझको आज बुलाते हैं ,
किन्तु किये जो वादे मैंने याद मुझे आ जाते हैं ।
अभी कहाँ आराम बदा यह मूक निमंत्रण छलना है ,
अरे अभी तो मीलों मुझको, मीलों मुझको चलना है । ।

Well, that is the beauty of it! If somebody does not know English, that should not deprive them of reading something so powerful and beautiful and it didn’t, thanks to translation. Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam is another example of a piece of literature so beautiful that it would have indeed been a loss to humanity had it not been translated to other languages. I am omitting the Persian version here, but the awe-inspiring english translation by Edward Fitzgerald is enough to justify the importance of translation in poetry.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
doctor and saint, and heard great argument  
about it and about : but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.

Nobody can learn all the languages there are, just to savour the literature that each language has to offer. In fact if it wasn’t for translation, just imagine how much of literary genius we would have missed. True, there are issues such as poetic originality and loss of essence sometimes, but these problems can easily be overcome by talented translations as mentioned.

As an ending note, I would like to quote these beautiful lines by Rabindranath Tagore, originally written in Bengali and then translated in English. These lines seem befitting for every literary masterpiece that has ever existed or will ever exist:

I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side.
The works that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.


Copyright © Neha Sharma

12 thoughts on “Significance of translation in poetry

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  1. Hi Neha, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the poetry of Robert Okaji, of “O at the Edges”, he translates old/ancient Chinese poems. Maybe you might be interested in some of his works, I’ll send you his latest two posts.
    Oh, don’t forget to download his microchap book and do the origami for the book. Robert Okaji is an excellent poet also, and I’m and an avid reader of his poems.

    Liked by 1 person

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