Teaching Poetry Translation

Here’s an assignment I’ve adapted over the years. It takes a lot of “scaffolding,” meaning reading and discussion of different approaches, with examples. In the past, I didn’t do enough of that. This time, too, I feel like we could have done more, but the class is not just on poetry translation, it’s on translation of all sorts of different kinds of texts, so I’ve had to compromise on how much time to devote to this. Some students dread working on poetry. Others are very excited by the prospect. So another compromise.

I switch out the poem based on which languages people are mostly working on in the class. This time around, I have three working from Korean, two from Japanese, one from Russian, one from Chinese, one from French, one from Indonesian, and five from Spanish. So German seemed a good choice.

The assignment:

Here is the poem to use for the “poetry translation” assignment, which we’ve discussed in class several times: Rilke Spiegel.pdf

The poem is by Rainer Maria Rilke, the commentary is by Gregor Sebba, and the selection comes from Stanley Burnshaw, ed., The Poem Itself (Cleveland and NY: Meridian Books, 1960).

Here are the assignment details.

(1) Using the interlineal translation and commentary provided, create an English version of the poem. Feel free to have a look at the source in whatever level of detail you like. You can, for instance, look up some of the words in a dictionary or enter them in an online translation software to see what comes out. But you don’t have to do this in order to create a version of your own. The interlineal version and commentary give you everything you need. Read them carefully and look back at them frequently as you work.

The global strategy here is to create an English version that mirrors (sorry, couldn’t help myself) the source. In other words, this is not a free adaptation. To help give yourself some limits, imagine that Rilke, who has good English reading skills, will be looking at your version after you’ve finished, and he would really like to see “his poem” in English.

(2) In an accompanying 300-500 word commentary, discuss your strategy for approaching the translation. What seem to be the greatest challenges of translating the poem? Where did you come up with solutions you are especially happy with? Where did you feel you weren’t really able to do it justice? What sorts of general principles did you follow in making your decisions? Did you find yourself thinking of a particular audience as you worked, besides Rilke (see above)? If so, who are they and how are you trying to reach them with your version?

As we discussed in class on Monday, there are different opinions among poetry translators on this score. Some (following Ezra Pound) think you should always strive to reproduce the form of the source. Others (like W.S. Merwin), hold that the formal features of the source are like the words of the source; they have meaning and significance in the source culture that are not necessarily the same in the receiving culture — Merwin’s later work does not follow the formal features of his sources at all; he uses different ones.

But remember this is also for an imagined Rilke, so he’ll want to understand why you’ve done what you’ve done. If, for instance, you decide to create a non-rhymed English version, or a partially rhymed version, or a version that uses a different form in other ways, you should explain why and what you hoped to achieve or avoid.

You don’t need to go into the history of the poem or the poet, or in fact do any research of that sort at all. The commentary you write should be about the process you followed, your priorities and goals, the challenges you encountered, and the solutions you came up with. The best commentaries will have plenty of examples.

Finally, as we discussed in class, please consider adopting the William Weaver idea of doing a draft and letting it sit, then coming back to it. This is the kind of assignment where such a method could help a lot.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: