What Gets Lost in Translation?

by Jack Martin on August 13, 2012

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” But I never really understood what he meant until I was a 20-year-old student.

Spanish to English

In college, there was a class I always wanted to take. Hispanic Literature in Translation. I had always been a big reader, and my study of Spanish was introducing me to a whole new area of writing. The class was always full before I could sign up, until I was finally able to register my senior year.

We read Marquez, Quiroga and Allende, but it was the poetry of Pablo Neruda that won my heart. Even in the English translations, his odes to the simple tools of life and nature kept me captivated.

But it was then that I started to hear Robert Frost’s voice in my head, reminding me that poetry is what gets lost in translation. And here I was, reading poetry. In translation.

And then I could tell. Something was missing. As I read a poem, there was plenty to enjoy, but I sensed there was quite a bit more hidden under the translation.

So I bought a new volume of Neruda’s poems with side-by-side Spanish and English translation. There was no better feeling than struggling through those poems and reaching a deeper understanding of the material.

Spanish transcription and translation was something interesting to think about. I found what I was looking for with Neruda’s original poetry, but I never would have discovered that without starting with my English translation. Looking at something through multiple lenses can make all the difference.

English to English

And something can be lost even when translating English to English. Consider The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s 14th century work in Middle English. This is different than translating between languages. There is a fair amount of vocabulary to be adjusted between Middle English and the English we speak today, but you’re also translating between generations.

And what changes between generations? Quite a bit, don’t you think? Take an example from school teacher Alex Cook. To explain to his students why they needed to read Chaucer in the original Middle English, Cook translated the song “Jump Around” by the hip hop group House of Pain into formal prose. You can read the two side by side here.

What you see is that our writing is a product of the environment and society that surrounds us. Cultural references, slang, and prevailing philosophy make their way into all writing. The connections that readers make will inevitably decay in time, but making an effort to understand the generation-specific ideas that appear in older writing can lead to a deep understanding, not just of the text, but also how the world operated when it was written.

Whether writing is translated between languages or generations, it is not the same after. Something gets lost. The poetry, perhaps.

PS: Once I was finally able to enroll in Hispanic Literature in Translation, I realized why it had been so difficult. The class could be used as a substitution of your last semester of Spanish language learning. So instead of struggling through another semester of speaking Spanish, all the athletes took Hispanic Literature in Translation because you weren’t required to speak a word of Spanish at all. So it was me and 19 fraternity brothers pontificating about poetry.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Liza LaCasse August 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I have a side by side Spanish and English volume of Neruda as well. I love it! : )

Jack Martin August 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Yeah absolutely. He is a brilliant poet. I don’t think I was much of a poetry lover before he found me.

Isla McKetta August 29, 2012 at 10:43 am

Love this post, Jack! I had a similar experience reading Verlaine in French (and wrote about it here http://islamcketta.com/verlaine-en-francais/), but I wasn’t tenacious enough to compare translation to original. I’m on to Lorca in Spanish next. I may need your help…

Patrick Fisher January 8, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Jack, you really hit the nail on the head when you said, “Looking at something through multiple lenses can make all the difference.” This is so very true when it comes to transcription and translation.

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