New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Poetry in Translation – Philip Dunkerley

Phil Dunkerley is active in poetry groups in the South Lincolnshire area of the UK, where he lives and is currently the representative for Stamford Poetry Stanza. His poems have appeared in small-press publications, anthologies and webzines, and his translations of poems from Spanish and Portuguese have appeared in print. He considers that there are many poetries and many publics. He reads a lot, listens and reflects. In writing, he tries to be true to himself. He wishes magazines would publish more controversial poems.





I read, somewhere, that ‘a poem in translation is a new poem’, and that, I believe, is true. A poem
is a ‘doing’ or ‘making’, we like to say – it is something creative, something new in the universe.
This being so, translating a poem from one language to another is a creative act. I have found that
translating poems is actually hard work, one enters into flow – that state where time becomes
suspended and the world recedes.

For me, a poem is an expression in words of concepts formed in a person’s mind, just as a painting
is something that the artist has seen inwardly and attempted to express visually. Of course,
concepts need labels (words) to express them and the labels vary according to the language of the
poet – thus we have ‘tree’, or ‘árvore’ (Portuguese), or ‘Baum’ (German) or 樹 (Chinese). All
represent the same concept, a linguistic idea that is explored by semiotics.

Problems begin to arise when different languages embody slightly different ideas within the same
concept – for example the word ‘jeito’ from Brazil has no exact equivalent in Portugal, even though
both countries speak the same language. Similarly Spanish ‘duende’, or Danish ‘hygge’, are said to
have no exact equivalent in English. If even individual words can cause difficulties in translation,
more so phrases, sentences or figures of speech such as metaphors. I well remember a English
friend in Brazil using a literal translation of the saying ‘He’s a dark horse’, to the complete
bafflement of his listeners – the phrase – ‘Ele é um cavalo escuro’, is completely meaningless in

Poetry might be described as soul-yearning, expressed in words. It becomes desirable therefore
that insightful poetry be made available to people who do not speak the language in which the
poem was created. Hence the need for translations. Of course, we take vast amounts of translation
for granted. Without it we would have no access to important literature such as Classical Greek or
Latin texts, to the English Bible, the Qur’an, or Beowulf.

So, translation is clearly valuable for humanity. But who should do the translation, and what
guidelines should translations follow? My first meaningful contact with a language other than
English came when I went to work in Brazil. There I learned the complete joy of managing to
communicate successfully with someone who could not speak English, and that was my incentive
to work hard to broaden my knowledge of that language. Later, in Spain and then Chile, I went
through the same experience with Spanish.

From being just a child, words held a fascination for me – perhaps initially the delight of puns,
riddles and jokes (‘When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar!’), but by the age of nine I was writing
verse, intrigued by how words could be made to fall into place and rhyme, as in my poem ‘Tarn
Howes: Mountains stand against the sky, / Fluffy clouds go sailing by, / There below ’twill always
lie, / Tarn Howes’. Thereafter, on and off, I wrote occasional poems until retirement beckoned, and
poetry has now become my main pastime.

It was a friend who first got me involved in translating poems into English, on behalf of two Spanish
musicians who were recording an album of Spanish poems set to music. They wanted to include
English versions of the words in the sleeve notes and I was prevailed upon to attempt the task. I
certainly found it challenging because the poems ranged from the XII century up to the present.
Each poem had its own characteristics of rhyme, form, rhythm, vocabulary and mood. Each
therefore required it own treatment. With no previous experience, my guiding principles became to
try to render each Spanish poem into an English that would read naturally, reflect the original
language and structure adopted by the poet, and convey my deepest understanding of what the
poet was trying to express. The work was daunting but I also found it intensely interesting, and
ultimately rewarding when my translations eventually appeared together with the CD1¹.

Here are some examples of the translations I carried out, first from Gonzalo de Berceo (ca.
1195-1264), ‘Romería’ / ‘Pilgrimage’. In the original of this poem each stanza has four identical
rhymes (aaaa), which is fiendishly difficult to achieve in English, so I chose to use rhyming
couplets. The original Spanish is archaic and I therefore decided to translate it into a dated form of

[one_half]Amigos e vassallos de Dios omnipotent,
si vos me escuchássedes por vuestro consiment,
querríavos contar un buen aveniment:
terrédeslo en cabo por bueno verament.

[/one_half] listen simple country folk, friends of the Almighty,
if you will only hear me you will learn, and learn lightly,
I’d like to tell you all about a wondrous thing in sooth:
stay with me until the end to learn a worthy truth.

Another poem included in the album is ‘La Vida y La Muerte’ which I translated as ‘From Birth to
Death’, by the poet Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681). Compared to Gonzalo de Berceo, the
language is less dated, but the poem is in ten-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme abbaaccddc. The
example below shows how I followed the sequence but sometimes used slant rhyme in an effort to
preserve naturalness.

[one_half]Desde el nacer al morir
casi se puede dudar
si el partir es el parar,
o el parar es el partir.
Tu carrera has de seguir:
y pues con tal brevedad
pasa la más larga edad,
¿cómo duermes y no ves
que lo que aquí un soplo es
es allá una eternidad?
[/one_half]From birth to death
who knows my friend
if first breath is the end
or the end is first breath.
Your life is a path:
it lasts but an instant
all time existent,
why do you sleep and not see
what here passes so fleetingly
there is incessant?

Next is an example of free verse, from Carmen Martín Gaite (1925-2000). My concern here was to
provide a translation using vocabulary and cadences appropriate to the original. The title is
‘Canción Rota’, meaning, literally, ‘Broken Song’, but which I translated as ‘Song Forsaken’. Here
are the first two stanzas:

[one_half]Siempre que iba a cantar
algo se interponía
y a mí no me importaba,
¡había tanto tiempo!

Mi canción se quedaba en el alero,
meciéndose en la espera
cuajada de horizontes.

[/one_half]Always as I was about to sing
something got in the way,
but I never minded,
there was so much time!

My song lay in the corner,
waiting restlessly,
fermenting patiently.

My translation of a poem by the fine Brazilian poet Cora Coralina (1889-1985), ‘Minha Cidade’ /
‘My Town’, was published by ‘Orbis’ in February 2017. This poem was written in lyrical free verse
that I have attempted to convey, as in this extract:

[one_half]Eu sou estas casas
cochichando umas com as outras.
Eu sou a ramada
dessas árvores,
sem nome e sem valia,
sem flores e sem frutos,
de que gostam
a gente cansada e os pássaros vadios.
[/one_half]I am those houses
that conspire
whispering one to another.
I am the branches of those trees
whose names no-one knows
and no-one loves,
that have neither flowers nor fruits,
but that give shade to the weary
and shelter to the birds.

Recently I was again involved with my Spanish friends, Javier Bergia and Begoña Olavide, on the
occasion of their performance in Peterborough cathedral as part of the Katherine of Aragon
Festival (January 2018). For this I was provided with a translation of several poems from Spanish
into English, done by an unknown translator. As an example of what I consider to be poor
translation, I’ll provide the following, the Spanish first, the provided translation second and then my
own version. I think this illustrates the pitfalls of attempting to translate either too quickly or with an
inadequate knowledge of the nuances of the source language.

[one_half]Coplas – Doña Isabel de Vega (XVI century)

Ni basta disimular ni fingir contentamiento,
Qu’el rabioso pensamiento revienta por se mostrar.

No me aprovecha callar aunque la razón me ayuda,
Que si la lengua está muda los ojos saben hablar.

¡Oh cuitado corazón! ¡cuán dichoso hubieras sido
Si fuera tu mal fingido, como los de muchos son!

Mas, ¡ay! cuán a costa mía es vuestro mal verdadero,
Pues mucho más persevero mientras más el mal porfía.

Ya no valen desengaños para hacerme entender
Cuán costoso es el querer que acarrea tantos daños.

Qu’es tan ciega mi afición y está el mal tan arraigado,
Que en virtud de mi cuidado me sustenta mi pasión.

[/one_half]Ballads – Doña Isabel de Vega (XVI century) – Provided version

It is not enough to dissemble or feign contentment
That the raging thought bursts to show itself.

I don’t take advantage of being silent, although reason tells me
That if the tongue is mute, the eyes can talk.

Oh timid heart! how happy you would have been
If it were you who had feigned badly, like so many do!

But oh! how much to my cost is your bad truth
Then even more perverse, the bad obstinacy.

Deceptions are not of value any more to make me understand
How costly is love that carries with it such damage.

That my love is so blind and the bad so deep rooted
That in the virtue of my care my passion supports me.


[one_half]repeatedCoplas – Doña Isabel de Vega (XVI century)

Ni basta disimular ni fingir contentamiento,
Qu’el rabioso pensamiento revienta por se mostrar.

No me aprovecha callar aunque la razón me ayuda,
Que si la lengua está muda los ojos saben hablar.

¡Oh cuitado corazón! ¡cuán dichoso hubieras sido
Si fuera tu mal fingido, como los de muchos son!

Mas, ¡ay! cuán a costa mía es vuestro mal verdadero,
Pues mucho más persevero mientras más el mal porfía.

Ya no valen desengaños para hacerme entender
Cuán costoso es el querer que acarrea tantos daños.

Qu’es tan ciega mi afición y está el mal tan arraigado,
Que en virtud de mi cuidado me sustenta mi pasión.

[/one_half]Verses – Doña Isabel de Vega (XVI century) – My version

It is not enough to dissemble or to affect contentment,
for the raging thought bursts through to show itself.

There’s no point keeping quiet, though reason tells me to,
for even if the tongue is still, the eyes give me away.

Ah, timid heart! how happy you would have been
if you were only feigning sorrow, as many others do!

But oh! how much it hurts me, the sadness that you bear;
the more that I insist, the more stubborn you become.

Pretence no longer fools me, or helps me understand
how costly this desire that brings so much pain.

Oh, my love is blind, and the roots of hurt run deep,
it’s only through heartache that passion can sustain me.

Does a translation need to aim for faithfulness? Ezra Pound, who perhaps is both the godfather of
modern English poetry and of poetry-in-translation, produced notable versions of Chinese poetry in
his book ‘Cathay’ (1915). His work was subsequently criticised as misinterpreting the original
Chinese, of which Pound had a poor knowledge, and yet the poems he made have often been
considered to be fine works in their own right / write. Perhaps what he achieved is a translation of
the ideas of the original poets, but expressed through his own genius.

There are now, of course, professional poets who have dedicated important parts of their careers
to translating foreign-language poets into English, for example David Gascoyne (French
surrealism), David Constantine (German), George Szirtes (Hungarian), or Seamus Heaney
(Beowulf, translated from Anglo-Saxon English). Having said that, some translations I have read
have left me frustrated – for me the results are poor. For example, I have been disappointed with
some Spanish to English translations of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Nowadays there is a tendency to encourage have-a-go translations of poems into English from a
foreign language, even if the translator has no, or little, knowledge of the source language. This
can be easily attempted by the use of good software such as Google Translate, with appropriate
editing of the sometimes garbled results, to produce an interesting poem, and I’d be the last to say
that it’s something that should not be done. If nothing else, it will perhaps oblige the translator to
carry out detailed close-reading of the original, which is certain to be rewarding. But, in my
experience, if one hopes to do proper justice to the original poem, and poet, the more knowledge
of the source language that one has, the better the translation is likely to be. Besides, time spent
learning another language is never wasted. It helps us to better understand and communicate with
people from other places.

¹‘De Un Tiempo a Esta Parte’ (‘From a Time to a Moment’) by Javier Bergia and Begoña Olavide, 1




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