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Old 07-21-2002, 10:42 PM
RJH RJH is offline
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Why do translated poems still rhyme?

Why do translated poems still rhyme? Inferno is a good example but I've seen plenty others.
Old 07-21-2002, 10:52 PM
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Because the translator chooses words to make them rhyme. They might not even have rhymed in the original language. Rhyming is typical of much English language poetry, but it's not a requirement. In Virgil's poetry (classical Latin), rhyming wasn't used at all--it was the meter and flow of words that made it poetry. Some English translations rhyme, some don't.
Old 07-21-2002, 11:03 PM
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Gary T has it right. It works the same way in songs. Take the song "On My Own" from Les Mis..... I'll only give you the first line.

"On my own, pretending he's beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning."

"Mon histoire, c'est un reve qui commence, dans les pages d'un conte de mon enfance."

("My story is a dream that begins, on the pages of the tale of my childhood" - rough personal translation)

Take ANY Disney movieand listen to the songs... they're very different in each language, but always holding to the overall meaning of the original characters/emotions.
Old 07-21-2002, 11:05 PM
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Because the translations may not be exact translations.


I have a copy of Shel Silverstein's Where The Sidewalk Ends translated into Hebrew.

He has a poem "Early Bird" which goes*

Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you're a bird, be an early bird-
but if you're a worm, sleep late.
This rhymes. The Hebrew version rhymes too, but the translation of it (mine) is:

If you are an early-riser go out in the morning
To catch for breakfast a worm
But if you're a worm, lie in bed
Cover up and say that you're sick
As you can see, the same concept applies, the Hebrew still rhymes, but the "translation" is far from exact.

* I know we should only post excerpts and not complete works, but it's only a four line poem!

Zev Steinhardt
Old 07-21-2002, 11:11 PM
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A Latin teacher I had once told the class that the translation of a poem may be a poem, and it may even be a good poem, but it won't be the same poem. Generally, the most "accurate" translation of a poem will be a prose one.

There are some exceptions, when a poem is translated to a very similar language. Translations of The Canterbury Tales, for instance, require very little work to preserve the poetic structure, since most of the words are similar in Middle and Modern English.
Old 07-21-2002, 11:27 PM
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A good test of your interest in this subject is seeing if you can read Le Ton Beau De Marot by Douglas Hofstadter. About 500 pages with over 100 translations of a single poem with about a dozen lines.

Old 07-22-2002, 12:11 AM
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One of my favorite quotations is "All poetry is untranslatable" (E. V. Gordon). Another of my favorites is:

Since this is about poetry, I'll move this thread to our arts forum, Cafe Society.
Old 07-22-2002, 12:29 AM
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One of the most interesting things I've seen on this subject is a translation of The Jabberwocky into French and German, found in one of the dialogues from Hofstadter's magnum opus Gödel, Escher, Bach. This is a particularly tough one, because half the words are nonsensical, and so the translator has to invent foreign-language words that have the appropriate sound for the meaning in the original.
Old 07-22-2002, 02:53 AM
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A nice quote I have heard is, "The definition of poetry is what's lost in translation."
Old 07-22-2002, 05:21 AM
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I took a serious literary translation class in the English department at my university, and for my project I translated some of Wislawa Szymborska's poetry. After reading John Felstiner's Translating Neruda, reading through multiple translations of the same works, and working on it myself, I think I could add some insight to this.

Basically, GaryT's got the gyst of the answer. It rhymes because the translator decided to make it rhyme. When translating poetry that are a HUGE number of decisions each translator has to make, and translation is a game of give and take. The words that will rhyme in the target language (TL) are seldom the same words that rhyme in the original language (OL), unless coincidence is in your favor.

For the TL, you have at least these considerations to make:
1) How literal the translation is
2) How much to emulate the form of the OL
3) How much to emulate the sounds (rhymes, consonance, alliteration, assonance, etc.) of the OL
4) How to convey varying levels of diction in the TL (it's inevitable that phrases that sound colloquial in one language will sound extremely odd in other languages. You have to compensate for this somehow.)
5) How to deal with meter (i.e. In English, Shakespeare's plays are iambic pentameter. In Polish, the most well-known translations are in 11- or 13- (I can't remember which) syllable meters, as that is the equivalent meter for this sort of work in Polish history.)
6) Many more that escape me at the moment.

Rhyme is just one consideration, and some (if not most) translators would try to preserve it, since it's generally key to the spirit of the original. It's incredibly difficult for two reasons: One, you have to find which words to rhyme, as they generally will not be the same words as the OL. Two, how strong does the rhyme need to be. Too masculine and it may start sounding heavy and clumsy. Too weak, and it may understate the force of the original.
Occassionally, translators may even change the rhyme scheme of the original to better accomodate the TL.

I'm not necessarily of the camp that "all poetry is untranslatable." Rather, that what comes out of translation is poetry, but is partly colored by the translator. Every translation of Szymborska I've seen was quite different from each other, and some contained remarkably bad turns of phrase and unusual jumps of diction which do not occur in the Polish. It's a bit like playing Liszt's piano reduction of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's Beethoven, you get the point of the original, yet there is undoubtably something lost in playing an orchestral piece on the piano. Or perhaps a more apt analogy would be playing Bach's clavier works on the guitar. It's possible, but you have to make concessions to the music.
Old 07-22-2002, 05:52 AM
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Gary T hit it on the head, but I wanted to add my 2 cents. When I was studying in Japan, I did an independent study in haiku. I've had several opportunities to look at both in Japanese and in various English translations. It's been 16 years since I did the study, so I may be a bit rusty, but basically the rules for a haiku poem is it must consist of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 lines, and it must include a seasonal word. You would not believe how many translations of haiku I've read which rhyme the 1st and 3rd line.

[/pet peeve]
The Japanese language has only 5 vowel sounds, and one consonant which can be used to end a syllable with. If the poet wanted it to rhyme, he would have! There is no reason for the English to rhyme. If you're buying a book of English translations of Japanese haiku and the translations rhyme, don't buy it. [/pet peeve]

Old 07-22-2002, 08:21 AM
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There is supposedly a Russian proverb that goes:

"A translation is like a mistress -- either beautiful and unfaithful, or faithful and ugly."

I don't have much experience with mistresses, so excuse that if it slanders them. But it seems reasonable correct for translations. I've tried my hand at a few, and it's tough work. For poetry, you want to try and give a sense of meter and convey the beautiful language of the original. Asking this to rhyme on top of all that is asking for trouble. Some people can pull it off. Most people end up torturing the text or forcing rhymes. I think that's why I kinda like blank verse translations.
After he finished his work on conditioning dogs, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov ambitiously tried his theories on angels, eventually training a flock of them to go and get their wings from a rack when signaled with a bell.
Old 07-22-2002, 08:27 AM
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People who translate musicals make beaucoup bucks. They have to keep the rhymes, the syllables, the idea and make it possible to sing. Sometimes it falls completely flat. The Japanese version of "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love is one of the worst I've ever heard.

Sometimes two different translators will translate different. The German of the Austrian CATS is much easier to understand than the German of the German CATS.

Good books for translations of Jabberwocky are Martin Gardner's
Annoted Alice series. He has about 20 translations.
Old 07-22-2002, 10:56 AM
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Well, it depends on the poem, and the bot languages (the original and translation). I have often noticed that translations from english to spanish are better than translations from Spanish to English. I thought it was because Spanish has more words nut my uncle said that this wasn't true, he says that english has more vocabulary (incidentally if someone knows who is right please hijack the thread).
Anyway I found one poem that is exactly the same both in English and Spanish (note to moderators: it's from Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life is a dream, it's no longer copyrighted. He died in 1681):

Sueña el rey que es rey, y vive
con este engaño mandando,
disponiendo y gobernando;
y este aplauso, que recibe
prestado, en el viento escribe,
y en cenizas le convierte
la muerte, ¡desdicha fuerte!
¿Que hay quien intente reinar,
viendo que ha de despertar
en el sueño de la muerte?

Sueña el rico en su riqueza,
que más cuidados le ofrece;
sueña el pobre que padece
su miseria y su pobreza;
sueña el que a medrar empieza,
sueña el que afana y pretende,
sueña el que agravia y ofende,
y en el mundo, en conclusión,
todos sueñan lo que son,
aunque ninguno lo entiende.

Yo sueño que estoy aquí
destas prisiones cargado,
y soñé que en otro estado
más lisonjero me vi.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son

And now the english version, those who speaks spanish will notice that the translation is extremely acurate:

The king dreams he is a king, and lives
in this deception commanding,
disposing of, reigning, ruling,
And the applause, thus on loan received
so gets in the wind written.
And in ashes Death
will turn him - great disgrace!
Who will dare so to govern
seeing himself come awake
to the sorry dream of Death?

The rich one dreams of his riches
which more care and comfort yields him;
the poor one dreams that he suffers
his sheer misery and poverty.
Dreams he who to live begins,
and he who toils and pretends,
and he who grieves and offends
and in the world, in conclusion,
they all thus what they are dream
although no one will so see it.

I dream that I am in here
with these chains and prisons burdened
yet I dreamt that I in other,
more fulsome state saw myself.
What is life? A frantic moment,
What is life? But an illusion,
but a shadow, but a fiction,
and the greatest good is small:
for life is all but a dream
and dreams are just that, they're dreams.
Old 07-22-2002, 12:25 PM
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There was this forum at my college last year where a Caribbean French writer, Maryse Conde, was discussing some of her work. Interestingly enough, her husband, an Englishman, wrote the English translations to all her books. That way, he could always find out exactly what she had wanted to say.

It was interesting listening to her read a passage, followed by the husband's translation of the same passage. Also, I should note that she was not pleased in hearing a translation at all. Seriously, a book, poem, or song is someone's artwork. It's good that people who might not speak the original language can enjoy it; however, they're never quite getting the real thing.

Take Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Anyone who's read it in a language other than French has missed EVERYTHING! The reason the book's so great is the flow, sound, and look of the original language!
Old 07-22-2002, 01:06 PM
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Wow. It's not every day I get to pull my Dante collection off the top shelf.

Dante wrote in a rhyme scheme called terza rima.

Terza rima is a verse form composed of iambic tercets (three-line groupings). The rhyme scheme for this form of poetry is "aba bcb cdc, etc." The second line of each tercet sets the rhyme for the following tercet, and thus supplying the verse with a common thread, a way to link the stanzas. The only time the form changes is at the conclusion of the poem, where a single line that rhymes with the second line of the final tercet stands alone; the rhyme scene at the end of the poem looks like this: "xyx yzy z."
Terza rima is much easier to do in Italian than in English because of the many rhyme possibilities that Italian offers. That's why very few of the translators even attempt such a scheme for The Divine Comedy.

Dorothy Sayers did a version of terza rima for her translation:

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ay me! how hard to speak of it - that rude
and rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;
Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey
The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith.

John Ciardi's translation uses an easier aba cdc efe scheme, somewhat less formally, though he still, like Sayers, needs to resort to "poetic" rhymes (sometimes called "slant" rhymes) -- down=alone; war=err:

The light was departing. The brown air drew down
all the earth's creatures, calling them to rest
from their day-roving, as I, one man alone,

prepared myself to face the double war
of the journey and the pity, which memory
shall here set down, nor hesitate, nor err.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.

Mostly, however, Dante translators resort either to blank verse -- Biancolli, White, Cary -- which dispense with the tercet verse scheme altogether, or "prose" translations -- Grandgent, Huse -- which, oddly, are printed so that the original three-line groupings are printed as sets.

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!

So bitter it is, that scarcely more is death: but to treat of the good I there found, I will relate the other things that I discerned.

If you compare Grandgent's opening of Canto I with Ciardi's, it's sometimes hard to tell that they are translations of the same lines.

Just for comparison, here is Cary's old-fashioned blank verse opening:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover'd there.

So the answer is that translated rhymed poetry doesn't always rhyme, and if it does rhyme, it may not rhyme in the same way. As others have said, it is the task of the translator to capture both the sense and the beauty of the original and no two translators will set upon doing that along identical paths.
Old 07-22-2002, 03:44 PM
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English has a larger vocabulary than any other known language on Earth (mostly from loanwords), but that doesn't mean that it's easier to rhyme in English. Many languages have restrictions on how words can end, which will increast the frequency of rhymes. In Latin, for instance, the ending of a word tells you what role it plays in the sentence, so if you have two lines ending in (say) a masculine word in genetive case, they're almost guaranteed to rhyme. On the other hand, in Latin, it's almost impossible to find rhymes between two words of different form, so a rhyme scheme would force the grammar uncomfortably. For both of these reasons, rhyme is not a characteristic of Latin poetry: Latin poetry is all about the meter.

Now, in English, on the other hand, poetry is almost always characterized by rhyme, and there's much less emphasis on the meter. So, if you want to translate a Latin poem into an English poem, it might be reasonable to give it a fluid meter, but add a rhyme scheme. After all, what you've got after translation is an English poem, so it might as well follow English poetic rules.
Old 07-22-2002, 03:56 PM
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Estilicon - it depends what you mean by "exactly the same." Is it a literal translation? Not quite, as there seem to be (from my elementary knowledge of Spanish) a few extra words added here and there in the English which I don't think are necessary, but the translator obviously found them so. Actually, now that I look at it, the extra words (an "but a," which is a simple "un" or "una" in Spanish) do create a better meter. Obviously, the rhyme scheme is lost in the English version. (Probably a good idea. But who knows what a little, ahem, a lot of extra work could have produced.) Is it a faithful translation? Word-for-word translations (which this is not exactly) are easy. What's the point? There's more to poetry than the exact words.

That said, the translations I've studied (the Szymborska), all the translators were very faithful to the words of the original. In fact, in terms of meaning, the translations I've read have been pretty much 100% accurate.

But were they all accurate to the spirit of the poem? No, that's where the difference lies. There's so many words in English which mean the same thing, all with different levels of diction and different connotations. For example, how do you translate "niebycie" to English? Non-being? Non-existience? Oblivion? Nothingness? Inexistence? Do you translate a word as "destiny" or "fate" or something different? These are the main challenges confronting the translator.

If something sounds awkward in English, is it an awkward turn of phrase in the original? This is my pet peeve. When translaterese creeps into poetry, it drives me nuts. Occassionally, I've read translations of poetry and then there's a phrase that sticks out like a sore thumb, a sudden rise or drop in diction or the use of an outdated idiom in a modern translation which does not correspond to the same tone or diction as in the original. That's what gets my goat.

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