Translation Corner: Poetry Edition

Posted on: 13. September 2009

My search for the next thing that is seemingly impossible to translate correctly has brought me to poetry – can you translate poems? Sure you can. Can you Translate poems into another language, whilst keeping the original message intact, and possibly the same rhyme scheme alive? Probably not. I went on a nice little search to find a poem that was well-translated, and this is what I found:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It’s the father with his child;
He has the boy safe in his arm,
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.

This is the first stanza of the famous Erlkönig by Goethe. The translation was done by Hyde Flippo, which you can read here in its entirety.

At first glance we can agree that yes, this is an accurate translation of the German original. But when we look more closely, we see that there are discrepancies. The rhymes are not always clean or even there, as evidenced by the second line.

The second thing I wish to point out (and the last one, I do not wish for this to become a thorough analysis) is in the second stanza – the word combination Schweif is translated into flowing robe – I did not choose that part to show the missing rhyme, but rather some word difficulties; Schweif is either the tail of a horse, or figuratively speaking anything that resembles something hair-like hanging from an object, seemingly translucent or not completely solid. One could argue that flowing robe was chosen because a Schweif would not suit the Erlkönig in his description, or because a horse’s tail simply doesn’t make sense at that point. But since we cannot fathom what Goethe had in mind when he wrote the poem, we can only offer our own interpretation, and in this case the translator has made the decision to see Schweif as the flowing robe of the erlking, not maybe some mythical horse-tail that a non-human erlking might sport – or even some ethereal trail of something that the, again, inhuman erlking might emit. As I said, I do not wish to bore you with too deep an analysis, but since this is told from the perspective of a child, a Schweif could have referred to anything a young child could mistake for it – any kind of longish hair, for instance.

In conclusion, my answer is again two-fold. Yes, you can translate a poem, but only in a sense that you can interpret it, just in another language. You’d need the original artist to have perfect command over another language and then write his poem in that language, and then he’d have to say that this is the best and closest translation possible, since he wrote it. But since it is not art’s goal to be universally translateable, we only have other peoples‘ interpretations to mull over.


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