Friday, June 14, 2013

Poetry Friday: What Gets Lost (or Found) in Translation

Brueghel's Tower of Babel

For Poetry Friday today, I'd like to suggest a writing experiment involving translation. I've done it before on my own but was reminded about it again by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, who talked about it over at Brain Pickings, the wonderful blog written by Maria Popova. I've applied this experiment to a few short lines of poetry to see if we can get from one thought to another, one inspiration to another. Note that changes in the sense of it can be amusing, but more than that, other changes provide food for thought about how important the effects of sound are (the original language - how it flows, what strategies are used - meter, rhyme, consonance, assonance, alliteration, idiomatic sayings, familiar metaphors) on the success of a poem.  It certainly proves the adage that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but maybe it proves, too, that poetry can be found in the mistranslations.


  1. At the Babelfish site, put your poem (or a famous poem you love) into the translation box. Choose a language to translate it into (let's say Ukranian) and, once you have the translation, copy and paste that translation into another translation box.  You are going to do this three times, each time translating into a new language.
  2. Okay, you copied the first translation - you have the poem in Ukranian. Paste it into a new translation box and translate from Ukranian into another language, not English. Let's say Japanese, this time around.
  3. Copy the Japanese version and translate into another language. Maybe Spanish? Copy that.
  4. Take the Spanish version, paste it into a fresh translation box and translate BACK INTO ENGLISH.
  5. See what you've got once you go through four translations (in this case, from English to Ukranian to Japanese to Spanish then back into English.)  Does it make any sense? If you wrote the poem, is there anything - maybe a word choice, a phrase or two -  that inspires you to rethink the way you wrote the original? 
Here is the result from a little couplet ("Little snake, little snake, / What a pretty pair we make") translated exactly as I've suggested:

"Most snakes small snake make beautiful couple " - the lovely rhyme is lost, of course (line breaks are the first to go, then rhyme) and the meaning is significantly changed - but it's food for thought - that a snake can make a "couple" with itself; in other words, a snake is duplicitous. Or maybe the meaning becomes this: that a snake can couple with any other snake, no need for a particular snake. Which would make for a strange anniversary message. Something to think about.

Here is something slightly longer - the first verse of a familiar lullaby:

Hush, little baby, don't say a word -
Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring.

Mockingbird - Apparently Untranslatable

Put through the same four translations, it comes out this way:

Hush little baby Don t ' ' t say.
Going to buy MOM peresmišnika.
If you win the peresmišnika
' will buy the MOM diamond ring

I love the fact that a mockingbird gets completely lost after the Ukrainian - the automatic translator can't move it into Japanese. Does the Japanese language not have a word for "mockingbird"?  Are there no mockingbirds in Japan? That's probably not true, but the idea of it - a land where there were no mockingbirds -  would make a lovely poem. And the fact that "cry" has turned into "say," and that the mockingbird has been won - strange!

Here is one of my own poems involving burnt toast - followed by its mistranslation.


How hot were we? Hot as toast!
Now the most we can do
is scrape off the burned bits.
Still, we’re not half bad
with a little honey, Honey.   

Translation (I've added back in the line breaks and some punctuation):


We did it as a hot day?
So hot toast! Now rub,
the most we can do is burned bits.
But we are half wrong,
not a little honey is honey.

I wonder if that's true, that not a little honey is honey? And look how sneakily an anniversary has become Memorial Day (in Spanish, it was "el dia de los caidos" - the day of the fallen - which would make a great title, maybe, for the original poem.) And even though "we're not half bad" is what I meant, I love the idea behind "we are half wrong," which is open to interpretation.

Like I said, food for thought: mistranslations, opening up interpretations.

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by Marilyn over at Reflections of the Teche. Head over there to see what other people are sharing.


  1. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post on poetry translating. What weird and wonderful results! I'm going to try it.


  2. Love this fun poetry activity. My students would have a blast with it. Definitely makes you think about language and the meaning of words we use.

  3. Thanks for suggesting this, Julie. I did this with one of my short poems:

    None Unhurried, None at Rest

    Nothing milder than the rabbit,
    alone with his lunch of chicory,
    but never, as he stiffens, alone
    a long stretch, for even the warmth
    that heavies the August wind
    hastens him on with hawk-flight, cat-calls.

    (becomes after translation from English-Ukrainian-Japanese-Spanish-English)

    The slow number alone, without

    Nothing, not softer than the rabbit
    Chicory and dinner alone
    However, by itself, so that there has to freeze
    However, the long section to the heat
    Wind big game in August
    I hasten to Hawk flying in CAT-call.

    (and the same poem from English-Hebrew-Swedish-Khmer-Greek-Serbian-English)

    Speed depends Parliament

    More restrained than the rabbit:
    Their own meals with radishes
    But, as it hardens, only
    For a long time, despite the heat
    August winds
    Promote gasoline called Fly-CAT.

    (I have no idea how Parliament got in there, but I love that my poem is promoting a petroleum product called Fly-CAT.)

  4. Very cool! I love the idea of distressing something in order to find new meaning and inspiration. I'll definitely have to try this out. Thanks for posting!

  5. PS. Love your quirky anniversary poem too. :)

  6. What a great tool for writing. I entered some lines that I was wrestling with and found myself looking at them differently. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Here's Frost's Stopping By Woods after it's been through Arabic and Spanish. I used Google Translate because I didn't have to sign up for anything. Cool exercise!

    Breton and these are what I already know.
    His house in the village, though,
    Will not stop here
    For filling the forest with snow.

    My little horse must think it's weird
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    Gives your bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound's the sweep
    Easy wind and soft scales.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

  8. What an interesting experiment! I especially love the snake couplet translated to:
    "Most snakes small snake make beautiful couple "
    What a hoot! I must try this. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Of course I had to do this immediately! I took this couplet from one of my poems:

    I watered you from bulb to bloom,
    watched you waltz away the gloom

    and put it through English - Italian - Greek - Finnish - English:

    I washed down the flowering bulb to the roll out of the darkness.

    I like that I am now possibly eating the flowering bulb, and "roll out of the darkness" -- yes!

    This was a great experiment, Julie. I have translated many of my husband's poems from Italian, and it's always a challenge. Love playing with languages!

  10. this is fascinating! i'm going to give it a try!