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In today’s pubtalk I would like to talk about the translation of poetry. Some of you (like me) know poems in a second (or first language) and for others you might read poems in translation.

A few weeks ago we restarted the Pubtalk that will be focused more on reading poetry than writing poetry. Last time we talked about Constructive Feedback, and this week it’s time to talk about the translation of poetry.

Obviously a part of the poem will alwasy be lost in translation… but some type of poetry will always translate quite well, but often a poem can only be translated by a poet. As a matter of fact many famous poets have worked in part as translators.

Obviously coming from Sweden I will give an example of a poet who originally wrote in Swedish, Tomas Tranströmer and his poem:


Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.

This poem is translated by Robert Bly and I think it was done in deep collaboration with Tranströmer. To me the fact that this translates well is the way the poet has created metaphors that works as well in English as they do in Swedish. However I think there is always something lost that I feel when I read the original version in Swedish.

You can listen to him reading his poem here:

A translated poem I love to read a lot is Pablo Neruda, his sonnets especially is among the best thing in poetry, but given my reading experience reading Tranströmer, I do expect that they would be even better in Spanish.

So what do you think make a poem translatable?
Have you ever tried translating a poem?
What are your favorite translated poems?
What can never be translated in a poem?