Why Poetry Cannot Be Translated

Mar 5, 2020

The classical renewal places great emphasis on the trivium and on language. In contrast to modern progressive education which only “has a mind of metal and wheels,” classical education restores the primacy of the word over the gadget. Rather than the know-how of mechanical manipulation, a language-based education ascends to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. And the crowning achievement of language is poetry for it moves us from the mundane to the spiritual through the symbolic layers of its words. But because of the formal restrictions of meter and rhyme and the images produced by words, poetry’s meaning cannot be fully translated.

The meaning of a poem does not consist of brute facts or content, but also includes the form which gives it shape. I haven’t been able to drink water successfully without a container or a source to give it form. A prose rendition of a poem does not capture the rhythm and rhyme or the color and music of each phrase. Sparknotes cannot tell you what a poem means; it can only describe its content because meaning results only from the unique combination of form and matter. 

The belief that reading a poem in translation can fully convey its original meaning stems from the rejection of form. Our churches reject the order imposed by liturgy. Wedding vows must be original, rejecting the traditional solemnities. We reject the routine of written prayer in favor of spontaneous expression. Such dismissals of form claim to be more authentic, but more often leave us the slaves of our sudden whims than express our true intention. When our hearts are broken and we cannot find words, we rely on form to give us voice.

Because words have different syllable counts across languages, the requirements of various meters lend themselves to certain languages more than others. While dactylic hexameter flows wonderfully in Greek, it doesn’t work as well in English. The terse hybrid of Germanic and French is more suited to iambs and pentameter. When translating classic works such as The Iliad or Aeneid, the original meter is seldom replicated because it would sacrifice one aspect of meaning in favor of another.

Rhymes don’t work across languages either. This is why Dante’s terza rima has not been copied with the same beauty as in Italian. Trying to imitate it imposes an insurmountable constraint on the translator. He must choose between language and rhyme. He either loses the connotation of the right word or dispenses with the effect contributed by rhyme. The overall effect of a poem is composed of the unity of form and content. Thus, when translating a poem, the translator may be creating a new work of art in its own right (see Pope’s translation of The Odyssey), but he is still changing the essence of the original. 

Beyond formal constraints, the possibilities of words develop a poem’s meaning. But because languages seldom have vocabulary which directly corresponds to the vocabulary in another language, translation cannot perfectly match the original. Words have semantic domains—ranges of meaning. The word “angelos” in Greek could describe a “messenger” or “angel,” yet in English we are forced to make a choice between the two. Similarly, Latin’s “principium” may be interpreted “foundation” or “beginning.” The English speaker must decide. Thus, puns, wordplay, and double-meanings are all lost when moving from one language to another. Did John mean “above” or “again” when he wrote “anothen” (John 3:3)? Perhaps both, but translation removes the ambiguity.

What’s more, words and languages have their own unique voices. A thump lands more heavily than a whack, but stings less. Alliteration, assonance, and consonance disappear through translation. The author of The Letter to the Hebrews frequently ornaments his words with such devices, none of which are reproduced in our English translations. Even translating a word accurately does not duplicate its full effect on the ear because languages have their own sounds and flavors, as in flowing Italian or brusque German. Even if they are “saying the same thing,” they sure don’t sound like they are.

Words have backstories, so while they may overlap in meaning, they don’t share pedigrees. Many people without common ancestors are similar, yet they are still distinguished by their respective histories and experiences. I might list a couple translations for a given Latin or Greek word, but I don’t know them like the words “scrape,” “drench,” or “wallop,” words that have imprinted themselves on me through sense-experience so that I recognize them after-hours, outside the lexicon. Perhaps we should stop claiming that “legomeans, “I choose; gather; read,” and instead say that is how we translate it. Because of its history, the word “lego” means more than our English substitutes.

The symbolic nature of words also restricts translation of poetry. Words are signs that point to realties beyond themselves. They may indicate abstract concepts or physical objects. At times, they merge the two in a meeting of heaven and earth. Words have multiple layers of meaning, and because these perspectives are not identical between languages, the effect of any particular word is different. The finality of the perfect tense in “Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium” continues to haunt after the simple description, “we were Trojans; Ilium is no more” has faded away.

The untranslatable nature of poetry implies that to enjoy the fruits of Western culture fully we must revel in the glory of words. We should ask our students to think about the meaning produced by content and form. Practice choosing not only the “right” word, but also identifying the “right” place. Teach writing by ear, not just by sight or rule. Meaning is the harmony of a poem’s aspects. And because languages carry their own unique wonder, encourage students to learn at least one language deeply enough to read an original work and soak in its culture. A language education that only aims for a smattering of word roots or a small collection of grammatical rules in order to boost SAT scores is a miscarriage of language study. Teach for the delight of poetry. No one else can translate it for you.

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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