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Poets as Translators, Interpreters and Illuminators
Copyright©2007 by Nathan Harms

The importance of translation

Many famous authors are familiar to us only because of the work of translators. "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy were first written in Russian. "Around the World in Eighty Days" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" by Jules Verne were first written in French. None of Pablo Neruda's poetry would be known to English speakers without translation, as it was first written in Spanish.

Perhaps the most overlooked work of translation is that of the Holy Bible which was originally written in several languages—Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. English readers of the Bible sometimes imagine that the "original" Bible was written in King James English, but nothing could be further from the truth—it is a translation.

What does a translator do?

A translator must be highly literate in at least two languages. A translator takes an existing written text—for example, a book or a poem—and rewrites it in a language other than the original. The task requires an understanding of the meaning of words, but perhaps even more important, the translator must understand the culture of the language and its idioms.

An obvious pitfall for would-be translators is literal translation that ignores the style and intent of the original material and uses a "word-for-word" approach. For example, the German word "kindergarten" is literally rendered "garden of children." While this is a beautiful image, it's not what the word is meant to communicate. A writer translating the English phrase, "that car cut me off," needs to understand that scissors, knives or other sharp-edged devices are not implied.

The task of an interpreter

An interpreter has a slightly different task than a translator. An interpreter must also be fluent in two languages, but interpretation is typically oral, not written. Perhaps you've seen a person speaking in a foreign language while another person speaks in English so that you can understand what's being said.

There is another category of interpretation as well, one more vital to poetry. This engages interpretation as a means of explanation or illumination. For example, a scientist may present you with data from her most recent research project, but the data needs to be interpreted for a lay person to comprehend its meaning. Likewise, a medical doctor's CAT scan of your lungs will likely be incomprehensible to you without his interpretation.

Illumination in the Bible

Producing the English Bible required translation, but it also required interpretation. For instance Genesis 37:3 tells us the story of Joseph's coat of many colors. Yet the original text (in Hebrew) refers to Joseph's coat as passiym, a word that can be interpreted as “with long sleeves,” “with much embroidery,” “of choice wool,” or “of many colors.”  Interpreters had to make a choice. You can see how important the tasks of interpretation and translation can be. Christians and Jews are familiar with "Joseph's coat of many colors," but "Joseph's coat with long sleeves" might get some odd responses!

The poet's unutterable language

The poet's task is a blend of translation and interpretation; translation because poets present their thoughts in written text, and interpretation because poets take an unutterable inner language and illuminate it for others.

What is this "unutterable inner language" that poets interpret? More often than not, the poet's initial call to a poem is due to thoughts or emotions not known to anyone but the poet. Perhaps you looked out your window on a dreary February morning and were overcome with ennui. It seemed as though winter had conquered every other season. Spring would never arrive. Could daffodils can push their heads up through the ice and snow? Ennui was that sense of weariness and discontent you felt at such a time.

If you wish to communicate this ennui in a poem, you need to become a translator and an interpreter. While this ennui is trapped inside of you, it cannot be read or appreciated by any other person. It needs to be translated to paper and illuminated.

The literal poem

You could communicate your ennui literally, of course. You could say, "I feel ennui in February." There! Your translation is complete. But that's not poetry, is it? Does the person who hears, "I feel ennui," understand what is going on inside of you? Does he even know what the word "ennui" means?

You could use poetry, making a literal translation of your experience at the window:

When I look out my window
My heart is sad and glum.
The snow is still not melting
And Spring will never come.

You have now translated your feelings literally into verse—or a "poem"—but I think you'll agree that this brief effort falls far short of communicating your real feelings, that sense of ennui.

Lazy and inaccurate translation

Many of the poems I receive at Utmost Christian Writers are "literal translations" like the one above. For instance, a poet writes of his sense of God's great love:

Because God loved me so
He sent his Son below
That I might ever live with him
And all His caring know.

There is no doubt that this poem is a translation of the poet's appreciation of God's love, but is it an accurate interpretation? Does the reader experience the feelings of the poet? No. It's a literal, flat, word-for-word translation that fails utterly. Although the rhythm and rhyme define the work as a "poem," the failure to illuminate the original experience make this poem a dismal flop.

Which sense of God's love is the poet attempting to communicate? Is it the gratitude he first felt when he knew God had rescued him by salvation at the cross of Christ? Or is it the relief he experienced when he escaped serious injury in a car accident and felt that God's hand had been upon him? Or is it the ennui he feels in realizing that—despite God's immense love and grace—he is failing to live the righteous life he has been called into?

The short poem above fails to interpret in a way that communicates anything other than clichés.

Interpretation requires commitment

To be a successful interpreter of your feelings you have to do much better than a simple descriptive sentence or four lines of doggerel! Do you remember the complex emotions that flowed through you as you peered out your window on a February morning?

It's been cold and dreary forever.
I can't recall what it feels like to have the warm summer breeze in my hair.
Why can't I just be happy with today as it is?
Even though it seems hopeless to me, I know that Spring must inevitably arrive.

A successful interpreter will need to examine these thoughts and feelings to communicate them in a way that allows the reader to also experience them.

Successful translation, interpretation and illumination

Although Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's poem, "Early February," was not written with my article in mind, it's an excellent example of interpreting and translating the ennui we have been considering.

Do you see how the images in her poem help you to experience her feelings? There is everything you might wish to communicate about ennui in this poem, and more besides…a message of grace that's deeper than the original image. Her poem is an excellent interpretation and translation—and it's illuminating.

A great compliment once given to a famous book translator was that his translation was even better than the original novel. If you succeed in becoming a poet who translates and interprets skillfully, it's possible that your poetry might also speak to the hearts and minds of your readers with more power than you ever knew was available in your original inspiration.

Improving your skills

Many articles freely available here at Utmost Christian Writers can help you improve your skills as a poet.

Here are a few tips to help you towards becoming a great interpreter and translator for your readers.

A good interpreter does not assume that the listener already knows what is being said.
A good interpreter uses the language of the listener.
A good interpreter does not talk down to the listener or over-simplify.
A good interpreter cares about the listener and wants the message to be clear.

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