More than at any time before it is obvious that poetry now finds itself in a paradoxical situation. While the number of poets and their work is generally recognized as a core of a cultural heritage, the number of readers has reached new minimum levels. Each national literary history takes poetry and poets seriously and it is not rare that poets are often seen as cultural icons or national symbols. In Central Europe we can find an example when the year 2008 was declared as the Year of Zbigniew Herbert, commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death in 1998, and four years later the year 2011 was declared as the Year of Czesław Miłosz, commemorating the centennial of the poet’s birth.
Poetry in its best examples brings new knowledge of the world and mankind; poets are often called visionaries and witnesses, artists with very high levels of perception and sensitivity. Their tool is language, which is also a medium for thinking; metaphors in poetry often work and operate in the same way as scientific terms and have potential to name and unlock things that have just been discovered or invented (Drury 2006, 216-217). Poets even dare to say that their work is not just a reflection of the world but rather an extension to it, a creation of something ontologically new.
The recognition of poetry and poets is reflected in school textbooks, official cultural institutions and even by political bodies. That is not, however, a guarantee of any kind when it comes to numbers of readers, which are paradoxically and alarmingly small. And the contrast in translated poetry is even bigger. In terms of numbers of readers, poetry, translated or not, remains peripheral. The following paragraphs offer a short outline of some reasons why.
Poetry versus poetries
Whenever poetry is discussed in general terms, a problem emerges – which poetry is a matter of such discussion, which model is taken into consideration? Poetry now covers so many different genres, types and forms, it is almost impossible to compare and generalize them. Homer’s Odyssey from the 7th – 8th century BC, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, Polish romantic epic poems by Mickiewicz, Slovenian modernist poems by Srečko Kosovel and lyrics by Bob Dylan can all be classed as poetry. Poetry is a good example of the extent of artists’ creativity and fear or rather “anxiety of influence”, as Harold Bloom (1997) would suggest, which leads to a will or obligation to endlessly produce new and original pieces of work. Given that people have been writing poetry for over three millennia and the number of active poets during that period is almost infinite, it would be sensible to talk rather about poetries and not a single poetry. Clarification of a particular notion of poetry plays a decisive role because different types and forms of poetry have a diverse impact on their translatability.
A noticeable division is seen in the history of European poetry in the second half of the 19th century, after French poetry changed the paradigm of poetry and drew a line between so called “classical” and “modern” poetry. This division was described conclusively by Roland Barthes in the essay Is There Any Poetic Writing? (1953) who says that classical poetry was considered to be an ornamental variation of prose and rather a matter of craft than an expression of unusual sensibility. ‘Poetic’ in the classical sense of the word was an attribute that described a good technique or style of self-expression.
“Classical conceits involve relations, not words: they belong to an art of expression, not of invention. The words, here, do not, as they later do, thanks to a kind of violent and unexpected abruptness, reproduce the depth and singularity of an individual experience; they are spread out to form a surface, according to the exigencies of an elegant or decorative purpose. They delight us because of the formulation which brings them together, not because of their own power or beauty.” (Barthes 1970, p. 47)
On the contrary, modern poetry has taken on whole new dimensions and reinvented concepts of poetic structure. The weight is now put on the “Word”, which Barthes writes with a capital letter. This Word attacks relationships between words, limits them just to show its absolute nature. The connections of one word to another “are merely reserved areas” whereas “the Word in poetry can never be untrue, because it is a whole; it shines with an infinite freedom and prepares to radiate towards innumerable uncertain and possible connections“ (Barthes 1970, p. 47).
Modern poetry is based on the new foundations and is a “vertical project”, “a monolith, or a pillar which plunges into a totality of meanings, reflexes and recollections: it is a sign which stands” (Barthes 1970, p. 48). The freedom of the “modern” poetic speech is also in a way “terrible and inhuman” (Barthes 1970, p. 48) and has a rather limiting effect on the number of competent readers. Barthes places the gap between classical and modern writings to the last two decades of the 19th century and claims the change originated with French symbolists such as Rimbaud. Similar conclusions are made by Czesław Miłosz, who claims that new poetry is born from a deep quarrel. Bohemian poets claim their disagreement with the narrow-minded mentality of common people set up new values and rules that are beyond the reach of the rest of the population. Miłosz (1983, p. 19) says: “the symbolists discovered the idea of a poem as an autonomous, self-sufficient unit, no longer describing the world but existing instead of the world.” The result of this gap is mutual antagonism between poets and “great human family” (Miłosz 1983, p. 19).
For the moment I will put aside critical comments made about Barthes and Miloszʼs notions and merely point out these two outlines. However rough they seem to be, they are supported by school practice in which poetry from the era before symbolism, for example romanticism, is accepted and read whereas modern poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries is often labelled as impossible to understand. This happens even though contemporary literature covers topics and problems much closer to the present-day situation and more familiar to contemporary readers.
The great cause of shifting poetry from the centre to the periphery comes from the poetry itself and the “modern” notion of writing could be seen as an explanation. Modern poetry has become elitist, and being “terrible and inhuman” (Barthes 1970, p. 48) it has significantly reduced its number of readers. This ever-changing character of poetry is difficult to teach at schools; it defies analogies, a method often used successfully in subjects like Mathematics or grammar. The variability of poetry increases both gains and losses; on the one hand poetry is now capable of getting to the very core of language and makes a huge though not always visible impact on the nation and its language; on the other hand, it goes beyond the reach of readers.
The universal law of communication, based on the notion of agreement among language users, is tested in poetry to its limits. The whole process becomes even more difficult if poetry is translated. The innovations and inputs that poetry gives to its national language are often so specific that it is difficult to transfer them to another language and context. Unlike prose, poetry often leaves outside settings and dwells in the mind and imagination of just one person. Their use of language is sometimes so extreme that it might be the only time it is used this way.
“Modern” poetry finds itself at the periphery due to its tendency to be too demanding to understand. Translated poetry increases the demands on the competence of readership mostly for two reasons. First, the process of translation is a multilevel process with a high risk of failure (the famous expression “lost in translation” comes to mind) and, second, translated poetry often has to overcome a language and cultural gap.
Success or failure in translating poetry depends on a number of factors and from the perspective of translatability, poetry falls into three categories: poems that are translatable without loss; poems that are translatable and transferable to another language with extra help; and a group of poems where the loss in translation distorts the original text beyond recognition.
Poems from the first category are often general and global and accessible to most readers around the world. It is mostly because they refer to a personal and yet universal situation and they do not connect to their own national literature. A good example from recent years is the Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur and her collection Milk and Honey (2014), translated successfully into Polish (Mleko i miód, 2017), Slovak (Mlieko a med, 2017), Slovenian (Med in mleko, 2017) and another 27 languages so far. Kaur belongs to a category of “Instagram poets” who post their poems, drawings and observations about love, pain and disappointment in a very straightforward manner, not needing extra competence other than empathy. The book has sold two and a half million copies internationally, which are “airport novel numbers, not poetry ones”, comments the reviewer Carl Wilson (2016) and adds that publishers of Pulitzer poets would be “delighted” if books of Prize winners sell “10,000 copies”.
Most poems would belong to the second category, in which they show a close connection to their mother tongue and native culture, and they often express their continuance or rejection of literary tradition. Poetry is rather centripetal and becomes a part of national literature even if at the same time it may adopt a critical attitude towards the culture which this literature forms a key part of. The degree of translatability is then dependent on rules, according to which the further poetic language goes to the core of the mother tongue, the more difficult is its translation; the more unique is the connection to its native culture and tradition, the less connection it would make with the culture and traditions of the target language context. A good illustrative example is the attempt to translate poetry by the Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney into Slovak (2000) and Czech (2002). Heaney is a poet who uses historical and contemporary Ireland as a basis for his unique but universal observations on human nature. Even translation provided by the experienced poets and translators Jana Kantorová-Báliková (Slovak) and Zdeněk Hron (Czech) showed that as a result of their lack of in-depth knowledge of the poet’s background and immediate inspiration, their translated poems revealed inaccuracies (Gavura 2005). The small imperfections, however, did not affect the poetry to the extent that it was of little or no use for readers and the translations later inspired other important poets (in Slovakia for example Ivan Laučík and Ján Zambor) and addressed readers who cannot understand poetry in its original language.
Success in translating poetry is dependent on a great number of factors difficult to put into a universal rule. The distance between languages and contexts is individual and conditions change from one context to another. It would be much easier to translate poetry within Slavonic languages as most of them share a similar language structure and have common words, or at least roots of words; the Slavs also share some historical experience (national revival in the 19th century, socialism between 1940s – 1980s, etc.) and as neighbouring countries, there is active business and cultural exchange between them.
Even cases of translated poetry so distant from original languages are not a cause for abandonment and resignation. A Japanese haiku, for example, cannot be completely transferred due to its differences in time, alphabet, aesthetic program and tradition, yet it has evolved its own “European” tradition which preserves only some of the original Japanese poetic features.
Translation has been for a long time considered not only a language shift but rather a complex shift between a source and target culture. The required knowledge and competence of a reader is much higher and as a result it reduces the already decreased number of readers. Book publishers and scholars are aware of this difficulty and provide books of translated poetry with notes that would fill in the blank connections in readers’ experience. Another strategy in overcoming obstacles in poetry translation is making couples and teams of specialists, one of them being an expert on language and culture and one being a poet able to re-stylize a poem into a new form of target language.
Succeeding in translating poetry is influenced by a number of factors and the risk that in the process of many steps there might occur one misstep is high. This is often a source of doubts resulting in “translation pessimism” (Palkovičová 2015, p. 32) a term that is dated back to José Ortega y Gasset and his essay from 1937 Miseria y esplendor de la traducción. This is reflected in observations such as a ‘translation is never finished’ or ‘translation has to choose between beauty and faithfulness’ etc. Despite all possible failures, the successful translations of poetry bring an important input in culture even though it is accessible only to a limited audience. The history of literature also proves that sometimes not the first impulses of translated pieces of work are the most important but also those that come disseminated in other works when the link to the original sources has faded or vanished.
Barthes’ observation of a revolution in poetic inner structure, supported later on by Milosz’ split between poets and “the great human family” (Milosz 1983, p. 26), shows that poetry of the “modern” era moved to the periphery of readers’ attention partly because its new form started to make demands difficult to meet. The consequence of the shift significantly affected translated poetry making it accessible only to a limited number of recipients. Poetry is closely connected to its own national language and culture, and due to its natural centripetal movement it makes the transfer in translation more difficult than other types of translations. The process of poetry translation influenced by a series of circumstances often causes that translated poetry is far from being a perfect match to the original and the feeling that a translated poem is not a worthy substitution. Despite all the factors and difficulties that shift translated poetry from the centre to the periphery, poetry is translated and largely supported by national literary councils and funds. Examples from literary history, like in Slovak poetry in the 1920s, reveal that without the high quality cultural and literary exchange that translated poetry provides, national literature may suffer from repeating its literary models, a process that then leads to emptying, recycling and cliché.
BLOOM, H., 1997. The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry. New York: OUP.
BARTHES, R., 1970. Writing Degree Zero. A. Lavers, C. Smith, Beacon, pp. 41-53.
DRURY, J., 2006. Poetry. In: The Poetry Dictionary. pp. 216-217.
GAVURA, J., 2005. Invarianty v poézii S. Heaneyho a ich prekladateľská záväznosť. In: A. VALCEROVÁ, red. Preklad a tlmočenie a jeho didaktická transformácia. Prešov, FF Prešovskej univerzity, pp. 96-113.
GAVURA, J., 2016. Political input in making poets cultural icons. In: World Literature Studies, nr 4, pp. 45-61.
MIŁOSZ, Cz., 1983. The Witness of Poetry. Harvard University Press.
PALKOVIČOVÁ, E., 2015. Úvod do štúdia umeleckého prekladu (pre hispanistov), Bratislava, Univerzita Komenského v Bratislave, pp. 17-49.
WILSON, C., 2016. Why Rupi Kaur and Her Peers Are the Most Popular Poets in the World. In: nytimes.com [online]. [2019-01-28] From: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/books/review/rupi-kaur-instapoets.html