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John Howard Reid

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Translating Poetry: Literal versus Poetic Approaches
by John Howard Reid

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Rated "G" by the Author.
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Would you enjoy a literal version of a famous foreign poem?


Translating Poetry: Literal versus Poetic Approaches


Would you enjoy a literal version of a famous foreign poem?

 Maybe I’m wrong, but in my opinion few English readers would prefer to read a literal version of a foreign-language poem. I’m sure just about every true poetry lover would find a literal version vastly disappointing. Not only disappointing, but a cause for wonderment!  Why was the original poet so acclaimed from Montevideo to Madrid? What was all the fuss about?

Take Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885), for instance. Widely acclaimed as the greatest of all Spain’s female poets, Rosalía (she is widely known in Spain simply by her Christian name) has not been particularly well-treated in previous English translations.

Let’s first examine a literal translation of the first stanza of one of her most famous poems, “Candente está la atmósfera.”


Incandescent is the atmosphere;

explores the fox the deserted road;

insalubrious itself turns

of the limpid stream the water crystalline,

and the pine stands guard unmoving

the kisses inconstant of the breeze.


Now the above is an accurate-as-I-can-make-it, word-for-word translation. And I’m sure you’ll agree that, although it appears to hold out some promise, in the end it approaches the realm of nonsense.

So the first and foremost duty of the translator, I submit, is to turn into poetic gold what seems to be dross in a word-for-word version – and in the process do as little damage to the original as possible!

Here is my translation, taken from my book, “A Salute to Spanish Poetry: 100 Masterpieces from Spain & Latin America rendered into English verse”:


The Air Itself Is Burning


The air itself is burning with heat;

a fox explores the deserted byways;

the once clear and crystalline waters

of the river, turn limpid and stagnant;

and pine trees wait with bated breath

for the inconstant kisses of the breeze.


Which version do you prefer? Have I done justice to Rosalía or have I not? Perhaps I’ve overstepped the mark and made my translation too poetic? Have I correctly understood all that the poet implied in her Spanish? Or have I put words and meaning into her writing that she didn’t intend to convey?

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Reviewed by James Munro 8/29/2011
Of course you are right in what you say, but to answer your questions we would need to see the original. Have you not included it in this post for reasons of copyright? Your translation of Cristobal de Castillo's Al Amor seems to me perfect.

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