Poem Tryouts: Translate It

10 Jun


listening to a bird on a branch of the live oak outside mom’s porch — neither of us sound awake

Hello everyone. This will be the first week of summer for most of you with kids. For most of the rest of us, it’s a hot day. Like last week’s prompt — which brought forth a slew of poems, so go read if you haven’t — this is a simple prompt: find a poem in a language other than English and translate it into English.[ I didn’t say the exercise is simple, just the prompt.]

This can be a hair-pulling exercise but it is also fun, a lot like a treasure hunt, and it is valuable in what it teaches us about the importance of word choice. In translating someone’s poem, we take on the role of being that poet’s voice, that poet’s speaker’s voice.

First, find a poem. You can choose one in a language you feel some knowledge of, or one in a language totally foreign to you [Korean poems work a treat]. Working line by line is probably the most workable way, to start. Babelfish, Google Translate, and Reverso are just three places that you can use to help.

Make a rough and ready translation. If you know what the intent of the poem is start revising, which can mean changing the line breaks, choosing different words, or phrasing, even altering the punctuation, so that the English translation is the other poem. If you aren’t sure, leave it and come back to it; in essence, the poem is yours [in trust] and you need to see it that way once you are revising.

A fun possibility is for two of you to get in touch and choose the same poem, then completely independent of each other, do the exercise and post.

Be sure to credit the original. Have fun with this. If it seems overwhelming, choose something very short. Play

I shall see you next Tuesday. This week you really may not hear from me. The move is on.

Happy writing, all.


Posted by on 10/06/2014 in exercises, poetry, Summer


32 responses to “Poem Tryouts: Translate It

  1. barbara

    10/06/2014 at 10:04 am

    So. You mean a “real” translation, as opposed to a by-guess-or-by-glory sight transliteration? That’s too much responsibility for me, and not fair to the poet. Oddly enough, I don’t mind playing, ignorant, with a whole language.

    • margo roby

      10/06/2014 at 10:53 am

      Yep, a real translation. It’s perfectly fair to the poet. The translation things they have around are so good that they allow a fair translation. However, if you are uncomfortable play.

      • b/cat

        10/06/2014 at 12:32 pm

        First one I pulled, except for a reference to renovated interior stucco walls, came out of the translation app pretty darn clean. The translation that didn’t try to approximate that seems smartest. Those wild and crazy Swedes.

        • b_young

          10/06/2014 at 7:06 pm

          Hokay. I rarely pull my hair so much over my own words.

  2. Sasha A. Palmer

    10/06/2014 at 11:31 am

    Hi, I’ve posted one of my translations. Wanted to have the original and the translation side by side, but blogger was giving me lots of formatting trouble…

    • margo roby

      10/06/2014 at 11:32 am

      Formatting. GRRR! I’m on my way.

    • b/cat

      10/06/2014 at 12:23 pm

      When nothing else works, if the piece isn’t too long you can make a screen shot of your formatted text and post it as a graphic file.

      • b/cat

        10/06/2014 at 12:25 pm

        Wouldn’t have worked for this one.

      • Sasha A. Palmer

        10/06/2014 at 2:28 pm

        Thank you, I might try it some time. 🙂

  3. dmarshall58

    10/06/2014 at 12:31 pm

    This one looks especially interesting… I may give it a try!

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  5. Hannah Gosselin

    10/06/2014 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time understanding this. I tried to see what was done…checking Sasha’s…do we take the literal translation of a poem and switch up words to make it our own?

    Okay…I wrote this and then decided just to plunge in…returned with this. 🙂

    • Hannah Gosselin

      10/06/2014 at 1:35 pm

      Oh, and hi and thank you, Margo! I have a new nephew today!! 🙂

      • Sasha A. Palmer

        10/06/2014 at 2:38 pm


        • Hannah Gosselin

          10/06/2014 at 2:39 pm

          Thank you, Sasha!!

      • margo roby

        10/06/2014 at 5:18 pm

        Whoo! Congratulations, Aunt Hannah!

        • Hannah Gosselin

          10/06/2014 at 6:14 pm

          Thank you, Margo!! :)!!

    • Sasha A. Palmer

      10/06/2014 at 2:34 pm

      I thought it was translation…whatever we do, as long as we write, I don’t think Margo will mind, I hope she won’t 🙂

      • Hannah Gosselin

        10/06/2014 at 2:36 pm

        I KNOW that Margo loves whatever we do…you’re right-on…writing is the key. To be honest I was very confused about what to do…so I just did what I thought I was supposed to and wrote! 😉

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  7. barbcrary

    10/06/2014 at 9:21 pm

    Damn, this was fun. I may just have to do another.

  8. georgeplace2013

    11/06/2014 at 9:41 am

    • georgeplace2013

      11/06/2014 at 9:46 am

      Well, I didn’t understand either, I think. I found a poem in Italian (didn’t look at the English translation) and tried to translate myself. Then I posted the real translation.

  9. margo roby

    11/06/2014 at 12:09 pm

    I adore the conversation above and will be back to read and comment!


    11/06/2014 at 4:42 pm

    I’m away from home, but your prompt reminded me that I had done this before:
    Am I forgiven for not doing a new one. I quite often try and translate French poetry. Despite being pretty well bilingual, I find it a well nigh impossible task.


    11/06/2014 at 4:44 pm

    And now I have to get off their computer, so will read tomorrow.

  12. Cheryl-Lynn

    13/06/2014 at 4:49 pm

    This IS quite interesting! Will have a go.

    • margo roby

      15/06/2014 at 11:26 am

      I look forward to seeing the results!

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  15. julespaige

    13/06/2014 at 6:50 pm

    Something small, well two somethings, but they are related:

  16. thelanguageofherhand

    17/06/2014 at 5:38 am

    <hello just wanted to say hi and hope your vacation is going good, I will try this one now


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