Poetry and translation

On Tuesday Her Majesty the Queen gave President Xi Jinping a beautifully bound edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The President is already a lover of Shakespeare – in translation.

Robert Frost said he could define poetry as what was lost in translation. Which is misleading, for it implies that diction is the only business of the poet. Horace in the Ars Poetica* says otherwise. Diction is vital. But the primary business of the poet is content: the story, the people, the thoughts; the structure of the poem and its harmonious proportions; the portrayal of character, and all the knowledge and observation needed for the craft. The poet must follow the wishes of the Muse. Knowledge is the foundation of poetry, and so is careful study.

Diction—choice and placing of words—is hardly translatable. The images and associations that are a word’s fragrance enable the poet, while telling things, to whisper other things as well, and these can hardly be translated. The President would have got more from his beloved Shakespeare if he had been educated in an English-speaking country, even though he can enjoy it in translation.

Take five lines from the closing scene of the Aeneid, when Aeneas recognizes the belt of Pallas on Turnus’s shoulder:

et iam iamque magis cunctantem flectere sermo
coeperat, infelix umero cum apparuit alto
balteus et notis fulserunt cingula bullis
Pallantis pueri, victum quem vulnere Turnus
straverat atque umeris inimicum insigne gerebat.

The diction is brimming with ambivalence and suggestion, in Vergilian style:

  • iam iamque magis qualifies both cunctantem and coeperat;
  • infelix, in an emphatic position, has at least two strands of meaning, perhaps even four;
  • balteus, postponed to be even more emphatic, abruptly draws attention to the physical presence of Turnus;
  • fulserunt contrasts with the proper owner, now among the shades;
  • bullis suggests the child’s bulla, and this is reinforced by pueri, which follows;
  • in victum vulnere… straverat, the v- sound suggests vae;
  • inimicum insigne, linked by elision, again has several strands of meaning.

These things will be absent from a translation. But the stuff of mythopoeia is still there: the sorrow, the compassion, the courage, vision, madness, destiny—and the pathos earlier of Juturna when she finds she cannot save her brother and plunges into the river.

Poetry depends on diction, but the body of it is more than that. Virgil created Turnus and his sister and the story of Pallas’s belt.

*translated into English in 1566 by Thomas Drant, and probably seen by Shakespeare.

Next post: Poetry: the use of an inflected language.

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