Poetry translation

What can would-be poets do while waiting for inspiration to keep from getting rusty?

One tactic is translation. To translate properly entails getting to grips with the fine grain of language as well as tapping into creativity to capture the actual rather than the literal meaning of words and idioms. This exercises the poet’s imagination and ability to shape words into her or his own meaning.

Translation may seem easy, especially if you understand two or more languages well. It is harder than it looks, and some may argue that completely accurate translation is almost impossible. The problem is navigating between being clumsily literal and creatively taking over the poem. Too free a translation starts to look like a new poem that is simply inspired by the original. The result of translation can be envisaged as a sliding scale.Translation sliding scale.png

You may think that poets themselves can be trusted with translation, but this is not always so. Take the examples below, of a Cavafy poem, An Old Man, from the official Cavafy website. The first is a straightforward translation by two translators, the second is a translation by the poet himself. Note that Cavafy for some reason uses the word “print” where “paper” is more natural. Note too that the first example is more compact and seems to flow better. Also note that where the translators have translated the original Greek as “impulses bridled” Cavafy chooses the words “lusts curbed”, which I prefer as being less polite, but I cannot decide which is more correct because I can’t read the poem in its original Greek.

An Old Man (First version, by two translators)

At the noisy end of the café, head bent

over the table, an old man sits alone,

a newspaper in front of him.


And in the miserable banality of old age

he thinks how little he enjoyed the years

when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.


He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.

Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.

So brief an interval, so very brief.


And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,

how he always believed—what madness—

that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”


He remembers impulses bridled, the joy

he sacrificed. Every chance he lost

now mocks his senseless caution.


But so much thinking, so much remembering

makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,

his head resting on the café table. 

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)


An Old Man (Cavafy’s own translation)

Here in the noisy café, in the inner part of its

unrest, an old man, bending over a table, sits,

with the day’s print before him, and companionless.


And in the misery of old age, — with its deep void

around him, he reflects how little he enjoyed

the years when he had strength, and speech, and comeliness.


He is aware of his great age: the days are gray

and cheerless. Still it seems as though it were yesterday

that he was young. So fast have gone the years, so fast.


And he considers how he used to be deceived

by Prudence: how, alack! she lied and he believed

her lie: “Tomorrow. Ample time ere time be past.”


He thinks of lusts curbed, and of joys that he denied

himself. All the lost opportunities now deride

his witless wisdom …. But the old man cannot keep


his thoughts together; they disquiet and bedim

his brain; these memories ever vex and weary him:

and at the table where he sits he falls asleep. 

Translated by John Cavafy

(Poems by C. P. Cavafy. Translated, from the Greek, by J. C. Cavafy. Ikaros, 2003)

I mentioned that completely accurate translation is almost impossible. This is true even when the translation is close, as in Diep Rivier, by the Afrikaans poet Eugene Marais.

The first two lines translate so well into English, as does most of the poem, that the rhyme is preserved without much contortion of language, though the metre is not.

O diep rivier, o donker stroom

Hoe lank het ek gewag, how lank gedroom

could be translated as:

O deep river, o dark stream

How long did I wait, how long did I dream

The translation is close, but not exactly the same.

When I encounter a fine translated poem, I strive where possible to read the original, provided it is in Latin or one of the Romance languages I have some little knowledge of, to check how accurate is appears to be.

Where my knowledge of the language is limited or non-existent I rely entirely on the translator, underlining the responsibility translators have to produce work that reflects the original as closely as possible.











1 thought on “Poetry translation”

  1. Yes, Reg, interesting. When does a translation become more a mere ‘version’ of the original (and does this matter?) and when a new poem altogether? For my taste, the translation must also work for me as a poem in its own right, as the first Cafavy translation does and the second does not. I have no answer.


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