Widening the picture: why we need more translated poetry

Poetry helps us to understand. If a poet produces a poem to convey an emotion, the selection and curation of their words provides a nuanced exploration of that emotion from their unique perspective. This understanding can be harder to achieve when an explanation is contained by more literal investigations. 

The ideas and perspectives in poetry are influenced and shaped by a poets life experience. The person that reads poetry, therefore, is frequently faced with new ideas and perspectives. This, in turn, generates empathy, understanding, and further ideas.

In the non-English speaking world, there are experiences that we are not exposed to in the English speaking world, but which we should hear of and learn from. Therefore, to extend these experiences and their emotions, ideas and perspectives, we must access more poetry written in other languages. Otherwise it is like seeking a world history by studying only the UK and the US. You will never even begin to get the full picture.

However, in order to access these poems they must be translated, and is translation possible? Poetry thrives on metaphor, on image and on idiomatic expressions. The translation of words and phrases whose connotations are so specific to a language are surely hindered by translation?  

No. Whilst a word for word translation is an impossible concept, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t translate poetry. Poetry thrives on unconventional articulation. Poetry is born in the places where simple phrasing will not do. If poetry is an attempt to explore an idea, surely translation is just a further pursuit of this? In principle, translation is carrying something from one language to another. But in reality, translation provides more opportunity for consideration, for nuance, for discovering the most potent way to articulate an idea. 

To read translated poetry is to allow yourself to experience more than you already do. To translate poetry is to be a poet yourself – to figure out how to convey an idea in words, in the same way the original poet does. But it is also to be a guide. A guide to new experiences and ideas, helping to widen the power and scope of poetic ideas, linguistic concepts, and the opportunity for understanding and empathy.

In short, we should translate poetry and read more translated poetry because it helps us to see and understand the wider picture. 

Words by 16-year-old poet Tom Rowe