Saturday 19 November 2011

Poetry is what gets lost in the translation


Dr. Johnson said, "You may translate books of science exactly. You may also translate history, in so far as it is not embellished with oratory, which is poetical. Poetry, indeed, cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. but as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language."

Poetry is what gets lost in the translation is how Robert Frost put it.

Many verse translations are good poems but none are great translations.

But until a few years ago few read poems like Chapman's Homer because they are translations. Reading them always puts me in mind of walking round fine Victorian churches which no-one visits because they are not old (Victorian churches too are now given more attention than twenty years ago). The very good Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation edited by Adrian Poole is the place to start.

One of my favourites is Horace - Odes, Book 3, Verse 29: Happy the Man - translated by Dryden but the poem is all Dryden.

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He who can call today his own:

He who, secure within, can say,

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.

Be fair or foul or rain or shine

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.

Not Heav'n itself upon the past has power,

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

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