Re-Poeticiziation in Translation: Rhyme or Reason

No writing is ever complete en soi. As readers we must complete the texts we read by interpreting them. Even the most detailed and precise description is ultimately a matter of interpretation – what does it mean to convey on a subtextual or metanarrative level? What is its narrative or aesthetic role?

One might argue that authorial intent is all that matters in such issues. But let us assume the writer wanted to be as open-ended as possible – we are left to our own devices to determine the significance of the each word.

The absolute best way to challenge yourself and realize how you read a certain text is to enrich the literary world with a translation of it. You see, dear reader, a translation is the ultimate crystalization of how you interpret a piece. You will have to ask yourself a lot of questions.

There are several ways to claim a poem has ‘aesthetic value’ or to justify it as art. Today we shall explore the most basic matters of content and form. We will ask – shall we rhyme or reason?

When translating, ideally you will have read the entire text (if it’s a novel – the entire novel!) before even starting to think how to convey it in another language. You could perhaps keep notes for some phrases if you come up with creative phrasings – but I fondly remember my translation teacher Dimova (among others) always telling us to read the entire thing and to NOT start right away.

Pardon the digressive reminiscing – onto the poem. It’s only an extract, but it should suffice. How would you go about to translating it?

Neige printanière (extrait)

Et me voilà, j’erre
parmi neige printanière
comme un héros d’un roman
mêlé à l’action du moment

J’étais là, en errant
sans penser à demain
je vivais de nos jours
je me foutais de l’amour


Is it more important to REASON and translate each word accurately, compromising the form for the content?

Or is it more pertinent to RHYME, keeping the overall rhythm and assonance, often jeopardizing the original phrasing?

Springlike Snow

And here I am, I err
Among springlike snow
Like a hero form a novel
In the heat of the moment

I was there, I was erring,
Not thinking about tomorrow
I was living of my times
I didn’t care about love

Springtime Snow

And here I am, I go,
Through springtime snow:
Like a heroic abstraction
In a moment of action

I was there, I was going,
Where was I going?
I lived of my day fair,
And for love had no care

You may notice that both translations lost the original poetic quality of the French version. And here you witnessed the process of re-poeticization, where we had to re-create the aesthetic value of the text. We had to, in a sense, reformulate the aesthetic argument of the original. Let me exemplify:

Et me voilà, j’erre
parmi neige printanière
comme un héros d’un roman
mêlé à l’action du moment

What is the relevance of erre-ing? Is it an expression of liberty, of desire to explore or to break away? Is it perhaps, very blatantly, an error?

What is this neige printanière? Does this literally refer to snow during spring? If yes, what does this paradox convey – a certain uneasiness? Perhaps it’s a sign of change or extraordinary circumstance? If it’s not literal snow in the springtime, what else can it mean?

Why does the protagonist call himself an héros d’un roman? Perhaps he wants to reinvent himself in the same way a character from a book can be rewritten?

How is being mêlé à l’action du moment relevant to the rest of the poem?

Your translation will implicitly and unavoidably answer some of these questions. And in doing so, your interpretation and re-poeticization of the text will make it so as if you’re writing a completely new piece.

I find it naïve to think there is a translation which can untaintedly transmit the original. A translator will always project at least a little bit of themselves unto the work they produce. The question is how much creative freedom one will allow oneself in this endeavour.

You will naturally not settle for one or the other extreme when working on real translations. Rhyme and reason need be guiding principles, but it your judgement that ultimately will shape the text.

This was a very basic example of translation conundrums. When translating, there’s an endless set of paratextual questions:

  • For which audience is the text meant originally? What about the translation?
  • Do you choose to convey the original cultural context if it’s irrelevant to the target audience? If yes, how do you do it? If not, how will the text suffer from this decision and how can you alleviate it?
  • Should you opt for more modern words instead of the original archaic ones?
  • Do you want to make the text as accessible as possible, or would you respect the author’s (perceived) desire to make the writing more obscure?
  • If there is a non-standard variety of the original language in the primary text, should you use a non-standard variety in the target language? Does it have the same social connotations in the differnet cultural contexts? Does it even matter if said connotations are different or similar?
  • How do you go about multilingual texts? Are there scenarios in which leaving some parts untranslated would benefit the text?

And so much more…

Here is some reading on the topic if you’re interested:

  • Landers, E. Clifford, Literary Translation: A Practical Guide (Cromwell, 2001)
  • Wright, Chantal, Literary Translation (Routledge, 2016)
  • Venuti, Lawrance et al., Teaching Translation (Routledge, 2017)

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