Dr. Aprilia Zank







The laudable translator



The first prerequisite for a competent translator is, doubtlessly, very good command of both the target language, that may be his/her mother tongue or not, and the source, i.e. the poet’s language. This includes not only a full understanding of the author’s native tongue, but also deep acquaintance with his or her peculiar way of handling words, that which distinguishes them from all the other speakers of the same language. John Dryden put it like this:


No man is capable of translating poetry, who, besides a genius to that art, is not a master both of his author’s language, and of his own; nor must we understand the language only of the poet, but his particular turn of thoughts and expression, which are the characters that distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other writers. (1)


The question has been repeatedly asked as to whether translators of poetry should be poets themselves, and the answers have been widely diverging. Walter Benjamin, for instance, considered that, since the essential feature of a literary work is not the imparting of information, but the author’s attempt to render “the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic’”, this can only be achieved by a translator who is a poet himself. Aware of the fact that this point of view may have many supporters, Octavio Paz attempted a critical consideration of how this relationship could function:


In theory, only poets should translate poetry; in practice, poets are rarely good translators. They almost invariably use the foreign poem as a point of departure toward their own. […] A good translator of poetry is a translator who is also a poet – like Arthur Waley – or a poet who is also a good translator – like Nerval when he translated the first Faust. (2)


Paz enlarged on his apparently contradictory theory by repeatedly pointing to the plurality of the poetic message. A poet is a good translator when he manages to preserve and to transmit the richness of facets of the original. He should constantly be aware of the fact that, in the translation process, he is a translator before he is poet himself.

Opinions about the requirements on a good translator are, without doubt, diverse, but I believe that one of the main aspects of this debate refers to the translator being, like every reader, an individual receptor of the work of art. That means that, on the one hand, he himself cannot claim ultimate comprehension of a literary work, and, on the other hand, neither readers nor critics can expect any final or universal translation from him. It is precisely the potential of every piece of literature to be interpreted and, accordingly, translated in more than one way, that makes this work vital and durable. This richness of potential translations is both synchronic and diachronic. From antiquity up to the present day, literature of any kind has been translated according to the spirit, the mentality and the sensitivity of each age. As an individual receptor and transmitter of a poetic message, the translator undertakes a creative work within which he has both duties and rights. Some of these duties have been mentioned before; a main right is that of having his or her own understanding of the work of art. Researchers in cognitive psychology, as well as computer programmers, are at pains to decipher the mechanisms in operation during the ‘making’ of various artistic products in order to comprehend or reproduce them. A translator of poetry, for instance, can only do his work according to his artistic intuition which, in its turn, is the result of years of involvement with literature, culture and the complexities of civilisation. In his encounter with the poem, he is confronted with the end product of the creative process of the poet. But is this really an end product? Yes and no. From the poet’s view it is an end product. What starts as an amalgam of feelings, sensations and urges has been grasped, structured, organised and, ultimately, materialised in words and images – an end product. For readers, translators included, this end product is a beginning, a platform for interpretation. They must undergo the opposite process, from the printed words to the mental images, to the depths of whatever urged the poet to write that special poem in that special way – to what Walter Benjamin calls “the unfathomable, the mysterious”. The translator’s first step is thus every reader’s first step, that which we trivially call ‘understanding’. Needless to say that no understanding is possible without very good command of the source language, but I dare say that the best command of the foreign language is of little value when the translator is not in possession of an acute sense of language and of languages, which is more than just good knowledge of its or their vocabularies. I even go a step further and maintain that a good sense of language is the main prerequisite for good translations and, therefore, of greater value than perfect command of the particular languages involved in this process. But what constitutes a good sense of language? In my opinion, it is, in the first place, awareness of the high degree of discrepancy frequently characteristic of words that dictionaries provide as equivalents for one another. That is precisely what advocates of the linguistic relativity principle try to elucidate. It is common knowledge that, only exceptionally, meanings of the so-called ‘same words’ overlap entirely; in most cases they have a common nucleus and a greater or lesser number of additional shades of meaning which differ from language to language. According to how these hues of meaning combine with those of other words of the text to translate, the translator’s choice of a word in the target language can be a different one from the poet’s, yet still convey the same meaning. Though paradoxical at first view, the necessity is often there for the translator to detach himself from the literal meaning of the single words in order to better render the poetic meaning of the poem as a whole, or, as Paz put it: “He moves away from the poem only to follow it more closely”. This is because, in the long run, it is not single words that a translator has to transpose from one language into another, but the content of a full poetic message. Jakobson approached this matter from a linguistic point of view and reached the following conclusions:


Most frequently, however, translation from one language into another substitutes messages in one language not for separate code-units but for entire messages in some other language. […] Thus translation involves two equivalent messages in two different codes. (3)


A frequent assertion is that the translator, and especially the poetry translator, is not supposed to translate the words of the poem, but should attempt to transfer its content or, more specifically, the poet’s intentions. Unfortunately, no devices have been invented so far that could provide readers or translators with such clairvoyant abilities, but what both readers and translators can experience is the effect, the impact that the poem or other literary works leave upon them. In my opinion, fidelity to the original ought to be understood as the translator’s endeavour to endow the new text with the same pungency and operative potential that the original has. In this enterprise, the translator remains a subjective agent, however hard he may pursue objectivity. He is marked by his sensitivity, artistic formation and the individual perspective he has of the surrounding world. This being the case, I consider that a mediator of poetry who is a poet himself and who, accordingly, is likely to have a keener sensitivity and a more acute sense of language, has got better premises to be a good translator. Yet, in his striving toward the perfect poetic form, this type of translator should keep in mind the danger and try to avoid the tendency of optimising the original “[…] so that the translated text reaches a higher level of aesthetic existence” (4).

The boundaries between an optimally intelligible translation of a literary work, on the one hand, and intrusion into its unity and autonomy, on the other, are most difficult to define. It is a well-known fact that, whereas the original work of art can afford to be as cryptic as its author wishes, sometimes up to the point of illegibility, a translation displaying the same features is often misread as a failure on the translator’s part to properly render the original; accordingly, the translator is often confronted with the almost impossible task of both preserving the inviolability of the original text, and providing a sensible, meaningful piece of literature for the reader who is not acquainted with the language of the original. To what extent the translator can be successful in this endeavour widely depends on the degree to which that, what I called the primary amalgam, the raw material at the origin of the literary work, especially of the poetic work, has been structured and organised by its author into the end product. The more transparent this structuring of the raw material is, the less demanding the translator’s task will be, due to the fact that the author’s intention is easier to grasp. Where the author is very parsimonious when putting flesh to the bones of his work, the challenge for the translator is a huge one. An ideal solution to this quandary has yet to be found. In his demands on translators, Wilhelm von Humboldt argued against any sort of clarifying intervention on the translator’s part:


A translation cannot and should not be a commentary. It should not contain ambiguities caused by insufficient understanding of the language and awkward formulations; however, where the original only intimates without clearly expressing, where it leaves out intermediate ideas, the translator commits an injustice if he arbitrarily introduces a clarity that misrepresents the character of the text. (5)


Theoretically, what was intentionally left opaque by the author in his work should be left as such and not turned into a platform for the translator’s interpretation of the work. Yet, in reality, things are much more complicated. In the case of intentional use of homonymous and polysemous words in the original, the translator has to settle on a certain meaning, since it is highly unlikely that he can find words in the target language that display a similar duality or plurality of meanings. Just one example: the translator willing to render the poem “Revisions”, by the contemporary English poet Rodney Pybus, in other languages encounters this difficulty in the title already:




[…] I know of course each

reed’s too weak for a pen,

but this is still a rich

craft of revision, all the same,

his generous potlatch

of wheat-gold lines

I’d like to touch,

that true, stubble-edged

unfalling wave, out of reach.


The word revision exists as such in many languages (with greater or lesser variation in its written form): Revision (German), révision (French), revisione (Italian), revizie (Romanian), but not all of them share the full amount of meanings the English word has. In Romanian, for instance, there are different words belonging to the same word-family, which take over the one or the other direction of meaning: revizie (control), revizuire (new consideration), reviziune (amendment). Whatever choice the translator makes, it is also an interpretation, and, as such, a narrowing of the original meaning. In some cases, therefore, a completely new word with the same potentialities like revision may appear to be the better alternative. Similarly, the translator must decide which of the many meanings of the word pen suits the poem best and, at the same time, keeps the duality of its at least two main meanings: a writing instrument and shelter facilities. Under these circumstances, to translate literature, and especially poetry, appears as an almost impossible task, and the question unavoidably arises as to whether translation is a science or an art, whether it is a learnable profession or a vocation.




  1. Dryden, John, 1992, “On Translation”, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, p. 20


  1. Paz, Octavio, 1992, “Translation: Literature and Letters”, transl. by Irene del Corral, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, p. 158


  1. Jakobson, Roman, 1992, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 146


  1. Friedrich, Hugo, 1992, “On The Art of Translation”, transl. by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, p. 11


  1. Humboldt, Wilhelm von, 1992, “From the Introduction to His Translation of Agamemnon”, transl. by Sharon Sloan, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.) , Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, p. 58


excerpt from THE WORD IN THE WORD Literary Text Reception and Linguistic Relativity, Berlin, 2013












Dr. Aprilia Zank received her PhD degree in Literature and Psycholinguistics for her thesis THE WORD IN THE WORD Literary Text Reception and Linguistic Relativity at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, where she started her academic career as a lecturer for Creative Writing and Translation Theory. She is also a poet, a translator and the editor of two anthologies: the English – German anthology poetry tREnD Eine englisch – deutsche Anthologie zeitgenössischer Lyrik (LIT Verlag, Berlin), and the anthology POETS IN PERSON at the Glassblower (Indigo Dreams Publishing, U.K.). She writes verse in English and German and was awarded a distinction at the “Vera Piller” Poetry Contest in Zurich. Her poetry collection, TERMINUS ARCADIA, was 2nd Place Winner at the Twowolvz Press Poetry Chapbook Contest 2013. She translates from and into German, English, French and Romanian in collaborative projects with various poets, and is a member of the editorial boards of several literary journals.

Aprilia is also a passionate photographer: several of her images are prize winners and have been selected for poetry book covers.



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