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On Poetry :: How I Translate - beto riginale's Blog

About beto riginale
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Ciao a tutti!
Welcome to my work and blog. Here are a few words about me.
        I was born and raised near Berkeley, California, and was introduced to the beatniks in North Beach by a high school friend in the late '50s. That is an event that influenced the rest of my life.
        I studied mathematics, philosophy, and German at university. By a quirk of fate, I became a computer scientist and website designer for most of my professional life. Since retirement, I have written poetry, essays, and translated German -> English and Spanish -> English. I write only free verse, haiku, and (some) prose poetry.
        Thank you for stopping by to read my work and blog.

On Poetry :: How I Translate

Blog Posted:11/22/2019 5:08:00 PM

Ciao amici !

Thanks to all who have read and commented on my previous post On Poetry:: Translation and my poetry. I certainly appreciate your comments.

Today I want to talk about my translation process. But first things first: in my opinion, the two most important things when setting out to translate are:

  • Good knowledge and understanding of the author. For me, that means learning as much as I can about the author ( is an excellent place to start) as well as reading much of the author's work.
  • A good reference library. In my case, I have the "best" translating dictionary and the "best" dictionary for the source language (always a foreign language since I neve translate English to another language.) By "best" I mean "unabridged" as the lesser versions are not adequate for me. Also, I have a Websters Unabridged (3rd Ed, 1966) and Roget's Thesaurus.

The process I will describe is one that I have developed over many years, not just for translating or writing poetry but for my technical projects also (schedule permitting). Here I will describe only the process as I apply it to translating poetry; my oringal poetry and prose writing process is a shortened version.

I want to use my translation of a poem by Alejandra Pizarnik as an example. Pizarnik grew up in Argentina and, therefore, often uses idiomatic words and phrases in her work. More on that later. 

We are fortunate that nearly all of her work is published (in Spanish), and much is available in English translation. My friend and editor, a retired professor of Spanish Literature, suggested Pizarnik. So my first task was to learn as much as I could about her. As I mentioned above, Wikipedia is an excellent place to start. I then obtained a copy of her diaries, which, for me, were rough sledding. I don't think I ever read anything so dark, depressing, sad. Concurrently I obtained a complete copy of all her published (in Spanish) poetry and prose. 

So once I had immersed myself (it took me about six months to read it all), I took a very tentative step to translate one of her poems. Nearly all of her work is very short, less than 100 words. I chose La Jaula (The Cage) as an initial project. 

Now the real work begins. I read through the poem several times, taking notes, and then wrote the first draft. A week or so later, I went back to it and repeated reading and writing a new draft. I reviewed my work 4 or 5 times over a couple of months. Since I was not satisfied with what I had done, I set it aside for a few months - which turned out to be more than a year. Then back to the last version. Looking for the hidden meanings in some words, consulting with my Argentine friend about possible idioms and editor about shifts in meaning. 

Finally, well, not quite, I sent my best effort to my English language editor. I do my punctuation and typesetting, so that was not the question. My question was: how does it sound? Can I improve the sound with other words or syntax? My editor suggested a few changes, some of which I accepted, others I rejected.

Done at last, after multiple drafts and countless hours on this project. The following is my current version. poem is also posted the the poetry area with additional information.


Sunny outside,
simply the sun,
but men look at it
then sing.

I know nothing about the sun,
only about an angel’s melody
and the fiery exhortation
of the last breath.
I know how to shout ’til dawn
when death settles, naked,
on my shadow

I weep beneath my name
I wave kerchiefs in the night
as boats thirsting for reality
dance with me.
I hide my fears
to mock my morbid dreams.

Sunny outside,
I, clothed in ashes.

Please Login to post a comment
Date: 11/25/2019 3:08:00 AM
Beto perhaps this discussion of'the' famous Basho haiku sums up the problem facing any translator.
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Toney Avatar
Mark Toney
Date: 11/25/2019 7:40:00 AM
Excellent example, Brian.
Strand Avatar
Brian Strand
Date: 11/25/2019 3:14:00 AM
my two cents..old pond/leaping frog/splash( or ripples being an imagist at heart)
Date: 11/24/2019 10:15:00 AM
Beto, another example that I've found to be interesting is the haiku by Ban’ya Natsuishi. In Japanese his haiku reads: "Natsugasumi Ichimai-iwa no kanki kana" 1) Machine translation: "summer is over~one piece rock~the irrigation" 2) The poet's translation: "summer haze~single boulder~rejoicing" 3) William J Higginson's translation of the same poem in his "Haiku World" anthology: "summer haze~the joy of this~one rock" I would favor the actual poet's translation over the others, but it highlights the challenges you referred to in translating from one language to another. Thank you for this very interesting series of blogposts. ~Mark
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Date: 11/23/2019 3:33:00 AM
Beto my take on this translation task is summed up in a recently posted open form poem
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riginale Avatar
beto riginale
Date: 11/23/2019 6:53:00 AM
Brian, I quite agree. Since I translate only free verse, my primary goal is to get the image across and use assonance where possible for mood. Thanks for sharing.
Date: 11/23/2019 3:21:00 AM
Just the one translation for me Beto,a paraphrase of Love-Kisses 41 the unusual sonnet by Quirinus Kuhlmann at this you tube clip
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riginale Avatar
beto riginale
Date: 11/23/2019 6:31:00 AM
Hello Brian; I listened to your reading and find it quite interesting. However, given that Kuhlmann was born and raised in Breslau 350 years ago, I cannot comment on the translation as I have no knowledge of how German was spoken at that time/place. For me, poetry is aural. Thanks for sharing.
Date: 11/23/2019 2:04:00 AM
Hallo Beto, Continuing our discussion from your previous blog: English (Latin based) AND Afrikaans (Germanic based, with French grammar structure thrown in for good measure) are both my "first languages" - ie I was raised to speak both and I write in both. The point I am trying to make is: It does not really help to know the author; it helps to know HOW the author/poet thinks. In that respect, one needs to "get into the head & heart" of the poet and try to emulate the passion which underlies the poem you wish to translate. For example: The word "sunset" translates into Afrikaans as "sonsondergang" - you will see that this makes it difficult to keep to syllable counts and even the rhythm of the verse.
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Richards Avatar
Suzette Richards
Date: 11/24/2019 1:00:00 AM
Thank you for the pointers, Beto. I will bear it in mind.
riginale Avatar
beto riginale
Date: 11/23/2019 6:16:00 AM
Continuing: as I mentioned in my response on On Poetry :: Translation, IMO trying to keep rhythm and/or rhyme is an almost insurmountable task. e.g., to try to translate Afrikaans to German "sonsondergang" to "sonenuntergang" (English "sundown") does not work. My advice would be to translate to free verse with the intent to get the meaning. Perhaps you can then get the rhythm and/or rhyme.
riginale Avatar
beto riginale
Date: 11/23/2019 5:58:00 AM
Hello Suzette, thank you for your comment. For me, knowing the author implies trying to know the inner person, what their state, that is, how the author thinks and feels, was at the time the work was written. That is, as you put it, "to get into the head & heart." In the case of Pizarnik there is an advantage due to the availability of her diaries. I don't know of any other way to do this except to read as much as possible about her and to read as much as possible of her work.

My Past Blog Posts

bow hows decrypted
Date Posted: 12/10/2019 4:41:00 PM
PoetrySoup :: Typography I
Date Posted: 12/6/2019 6:11:00 PM
On Poetry :: How I Translate
Date Posted: 11/22/2019 5:08:00 PM
On Poetry :: Translation
Date Posted: 11/20/2019 3:39:00 PM

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Date PostedPoemTitleFormCategories
12/8/2019 bow hows Shapelanguage,poetry,
12/7/2019 Unravelling Free verselanguage,philosophy,poetr
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12/4/2019 Put your heart 'round me Free verseconflict,hope,peace,roman
12/2/2019 Fighting for Peace Free versepeace,war,
11/23/2019 Wuji :: Quietude Free versesymbolism,universe,
11/21/2019 The Box Free verseallegory,dark,death,depre
11/20/2019 The Infernal Serpent Free verseconflict,peace,
11/20/2019 HAIKU :: 8 :: SPARROWS Haikuimagery,nature,water,
11/19/2019 For Jack Free verseencouraging,freedom,hope,
11/19/2019 HAIKU :: 7 :: SUNRISE Haikuhope,imagery,peace,sun,
11/18/2019 Living into Peace Free verseanxiety,peace,philosophy,
11/18/2019 HAIKU :: 6 :: A TRILOGY Haikuencouraging,life,relation
11/17/2019 Night Silence Free verseallegory,dark,loneliness,
11/17/2019 HAIKU :: 5 :: COLORS Haikucolor,flower,hope,imagery
11/16/2019 HAIKU :: 4 :: SCARLET BIRD Haikuautumn,bird,imagery,life,
11/15/2019 HAIKU :: 3 :: LIFE Haikucolor,imagery,life,solitu
11/14/2019 HAIKU :: 2 :: AUTUMN Haikuimagery,nature,november,p
11/13/2019 HAIKU :: 1 :: GRIEF Haikudark,depression,grief,
11/9/2019 scream of silence Free verseallegory,dark,fear,night,
11/8/2019 the cave Free verseallegory,dark,hope,romanc
10/29/2019 Rain in Mexico Free verseallegory,color,hope,image
10/25/2019 Truth Free versedark,night,truth,
10/23/2019 The Blind Man Free versedark,political,satire,soc
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