The Issue of Choice in Translation of Poetry

The Issue of Choice in Translation of Poetry

Pablo Luis Sosa

The translation of poetry is not only concerned with meaning at a lexical, syntactical and paragraph level, but also with other layers of meaning which must be taken into account such as rhythm, rhyme, imagery, phonic considerations, metaphorical language, the poetic form chosen and tone which are properties of the original text that enrich its meaning and are difficult to include in the translated text. In addition, contextual considerations must be taken into account because each piece of poetry is to a certain degree a product of its age, and translators should familiarize themselves with this context to reach a closer interpretation (Gutt, 1991). It is impossible to create a new text with all the characteristics of the original, there are, however, different degrees of variation that are acceptable where the highest number of resemblances in linguistic properties is achieved. Wilson (2000) referred to this as metalinguistic representations which rely on the relationship of resemblances and the embedding of those representations into another. This paper purports to show, by way of an example, how choices were made during the translation process in order to maintain the highest number of resemblances between both texts.

It is clear that a piece of poetry is a higher order of representation which relies on stimuli in order to communicate complex shades of meaning, thus an interpretative mode of translation will not be representative of the original text. This is a bit like explaining a joke instead of telling it. The more stimuli that a reader receives through the translation, the more this translation meets its objective. According to Sperber and Wilson (2004) “what makes an input worth picking out from the mass of competing stimuli is not just that it is relevant, but that it is more relevant than any alternative input available to us at that time (pg. 610).” They also observe that a poetic effect achieves relevance by way of weak implicatures which can be interpreted in multiple possible ways (Sperber & Wilson, 1986). Hence, the real question is set forth: what choice in the translation process can create an implicature that will be relevant for the reader and how should competing stimuli be judged by the translator to be more relevant?

There follows a copy of the poem entitled Flow my Tears by John Dowland and the resulting translation into Spanish:


Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn. Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose. Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived. From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone. Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.


¡Fluyan lágrimas mías, caigan desde sus fuentes!
Exiliadas para siempre: dejen que lamente;
Donde la oscura ave nocturna su triste infamia canta,
Allí déjenme vivir abandonado de toda esperanza. ¡Fuera vanas luces, dejen de brillar!
No hay noches tan obscuras para aquellos
Cuyas últimas esperanzas se han perdido.
El oprobio se expone en un mero destello. Nunca jamás mis dolores sean aliviados,
Ya que la piedad se ha fugado;
Y las lágrimas, y los lamentos, y los gemidos
A mis hastiados días de júbilo han privado. Desde el pináculo más alto del regocijo,
Mi buena fortuna ha caído, ha caído;
Y el temor, y el pesar y el dolor- mi merecido –
Son mis esperanzas, ya que la esperanza se ha ido.¡Oíd! Ustedes, sombras que habitan la noche,
Aprendan la luz a despreciar.
Felices, felices aquellos que el infierno
El desprecio del mundo no han de albergar.

It is worth mentioning that this poem is actually a musical composition dating from the late 16th Century, and that additional layers of meaning were provided by musical motifs and overlapping voices which are impossible to translate into a strictly literary dimension. It is important to note, however, that these compositions were lyric dependent and that music was a complement to the original poetic form. Also noteworthy is that this translation was for a group of musicians who wanted not only to know what Dowland was saying, but also what intentions (i.e. implicatures) were present in the poem.

The poem, then, offered a variety of challenges that had to be dealt with. Firstly, should the overall form of 5 quatrains be kept? This issue seemed important in view of the fact that each corresponded to a certain musical section which maintained a high degree of coherence. It also gave a feeling of the age because 16th Century Spanish poetry shared this quality. Secondly, the rhyme had to be somehow taken into account. It did not seem, however, that rhyme should be forced, thus rendering the translation awkward, in the words of T. S. Eliot (1920) “To create a form is not merely to invent a shape, a rhyme or rhythm. It is also the realization of the whole appropriate content of this rhyme or rhythm (pg. 32).” The criterion, then, was to strive to keep the rhyme especially between the second and fourth line in each stanza or the third and fourth if this did not stifle the competing stimuli. This accounts for the choice of “destello” in the second stanza in preference of the more obvious “luz”. These two issues correspond to formal aspects of the poem which in themselves provide meaning.

Overall meaning had to be conveyed. This required some research in order to assess the relevance of symbols, images and metaphoric language of the author and the times. In the first place, according to Bloom and Jaffa (1981) poetry of the age sought to “unite the charm of the passions with the rigor of the intellect (p. 2).” In the words of Thomas Campion (1602), poetry raises “the mind to a more high and lofty conceit (p. 2)”, where “conceit” meant a kind of subtle simile or witty image, which characteristically puts together two apparently opposed concepts or ideas. According to Rooley (1983) this conceit was already being parodied at the time, but Dowland belonged to a circle of poets that took it seriously and he created an artistic persona to suit his purposes and express a “wretched grieving over an internal condition which has no outer cause other than the very ground of woe-the human condition (Rooley 1983:7).” This helped to establish the tone of the poem.

These considerations of form and tone would determine choices at a syntactical and lexical level. Accordingly, the “black bird” in the first stanza could be translated as “pájaro oscuro,” “mirlo,” or “ave nocturna.” But because this black bird provided a hermetic view of man’s condition (Rooley, 1983), “mirlo” would not do. “Pájaro oscuro” did not sound as poetic as “ave nocturna” and it gave the impression of parody; therefore, “ave nocturna” was chosen. At a phonic level, “shame” in the second stanza could be translated as “vergüenza,” but the less transparent term “oprobio” was chosen because of the repetition of the “o” sound which provides an emotional stimulus of despair that the former does not. These considerations in form and tone also account for the repetition of “caído” in the fourth stanza which helps maintain the rhythm and add to the dire grief and woe of the composition.

In conclusion, this translation was made from the top down, where overall meaning, form and tone provided criteria for choices at a syntactical and lexical level. Had it been the other way around, there would have been a risk to allow and individual word or structure to provide contradictory interpretations with competing implicatures that would have rendered the whole endeavor incompatible with its intended purpose.


Bloom, A and H. Jaffa. 1981. Shakespeare’s Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Campion, Thomas. 1602. A book of airs, as written to be sung to the lute and viol. Campion’s Works. (1909; reprinted 1966). Percival Vivian (Ed.) Oxford: Clarendon PressThe Works of Thomas Campion, edited by Walter R. Davis (New York: Doubleday 1967; London: Faber & Faber, 1969). The Works of Thomas Campion, edited by Walter R. Davis (New York: Doubleday 1967; London: Faber & Faber, 1969). The Works of Thomas Campion, edited by Walter R. Davis (New York: Doubleday 1967; London: Faber & Faber, 1969).

Eliot. T. S. 1920. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methune

Gutt, E.-A. 1991. Translation and relevance: Cognition and context. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Rooley, Anthony. 1983. New Light on John Dowland’s Songs of Darkness, Early Music Vol. 11, No. I, Tenth Anniversary Issue. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 1986 Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell. (Second edition 1995)

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 2004. Relevance Theory in G. Ward and L. Horn (eds) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell

Wilson, D. 2000. Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. D. Sperber. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pablo Luis Sosa is a Sworn Translator and University Professor working at the Universidad Católica Argentina where he teaches second-year English language for future translators. He is also a tenured professor in first- and second-year English language at the Universidad del Museo Social Argentino for students seeking translation and interpretation degrees. He has worked at the Centro Cultural Argentino-Norteamericano where he currently teaches courses in American Phonetics and Contemporary American Literature.