The inevitability of translating poems

by hexacoto

There will always come a point where poetry written in one language cannot be accurately translated into another, because of the very nature of the language itself. It is often cited that certain words in certain languages have such precise meanings that they usually cannot be translated into English. Common examples are ‘schadenfreude’ in German and ‘wabi-sabi’ in Japanese.

But a much simpler reason some poetry cannot be easily translated is simply for its puns, stress, rhyme or rhythm. A Czech person once told me in English, “I was smashed on concrete too much last night,” and that actually turned out to be a pun. In Czech, concrete is ‘beton,’ but it is also the name of a mixed drink ‘beton,’ which is short for ‘becherovka’ and tonic water. So simply saying you were smashed on concrete in English slightly takes away the meaning of the pun.

Such shortcomings become a lot more apparent in Chinese and Japanese, when many words share the same sound, and are only truly differentiated by context and the characters used.

用心听,用心走
Listen with your heart, walk with your heart/Listen carefully, walk carefully

听一听,只听见心在跳的声音
Listen, and only hear the sound of the heart beating
为过去的遗憾而跳
beating for past regrets
为现在的疑问而跳
beating for present doubts
为将来的一切而跳
beating for everything in the future
所作所为
but when all’s said and done
尺有所长,寸有所短
there are goods and bads
而这一页
and this chapter
将会结束
will end
我只能不理不睬心在跳的声音
I can only ignore the sound of the heart beating
往不定的前程
headed for an uncertain journey
往前走
headed forward

This was something I wrote that I found hard to translate, especially when the words were rife with double meanings. The title 用心听,用心走 means two things at once, depending on how you bind the words. “用心” as a compound means to be careful, but as a verb-noun construction means to use your heart.

Regrets, doubts and everything (遗憾,疑问,一切) are three different words, but they all share a fundamental sound of ‘yi’ at the beginning, creating a repeating rhythm and linking all three concepts to a basic fundamental. That is untranslatable in English.

The cadence of the past, present and future is also untranslatable. The structure used was “For the past’s regrets, it jumps/ For the present’s doubts, it jumps/ For the future’s everything, it jumps” where the heart “beating” and “jumping” use the same characters.

The line of ‘There are goods and bads’ is actually a proverb which literally means “A foot is as long as it is, an inch is as short as it is,” and a part of that section of the poem was written in four syllables per line, which cannot be adhered to in English.

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