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Problems in Translating Poetry

By Sugeng Hariyanto,
Perum. Joyo Asri Blok X/157, RT 02 - RW 08,
State Polytechnic,
Malang, Indonesia 65144

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Basically, poetry translation should be semantic translation for a poem is
typically rich with aesthetic and expressive values. The translator may face the
linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems in translating it. The
linguistic problems include the collocation and obscured syntactic structure. The
aesthetic and literary problems are related with poetic structure, metaphorical
expressions, and sounds. While the socio-cultural problems arise when the
translator translates expressions containing the four major cultural categories:
ideas, ecology, behavior, and products. This article shows some basic
considerations on how to solve them.
Key words: translation, aesthetic values, expressive values, collocation, poetic
structure, metaphorical expression, sounds.
Sugeng HariyantoTranslating literary works is, perhaps, always more difficult
than translating other types of text because literary works have specific values
called the aesthetic and expressive values. The aesthetic function of the work
shall emphasize the beauty of the words (diction), figurative language,
metaphors, etc. While the expressive functions shall put forwards the writer's
thought (or process of thought), emotion, etc. And the translator should try, at
his best, to transfer these specific values into the target language (TL). As one
genre of literature, poetry has something special compared to the others. In a
poem, the beauty is not only achieved with the choice of words and figurative
language like in novels and short stories, but also with the creation of rhythm,
rhyme, meter, and specific expressions and structures that may not conform to
the ones of the daily language. In short, the translation of poetry needs
'something more' than translating other genres of literature. This simple writing
will present in brief some considerations in translating poetry.


About translating problems, Suryawinata (1982) finds that in general a literary
translator faces linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems. In

translating a poem, one of the literary genres, the translator are also likely to
face similar problems.
1. Linguistic Problems
In term of linguistic factors, according to the writer, at least there are two points
to consider: collocation and obscured (non-standard) syntactical structures. The
word "collocation' used here refers to words or word groups with which a word or
words may typically combine. The combination may by syntagmatic or
horizontal, like make a speech (not say a speech), run a meeting (not do a
meeting), etc. Something to remember is in different languages the collocates
tend to be different. The Indonesian phrase for run a meeting is not melarikan
rapat but mengadakan rapat.
The other class of collocation is pragmatic or vertical. This consists of words
belonging to the same semantic field or be semantic opposite. Different from the
first class, the collocates in this class may be the same for several languages.
Land, sea, air are exactly the same as tanah, laut, udara.
Whatever the reason is, where there is an accepted collocation in the SL, the
translator must find and use its equivalent in the TL if it exists. But a closer
attention should also be paid to the collocation with similar form in the SL and
TL, but different meaning. See this line, for example:
I find you in every woods and gardens.
The words woods and garden are collocates, and the Indonesian equivalents are
very similar, hutan and kebun. Even the form is very much similar, the translator
must examine first whether the meaning is the same. As it is known, the word
woods in US is not exactly the same as hutan in Indonesia in term of the
characteristics, area, location, etc. In addition, garden is not always the same as
kebun. It may mean taman. The clear examination can only be done if the
translator understands the contextual meaning.
The second point to consider in term of linguistic matters is obscured (nonstandard) syntactic structures. Such kinds of structures may be intentionally
written in a poem as a part of the expressive function of the text. Hence, such
structures should be rendered as closely as possible.
The first step to deal with this problem is to find the deep (underlying) structure.
According to Newmark (1981: 116), the useful procedure is to find the logical
subject first, and then the specific verb. If the two important elements are
discovered, the rest will fall into place. After that the translator can reconstruct
the structure in the TL as closely as possible to the original structure. Besides,
the structure of each phrase or clause should be examined clearly also.

2. Literary or Aesthetic Problems

Aesthetic values or poetic truth in a poem are conveyed in word order and
sounds, as well as in cognitive sense (logic). And these aesthetic values have no
independent meaning, but they are correlative with the various types of meaning
in the text. Hence, if the translator destroys the word choice, word order, and the
sounds, he impairs and distorts the beauty of the original poem. Delicacy and
gentleness, for instance, will be ruined if the translator provides crude

alliterations for the original carefully-composed alliterations. So, the problems in

translating a poem is how to retain the aesthetic values in the TL text.
The aesthetic values, according to Newmark (1981: 65) are dependent on the
structure (or poetic structure), metaphor, and sound. Poetic structure includes
the plan of the original poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual
sentences in each line. Metaphor is related to visual images created with
combinations of words, which may also evoke sound, touch, smell, and taste.
While sound is anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme,
rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, etc. A translator cannot ignore any of them
although he may order them depending on the nature of the poem translated.

2.1. Poetic Structure

The first factor is structure. It is important to note that structure meant here is
the plan of the poem as a whole, the shape and the balance of individual
sentence or of each line. So, it does not have to relate directly to the sentential
structures or grammar of a language, even in fact it is very much affected by the
sentential structure. Thus, maintaining the original structure of the poem may
mean maintaining the original structure of each sentence.
The simple examples below show one stanza of Chairil Anwar's Senja di
Pelabuhan Kecil and its two translations: the first is done by Boen S. Oemarjati
and the last is by Burton Raffel. Try to compare which one is better? (Do not
consider the semantic aspect for this stage.)

1.a Ini kali tidak ada yang mencari cinta

di antara gudang, rumah tua, pada cerita
tiang serta temali, kapal, perahu tidak berlaut,
menghembus diri dalam mempercaya mau berpaut
(Kasbolah, 1990: 4)
1.b This time there's no one looking for love
among the sheds, old houses, near the tale
of the masts and riggings. Ships (and) boats (that) have not gone to sea
are puffing themselves (out) in the believe (they) will be united.
(Kasbolah, 1990: 13)

1.c This time no one's looking for love

between the sheds, the old house, in the make-believe

of poles and ropes. A boat, a prau without water
puff and blows, thinking there's something it can catch
(Kasbolah, 1990: 12)
The translations of the first line both are good in the sense that they put the
adverb, "this time" first, but the translation of the main clause in the second
translation is better for it tries to maintain the "poetic structure" of the line. The
further we read the lines, the better we can catch the importance of maintaining
the structure as an attempt to maintain the beauty of the poem. And finally we
may agree that the second translation is more successfully in maintaining the
poetic structure.

2.2. Metaphorical Expressions

Metaphorical expressions, as the second factor, mean any constructions evoking
visual, sounds, touch, and taste images, the traditional metaphors, direct
comparisons without the words "like' and "as if", and all figurative languages.
Intentionally, the writer does not use the term metaphor in the sub-heading since
it has different meaning for some people. What is generally known as
(traditional) metaphor, for example, is not the same as metaphor meant by
To understand the meaning of metaphor as proposed by Newmark, it is advisable
to understand the following terms: object, image, sense, metaphor, and
metonym. Object, called also topic, is the item which is described by the
metaphor. Image refers to the item in terms of which the object is described. It is
also called vehicle. The next term, sense, refers to the point of similarity between
aspects of the objects and the image. Metaphor here means the word(s) taken
from the image. And finally, metonym refers to one-word image which replace
the object, which is in many cases figurative but not metaphorical.
In the expression "rooting out the faults", for example, the object is 'faults', the
image is 'rooting out weeds', the sense is (a) eliminate, (b) with tremendous
effort, and the metaphor is 'rooting out'. The expression 'the seven seas'
referring 'the whole world' is not metaphorical. It is figurative and a metonym.
Newmark (1981: 88-91) proposes seven procedures to translate metaphors in
general. The first procedure is reproducing the same image in the TL if the image
has comparable frequency and currency in the appropriate register. This
procedure is usually used for one-word metaphor, e.g. ray of hope. Ray of hope
can be simply translated into sinar harap.
The second procedure is replacing images in the SL with a standard TL image
within the constraints of TL cultures. The English metaphor 'my life hangs on a
thread', with this procedure, can be translated into Indonesian 'hidupku di ujung

The next is translating a metaphor by simile, retaining the image in the SL. This
procedure can be used to modify any type of metaphor. The 'my life hangs on a
thread', with this procedure, can be translated into 'hidupku bagai tergantung
pada sehelai benang'.
And the rest of the procedures, translating metaphor (or simile) into simile plus
sense, conversing metaphor into sense, deleting unimportant metaphor, and
translating metaphor with some metaphors combined with sense, are not
considered appropriate for poetry translation.
The possible question arising now is 'how far a translator can modify the author's
metaphorical expressions?' It depends on the importance and expressiveness. If
the expressions are very expressive in term of the originality, the expressions
should be kept as close as possible to the original, in terms of object, image,
sense, and the metaphor.
And then what about the culturally-bound metaphors or expressions?
As it is known, there are two kinds of expressions: universal and culturally-bound
expressions. Universal expressions are the ones which consist of words having
the same semantic field with that of most cultures in the world. Engkaulah
matahariku, for example, is a universal expression for every culture sees the sun
as the source of light, source of energy, source of life. Therefore, the expression
can be simply transferred into 'You are my sun'.
See the example below. The poem in 2.a. is written by Sapardi Djoko Damono
and the translation in 2.b. is done by John. H. McGlynn. The expression "matahari
yang berteduh di bawah bunga-bunga" can be transferred directly. The
expression "ricik air yang membuat setiap jawaban tertunda" is modified slightly.
The metaphor "membuat (jawaban) tertunda" is changed into "postponing (each
and every answer)", which literally means "menunda (setiap jawab)"; here the
translator reproduces the same image in the TL, but does not transfer it directly.
2.a Taman Jepang, Honolulu
inikah ketentraman? Sebuah hutan kecil:
jalan setapak yang berbelit, matahari
yang berteduh di bawah bunga-bunga, ricik air
yang membuat setiap jawaban tertunda
(McGlynn, 1990: 100)

2.b Japanese Garden, Honolulu

is this peace? A small glen:
a winding footpath, the sun

resting beneath the flowers, rippling water

postponing each and every answer.
(McGlynn, 1990: 101)
2.3. Sound
The last of literary or aesthetic factors is sound. As stated before, sound is
anything connected with sound cultivation including rhyme, rhythm, assonance,
onomatopoeia, etc. A translator must try to maintain them in the translation. As
Newmark (1981: 67) further states, "In a significant text, semantic truth is
cardinal [meaning is not more or less important, it is important!], whilst of the
three aesthetic factors, sound (e.g. alliteration or rhyme) is likely to recede in
importance -- rhyme is perhaps the most likely factor to 'give' -- rhyming is
difficult and artificial enough in one language, reproducing line is sometimes
doubly so." In short, if the translation is faced with the condition where he should
sacrifice one of the three factors, structure, metaphor, and sound, he should
sacrifice the sound.
On the other hand, the translator should balance where the beauty of a poem
really lies. If the beauty lies more on the sounds rather than on the meaning
(semantic), the translator cannot ignore the sound factor. See the following part
of a poem written by Effendi Kadarisman (example 3.a). Can a translator ignore
the rhyme and assonance? In this case, he has to maintain the two.

3.a Are you the bubble-bubble gum?

Are you the jumble-jumble hum?
Are you the rumble-rumble drum?
Well, folks
Poems are serious jokes
Just say those nonsense words
And sing with the mocking birds

In other cases where sounds is not such important, he should try to maintain
them first in the TL before he decides not to transfer the sound into the TL. This
means he should try to keep the beauty of the sound where possible. In example
4.b, the translator tries to maintain the rhyme but still he puts meaning in the
first consideration.

4.a Dalam tubuhmu kucari kepastian

tapi yang tertinggal hanya kenangan

Bisikan-bisikan segera fana
Tak sedikit pun tercatat, meski hanya kata-kata
(Rosidi, 1993: 200)
4.b In your body, I searched for certainty
but what's left was only memory
Whispers soon faded away
Nothing's noted, even words only
3. Socio-cultural Problems
Words or expressions that contain culturally-bound word(s) create certain
problems. The socio-cultural problems exist in the phrases, clauses, or sentences
containing word(s) related to the four major cultural categories, namely: ideas,
behavior, product, and ecology (Said, 1994: 39). The "ideas" includes belief,
values, and institution; "behavior" includes customs or habits, "products"
includes art, music, and artifacts, and "ecology" includes flora, fauna, plains,
winds, and weather.
In translating culturally-bound expressions, like in other expressions, a translator
may apply one or some of the procedures: Literal translation, transference,
naturalization, cultural equivalent, functional equivalent, description equivalent,
classifier, componential analysis, deletion, couplets, note, addition, glosses,
reduction, and synonymy. In literal translation, a translator does unit-to-unit
translation. The translation unit may range from word to larger units such as
phrase or clause.
He applies 'transference procedure' if he converts the SL word directly into TL
word by adjusting the alphabets (writing system) only. The result is 'loan word'.
When he does not only adjust the alphabets, but also adjust it into the normal
pronunciation of TL word, he applies naturalization. The current example is the
Indonesian word "mal" as the naturalization of the English word "mall".
In addition, the translator may find the cultural equivalent word of the SL or, if he
cannot find one, neutralize or generalize the SL word to result 'functional
equivalents'. When he modifies the SL word with description of form in the TL,
the result is description equivalent. Sometimes a translator provides a generic or
general or superordinate term for a TL word and the result in the TL is called
classifier. And when he just supplies the near TL equivalent for the SL word, he
uses synonymy.
In componential analysis procedure, the translator splits up a lexical unit into its
sense components, often one-to-two, one-to-three, or -more translation.
Moreover, a translator sometimes adds some information, whether he puts it in a

bracket or in other clause or even footnote, or even deletes unimportant SL

words in the translation to smooth the result for the reader.
These different procedures may be used at the same time. Such a procedure is
called couplets. (For further discussion and examples of the procedures, see Said
(1994: 25 - 28) and compare it with Newmark (1981: 30-32)).
The writer does not assert that one procedure is superior to the others. It
depends on the situation. Considering the aesthetic and expressive functions a
poem is carrying, a translator should try to find the cultural equivalent or the
nearest equivalent (synonym) first before trying the other procedures
See the first stanza of Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII below.

5.a Shall I compare thee with a summer's day?

Thou are more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;

It is understood that "summer" is very beautiful for temperate countries, and it

implies distinguished beauty. But the cultural equivalents or near equivalent of
"summer" does not mean so for Indonesia, for example. And to translate any
expression containing such words, the translator should, once again, consider
each expression carefully in term of the importance and expressiveness. If the
expression is very important seen from the whole meaning of the poem and very
expressive seen from the originality of the expression, there is no reason not to
supply the cultural or near equivalent in the TL (See Newmark, 1981: 50).
In the above case the translator does not have any choice; he has to supply the
cultural equivalent in the TL. Let the reader learn and understand what a certain
word means for others in the other part of the globe. "Summer's day" is a day
when the sun shines brightly and the flowers, especially the sweet-scented roses,
are blossoming everywhere in England. Meanwhile, the Indonesian "musim
panas" means agony of life where irrigation channels are dry, the rice fields
crack all over, and the dust scatters everywhere. Later, however, the reader will
learn the beauty pictured with "summer" or "musim panas" when he notices that
the poem was written by an Englishman.

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