Poetry is translatable. Without translatability, we would know very little about the Odyssey and the Commedia, about Petrarch’s love and Rimbaud’s suffering. Many would be oblivious to Faust’s striving and Cavafy’s longing. Our trees would not remind us of the myths that Ovid has told us, and our hearts’ angels would scarcely know Rilke. Our worlds would be small, and silent.
If poetry were untranslatable, our multilingual poets could not have read verse in one language and then alluded to it in their own. If poetry were untranslatable, each line of verse would be totally incomprehensible.
Poetry is translatable – into a later version of its own language; into my language and yours; into an experience of happiness and a sensation of sorrow; into knowledge and action; into memory and into French (and even German!).
When you try your hand at translating a poem, take a moment to celebrate just how much you can understand. Remember how sophisticated your own language can be, and never forget that you are addressing a reader. Poetry is translatable because you speak your own language well and, even more importantly, because you have come to know your fellow man and woman.
When you read a translation, remember that it is concerned with you. It is the voice of someone speaking to you, and they deserve your attention. Remember also that you will never fully understand what they are saying, and that they will never say everything they want you to know. Each new reading is a new translation, and as a new reading is always possible so the process of translation is never complete.
This post was originally written for Best American Poetry.