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Home | Content | Other | Poetry

Translating English to Italian poetry…?

You’d be surprised at how often poetry comes up in everyday translations. Radio jingles, song lyrics for CD inlays, the occasional advertising slogan, poetry citations used to introduce chapters in a book, puns and rhymes in the packaging for toys and games… these are just some of the possibilities. And where there’s a rhyme there’s a reason, so it must be translated.

There are several approaches to translating poetry. Strangely, rhymes aren’t that hard to translate: a good thesaurus and rhyming dictionary (yes, such things do exist) solves that problem in rapid order. Somewhat more difficult is preserving the metre, or rhythm, of the original, or substituting it with a recognisable English-language metre if the original one doesn’t exist in English.

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But things only start to get really interesting when cultural references are involved. Sometimes there is a direct equivalent: in English things happen once in a blue moon, and in Italian they happen ogni morte di papa (every death of a Pope). More often you are not so lucky. As English speakers quote Shakespeare, the Italians quote Dante, and the phrase Senza infamia e senza lode (literally, “without infamy and without praise”, Inferno canto III line 35) is often used to describe fence-sitters and mediocrity in general.

The underlying concept is easy to translate, but the reference to Dante elicits a specific associative and cultural response in Italian speakers—Italians know exactly what circle of Hell prevaricators end up in. The translator must attempt to elicit a similar response with the translation. It’s a tall order, and it gets taller. For example, how do you translate a pun based on a cultural reference? How do you translate dialogue in dialect? Every case is different, and solutions are often tailored to the intended target audience. Just about the only thing that can be said with any confidence is that poetic translation is always a challenge.

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