Side by side by side: Literal Translation vs. Poetic Translation

When considering translations, there tends to be a continuum between two extremes with word for word translation at one end, with thought for thought translation somewhere in the middle, and plain paraphrasing at the other end. Although there exists a myriad of translating theories, there is no exact formula that will churn out the “perfect” translation of anything, especially because even the same translation will be perceived differently by separate people. However, what can be done is a comparative critique of two (or more) different English translations of the same source text, in this case in Spanish. The poem Que caiga esa lluvia fina by Mexican writer Coral Bracho can be examined in conjunction with both a literal translation and a “poetic” one- one which encompasses a semantic translation that also preserves the aesthetic and expressive values of the original work. Through this comparison, it can be seen clearly that although there is no such thing as a perfect translation, at the very least a literal or word-for-word translation is not only an injustice to the source text, but is vastly undermined by the superiority of a poetic translation.

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A translator must strive to strike a balance between accuracy and poetic style.  This can only be achieved through the employment of literary techniques that will conserve the poetic structure of the original with its rhythm, rhyme, meter and the specific expression that may not conform to the ones of daily language. To do this, adjustments and replacements must be considered that will retain the shape and balance of individual sentences as well as the structure of the poem as a whole. An example of a way in which this is not successfully achieved by the literal translation can be seen in this excerpt:

“Like a messenger who, soaked and burning with fever,

comes from far,

Brings the sealed documents/orders, brings the words.

But the drawing of the rain stretches/extends

And does not allow one to hear. It doesn’t allow one to see

What is happening. And it is that

What comes near,

What talks to us,

And seizes us by the shoulders forcefully,

What shouts at us and shakes us is the rain,

Is the limit/boundary/horizon that gets blurred/fades away.”

The literal translation is forced to make sentences overly explanatory and long because some of the structures that give the original its unique style don’t obey the rules of conventional speech or writing in the “proper” way.  Whereas it is perfectly normal and accepted for a poem to use sentence fragments and asyndeton to add to the rhythmic sound of the text, a literal translation cannot convey this same technique because of its limitations. In this way, the translation sounds mechanical and out of place, and frankly, absurd. It loses the poetic structure and transforms the text into a confusing one that lacks the musicality of the original.

Apart from structure, another important issue in which a literal translation misses the mark is in the language. Language in a poem is used to create visual images through combinations of words which evoke sound, touch, smell, and taste. Que caiga esa lluvia fina has an integrated assonance that, through the seamless repetition of vowel sounds creates an internal rhyming that is extremely important to the poem, especially since it doesn’t follow “traditional” poetry structure and have words rhyming- it relies in the assonance to give it its musicality and provide its rhythm and meter. As expected, the literal translation does not account for this assonance. A clear example of this is this sentence: “Esta verdad oscura, esta oscilante levedad”- verdad and levedad create the internal rhyme. The literal translation: “This dark truth, this oscillating lightness” doesn’t provide the same rhyme scheme. Although this is a hard task, the poetic translation manages to create its own rhyme scheme: “This dark truth, this swaying lightness”- evokes movement and a musicality that “oscillating” (although closer to oscilante) cannot provide.

Lastly, to further showcase a literal translation’s shortcomings, the word choice can be examined. Literal translations fail to make distinctions between different usages of heteronyms because they aren’t focused in the poetry behind the author’s deliberate word selection. Although individual words may not seem like a very important issue when examining the whole, they are a crucial aspect of a poem’s (or any literary works) unique style and intended meaning. This can be demonstrated using the poem’s title, which is repeated throughout the text, each time in a different context: “Que caiga esa lluvia fina/let that fine rain fall” – the word fine has different meanings and is meant to convey varying interpretations each time it is used. At the beginning of the poem, it can be used to signify that the rain is good, whereas towards the end, it signifies that it is delicate and light, like a mist- which the poetic translation takes note of and acknowledges.

Overall, there are many reasons why a translation should be considered “good” or “bad”, but whatever the case, one thing is for certain, a poetic translation will certainly triumph over a literal or word for word translation, especially when compared in terms of the poetic structure and language they provide for a reader that does not have the benefit of the original.

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