Literary Shelf

Prospects and Challenges of Translating Poetry

A dilettantish practitioner’s viewpoint

The art and process of translation has been an essential part of communication since time immemorial. Translation is a multi-dimensional process – translating an idea or observation into a specific language; polishing up that lingual expression to a desired level of satisfaction or near perfection; and rendering from one language into another. The thirst for knowledge beyond one’s moorings together with the urge to share one’s wisdom with the readers of a different tongue, especially in an environment of increasing human concourse across the globe, has augmented the scope and need of translation across a wide range – academic, scientific, technological, socio-political, literary and artistic. Continual exchange of ideas, comparisons and contrasts expands one’s horizons; and man basically desires to benefit from this borrowing, lending, amalgamation and cross-fertilisation of ideas – as part of human evolution. 

The translation of each field of activity has its own peculiarities and desiderata, and so does that of the realm of poetry, but with a difference that poetry is accepted as the finest expression of a language by virtue of its subjectivity, emotional intensity, aesthetic suffusion, dictional refinement, unordinary syntax, collocational ornateness, beauty of imagery and verbal euphony. So much so, poetic expressions by virtue of the potency of their creativity tend to enrich the language. 

To underline the poetic potency, let me quote Cardinal Newman. “Literature,” of which poetry is a part, “is the personal use of exercise of language,” he observes. The way the poetic language is used is markedly different, and Newman delineates the difference: “And while the many use language as they find it, the man of genius uses it indeed, but subjects it withal to his own purposes, and moulds it according to his own peculiarities. The throng and succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, aspirations, which pass within him, the abstractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so original in him, his views of external things, his judgments upon life, manners, and history, the exercises of his wit, of his humour, of his depth, of his sagacity, all these innumerable and incessant creations, the very pulsation and throbbing of his intellect, does he image forth, to all does he give utterance, in a corresponding language, which is as multiform as this inward mental action itself and analogous to it, the faithful expression of his intense personality, attending on his own inward world of thought as its very shadow: so that we might as well say that one man’s shadow is another’s as that the style of a really gifted mind can belong to any but himself. It follows him about as a shadow. His thought and feeling are personal, and so his language is personal.” 

This entire spirit of a poet, as above, has to be comprehended by the translator in all its distinctiveness in order to do justice to the translation in a “corresponding language.” It is not just a word to word conveyance that is meant by poetic translation; it has to bear in mind “not the words alone, but even the rhythm, the metre, the verse,” because they are the “contemporaneous offspring of the emotion or imagination which possesses” the poet. Even the concomitant “delicacy and beauty of style” has to reflect in the translation. 

The demands of the aforementioned peculiarities, intricacies and nuances behove a translator to enter the soul of the poet whose work he undertakes to translate, in order to be able to grasp the spirit of his work. 

Though translation may not always be as effective as the original – as is commonly observed, there is no substitute to it unless every reader wants to, and can, learn and master each and every language. 

While a commendable command of both the source and the target language is a sine qua non for a translator, he can be successful only with a painstakingly analytical study of various translations and continued practice. A translation may have to go through several phases of improvement from the angle of fidelity to the original, even as a certain amount of leeway is inevitable while rendering idiomatic or proverbial expressions. So also to ensure a natural flow in the target language, a translator may have to combine or divide the lines or sentences or change the order of the phrases, clauses, lines or sentences. The title of the poem also may sometimes necessitate a change. This is all according to the personal experience of this writer. 

The type of the language as used in the original – whether classical or plebeian, erudite or colloquial, argotic, dialectal or slangy – should retain its flavour in the target language as well, to the extent possible. Likewise, the verbal euphony in the original resulting from employment of devices like rhyme, rhythm, assonance, consonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia should, as far as possible, be echoed in the translation. Wherever culture-specific terms are there, it is better to retain them as they are, by duly explaining them by way of notes. Depending upon one’s choice or demand, a poem in the source language can be rendered into a metrical poem or free verse or even prose. Again, while translation within the Indian languages – like from Tamil to Telugu, or from Bengali to Hindi – is relatively easy in view of the larger cultural similarity; that between an Indian language and a foreign language (like English, Spanish or Chinese) would pose certain difficulties.

The exercise involves more of practice and extensive study than of theory, even as courses in translation techniques (like the one this writer went through) would certainly be of some conceptual help. 


Robert Frost remarks that poetry “gets lost in translation.” It need not always be the case, I feel, since a poem based on a universal theme or emotion devoid of parochial limitations or colours lends itself to a smooth translation. A couple of examples.

Why a Secret Alcove?

(Telugu original: Dr Koduru Prabhakara Reddy, Hridaya Raagam, p 63)

Merely carried away by figments of imagination
Why for your amorous ramble

Retreat to cramped
Clandestine and cryptic rendezvous?

To heartily indulge
In dalliance with your beau
Can there be a better palace
Than the wide open earth
With mines of gems enwombed?

(Translated by: U Atreya Sarma. Muse India, Nov-Dec 2011)

Then there is the Telugu poem ‘Aagiponi Astitvam’ by Jnan Pith awardee Dr C Narayana Reddy from his collection of poems, Naa Choopu Repati Vaipu (Ahead I Look, p 15):

The Existence That Doesn’t Come to a Stop

My fancies are like birds
That fly in the air.
They don’t wish to rest 
Until destination is reached.

The above is one of the several poems by Dr Narayana Reddy translated by U Atreya Sarma that were featured in Muse India (Nov-Dec 2011); on reading it, the original poet communicated his appreciation of the translation.

Modus operandi

Be it the voluntary translation spurred by the spontaneous delight by reading a particular poem or an assignment entrusted, the basic is of course the same – to read the original poem a number of times; identify the difficult portions and even them out; then get down to translating; read the draft and revise; read and further improve – until you feel it has come off as an organic whole. After an optimal break, leave aside the original, and read the translated version independently as if it is the original itself. If possible, discuss your translation with the original writer, and the best certificate is most probably the original writer’s appreciation itself, more so when the latter is equally competent or has enough working knowledge in the target language. Considering all this nuanced exercise the final product would be a trans-creation rather than a strict translation. The level of liberty in translation can range from the literal/the near-literal to various gradations of trans-creation, depending upon the translator’s perception, taste and mood. As such, it could in many a case well-nigh be impossible to rule a particular translation as the ultimate. 

One poem: Many versions of translation

A child prodigy, Devarakonda Balagangadhara Tilak was a highly intense and aesthetic poet, whose Telugu poem ‘Amritam Kurisina Ratri’ along with its eponymous collection has swept hordes of readers off their feet. And many a translator has felt a compulsive urge to render it into English. A look at five select different versions of a representative stanza from the poem creates a workshop-like effect and even sparks off a sixth one.

Version 1:  The Night That Rained Nectar

Up in the sky
The nimble-footed nymphs pirouetted gracefully.
Twinkles of their star-studded anklets
Tintinnabulating as tinkling tassels;
Pendulums of their ‘Parijathas’ laden hairdos
Perambulating over their petite waists petallic;
Fulsome of their fruitioned breasts
Tense in their inner garments like the tempered bows.

(Translated by: Dr Velchala Kondal Rao)

Version 2: The Night of Nectar

Celestial damsels
In all their feminine grace
Danced across the sky.
Their starry anklets jingled;
The paarijaatas on their earlobes
Hung in bunches.
Under the weight of their heavy breasts
They’re bent like youthful bows.

(Translated by: Dr Indira Babbellapati) 

Version 3: The Night, Nectar Rained

I saw celestial maidens of surpassing beauty
Running hither and thither swan-like across the sky.
Anklets of stars were tinkling
Musically on their feet.
Jasmines in sumptuous bunches
Were hanging from their luxuriant tresses.
Tantalizing curvatures on their breasts and bottoms
Were like full strung bows of heroic ages.

(Translated by: Chepuru Subba Rao)

Version 4: As Ambrosia Dripped

Up in the sky the apsara dancers
Pirouetted gracefully.
The stars of the sky, very like dancer’s anklets,
Made a sound of tintinnabulation; 
The paarijaata flowers in their hairdos
Hung down, cluster upon cluster.
And weighed by the heaviness of their bosoms
They bent down like the bows of youth.

(Translated by: SS Prabhakar)

The fifth version is by Dr VVB Rama Rao, a prolific writer and translator, who in his recent work Prolegomena and Transformative Articles on Literary Translation (Authors Press, 2015) observes, “The translator needs to be competent to make his translation as diversely suggestive and as variedly communicative as intended by the author of the original text. Literary Translation is an honest and committed attempt of a translator to bring at least a part of the glory of the text before a reader, who has no access to the original.” 

Version 5: The Night It Rained Nectar

Divine damsels in the sky
Were gracefully running about.
Star anklets on their feet
Were ringing loudly, melodiously;
In their braids
Parijata flowers hanging in bunches and bunches.
Weighed down with heavy breasts and buttocks
They were bending like youthful bows.

(Translated by: Dr VVB Rama Rao)

One would feel that with the exception of Dr VVB Rama Rao, the remaining four translators have chosen to take certain trans-creating liberties – by skipping some expressions from the original and adding some that are not there in it. As many translators, as many versions. Now here is mine, just for the heck of it. 

Version 6: The Night the Nectar Rained

(This version is just for the nonce)

Yonder in the welkin
The nymphs gracefully flitted across;
Their starry anklets went ting-a-ling;
The night-jasmines from their tresses
Dangled in bunches exuberant.
Weighed down by their big bosoms and derriere
They curved down like youthful bows.

(Translated by: U Atreya Sarma)

These versions all go to prove that there is perhaps no last word or last laugh in the matter of poetry translation. Better versions, unknown, could already be there, or they could be coming up in the future.

My debut translation

My first serious poetic translation was of a 4-stanza Hindi poem ‘Oonchaee’ by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The anonymous translation of the fourth stanza had just then appeared in the article of an English newspaper. A friend of mine prevailed upon me to translate it toward the end of 1997. It was a challenge since my knowledge of Hindi was/is peripheral and the deadline was a few hours. Frantically consulting Hindi-knowing kith and kin, referring to a couple of Hindi-English/Telugu dictionaries in my library, and grasping the meaning, spirit and beauty of the poem, I managed to translate the first three stanzas. I didn’t translate the final stanza, since I couldn’t better it. Eventually the entire poem in translation was carried on the back cover of a booklet, Nation's Pride: Atal Behari Vajpayee (NRI Secular Democratic Forum, USA, January 1998). I felt gratified when my friend said that the translation had met with Vajpayee’s prior approval sans any change.


(Original in Hindi: Oonchaee, Atal Behari Vajpayee)

(Translation – First three stanzas: U Atreya Sarma. Stanza 4: Anon.) 

Our Land craves not for pygmies
But longs for men of stature
So tall as can touch the skies
And whose excellence soars to starry heights.
Nay, nay, never to such a loftiness then
Where no grass grows under the feet;
Where no thorns prick the soles
And where buds cannot bloom;
Where no spring nor winter does arise;
Where but a dreary storm blows and howls
And where only a still desolation reigns – 

[My Lord!
Never let me climb so high
That I can’t bend down
To embrace another human.
Deliver me ever from such arrogance.]

A different title in translation

A leading Telugu poet-critic Kondreddy Venkateswara Reddy approached me and I translated four of his poems into English – for purpose of him reciting at a Sahitya Akademi meet ‘Abhivyakti’ at Dibrugarh on Sep 5-6, 2015. One of the translated poems ‘He, A Super Recharging Element’ was published in The Hans India (Aug 23, 2015). The title of another poem in Telugu was ‘Atadu Illu Khalee Chesi Velladu’ (literally, ‘He Has Vacated the House and Gone Away.’ Finding it rather flat, I gave a different title in English – ‘Keepsakes No Longer’ – suggestive of the theme. The original writer liked it and said all the four translated poems had been received well at the meet.

There is a beautifully imaginative Telugu poem ‘Niagara’ by well-known writer Mukunda Ramarao Yellapu. The name ‘Niagara’ (of the famous waterfall) figures in the poem slightly after midway. As a translator, I however felt that the poem would be more effective if the name ‘Niagara’ was held off and given out only at the end by assigning it an altogether different title “Repose within me please”; and the idea was endorsed by the original writer. The translated version was published in The Hans India daily (Sep 27, 2015).

Translating the same poem in two different modes

Noted poet-fiction writer-artist Varanasi Nagalakshmi had written a Telugu poem ‘Peru Maarina Nagaram’ (literally, ‘The City Whose Name Has Changed’). It’s a free verse, and its translation by U Atreya Sarma, in the same mode, appeared in The Hans India (May 3, 2015). Let’s quote the first two stanzas for our purpose. 

The City with a Brand-New Name! 

(Translated by: U Atreya Sarma)

Each school kid a rising Sun
Bundled up in the auto with many such,
Carries the burden of the earth on his back
On the way to school!

The houses that reposed under widespread canopies
Have now uprooted all the trees to occupy the sky!
The water-pipes break under increased pressure;  
And in them flow – drinking water and drain, hand in hand!

Let’s compare the above version with the rhymed and more liberal trans-creation by Mahesh Kanumoori. 

A Town Transformed

(Translated by: Mahesh Kanumoori)

At the early morning ray of sun 
Cramped in auto the little suns
Carry the burden of earth
Bound to school from birth 

Majestic canopy of the trees beloved
Soothing shade for restful dwellings
Ingrate structures rise with no feelings
Sheltering hosts mercilessly cleared

The pressure of dense living
The pipes are cracking
Clean and dirty water mingle
Hand in hand with a jingle

Mahesh’s trans-creation has its charm and grace. 

Infrequently it so happens that a particular idiomatic idea has the same literal expression in both the source and the target language. To illustrate, there is a Telugu poem with the title ‘Ugravaadamoo! Thoka Mudu!’ by well-known writer A Raja Hussain which I rendered into English. ‘Thoka Mudu’ is a Telugu idiom, and it means ‘Get lost.’ Coincidentally, its literal translation as ‘Turn tail’ also happens to be idiomatic, conveying the same meaning. The poem in translation appeared in Muse India (Nov-Dec 2011).

Translating metrical poetry

When a metrical poem is translated it would be better to give it some structure in the translation, if total metrical conversion is not amenable. A Sanskrit lyric poem is quoted by Jnan Pith recipient Viswanatha Satyanarayana in Chapter 13 of his Telugu mega-novel Veyipadagalu (recently brought out in English under the title Thousand Hoods by a 5-member panel of which I am one). The Sanskrit original is by Bilvamangala, a great Krishna devotee-poet of 13th century AD from his Sri Krishnamritam (Chapter 2, Sloka 9). Here is its English version with 14 syllables a line, and with rhyme. 

Would I earn merit and be, at least in the next life, born 
On the Yamuna’s shore as a bamboo culm that adorned
As a flute the gem-like lower lip of the cowherd’s son
And wow, thereby attained a beatific position.

(Translated by U Atreya Sarma)

Bottlenecks in translation: Possible solutions

The greatest stumbling block for a translator is want of adequate lexical tools – bilingual/multilingual dictionaries and thesauruses. Unfortunately in languages like Telugu no institutional, systematic and ongoing encyclopaedic and lexicographic mechanism is in place so much so it is especially difficult while having to render the names of flora and fauna. Likewise, there is a need for a dictionary of proverbs with broader equivalents in the other language. Strangely and sadly, there are still many words in the available corpus of Telugu literature that are yet to find their way into the dictionaries. The problem gets more ticklish when classical poetry needs to be translated. 

Quite often, it is remarked offhand that we don’t have enough number of competent translators. This without making any comprehensive attempt on the part of the academies, universities, government and publishers, to call for such translators and empanel them and make use of their services. There is also the angle of reasonable compensation to the time and labour invested by a translator who can’t always be expected to render free service – for his/her time is also valuable, even as the original writer and the publisher make money themselves. Despite this, the labour of love continues, but only highly randomly or selectively. 

Once a continuing mechanism of identifying the translation needs from time to time is set in motion, it could comprise translation workshops and chain translation exercises – back to the source language, in order to make translation into a worthy and efficacious science-cum-art. 

[Originally published in two instalments in the ejournal: Literature Studio Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Dec 2015) and Vol. 1, No. 2 (Feb 2016)]


More by :  U Atreya Sarma

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Views: 3454      Comments: 9

Comment There is nothing to feel apologetic,sir.Preoccupations kept me away from continuing the interesting discussion.Well. Prof B.V.L.Narayan Row translated a few Telugu folk songs into English, carried in a book edited by Susie Tharu and Laitha on women's works.Dr Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman translated Kshetrayya's songs into English, besides Annamayya's songs titled 'God On The Hill: Temple poems from Tirupati by Annamayya'.Prof Basavaraj Naikar translated Shaiva Vachanas from Kannada into English in addition to several folk songs. 'Songs of Three Great South Indian Saints' by William J. Jackson (2002), Oxford India is an addition to the ever growing corpus of Indian poetry/songs translated into English.A.K.Ramanujan's contribution is also quite significant.This is only a small list.
Exchange of views always strengthen the contributors' ability and sensibility.We need to welcome and respect healthy discussion.I always hold you, your views and work in high esteem.regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
03-Apr-2016 05:00 AM

Comment If I might just add, there are no instances that I am aware of English lyrical transcreations of Indian songs. In a virtual reverse trend, transcreation of Indian poetry into English, and other Indian regional languages, is, as you say, in demand. I don't wish to appear an impediment. My apologies for anything said that jars on the sensibilities of readers, and to treat my comments as exploratory. The truth speaks for itself.

24-Mar-2016 21:25 PM

Comment In relation to the subtleties of feelings of a foreign language being expressed through translation, it is agreed that language is about communication. Each language has developed its own words, phrases, syntax, and vocal intonation that expresses the soul of its people. We discover that human societies share words for the same objects that render translation feasible. But the arrangement of words on the page, the phrases, syntax and stresses – the vocal intonation – occasions conflict in translation. A fault in the translation is sometimes the original language breaking through in terms of its natural expression. To iron out these ‘faults’ one has to iron out the original language’s mode of expression in phrasing and syntax and accommodate them to the new. In translation, we might achieve a communication of ideas, but in terms of the grammatical syntax and phrasing of another ‘soul’ language. Mastery of a foreign language is merely that of its grammar and vocabulary, vehicles of communication, but not of its soul, ironically, the source of its words. The soul of the translated language is expressed by that language alone. What is the soul of English as renders English words derived from it? I would argue English has had the historical time to develop into a universal language, colonialism playing its part, and is now a language without borders. The attraction of English is its global neutrality of culture. It is a world language and expresses a world soul. As a universal language it is used to express the native soul in a given usually ex-colonial country – America, Canada, Australia, the West Indies, India, the last being an exception with its own agglomeration of different regional soul languages. American English or West Indian English is characterised as expressing its soul. Indian English is not, but uses it to express its own linguistic souls to attain to the universality of English, and thus promote itself. In so doing, it still treats English as a foreign language. However, the generations of Indians living abroad assume the English of the country in its universal form, and are quite happy to express their souls in English. These individuals as a rule do not have an interest in translating the language of their forebears, because to them English is broad-minded in its inclusion of the world, and that to them serves the whole object of language in the modern world.

23-Mar-2016 07:11 AM

Comment Dear rdashby,
I love the way you presented your view.Literary work in Indian languages needs to be translated into English first, for it is the gateway to reach global audience.From English it may go into other Indian languages or other languages elsewhere.Perhaps, what you call sentimental stuff is so because, here it is 'ardratha' [moist' nature] a quality that touches one delicately / intensely which makes a work of art superior. Emotions are universal. You have rightly observed it a feature of Indian English works.
best regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
19-Mar-2016 14:45 PM

Comment Thank you learned friends - RD Ashby, VVB Rama Rao and TS Chandra Mouli - for your enlightening comments.

U Atreya Sarma
18-Mar-2016 01:34 AM

Comment I think most of our learned contributors at Boloji perhaps overlook the fact, for it is nowhere mentioned, of the basic difference between English, an analytic language, the language of modern science and literary analysis, and any of the regional Indian languages, being in relation pre-dominantly sentimental, for the emotions being untrammelled by a dominant analytic component. The problem in Indian to English language translation, therefore, is that from a regional sentimental language to a universal analytic one. Of course, there are words in English to express sentiment but the language's analytical strength, it’s forte, makes any faithful translation from a sentimental language sound 'super-sentimental' to non-Indian ears. English poets who indulge this form of sentimentality of language are critically dubbed effeminate - John Keats, for one. English poetry’s evolution is along analytic lines. By contrast, the sentimental nature of, for example, HIndi is revealed in Hindi songs, where the music seems cloyed with sentiment to western ears, especially in high-pitched female voices wringing notes out for pathos. In poetry, when the sentimental Indian language is translated into English, it becomes one facet of so-called Indian English When writing English in analytic mode, in prose, the sentimental voice of the Indian poet who has mastered English is transformed. One cannot believe it’s the same person. I could go on to moot that the analytic quality of English disqualifies it as a proper vehicle for translation of Indian language poems, but that English is a means to wider communication, where the overriding sentimentality of the Indian poet expressed in English actually passes for an Indian English literary phenomenon.

17-Mar-2016 16:17 PM

Comment Thanks for a wonderful write up,sir.Translation of Telugu literary works into English has been going on systematically from the time C.P.Brown undertook translation of Vemana's poems, paying the Telugu scholars who helped him from his salary.A noble service rendered by a peerless British official who loved the languages and people of the province he governed.

As opined by Susan Bassnet and Harish Trivedi, transfer of culture characterises all post -colonial translation works.My recent presentation in Norwich opened my eyes to the requirements of a translator in U.K and European contexts, as regards strategies and texts to be chosen.One's love for certain texts and writers should never be imposed on the audience.

Packing too much data in a single attempt is not desirable.The need to carry culture specifics into a language like English demands greater caution, liberal use of hybridity,due regard to the sensibility of audience, besides explication in text it self,where possible.Demand for foot notes is out dated.

We have many 'Englishes' today.So, it is not desirable to cater to the requirements of a specific group.As long as it is not 'unEnglish',it is fine.Global approach is the need of the day.

As V.V.B.Ramarao sir said, no translation is final or absolute.Exchange of notes is a healthy trend to bring all creative people together.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
16-Mar-2016 02:26 AM

Comment exchanging notes on translation practice is a very useful activity
no translation is final it can live till another finer one crops up
let translators work in unity
literary translation is needed more an more in our country, india, which has more languages listed in our constitution
all the best

v v b rama rao
15-Mar-2016 20:50 PM

Comment Translation of poetry from an Indian language into English by an Indian is translation into Indian English. Indian English is characterised by its frequent lack of use of the definite article - a small but telling omission - and its elaborateness of descriptive passage that bespeaks Indian poetic language, as might jib on English poetic sensibility. I am of the opinion that translation of Indian poetry into English by an Indian affords an insight into the ideas of the Indian poet, of value in itself, but as a literary composition it remains identifiably Indian. Translation by a writer of a foreign language poem, as in the classic example of Edward Fitzgerald and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, produces the euphonic poem to readers of the translator's culture.

15-Mar-2016 08:27 AM

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