Language lessons across the UK & Ireland

Call us! 0203 650 19 50 / +353 (0) 1 440 3978

Lost in Translation: Language and Poetry


Sharon Drummond/Flickr

Poetry is primarily about the sound and flow of words, so how do aesthetic differences between languages affect the art form in different cultures?

The language barrier extends much further than just the spoken word. In fact, it can totally distort the meaning of an entire form of artistic creation. Perhaps the most poignant example is poetry, a literary medium deeply ingrained in the aesthetics of the language in which it is written.

Given that many stylistic quirks in one language might seem unnatural or untranslatable in another, is it possible to fully appreciate foreign language poetry or does the linguistic barrier prove insurmountable?

Poetry, a Cultural Ambassador

The minutiae of speech can vary widely, including unique approaches to pronunciation, intonation, sentence structure, and syllabic stress. This can fundamentally alter the nature of a piece of written work, especially when read out loud, so much so that much of the original intent of the author can be lost.

An excellent example resides in the prevalence of a Japanese style, the haiku, in North American society , which speaks to both the challenges and successes that such a historically rich tradition experiences in translating across country borders.

It is exceedingly common for school children in the United States to grow up writing haikus in English class - the 5/7/5 syllable pattern is easy to understand and their non-rhyming nature provides ample space for young writers to get creative. The curriculum often even includes lessons on Japanese history and culture to provide a social context to the art form, broadening the horizons of English-speaking students and introducing them to a whole new culture.

However, haikus are actually not meant to be so dependent on syllable count. They still had a meter of 5/7/5, but its proper measurement is called a "mora” or an “on." The Haiku Society of America estimates that an English-language haiku only has about 12 mora, much fewer than the Japanese 17.

As such, it is clear that enough of the inherent beauty of the form does lend itself to English, so much so that it remains a popular type of poem in the United States.  However, there does prove to be an inability for the full haiku experience to translate, evidenced by the variation in mora. The purest and most authentic haiku experience can only really occur in Japanese.

The Musicality of Language

Poetry can very much cater to the idiosyncrasies of its language's unique characteristics and ways of being. Consider both the English limerick and the French alexandrine – two styles that depend completely on the workings of the languages in which they are written. In English, each word has a syllable that is stressed. In French, the syllabic stress occurs as the end of the sentence. Each of these stressed syllables might be better imagined as a "beat," and so each language has a different pattern of beats, or rhythm.

Consequently, if you were to try to translate a limerick , which relies on its own meter of stress, into French, none of the original's rhythm could be transferred to the new tongue.  On the other hand, an alexandrine, when translated into English, would no longer naturally stress only the last syllable, thereby losing its melodious flow.

English, Russian, and German all follow traditions of stress-timed language. Romance languages are usually syllable-timed. Many languages from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are categorized as tonal, using pitch to create meaning. Within these families, the understanding is usually clearer, but there remains the prominent issue of rhyming in the forms that demand it. A direct translation cannot always carry that over, adding yet another hurdle to any endeavor for cross-cultural appreciation of art.

These unique patterns are, in many ways, an unbridgeable divide. While reading a translation by no means prevents you from totally understanding and enjoying a poem, even the best one would mutate, to some extent, the beauty and subtlety of it. So, an entire literary world of gorgeous poetry awaits all readers who are ready and willing to learn a new language. Contact us to start mastering the language of your choice and get to work on fully appreciating great writers the way they were meant to be.