Faithful Treason

The endless word game of translating poetry (Translating Poetry, Part 1)

In Borges’ essay, “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), he begins by citing the Italian quip traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor”), which he then goes on to discredit thus:

[I] believe in the good translations of literary works (not to mention didactic or speculative works) and am if the opinion that even poetry is translatable.

Nonetheless, in another essay on the topic, “The Homeric Versions” (“Las versiones homéricas”),¹ he also concedes that it is not easy:

[N]o problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mysteries as the one posed by translation. […] Translation […] seems destined to illustrate aesthetic debate. The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency.

He discusses one specific problem, that of a shared context between writer and reader:²

Evaristo Carriego’s poems will appear slighter to a Chilean’s ear than to myself: I will have a feeling for those Southside sunsets, the local characters, and even the details of a landscape not registered but latent, such as a corral, a fig tree behind a rose-colored wall, a bonfire in the street.

Pointing back to the notion framed in traduttore, traditore that the original text is somehow sacrosanct, and that therefore all translations are lesser works, he continues,³

To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H [i.e. Homer’s draft]—for there only can be drafts. The concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.

Long before I first encountered Borges, and especially these lesser-known essays of his, I was tinkering with conlangs, and one of the ways I would test them is to try to use them to translate poetry. Within fairly brief passages, I could quickly see if the lexicon needed expanding, if the grammar and morphology I was creating were sufficient to the task.

The first poetry translation I did into a “real” language was, rather oddly, of a Chinese poem into Japanese. The poem by Du Fu (杜甫), for which I cannot find the original, reminded me of haiku both in its succinctness and its sense of mono no aware (もののあわれ); a wistful sense of the ephemerality of reality. Indeed, the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), seemingly influenced by this poem, penned a quite similar one. Du Fu’s runs:

Cicadas’ voices echo in the old temple.
Birds’ shadows fly across the cold pond.

The matching of the exact parts of speech and relationships of the words in the two lines was another intriguing element that caused it to stick in my mind. And so, when I was working in Japan, where I was doing a great deal of translation of Japanese game text into English, I decided to share it with some of my coworkers there, as:


Semi no koe, furui tera de hibikimasu.
Tori no kage, samui ike de tobimasu.

Translating poetry from other languages into English began for me with a passage from Virgil, and my experience followed Borges’ description closely. Indeed in all the examples discussed in this series, I encountered the work in English translation, was struck by it, consulted the original, and executed my own version.

During the development of Diablo II, I was looking for an inspirational piece regarding hell, and the one from Dante’s Inferno was feeling a bit tired—“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate […]” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here….”) It’s actually a great passage, but was one of the pieces I had been using to test conlangs for some time. I ran across the 1697 Dryden version of the Aeneid, VI, 273–81:

Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell;
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine‘s unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death’s half-brother Sleep
(Forms terrible to view), their sentry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind;
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind;
The Furies iron beds; and Strife, that shakes
Her hissing tresses, and unfolds her snakes.

Overall it was interesting, and in fact, the Inferno passage is an homage to this one. But some of it felt a bit clumsy to me, in particular, the forced meter and rhyme: Dryden expands the original by an entire line to make it work. So, although I’ll admit to being a Latin novice at the time, I turned to the source, finding:

vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae,
pallentesque habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque;
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruenti.

I took on my own translation, yielding:

Before the entrance, at the very maw of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Anxiety make their Lair,
Here pallid dwells Disease, sad Senescence,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Poverty,
Shapes terrible to behold, Death and Exhaustion;
Then Sleep, of one blood with Death, and Dark
Joys, and against the gate, deadly War,
The Fates in rooms of iron and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky hair bound in ribbons oozing gore.

Attempting to preserve the meter, much less adapt a different one seemed a fool’s errand, and rhyming is, let’s be honest, a bit of a silly linguistic game. Instead I was interested in the metaphors the original work was dealing in, the resonances and nuances of its diction.

My focus initially was on using English cognates of the Latin words when they were available, but words like senescence later seemed like they’d only appear on the SAT. I did have enough restraint to not use consanguineous, and indeed many more Latin words that have been borrowed directly into English, since at a certain point it would cease being a translation. Furthermore, when I was working on Gods and Heroes, I came to understand that the passage presented several lesser deities of the Roman pantheon, and these had accepted English equivalents. Dryden, too seems to have been unaware of the standard renderings of these deity names. I’ve capitalized them in my translation, below. Additionally, my ability to parse the fairly complex Latin had increased significantly, I had studied Roman culture in great depth, and I had read the Aeneid in its entirety. This was the result of another pass from this period:

Before the antechamber, even in the very gullet of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their lair,
Here abide discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the threshold, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ chambers of iron, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

As far as a series of drafts, mine improved by coming to grips with the issues that Borges pointed out. And in fact, these drafts, as Borges suggests, are merely some relatively stable ones, there were many more in between them. Greater understanding of the original language and cultural context and an attempt to bring that information to a modern English-speaking audience informed the more recent one. Rather than focusing on cognates of the original Latin words in English, I moved toward diction relatively accessible to a moderately educated reader, but containing resonances that attempt the depth of the model’s.

I’ll close with one final Borges quote that sums up his (and my) thoughts on the topic:

The original is unfaithful to the translation.


I quite recently learned from a course on Roman architecture that the term fauces, an inflected form of which, faucibus, appears in the first line of the Virgil verse, which both Dryden and I took in an anatomical sense of “jaws, maw, gullet”, is actually an architectural feature common to Roman houses. As further such language is used by Virgil (vestibulum, cubilia, limine, thalami), we can conclude that his intent is to juxtapose these mundane domestic elements with the horrible creatures appearing within them, similar to that of of the white vitta (“hairband”), and the blood staining it. Yet another draft was therefore needed:

Before the anteroom, even at the very entrance of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their parlors,
Here dwell discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the doorway, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ iron bedrooms, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series:

Part 2: The Middle Way

Part 3: Wanting to be Magic


  1. Both this and the previously mentioned Borges work are collected in On Writing.
  2. This is from “Two Ways of Translating”.
  3. I’ve returned here to “The Homeric Versions”.

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