User:Deepamishra/TY BA Translation Theory and Practice/chapter-V

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14.0 Objectives

14.1 Introduction

14.2 Problems of translating poetry

14.3 Problems of translating prose

14.4 Problems of translating drama

14.5 Conclusion

14.6 Questions


This chapter summarises the difficulties encountered by translators in translating poetry, prose and drama. Creating awareness of the problematics of translation is aimed at in this chapter.


Scholars of Translation Studies, to some extent, have spelled out the theories and methods of the process of translation. They prescribe that a translator must conform to the rules so as to bring about a good translation. This approach to translation is a normative approach. They further maintain that the text in the TL must be faithful and equivalent to the text of the SL. This view assures that the languages of SL and TL are almost identical. But no two languages are similar. The sign system of one language differs from the sign system of the other language in consideration of the cultural differences of the two communities. So, translation, instead of becoming a mere transference of meaning of the SL text into the TL text, faces problems of finding equivalence. Problems of translation originate from this dichotomy.

Susan Bassnett maintains that a literary text is made up of a complex system of linguistic structures where the parts are related to other parts and the text as a whole. Besides, because of suggestive nature of language, no literary text is confined to a fixed meaning. Bassett quotes Robert Scholes who enumerates the point explicitly in the words, “Every literary unit from the individual sentence to the whole order of words can be seen in relation to the concept of system. In particular we can look at individual works, literary genres, and the whole of literature as related systems and at literature as a system within the larger system of human culture.” (Bassnett, P. 80). So the process of translation gets problematic since it is not merely a linguistic act but also a socio-cultural activity.

The indeterminacy of a literary text so for as its meaning is concerned, poses the greatest problem of translation. Not only prose or poetry, but also drama is not free from this problem of translation.

Of all these genres, translation of poetry has given rise to a number of problems. Poetry as a form of art is distinct from either prose or drama. Poetry is often defined as thought expressed in rhythmic language. Thus a poem has different features which make it different from prose. First of all it has rhythm. It also has a sound system along with meter and stanza pattern. All these things make the poem distrint. Above all it has different forms like sonnet, ode, epic, and elegy and so on. So while translating poetry, the translator faces numerous problems.


Translation of poetry is the most difficult process of translation. Poetry abounds in the use of different figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, irony, pardox with phonological, syntactic and semantic patterns such as alliteration, assonance , rhyming pattern and morphological parallelism. The same type of figures of speech, though available in the TL, do not tally with that of the SL. So the translator faces the problem. Apart from the linguistic distinction, poetry has ideas, images, symbols which are non-linguistic in nature. The translator, therefore, has to take extreme care and caution while translating the poem.

Poems have different stanzaic patterns. If the general theory of translation as a faithful and equivalent copy of the SL text in the TL text is accepted, then perhaps, translation of poetry becomes almost impossible. How can one think of creating the stanza pattern of a Spenserian stanza in any Indian language? Similarly many stanza patterns existing in Marathi or Hindi do not have their counter part in English. Therefore, deviations, distortion and digression become, quite often, a feature of translating poetry. Bassnett cites the example of the translation of Petrarch’s sonnet into English by Wyatt and Surrey. The same sonnet when translated into English by two English poets has two different levels of meaning and rhyme scheme. To illustrate the point it is essential to quote the paragraph of Bassnett which runs as:

Surrey’s translation retain the military languages of the SL text but goes several stages further. The Lover is ‘captyve’, and he and Love have often fought. Moreover, the lady is not in an unreachable position, angered by the display of Love. She is already won and is merely angered by what appears to be excessive ardour. Petrach’s sonnet mentions desio and spene (desire and hope) but Surrey’s passion is presented in physical terms. Once the Lady has changed ‘her smyling grace’ to anger, Love flees, but his flight is decisively condemned by the Lover. ‘Cowarde love’ files and in the safety of the heart he ‘doth lurke and playne’. Moreover, in the final line of the third quartet, the Lover states plainly that he is ‘fawtless’ and suffers because of ‘my lords gylt’. The device of splitting the poem into three four-line stanzas can be seen as a way of reshaping the material content. The poem does not build to a question and a final line on the virtues of dying, loving well. It builds instead to a couplet in which the Lover states his determination not to abandon his guilty lord even in the face of death. The voice of the poem and the voice of the Lover are indistinguishable, and the stress on the I, apparent in Wyatt’s poem already, is strengthened by those points in the poem where there is a clear identification with the Lover’s position against the bad behavior of the False Lord Love. (109).

This kind of distortion or deviation from the SL text in the TL is intended to make the poem meaningful and significant to the TL reader. Therefore, while translating poetry, care should be taken to the taste of the target reader.

To sum up, translating poetry is like a puzzle which the translator probably will fail to do full justice to any text. Broadly speaking, poetry, more than any other kind of literature, means different things to different people. So to what meaning the translator will stick to is a difficult choice. Again, in a poem there always arises a blend of form and meaning. Bradley says:

“[It] is the succession of experiences – sounds, images, thoughts, emotions – through which we pass when reading or listening impressionably and exerting our imaginations in the act of recreation. In such poetic experience ‘meaning’ and ‘form’ are not apprehended separately but operate together. There is a ‘resonant, meaning or a meaning of resonance, two expressions for one and the same thing. It is only in later reflection that the formal aspect of true poetry can, by a fiction, be detached from the aspect of meaning. We adopt this fiction for purposes of criticism… But the meaning in strictness cannot be expressed in any but its own words, nor can the words be changed without changing the meaning.” (Forster, Leonard, 23)

In fact, the form of poetry refers to the rhyme scheme, stanza pattern, meter and versification along with the use of other devices of alliteration, assonance etc. In the target language it is almost impossible to think of equivalence however gifted the translator might be. So Forster rightly remarks that, “The translation is a new product, that is to say that it is the result of re-creative process.” (Forster,23)


The notion prevalent amongst scholars and practitioners of translation is that translating prose is less problematic than translating poetry. Such an idea has stemmed out of the fact that a prose work, particularly a novel is a vast work of art in which the sentences and paragraphs are not synchronized in an organic way as it is done in poetry. Translator sometimes goes on translating sentences and paragraphs in a run-on manner. This results in a translation in the TL that does not convey the import of the original SL text. Bassn ett clearly discusses the problem in the case of translation of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. The prose translator often fails to see the organic blend of form and context in a novel. This leads to approach the prose text in a rather careless manner. The translator stresses the context of the sentences and paragraphs at the cost of total structure. Thus, Bassnett comments on the first four lines of the translated text of Magic Mountain as, “This fast-moving energetic passage, consisting of three sentences with four verbs of action and movement pulls the reader straight into the narrative” (P. III). But no clues are given to the structure of the novel as a whole as it has been done in the original German version. Bassnett writes: “The journey depicted in the first few sentences is therefore functioning on more than one level: there is the young man’s actual journey across a nation, the journey as a metaphor for the quest on which the reader is about to embark” (P 112).

But in English translation the journey is an ordinary journey described in a matter of fact manner glossing over the symbolic significance of it as it exists in the SL text. Besides, in the translation of prose novels, ghost stories and essays, the cultural effect is most often neglected for which the translated text in the TL falls flat on the reader.

Bassnett, therefore, cites six points charted by Hilaire Belloc and tells that the translator of prose should keep these points in mind. They are:

1. The translator should not “plod on”, word by word or sentence by sentence, but should always “block out” his work. By “block out”, Belloc means that the translator should consider the work as an integral unit….

2. The translator should change idioms of SL to conform to such “idioms” in the TL. Belloc cites the example of the Greek exclamation “By the Dog” which if rendered literally, becomes merely comic in English, and suggests that the phrase “By God” is a much closer translation.

3. The translator must render ‘intention by intention’ bearing in mind not to over-emphasize or to undermine the true import of the original. He is at liberty “to add” words to conform to the original.

4. Belloc advises that the words of the SL be translated not in a literal sense but in the appropriate semantic manner.

5. Belloc maintains that the translator should be bold enough for the resurrection of an alien thing in a native body.

6. The translator should not embellish.

(Adapted from Bassnett,p.116)

Belloc’s six points speak about the technique and points of principle as the guidelines for the translator.

So far as translating literary prose is concerned, the methodology suggested by translation scholars may be useful. But apart from literary texts, other forms of prose relating to science, commerce, trade, law etc do not pose such complicated situations. The translator sails smooth in such subjects.


Translating drama poses the greatest difficulty for the translator. A drama is an articulate story enacted on the stage before an audience by a group of men and women supported by action or gesticulation. Besides, a drama is primarily intended to be performed under the planning and instruction of a director helped by the producer. The written words in the form of the dialogue are only a part of the drama. Therefore, the translator feels as if inside the maze trying to find a way out. A drama is a composite art. The methods of translating poetry or prose cannot be successfully applied to the translation of drama. Therefore, a new methodology for translating drama has to be evolved.

In a drama the sense or meaning does not solely depend on the linguistic construct i.e.the spoken words. The stage, setting, the characters’ manner of speaking the dialogue and their dress, the director’s instruction to portray the feeling through physical movements known as acting and finally, the nature and quality of the audience constitute the total meaning or sense of the drama. Since the drama is a performing art, all the aspects of the drama need to be transformed from the SL to the TL. Clifford E, Landers sums up the problem as follows:

In translating drama, whose very raison d’etre is performance, the translator has unseen collaborators: the actors and the director. Both can make explicit elements that on the printed page might forever remain cryptic. But in order for meaning to journey from paper to spoken word and gesture, the translator must provide the extra textual clues through explanatory notes. As in any other field of literary translation, culture has a leading role. (Landers, 105)

So as a sort of guidance to the translator of drama, David Johnson writes:

[T]he translator as dramaturge must provide, in the sense of making explicit, in the target language text (and, in an ideal world, subsequently through active participation in rehearsal) an array of information which is encoded in the culture-specific frame of reference or the paraverbal elements of the original, so that the final process of reconstitution can take place on stage in as complete a way as possible. (Landers, 105)

Above all these the drama, as it is meant to be performed, must have some topical references in order to make it intelligible to the audience. The audience has no time to pause and ponder over the words of the dialogue to understand its meaning. All the plays of Ibsen or Shaw or Galsworthy abound in topical references. If the translator chooses to translate such a play, how is he to manage those references? Should they be changed to incidents happening in the 21st century? If not, the meaning of the drama may remain obscure.

Another significant point is relating to long preface in the Shavian plays. The preface is meant to be stage direction to be followed by the director or the producer. Even if the translator translates them into the TL, there is no instruction for the acting. So the translation may become incomplete.

The drama, like the novel and poetry is culture specific. Any Greek or Latin drama has at its background the culture of that language speaking people. If such a drama in the SL has reference to any cultural or mythical points of which the TL language speakers are not conversant with it, the translated drama may fail to make any impact on them.

To overcome these difficulties poses a serious problem which is very difficult to surmount on the part of the translator. So Bassnett writes:

A central consideration of the theatre translator must therefore be the performance aspect of the text and its relationship with an audience, and this seems to me not only to justify modifications of the original text, but to suggest the translator must take into account the function of the text as an element for and of performance. (Bassnett, 132)


From the studies of theorists of translation it apparently emerges that translation of a text from SL to TL is a forbidden act. The translator can never produce an exact replica of a text in one language to another language. Since all literary work, be it a poem or a prose fiction or a drama is a unique work of art and it cannot therefore have an exact counter- part. From this, it does not follow that translation is an unproductive activity. Besides, any literary text apart from its surface meaning has most often a deeper suggestive meaning which may be lost in translation. In such cases, the translator ought to fall back on any single method of translation or may take help of other methodologies like word-to-word, sense-to-sense, adaptation or re-creative methodology. In translation of literary works, near perfection or real perfection is expected. As languages differ no two literary works in two languages can be exactly alike in all respects. A literary work can be looked at from many points of view, each of which might require a different sort of translation. To cite examples, the translation of Swift’s Gulliver's Travels or Orwell’s The Animal Farm can be successfully translated into any other language, but in the process of translation there is the possibility of shift of emphasis from the real objective of the text to the allegorical meaning. In either case, however, it cannot be said that such transformations are unproductive.

The translation theorists have formulated the methodology of translation taking into account literary translation i.e. the translation of literary texts. But apart from literary text, a host of other texts such as scientific treatises, advertisement stunts, manuals, legal and commercial documents etc need translation for international understanding. Without translation, therefore, man will become like a frog inside the well with limited knowledge of the world where expansion of human knowledge has no limit. So in spite of the limitations of translation as the theorists point out, widening of the horizon of human knowledge has become the primary function of translation, both literary and otherwise.


1. Point out some of the major problems of translating poetry.

2. Translating poetry is an act of re-creation. Do you agree? Give reasons.

3. What are the major problems of translating prose?

4. How drama differs from poetry and prose fiction? Can there be a successful translation of a drama? Discuss.