On Translating Poetry

I like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: it is that which gets lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

—Robert Frost in Conversations on the Craft of Poetry


The above is often misquoted as “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but the substance of Robert Frost’s idea remains the same: the translation of poetry is impossible.

An idea I disagree with, of course.

I have always contended that if literary translation is impossible, then literature itself is impossible. I’ve had profound experiences in reading Wisława Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, and Rabindranath Tagore—all in translation. Can you prove that what I felt was fake, that what I felt was not what the poets themselves felt when they committed their words to paper?

You can try, but you will never convince me. Reading experiences like these, which made my hair stand on end because of how beautiful and true and moving they were, are sacrosanct. I keep these experiences where other people might keep their religions.

But to give Frost the benefit of the doubt: is the misquote “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” indeed what he meant? Or was he making a point that poetry is not words (the thing that is translated) but is the very thing that carries over as is, regardless of language?

The finger that points to the moon may be a Chinese man’s finger or an Englishman’s finger, but the moon is still the moon. Frost may have meant that poems are not poetry—the finger is not the moon—but it is what the poems point to that is poetry. Poetry is not words but the emotion or thought the poetic configuration of words generate. Poetry is the moon.

Language is beautiful and we all love language, but language is not literature. Words are not literature, books are not literature, and poems are not poetry.

Languages may be very different from one another, and it is very easy to pass the time quibbling over what particular turn of wit is “untranslatable,” but I find it more interesting to see what can be translated. Are there not enough similarities between languages for certain emotions, concepts, and experiences—quite a lot of these, in fact—to be just as effectively carried over in one carriage as well as another?

Some things are not translatable, but such things may be fewer (and less important) than you think.