Found in Translation: Mapping the Music

    The following essay is adapted from a talk delivered as part of a 2012 AWP panel entitled “Telling It Slant: Measures, Meaning and Music in Translating Poetry.” This panel discussion focused on the role of music in translation, and also featured such translators as Ilya Kaminsky, Alexis Levitin, Yvette Neisser Moreno, and Kirk Nesset. – Nancy Naomi Carlson      

For most of my life I have been a pianist, starting lessons at the age of 6. I experimented with the saxophone in junior high school for a brief period, until my mother could no longer tolerate my fledgling notes that sounded like duck calls. I had more success with the violin and flute, and recently have been studying voice. Perhaps my musical background explains why I pay so much attention to maintaining the music of the source text when translating poetry, especially if every stanza literally sings in the original. As a French major in college, I was struck by the musicality of Verlaine’s “Chanson d’automne” (“Song of Autumn”), not only because of its title, but also for its use of long, soulful vowel sounds that convey the long sigh of autumn before the coldness and sadness of winter’s arrival. In addition, Verlaine approximates the sound a violin makes when the bow first touches the string, through the repetition of nasal sounds that have no equivalent in English. The reader/listener does not have to understand the poem’s words to understand the feelings evoked by the sounds.    

French poet René Char, I particularly enjoyed those poems that consisted of short one-line sentences, where the music lingers in the silence of each line break. I endeavored to honor these silences in my translations. This quiet kind of music reminds me of what I recently discovered about pine cones. While walking my dog one day, we passed a pine tree with pine cones scattered below. I picked one up and was surprised by the thorns that almost cut my hand. The pine cone itself was closed for over half its length (where the thorns were), and the remaining section had opened in the way pine cones normally do. I threw the pine cone into my briefcase to bring to the graduate counseling class I was going to teach the next day. My plan was to ask the class to discuss how pine cones could be a metaphor for the counseling process. I thought my students might talk about how some counselees use defense mechanisms (e.g., thorns) to avoid self-examination, or how difficult the counseling process could be for the novice counselor. However, when I took the pine cone out of my briefcase the following day, I was shocked to see it had opened completely. Something had been added to or breathed into the pine cone to make it become more than itself, or to become itself more fully, in a form more enduring and more endearing—a metaphor for what happens to a poem when it becomes infused with the more silent kind of music.    

Some translators believe that poetry is much more than sound, with its rhythms, rhymes, and silences, but there are those, like Verlaine, who say “Music above all.” For many, the question is “What priority should music be given in translation?” There are many competing priorities, including, certainly, the literal meaning. In addition, the translator must consider such elements as syntax, tone, diction, structure, historical context, cultural context, world view, personal connotations, and etymology. Because I choose texts that are extremely musical in the original, my decision to give music a high priority in translation has already been made. For me, the real question is “How can I best infuse music into a translation without sacrificing meaning?” The answer may be different for every poem, depending on how the music is infused in the original, but there is usually a cost. When we accept the premise that all translation can only be an approximation of the original text, then we can give ourselves permission to decide what priority to place on each of the various conflicting “pulls” of translation. Not everyone will agree with our choices. For example, if I choose to reverse the order of the images in a line in order to reproduce a rhyme pattern, some might say I have ignored the original writer’s intent as to how each image should unfurl. Similarly, if I choose to move part of the original text’s line into the next, or use several words to the one word used in the original, or switch the order of entire lines, some may feel I have strayed too far from the source text. For me, if the original text makes ample use of an end-word rhyme pattern, I must make every effort to reproduce this pattern. To ignore this pattern in my translation would seem as if I had not done justice to the original.    

In my work translating the poems of Abdourahman Waberi, prize-winning writer from Djibouti, I have faced some real dilemmas regarding how to infuse music into my translations. Waberi writes in French, a language inherently musical by virtue of its rhythm and repetition of sounds. Regarding rhythm, the majority of French words stress the last syllable. To preserve their rhythm, I attempt to end lines with English words that stress the last syllable or are mono-syllabic, as well as to limit unstressed syllables to two in a row, as generally occurs in French. For example, in this excerpt from the poem “Trêve” (“Truce”), I analyzed the stress patterns of the original French as follows, with each bolded syllable representing a stress: “je sème ma voix aux quatre coins de la ville/ l’eau y dessine le temps/ je mêle mon corps aux effluves remontant de la nuit/ j’y noie mon désarroi.” I scanned my translation as follows: “I scatter my voice all over the town/ there water outlines time/ I mingle my body with fragrances rising from night/ there I drown my distress.” (Note the stress on last syllables, as well as limiting unstressed syllables in a row.)    

Regarding repetition of sound, I try to reproduce the alliteration and assonance found in Waberi’s poems. Before translating each poem, I draw what I call a “sound map” of the major sound patterns. This technique allows me to systematically analyze the sound patterns in the original French. When subsequently choosing English words from the array of possibilities that might best approximate the French, I keep the sound pattern in mind. The map is color-coded according to the various vowel sounds present in the text, and alliteration is bolded and underlined. Upon completing the first draft of the translation, I create an English sound map to determine if I have sufficiently followed the sound patterns of the original. The colors in the English version may significantly differ from those in the French, but the essential element is the presence of sound patterns that loosely follow the original.    

Below is an example of the sound maps drawn for Waberi’s poem “Esquisse I” (“Sketch I”) and my translation. I noticed that in the first stanza of the French, there was a barrage of words containing the sound “i,” picked up from the title. While I could not reproduce the sound “i” (pronounced like “ee,” but crisper) because it does not exist in English, nor playfully repeat any given sound five times in my first line, I introduced the word “one” with playful twists two more times in the same line to create a humorous effect that approximated the original, as well as introducing the “oh” sound of the original. The French version includes echoes of the “i” sound in subsequent lines. Similarly, I was able to bring back the “oh” sound in a subsequent line, as well as another playful “one.” In addition, like the original, I was able to bring in additional sound patterns. Regarding alliteration, Waberi’s version is sprinkled with the “s” sound, which sometimes masquerades as a “c.” The “z” sound, cousin to “s,” is also repeated. I was able to sprinkle my version with the sound “z” while also including the sound “s.” Fortunately, the French word “espaces” with its double sound of “s” could be translated as “spaces,” with its double dose of “s.”    


Esquisse I

je suis celui qui dit: “je ne suis jamais seul”
je parle avec mes croquis, j’ombre les espaces
et j’invente des historiettes
comme celle de cette famille qui pose
dans un studio de photographie.

Sketch I

I’m the one who intones: “I’m never alone
I chat with my drafts, shade in spaces
invent little tales
like the one of that family whose pose
is awkward
caught by the studio camera’s lens


  Reproducing sounds and sound patterns of the original text can be extremely difficult, and often impossible, especially in the case of sounds with no equivalent in English. However, sound mapping is a technique that keeps me from losing my way back to the source text’s music.