HOW TO TRANSLATE A POEM
Know your grammar.
What is grammar? Grammar explains how a sentence is constructed.
I started Latin when I was twelve. There was a lot of emphasis on grammar but I had had a head start because, when I was eleven, our school principal gave us two special lessons called Parsing and Analysis. To ‘parse’ a sentence simply means to break it up into its various ‘parts of speech’ but, in the end, these are all funny expressions meaning the same thing. Grammar.
For example, very simply: The (definite article) brown (adjective) fox (noun, subject) jumped (verb, past perfect) quickly (adverb) over (preposition) a (indefinite article) dog (noun, object).
English relies on word order to indicate what’s happening. In its simplest form this means subject-verb-object.
‘I love you.’
Not all languages follow this rule. For example, when I was translating the Croatian poems for Through Forests and Mountains, I had to take into account that Slavic languages decline their nouns. Thus word order is not as important because the meaning is indicated by the different endings of each noun for the various declensions.
There are seven.
Mama = Mum. Volim Mamu. = I love Mum. Dajem ga Mami = I gave it to Mum.
And four more.
Serbo-Croatian, like many other languages, also conjugates its verbs: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you (plural) are, they are. In fact, it conjugates or declines just about everything, although there are trade-offs in other areas. The word Serbo-Croatian is a British term referring to the languages of the old Yugoslavia which, except for Slovenian, are very similar. One of my Serbian friends told me that they were dialects.
Let’s translate the first line of a poem by considering its grammar.
Anđelka Martić (1924-2020) was a well-known Croatian literary figure who joined the Yugoslav Partisans in 1942 after her brother was killed by the Ustasha, the Croatian terrorist group put in charge of Croatia and Bosnia by Hitler. Her poems speak vividly of grief, war, love for her land and her yearning for its freedom. This poem was written in 1943. Here is the first verse:
Crvene se svuda kroz šume kojima borci kreću,
Tugaljiv miris njihov i na njih pogledi gode
Stabljike kidamo nježne, slažemo cvijetiće sitne
A misli nas naše natrag u toplo djetinjstvo vode.
They are blushing everywhere through the woods in which the fighters move,
Their mournful scent and the sight of them give pleasure.
We break the gentle stalks, we arrange the petals
And our thoughts lead us back to a warm childhood.
OK, as my Latin teacher used to say, first find the verb. There are two verbs in this line.
Crvene se svuda kroz šume kojima borci kreću.
Crvene - they are red-ing (English: blushing). Kreću - they are moving/they move.
Both are the 3rd person plural = they. I can tell this by the ending. Crvene = they are blushing BUT Krećem se = I am moving/I move. (Kreću se = they move.)
Next find the noun to which the first verb refers. Crvene doesn’t have a noun, but it does have an adverb that describes it, svuda meaning ‘everywhere’.
‘Crvene svuda’ = 'They are blushing everywhere.'
Kroz is a preposition that means ‘through’. It requires a noun with an accusative ending. This noun is šume, and it is plural = woods.
‘Kroz šume’ = ‘through the woods.’
The next verb is kreću. It is also 3rd person plural and it means ‘they move.’ To find out who moves, look for the noun kreću refers to. This is borci, meaning fighters. I know this because its ending is ‘i’. The fighters are the subject of this verb, so their ending is nominative and it is plural.
‘Borci kreću’ = ‘the fighters are moving.’
Kojima is a relative pronoun, locative plural. It means 'which'. Locative means the place you’re in. Where are the fighters? In the woods.
‘Kojima borci kreću’ = 'in which the fighters move.'
Put it all together and we have ‘Crvene se svuda kroz šume kojima borci kreću’ = 'They are blushing everywhere through the woods in which the fighters move.'
Slavic languages don’t use definite and indefinite articles, ‘the’ and ‘a’. They must be added by the translator depending on the context.
But hey, why not save ourselves all this trouble and use an online translator?
Here are three results from doing that.
1. They red everywhere through the forests that fighters move - Google.
2. They are red all over the woods to which fighters cry - Glosbe.
3. They red everywhere through the forests the fighters move - translate.com.
Most of the poems in the Croatian book I bought were rhythmic and rhymed, ABAB. To achieve this, I would have had to rewrite the poems. I chose not to because I felt I would be destroying their grief and their passion. These poets spoke to me personally and I didn’t want to dilute the immediacy of their emotions in wartime, so I left them as they were.
Les Miserable by Victor Hugo is the longest novel I’ve ever read. It has 1500 pages. Nevertheless, the first English translation came out only a year after the French. Now that’s scholarship! On the other hand, my copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was praised as the best translation ever made. Apparently, all the others were dreadful.