Case Study # 3: Revise Your Poetry By Translating It!

For our reference, I’m going to start numbering my blog entries featuring poetry prompts as individual case studies. And by my count, we’re up to number three (Random Phrases being #1 and Inverted Stanza #2). Today’s exercise (#3) may be my most favorite so far. I learned about it in The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse by Tom Hunley.

Here’s how it works. You take a draft of a poem of your own, and with the power of Babel Fish or another translation tool, translate it into a foreign language and then back again. For example, English-French-English again.

This exercise might seem silly but it’s awfully fun….I promise….and you end up with some interesting style and word choices that may help as you revise your poems.

Here is an example from my files. My poem in the beginning:

A Grudge

is like an anchor
to your ship—

The water is clear,
the water is calm,
and you are free to bask
in the sun of your anger
while the waters of some distant
storm lap gently at your hull

To let go of your grudge is
to go back into that storm—
the turbulent sea of
forgiving and forgetting

over and over
and over
again

First, I went to French. Beautiful language no matter what you’re doing! While I loved the version of my poem in French, when I turned it back into English, I saw very little difference. However, because the word for “over” and “again” is the same in French (“encore”), my final line came back as “again and again and again.” Lesson learned? I probably could do without one or the other.

Next, I chose Danish. Because of their Viking roots, the Danish have a long tradition with the sea and I thought it might be interesting to see what connotations turned up. Here are the results.

A Grudge (English-Danish-English)

A grudge is as an anchor
for your ship —

Water is clear,
water is calm
and you are free to laze
in the sun
on your anger
while water in some remote storm
laps gently on your hull

To let go of your grudge
is to go back to this storm —
the turbulent sea to forgive and forget
 

again and again and again

Fun, fun. I loved the idea of dropping the word “like” in the first stanza and the substitution of “laze” for “bask” in the second. See the different connotations? And the same thing that happened in French on my last line happened here.  I feel sure the final line needs to be “again and again and again.”

Next, I thought, why not try a non-Indo-European language? So I went to Arabic.

A Grudge (English-Arabian-English)

A grudge is as an anchor
to your ship—

Clear water
and the water is calm
and you are free to receive the sun your anger

While some distant storm waters lap gently 
on your hull for letting your hatred is back
to that storm-troubled sea of forgiving and forgetting 

Again and again and again

Again, here we turned up some exciting new word choices. “You are free to receive the sun your anger” and “storm-troubled sea of forgiving and forgetting.”

Because I was having so much fun, I decided to end with an Asian twist and translated it into Japanese. Check it out!

A Grudge (English-Japanese-English)

Your ship is resentment
like the anchor

Water, clear water is calm,
you free to bask in the sun of your anger
back to the storm water lapping gently
let go of grudges you your ship some distant
storm-sea turbulence of forgiving and forgetting

Again, again, again

Wow–the differences in grammar yield almost “word pictures” here, just like Japanese characters. This version has almost a stream of consciousness feel to it, doesn’t it?

So…what did I change? A few tweaks here and there. See below and let me know if you think it’s improved from the original. At any rate, this is an exercise I am certain to do again!

A Grudge (Final Version)

is an anchor
to your ship—

The water is clear,
the water is calm,
and you are free to laze
in the sun of your anger
while the waters of a distant
storm lap gently at your hull

To let go of your grudge is
to return to the turbulent
sea of forgiving and forgetting

again
again
and
again

#####

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