How Translating One Poem Led To A Profitable Spin-off
Until I stumbled into this little side gig of translating Italian poetry, my idea of poetry didn’t go much further than, “Roses are red…” etc., etc. Occasionally, I read and reread and tried to understand some of the poetry published in The New Yorker, but first of all, it didn’t rhyme, so that threw me off. Then, on many occasions, even after a third or fourth read, I was still asking: “Say what?” I must have snoozed through the poetry segment in English class because all this free flowing thought was news to me. And now, I was being asked to translate it.
Fortunately, my first stab at translating Italian poetry was the poem “Attimo” (“Moment”) by Luciano Somma, Italy’s preeminent poet and two-time winner of the Silver Medal of the President of the Republic. After viewing my writing in various Italian literary journals, Luciano sought me out to translate the poem “Attimo.” His imagery of “the sun yawning between clouds and a dove dying in the snow” drew me into the truth that each “moment” in life is “merely a grain of history, a drawing in the wind.” I was hooked, and the seed was planted. That one free translation led to six (paid) dual-language poetry books, in collaboration with Luciano and two other poets.
So how do you go about finding foreign poets who want their work translated into English? Do some research. Use your “search-engine” and type in: poetry/French, poetry/German, poetry/Spanish, etc. Start reading various poets, find out if they are published, self-published is actually better than traditionally published, as traditional publishers usually have their own cache of translators.
Contact the poets: Always write in their native tongue, so they can see that you are truly fluent in their language and not just offering up your version of Google Translate.
Compliment their work: Don’t merely say, “I like your poetry,” pick out a phrase or a line that grabs you and comment on that.
Ask if they’re interested in having their poetry translated for publication on their website or eBook or print book.
Offer a free translation for their review.
List your credentials: Let them see that you are a serious writer with more than a pedestrian knowledge of grammar.
What to know: Translating poetry presents challenges not found when translating basic prose. You arm yourself with the same essential tools: dictionary, verb book, and thesaurus, however, for poetry translations, you also need to add creativity. Your aim is to maintain a line-for-line translation while sustaining the author’s “voice.” Given the differences in sentence structure between languages, this can be tricky, and occasionally no matter how you hard you try, a line-for-line is impossible. Other problems occur when you overuse the thesaurus to a point where the word takes on a new meaning. This happens when you think your word fits the “idea” better than that of the poet. A good translator needs to put ego aside and keep the poet in mind at all times. If you think you can do better, write your own poetry. Don’t rewrite the work of someone who has trusted you and paid you to do a worthy translation.
Many people assume that translating is little more than looking up each word and writing down its English equivalent. If you believe that’s the case, you need only go to Babel Fish, Google Translate, or one of the other on-line translation sites, paste a small amount of text in another language and then “hit” translate. More often than not, the translation, although in English, is almost as difficult to understand as its foreign counterpart.
There are times when a poem is so encumbered in idiomatic nuance and ambiguous metaphors it can take as long, or possibly longer, to translate than it took the poet to write it. I’ve experienced this on a few occasions, where even after extensive conversations with the poet, I’m still scratching my head and wondering how he got “this” idea out of “that.”
Even though many poets on the Internet are amateur writers, believe me, there is some real talent out there. An unknown today could end up to be the next Pablo Neruda. And if you get in on the ground floor, Pablo#2 might very well take you and your translations along for the ride.
Here’s some fun news: The Italian poetry anthology “Da Ischia L’Arte,” written by Bruno Mancini and Roberta Panizza, in which several of my translations appeared, was featured at EXPO Milano 2015, where over 20 million visitors attended.