How lyrics get lost in translation

important writingWe sometimes receive poems or song lyrics that have been translated into English from German. You have to keep certain points in mind while translating song lyrics and poems.
Basically, there are two approaches to translation, approaches that are diametrically opposite. To sum up the first approach, we can turn to Vladimir Nabokov, who preferred ‘the clumsiest literal translation’ as being ‘a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.’ On the other hand, as Jorge Luis Borges once said: ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

Lost and found—in translation
Three aspects have to be considered when translating poems from one language to another: the metre and form of the lyric, its sense or meaning, and its frame or structure—particularly when it is a song.
To fully convert the lyric of a song from one language to another—in this case, modern English—while retaining the structure of the strophes, the sense (meaning), as well as the metre, without violating the rules of grammar or using archaisms… well, that’s nearly impossible!
It is, of course, possible to compress the translation and express it in fewer words. If the translation of the song is edited in such a way that the sense is retained, then compromises may have to be made with regard to the structure, and a different metre may have to be used. Again, if the number of words in each line is reduced while following the rules of modern English grammar, it is quite possible that distortions may creep into the meaning of the song.
So—there has to be a trade-off between the different parameters while editing poems and songs: do we want the connotations to be retained, or the matrix of English metre and grammar? It is, of course, a difficult choice to make…

The way out
The best way out, we feel, is to go in for free verse translations which retain the lyricism and rhythm of the original poem or song; that way, at least two of the ends would be met. And as far the structure of the strophes are concerned, it would be easier to stay as close to the original as possible if we were to go in for free verse.

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