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Five languages in one poem

In the Bachelor Honours Class ‘The Noble Art and Tricky Business of Translation’, Honours students learn about the tricky business of translation. To gain hands-on experience, students had to translate a poem for the seminar on poetry. For some translators-to-be, one language was simply not enough.

The students had to translate a poem by the Chinese poet Xu Lizhi. This assignment was part of the aim of this class: Teaching students that translating is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Translations reflect power relationships, standards, and values. One must take all kinds of aspects into account, such as metaphors and whether a literal translation of a word has the same meaning in the target language. It is an art, and at the same time, a tricky business.

From Russian to Bahasa Indonesia

An English translation of the Chinese poem was handed out to the students, and the students had to choose which language they wanted to translate it into. During the seminar, it became clear that there was a large variety of language backgrounds among the Honours students. The poem was translated into Russian, Italian, Greek, Bahasa Indonesia, and German.

The students talked about the translation process in a discussion led by the teacher Maghiel van Crevel. Honours student Chianna started her own language experiment. Instead of translating into one language, Chianna chose to translate the poem into five different languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, English, and Dutch. All languages make an appearance in her poem. Sometimes there are even three languages in one sentence. ‘When I read it out loud, it felt so weird!’ she laughs.


‘It is an interesting idea that is sometimes used in reality’, says Van Crevel. ‘Think about political situations in which people who have the same goal, but different language backgrounds, come together.’

Many students ran into the same problem: Finding the correct translation of the metaphorically used ‘crossroad’. Standing on a metaphoric crossroad in your life has a different meaning from literally standing on a crossroad. Does the target language even have a metaphoric crossroad, like English and Dutch? If not, what is the right way to translate it? These are important questions that keep a translator busy.

Holy original text

In this Honours Class, the students do not only look at translations of poetry. The students have already discussed the translation of legal documents. Next, the students will discuss the translation of scientific research in, for example, anthropology. Besides the different disciplines, the students will learn how translation is related to power relationships, censorship, and gender.

After discussing all the poetic translations, Maghiel van Crevel reflects back with the students on this seminar. ‘Some people say: poetry is lost in translation. I hope that, instead, we can find the added value of a translation’, says Van Crevel. ‘This can only be achieved by letting go of the idea that the original text is some kind of holy text which we are not allowed to touch.’

Text: Maxime Geervliet
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