Kissing through a Curtain: Notes on Translation by… | Poetry Magazine (2023)

When I was young, I asked my parents to stop speaking Tagalog. When they wouldn’t comply, I stopped answering in their language; I spoke to them only in English, which I learned in school. Perhaps that was my first attempt to navigate through white space as an immigrant child born into a cold country; we lived near the Niagara escarpment and the Great Lakes, perpetually swathed by snow.

Our rural town in Southern Ontario had two rivers running through it, a population of six thousand, and no one who looked like me. We lived twenty-eight kilometers, or about seventeen miles, from the border of the Six Nations reservation, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. It’s the only reserve in North America with all six tribes of the Iroquois, the names of which I learned by heart in elementary school: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. The first poem I memorized was by E. Pauline Johnson, also known by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, which literally means “double life.”

What I didn’t realize then is that by refusing to speak Tagalog I was enacting my first attempts at translation, making sense of the dislocation I felt as an immigrant daughter translating my parents’ words into a language that symbolized belonging to me, even though I rarely felt like I belonged


The etymology of translate is from the Old French translater and from Latin’s translatus “carried over”; from trans “across, beyond” and lātus “borne, carried.” A similar notion is behind the Old English word it replaced, awendan, from wendan “to turn, direct.” To wend. A verb I associate more with paths or a river, a medium that carries me from one place to another. “Language is migrant,” writes Cecilia Vicuña. “Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.” Even the archipelago of islands my parents emigrated from.

Is translating a way to make me see my own complicity, as a brown woman navigating a white world? I was only able to grasp this after returning to my parents’ country. The incongruency I felt walking on the Palawan beaches, watching tourists lounging on catamarans while villagers, including my grandmother, lived in poverty, was nearly too much to bear. Vicuña: “I see the poet/translator as the person who goes into the darkness, seeking the ‘other’ in ourselves, what we don’t wish to see, as if this act could reveal what the larger world keeps hidden.” After visiting the islands of my ancestors, it was almost a relief for me to return to Manhattan, where I wasn’t as assaulted by guilt over the privilege that my upbringing allowed. I felt complicit, but still like an outsider, disoriented by the otherness I felt in the sanitized niceties of the concert hall, the classroom, the university lounge.

(Video) AAWWTV: The Shanghai Literary Review Launch

Years after leaving the Canadian town where I grew up, I found myself drawn to literature in translation for the disorientation it made me feel. “Why does the syntax in your fiction sound like translated text? You write as if the original is in a different language and you are translating into English,” one professor said. I loved Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras, Javier Marías, Charles Baudelaire—authors I’d only read in translation. Was it any wonder that my own work sounded like it was translated from something else, even if I wrote in English?

Perhaps it was not the translations of texts themselves that attracted me, but their dislocation, that constant state of feeling awry. Don Mee Choi, author of DMZ Colony, wrote, “I have become intrigued with displaced things—things that are wrong. And translation is in a perpetual state of being wrong.”

As someone who works in different genres—poetry, performance, lyric essay, music—and communicates in multiple languages (French, German, Tagalog, sound) everything I create is at some level translation. The predicament is that my main mode, poetry, famously refuses to explain itself; how can one elucidate that which does not want to be deciphered?


I turned to other contemporary writers of color, as if reading their words would give me some clues on how to be. I felt seen in the hybrid works of Claudia Rankine, Fred Moten, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who wrote Dictée—a multilingual work that utilizes photos, diagrams, and untranslated sections of French, Latin, and Korean.

“The animating problem of Dictée, and the central trauma of Cha’s life, came from being severed from her home as a child refugee,” writes Ken Chen. Cha translated this dislocation into both her writing and her films. “Cha sutured together her art in the crevasse between the world and a language too deficient to depict it,” writes Chen.

This suturing of art forms was something I could connect to. In my early explorations with art-making, I read found text from acoustic manuals over David Nelson’s improvised trombone loops. I wrote a song cycle that translated Adelbert von Chamisso’s “Frauen-Liebe und Leben” (“A Woman’s Love and Life”) into post-feminist language, as a type of corrective to Chamisso’s sexist nineteenth-century poem. I asked composer Paul Cantelon to write a piece of music that he performed while Salman Rushdie and I recited our own writings on disorientation and memory. These were all attempts to create a hybrid language of music and sound.

Other writers practice forms of translation that meld multiple and variegated formal and aesthetic strategies. Translator-poet-performer Sawako Nakayasu’s Pink Waves assembles lines written in conversation with Amber DiPietro and Denise Leto’s Waveform and Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader, which is itself a synthesis of various texts. Nakayasu wrote the book in the presence of an audience in a three-day durational performance. David Naimon, in an interview with Nakayasu, said “it’s hard to know where the different elements of writing begin and end for you. When is something writing versus translation, translation versus performance, performance versus writing?” Naimon also said that the text calls into question “the notion of originality, or what creativity is, of what performativity is, and what is and isn’t translation.” When I read Pink Waves, there is a polyvocality breaking through its lines, a layering of narratives: “collimation dreams of narrowing waves/the consolidation of my particulate odds.” Nakayasu’s text defines its own qualities through its oscillating movement:

(Video) Defence of poesie by Sir Philip Sidney in hindi(2/4)

previous utterance catches in the memory like death

closer to the range, the table, the unrepentant tongue

English utters a line for the dead
—From “Pink Waves”

In Nakayasu’s projects—such as “Insect Country,” an exploration of a life lived by insects and translated into dance choreography, performance, and improvisational scores; and “Open Poetry Studio,” when Nakayasu stayed in a gallery for two days and did nothing but write poems—the endeavors of poetics, performance, and translation are not separate; the genres deliquesce into hybrid forms.

In our world of blurred boundaries, as humanities departments are being morphed into media studies programs and hybrid labs, translation between mediums becomes a different kind of navigation: converting lyric into data, creations into content, decoding the greatest symphonies into sound bytes. But what does that mean for the poet, the infamous transcriber of desires?


Walter Benjamin: “The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” While reading Lao Yang’s Pee Poems, translated by Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu, I was struck by the spatial echo made manifest by seeing the Chinese characters beside the English. I was drawn to the simplicity of the lyrics, untitled pointillistic clusters of text on the white page:


After saying goodbye
I return home alone
Following quietly behind me is the poem
—From “Pee Poems” by Lao Yang, tr. by Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu

Lao Yang was born in Northeastern China and founded one of the country’s first independent advocacy spaces dedicated to experimental music and sound art, so his translation between genres is manifold. As a musician and poet, I’ve long pondered conversations across art forms, the slippages that occur along the way. Is translation across languages and genres an attempt at connection and forging kinship across borders? As Ludwig Wittgenstein asked in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, are the limits of language also the limits of one’s world? In “Culture and Value,” he also wrote that “what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” Wittgenstein was referring to philosophy, but I believe that the translating that poets enact makes possible a more profound communication that can dissolve both metaphorical and geographic boundaries.

(Video) Leonard Cohen - Dance Me to the End of Love (Official Video)

This kinship across borders is what interests me. Xu—who was born in Shanghai and immigrated to Chicago at the age of eight—said that she collaborated with Edwards on the translations because “I stand too close to the language, in the way that everything becomes too literal. I’ve only had to translate from English to Mandarin for my parents.” The idea that one language is too intimate, that its closeness denies translation, moves me. If one translates only for the bodies that birthed them, how difficult, then, is it to translate for a world?

Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to poetry early, as a way to orient myself in a language I could inhabit. Even music, which I played from an early age, didn’t soothe me in a way that words could. My father told me, decades later, “As a child, you were always on stage. But when you weren’t, you were always in the background, writing tiny poems.”


Learning French as a child, and then German as an adult, opened up new sound worlds, but still, even now, Tagalog is the tongue that I can most easily recognize. But the times I tried speaking it, when I visited the Philippines as an adult, I was mistaken for a foreigner; even a stranger could deduce that it was not my mother tongue. There is a painful incongruence in being able to understand but not speak—a complicated relationship that immigrants have with their lost languages.

I think of Paul Celan’s late books, Fadensonnen (Fathomsuns), Atemwende (Breathturn), and Lichtzwang (Lightforce), which all practice a tangled syntax, suggesting what translator Ian Fairley describes as “a poetry which has turned against its own lyric powers.” Celan’s late style tended to be a kind of Geheimsprache—a private language whose associations were only fully known to Celan alone. Labeling it Geheimsprache is to recognize that the meaning is not simple to locate. The place from which it emanates, Heim, the home, is Geheim—a secret. “The location is held, if not withheld”—says Fairley in his introduction to Fadensonnen—“in parenthesis.” What is this parenthesis? My student, whose parents emigrated from Liberia before she was born, said that her poetry stems from this unknown, the unspoken of. “I feel a placelessness,” she said.

It’s a placelessness Celan could understand. He was born in Czernowitz, former capital of Bukovina, which was part of the Austrian empire until 1918; by the time of his birth in 1920 it was absorbed by Romania and is now part of Ukraine. A city passing hands. Celan—who was imprisoned in a series of forced labor camps between 1942 and 1944, who lost both parents in concentration camps, who spoke over half a dozen languages—wrote mostly in German. Celan—the refugee, the Jewish survivor living in France—harbored an existential estrangement from the language of his oppressors and created his own Geheimsprache, which translator Pierre Joris describes as a “dismantling and rewelding” of German.


Kwame Dawes tells a story about a panel discussion on poetry and translation. A writer expresses her frustration about Russian poetry in translation, since taking it out of its original context affects the rhyme and meter. “How would you like to be kissed through a curtain?” Someone answers, “Better than not kissing at all.”

(Video) The Sun Rising By John Donne Theme, Summary, Figures Of Speech, Why Sun Rising Is a metaphysical

What attracts me to translation is its mediated, flawed nature, its human-ness. I tell my students that poetry is about deep listening. The poem is both a medium and a material/object of attention-making. The role of any poet is as a transcriber and a translator, wending through language’s essence. Poetry is for the immigrant child making their way across fractured landscapes, the artist forging trails into the unknown, the migrants traversing borders into an unfamiliar world. This wending, like Celan’s welding of words, brings us to the languagelessness of breath: pure poetry. Like kissing through a curtain and then lifting the veil to open up a new path.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2023

J. Mae Barizo is the author of Tender Machines (Tupelo Press, 2023) and The Cumulus Effect (Four Way Books, 2015).

Read Full Biography

(Video) Sonnet 64 by William Shakespeare || When I have seen by Time's fell hand defac'd


What is the most difficult thing in poetry translation? ›

The meters, rhymes, alliterations, metaphors and other devices that make a poem worth reading are nearly impossible to accurately translate into another language.

What are the three different types of translation in poetry? ›

A summary of these seven strategies of poetry translation is as follows: 1) Phonemic Translation reproduces the source language (SL) sound in the target language (TL); 2) Literal Translation is similar to word-for-word translation; 3) Metrical Translation reproduces the SL meter; 4) Poetry into Prose distorts the sense ...

Who said Poetry is what gets lost in translation? ›

Robert Frost once remarked, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and many literary types find translation to be a near-impossible task.

What are the problems faced in the translation of poetry and drama? ›

The translator may face the linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems in translating it. The linguistic problems include the collocation and obscured syntactic structure. The aesthetic and literary problems are related with poetic structure, metaphorical expressions, and sounds.

What is the most confusing English poem? ›

"The Chaos" is a poem demonstrating the irregularity of English spelling and pronunciation. Written by Dutch writer, traveller, and teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946) under the pseudonym of Charivarius, it includes about 800 examples of irregular spelling.

What is the most difficult English poem to read? ›

It is called The Chaos, and it was written by a Dutch writer called Gerard Nolst Trenité. The Chaos was written to highlight the irregularity of the English language.

What does he whisper to her at the end of Lost in Translation? ›

Originally, though, the script had words in it for Murray's final embrace. According to Daily Script, the true words that were meant to be Bob asking, “Why are you crying?” To which Charlotte would reply, “I'll miss you.” That's when he would answer, “I know.

Who called Tennyson as the saddest of all English poets? ›

His poetry is often marked by a strong sense of loss and melancholy; T.S. Eliot called him “the saddest of all English poets.”

What does she whisper at the end of Lost in Translation? ›

The often-asked question finally has been answered by the creator of the video below. Bob whispers into Charlotte's ear, “I have to be leaving, but I won't let that come between us.

Why is literary translation considered the most difficult? ›

One of the biggest challenges in this arena of literary translation is the balance to remain true to the original work while creating an entirely unique piece that evokes the same responses as the original piece. Ask any literary translator, and they're sure to tell you that even a single word can be a bother.

What poses the greatest problem of translation? ›

Many linguistic professionals insist that idioms are the most difficult items to translate. In fact, idioms are routinely cited as a problem machine translation engines will never fully solve.

What are the three rules of translation? ›

In the process of translation, the translator should follow three principles, namely, skopos rule, coherence rule and fidelity rule. The translation of literary texts coincides with the idea of Skopos Theory.

What are the 4 basic concepts of translation? ›

Outlining of some of his statements will be enough to get his point of view on trans- lation process: 1) the translation must convey the source words, 2) the translation must convey the source ideas, 3) the translation must be read like the original, 4) the translation must be read like a translation, etc.

What are the 4 levels of translation? ›

Newmark said the translator translates the text by considering four levels: (1) the source language text level, (2) the referential level or the level of the objects and events, whether it is real or imaginary, (3) the cohesive level, and (4) the level of naturalness, the translation process then proceed to the last ...

What is the greatest Old English poem when was it written? ›

Beowulf is the oldest surviving Germanic epic and the longest Old English poem; it was likely composed between 700 and 750. Other great works of Old English poetry include The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Battle of Maldon, and The Dream of the Rood.

What is the most famous poem in Old English? ›

The poem Beowulf, which often begins the traditional canon of English literature, is the most famous work of Old English literature. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has also proven significant for historical study, preserving a chronology of early English history.

What is the best shortest poem ever? ›

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's shortest poem is a one-letter poem by Aram Saroyan comprising a four-legged version of the letter "m".

What is the easiest poem to do? ›

Acrostic poetry is considered one of the simpler forms of poetry and is commonly taught to younger students. Acrostic poems are generally quick and easy to write and open students' minds to the understanding that poetry is a non-conventional style of writing which doesn't always have to make perfect sense.

What is the longest poem ever written in the world? ›

The Mahabharata is one of the longest epic poems ever written. It has over 200,000 verse lines, 1.8 million words and it is believed that it could have taken over 600 years to write! The oldest surviving piece of text is believed to be dated from 400BCE. Can you imagine writing all of that?

What is the longest surviving English poem? ›

Intro. Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. It tells the breathtaking story of a struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel.

Do Bob and Charlotte sleep together in Lost in Translation? ›

In the days that follow, Bob and Charlotte spend more time together, and their friendship strengthens. One night, while neither can sleep, the two share an intimate conversation about Charlotte's personal uncertainties and their married lives.

Were Bob and Charlotte in love? ›

Originally Answered: Are Bob and Charlotte lovers? It is Platonic love .

What does Lost in Translation in love mean? ›

It's not a physical romance, but an emotional one. The truth is, Lost in Translation is about the intimacy of human connection. Through all of the love, loss, disorientation, and sleepless nights in a new place, being able to find someone who understands or wants to understand you is a trip on its own.

Which is the most loved of Tennyson's works? ›

Tennyson wrote many of his most famous poems, such as 'Morte d'Arthur', 'Ulysses' and 'St Simeon Stylites' in the period between Hallam's death and the publication of In Memoriam. In 1847 he published The Princess, a long narrative poem on the subject of women's education.

What is the shortest poem of Tennyson? ›

'The Eagle' is one of Tennyson's shortest poems – probably the shortest of his famous poems.

Who is Ulysses addressing in Tennyson's poem? ›

Telemachus will do his work of governing the island while Ulysses will do his work of traveling the seas: “He works his work, I mine.” In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, traveled, and weathered life's storms over many years.

Did they kiss in Lost in Translation? ›

The whisper is muffled and unintelligible. They share a brief kiss, their first of the entire film, and tell each other, "Bye." Cue "Just Like Honey" by The Jesus and Mary Chain as the two go their separate ways with smiles on their faces.

What is the lesson of Lost in Translation? ›

The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you. And if not, your existential dread will slowly turn into an identity, and being alone won't be quite so lonely.

Is Charlotte pregnant in Lost in Translation? ›

Charlotte Flair's team insists WWE star is NOT pregnant as context from Andrade interview was 'lost in translation' with Queen currently medically cleared to compete. Charlotte Flair is NOT pregnant, the WWE superstar's team has confirmed.

What is the most translated piece of literature? ›

The Holy Bible is the most widely sold and translated book in history. It has been translated into more than 2,000 languages and dialects.

What is the most translated literature in the world? ›

The Bible is the world's most translated book with an estimated 3,000 translations. Let's take a look at some of the most translated books. “The Little Prince” was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and was published by Reynal & Hitchcock in 1943. Originally, the book was available in both English and French.

Which language is most literary? ›

LanguageNumber of titlesPercentage of total
English200,69821,84 %
Chinese (Mandarin)100,95110,99 %
German89,9869,78 %
Spanish81,6498,88 %
7 more rows

Who needs translation the most? ›

Companies That Need Translation Services
  • Legal Services. ...
  • 2. Entertainment Industry. ...
  • Travel and Tourism. ...
  • Emergency Services and First Responders. ...
  • Medical and Healthcare Industry.

What makes a bad translation? ›

Generally, a translation can be considered bad if it: Fails to convey the meaning of the original text accurately. Contains errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation in the target language.

Which two elements are important for an ideal translation? ›

If you ask a translation team which two elements are important for an ideal translation, they will likely say accuracy and readability. That's where a translation style guide can help – tremendously.

What are the common mistakes in the translation process? ›

Here is a list of common mistakes in translation:
  • Not paying attention to effective communication. ...
  • Word to Word Translation. ...
  • Not having proper knowledge of the language. ...
  • Not following the manner and style. ...
  • Exaggerating the meaning of words. ...
  • Use of wrong words. ...
  • Being too complex. ...
  • Using incorrect phrase.

What makes a translation successful? ›

The translated content must be accurate, with the same meaning and intent as the original, with no errors or omissions. But, it must also replicate the correct tone and spirit as the original content.

What is the best technique to have a good translation? ›

Semantic translation

This method most closely reproduces the original text in a foreign language, while maintaining context and culture. At the same time, semantic translation puts greater emphasis on the aesthetic value of the source text, is more flexible, and gives the translator more freedom for creativity.

What are the difficulty of translation of poetry? ›

One of the biggest problems when translating poetry is metaphors. Metaphors are specific to a particular language base on the culture, interests, behaviors, lifestyles, and many other factors. For this reason, they are not easy to be translated into a different language.

What is the most difficult translation? ›

Interestingly, the hardest word in the world to translate is Ilunga. This word belongs to the Luba-Kasai or Tshiluba language, which is spoken by more than 6 million speakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, what does Ilunga mean?

What is the hardest part of writing poetry? ›

Brainstorm: The hardest part of writing a poem is deciding where to start. Focus on an idea that's personal to you. You want your poem to be something only you can write. Here are some suggestions for inspiration.

What are the three types of translation difficulties? ›

Translation theory mentions four types of translation problems: linguistic, cultural, pragmatic and text specific problems. Linguistic problems arise from the differences between the source and the target language.

Which is easier to translate poetry or prose? ›

Prose is said to be a simple structure and therefore it is simpler and easier to translate.

What are the 6 problems of translation? ›

At work translators typically have to deal with six different issues, whether they are translating technical documents or sworn statements. These issues belong to lexical-semantic problems; grammar; syntax; rhetoric; practical problems; and cultural issues.

Which language pose the greatest problem during translation? ›

Structure of the Language

The structure of sentences in English and other languages may be different. This is considered to be one of the main structural problems in translation.

What is the #1 hardest language? ›

Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.

Is there a language that Cannot be translated? ›

With more than 7,000 languages alive… there certainly must be some untranslatables ones, right? Technically the answer is no, there are no languages that can't be translated. But, indeed, we can't have a 100% accurate translation with any language.

What is the easiest language to translate from? ›

All the Latin-based languages, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Romanian are also a good bet, especially Spanish. All of these languages have thousands of words that are almost identical to words we already know in English, owing to the Latin roots.

Which type of poetry looks the easiest to write? ›

Acrostic poetry is considered one of the simpler forms of poetry and is commonly taught to younger students. Acrostic poems are generally quick and easy to write and open students' minds to the understanding that poetry is a non-conventional style of writing which doesn't always have to make perfect sense.

What is most poetry written in? ›

Most poetry is written in verse, rather than prose. This means that it uses line breaks, alongside rhythm or meter, to convey something to the reader.

What is the loosest type of poetry? ›

Free Verse  A loosest type of poem.  It can consists as many lines as the writer wants and either rhyme or not and has no fixed metrical pattern.


1. English Poem - Sonnet 29 by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE - When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
(Study IQ IAS)
2. English Poem - Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare - Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
(Study IQ IAS)
3. Rupi Kaur Reads Timeless from Her Poetry Collection The Sun and Her Flowers
(The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon)
4. English Poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, Easy explanation for exams
(Study IQ IAS)
5. Translation Talk: The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
(jennifer arnold)
6. Teen Who Pushed Friend off Bridge Apologizes
(Inside Edition)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Arielle Torp

Last Updated: 09/25/2023

Views: 6598

Rating: 4 / 5 (61 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Arielle Torp

Birthday: 1997-09-20

Address: 87313 Erdman Vista, North Dustinborough, WA 37563

Phone: +97216742823598

Job: Central Technology Officer

Hobby: Taekwondo, Macrame, Foreign language learning, Kite flying, Cooking, Skiing, Computer programming

Introduction: My name is Arielle Torp, I am a comfortable, kind, zealous, lovely, jolly, colorful, adventurous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.