Translation & Transcreation

I think we can all agree that translation is amongst the most difficult and thus rightly the most prestigious disciplines of linguistics. When I began my studies at the university, I saw an advertisement for research studies in literary translation. I remember thinking, back then, “pssssh, as if literary translation needs anything like that, I mean, how hard can it be?”. I’ve beenhumbled since then. If you share past-me’s ignorant opinion, read this blog post by Pat Rothfuss, one of the best authors in the world (in my opinion; he also features on the very short list of people I would bow to in real life. Yes, I’m a fanboy). He’s a much cleverer man than I am and can explain it better. Come back when you’ve realized you’re wrong. Are we on the same page now? Good.

As I’ve said before,  it is extremely difficult to convey certain phrases, nuances and connotations from one language to another. More often than not, something is lost in translation. It is even more difficult to translate poetry, and it’s almost impossible to do so and keep both meaning,  rhyme, meter and all that other stuff intact. To manage such a feat and recreate something readable in another language is more than mere translation – it’s transcreation, the recreating of a work of art in another form, or another language. There are few such gems, but one example is the transcreation of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece The Raven by Carl Theodor Eben, who managed to transfer everything I love about The Raven into German. Here’s the first few lines:


Mitternacht umgab mich schaurig, als ich einsam, trüb und traurig,

Sinnend saß und las von mancher längstverklung’nen Mähr’ und Lehr’ –

Als ich schon mit matten Blicken im Begriff, in Schlaf zu nicken,

hörte plötzlich ich ein Ticken an die Zimmerthüre her;

„Ein Besuch wohl noch,“ so dacht’ ich, „den der Zufall führet her –

Ein Besuch und sonst Nichts mehr.“



Here’s the full translation at Wikisource. And here’s the original beginning, in case you are so unlucky as to not be familiar with it yet:



Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —

Only this, and nothing more.”


If you don’t speak German, allow me to demonstrate you how close the two are nonetheless. Here’s me reading the German version, and here’s the English one. You’ll at least hear that it’s done very well (the translation, not the reading) in terms of keeping the feel of the poem intact. You’ll just have to take my word for it in terms of the meaning. I have nothing but the utmost respect for such a feat.

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 11:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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