When Poetry, Translating And Plagiarising Collide

Poetry is more than just a string of words and phrases. Poetry is composed in order to project a meaning from the viewpoint of the poet and how he or she wants the reader to view and interpret something in the world. But many things in the world aren’t necessarily interpreted by everyone else in quite the same way. The dark, sombre environment of a forest, the activities in a busy street, or the frightening passage of a great storm, may all be viewed differently when expressed in poetry. This makes it extremely difficult for a poetry translator to find just the right words to illustrate the mood of the poet.

Many types of translation these days are completed or at least assisted using machine translation software, but this isn’t the case with poetry translation. Each poem is unique and needs that uniqueness to be translated into the required language so the message it puts across is exactly the same as that found in the original poem.

One might wonder why a poet wants his or her poem translated into other languages. If the poem has been praised and enjoyed in its original language, why not translate it into as many languages as possible? This not only gives the poet more credibility but it offers enjoyment to those whose language is not the same as the poem’s original.

It can then come down to a question of finding just the right translator to translate the poem. That’s a difficult task, but it can and does happen. There are prizes available for translators who accomplish a particularly good translation. In the poetry community as a whole, translators of poems are thought to have the same creative writing ability as the original author.

This doesn’t always turn out quite as expected. Last November (2016), Allen Prowle, a well known poet in his own right and translator, won the acclaimed Stephen Spender prize for a translated poem written originally by Dutch poet, Rutger Kopland. The poem was written in English about the poet’s father, who had lost his life recently. However, Prowle was accused of plagiarism by Nederlandse Poëzie Encyclopedie, a Dutch poetry website. The accusation resulted in him eventually giving back the award.

Poetry Translation is a Difficult Task

There was no doubt that there were stark similarities between Prowle’s attempt at translating the 5 poems by Kopland and previous translations. Complete translated stanzas seemed to be exactly the same as other translators’ attempts. This sort of duplication is never good news, but the fact is that a poem has far more unique characteristics than a news report out of Syria. This means that if one translator comes up with the same or similar translation as an earlier translation then this shows at least that both translators have hit the nail on the head when it comes to writing the best and most correct translation.

It’s not just the translation of the language, but the metaphors, symbols and images that are embedded in the text that need an appropriate interpretation so they can be translated accurately into another language. This all makes poetry translation just that much more challenging.

The problem with Prowle’s translations was that there appeared to be very little of the translation that was his unique work. This led to the uncertainly that he had any knowledge of Dutch at all. It was alleged that he copied translations from other translators and then used bits and pieces of what he had copied to translate the poetry, claiming the final translation was his own work.

Poets’ Community Hit by Plagiarism in Recent Years

This incident isn’t completely new to the poetry community, as in only 2013 there were a number of revelations of poetry translators who had copied poetry by other poets and as a result won awards for their translation achievements. This has meant that judges of poetry translations have to be ever more vigilant when it comes to assessing poetry translations.

Cento Poetry a Silent Threat to Plagiarism in Translation

The development of Cento poetry has added to the difficulties of detecting plagiarism, as it’s a form of poetry that is put together by copying phrases from other poets and putting them together into a new poem. It doesn’t appear necessarily in the same format as a genuine poem, but it’s quite acceptable. The whole idea behind it has never been seen as plagiarism. However, with all the lucrative awards today in relation to translation, Cento poetry can get caught up in the plagiarism issue. This means judges of translated poetry awards have to be very vigilant when assessing translations of poetry to ensure that translations haven’t come from other translators’ efforts but from the translator seeking the award.

Alexander Zeller
Project manager and translator working with The Migration Translators in Australia.

(The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Purple Ink.)

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