Revealing through Translating; Revelations, Enthüllung or 启示?

Hi, my name is AK and I’m staying in the US for one year as an exchange student.

Hi, my name is Sophia and it’s my second year at Springs and third year studying in the U.S.

We are students from China and Germany and are the translators of our magazine. We decided, to translate the poem Revelations by Kendall Owens From English to our first language for this project. Below is a chat about the process, joys, and challenges of translating the work! Enjoy!

-AK & Sophia

How do you start the translation process?

Sophia: When I first got the poem, I read it several time to better understand its contexts and meanings the author wants to express. After that, I started to translate the poem based on my interpretation and try to put the sentimental elements in the draft while my translation was still more of the surface meaning of the poem for my rough draft. Then, I went back to read the poem again to seek for a deeper understanding and revised my translation to contain more sentimental elements which means it keeps most of the metaphorical meaning and our poet’s emotions. I also added some idioms like “飞蛾扑火” which is a conventional use in Chinese which fully embodies the meaning of “moth to flame” in the poem. In this way, I’m able to better fit the translation into Chinese culture to meet the audience since the its audience would be primarily Chinese now.

AK: I started in the exact same way as Sophia with reading the poem many times to truly “get” the point, the author wanted to convey. My second step was to concentrate on one paragraph and its meaning. Then, I actually started to translate looking at one line or sometimes two if the line was really short. In general, I started with looking at the poem as a whole, and then I concentrated on smaller parts until I got to just a line. After I wrote down a line, I read it over and over again to get a fluent transition between the lines.

How long did it take you to translate this poem? And how often did you rewrite it?

AK: It took me a few days to get to the point where I said that I have a translation of the poem. I started with my first draft where I just wrote down all the stuff, which came to my mind. I also did it the same way for a second time and then I compared these two. After that I did not rewrite the whole poem, I just changed line for line when I thought I found a better way, but I did this for many times until I thought I really got the same meaning of the poem in german as the original one in english.

Sophia: I spent about a week translating this poem into this current version and multiple drafts to achieve the goal I want: while keeping the genuine meaning of the text, I also tried my best to keep its emotions to its greatest extent. The process is long and I spent a long time deciding which words to use so that they can better serve their purpose of expressing the poem’s meaning and emotions.

What’s the biggest challenge for you during your translation process? Why?

Sophia: I feel like– for me– the biggest challenge was to keep the original meaning and express the poet’s feelings at that same time. I found that sometimes when I used the literal translation of the word in Chinese, it’s not satisfying since the feelings of the poem has been changed from it’s author’s original meaning. For instance, I translate “you are the dust” as “粉身碎骨” which means “you may be smashed into pieces” to illustrate the difficulty you are going through and then you’ll be a better self and return. Actually, there are some words with similar meanings in Chinese that I couldn’t decide from. So I spent a long time seeking for the best words to express the author’s metaphorical interpretation inside the poem.

AK: I totally agree. The most important parts of a poem is the sentiments and you can’t capture them if you translate word by word. At this point I struggled the most with finding the perfect combination of German words to express the same poem. Since German is my first language, I had so many expression coming to my mind to possibly tell the story and it was really hard for me to decide for one combination at this point. Additionally I was unsure of how much I am technically allowed to change the phrase. For example I could translate the last two lines “A stack of needles hiding a piece of straw.”exactly like that with the same use of words, which would be “Ein Haufen von Nadeln versteckt etwas Stroh.” or I could use another phrase, which would have the same meaning, but completely different words “Hinter jeder kleinen Sache versteckt sich etwas Großes.”.

Which one do you think is more important for your poem translation? The feeling of the poem or a clear interpretation of the meaning?

AK: I would say the feeling is the most important part because a poem is kind of about the feeling the reader gets while reading it and making their own interpretation. And the translation cannot be exactly the same–sometimes I had to use  two words to translate one single word or one word to translate two words. There are for example these words like “sunlight”, which has the exact same meaning as “light of the sun”. At this point I decided to use the other version in German than used in English because it seemed to be more meaningful in the German context.

Sophia: I totally agree with you about the idea that it’s vital to present the feeling of the poem. While I understand the importance of direct translation, we couldn’t simply translate the poem word for word. I feel like if I just did a direction translation, the soul of the poem would fade away during the translation process. It’s like when we’re asked to do Spanish writing homework, but we just put everything we want to say in the translator and let it do all the work instead of feeling the story and its sentiments and then translate the work. Then, we just lost a great joy of understanding the whole story or poem and writer’s intention.

What do you notice about the cultural difference during the translation project? (such as the wording, sentence structure)

AK: As I said for the question before, it is not possible to translate word for word because there are too many differences in the culture. The real translation for a word is sometimes not that meaningful in German as it is in English. Another difference is the grammar–like syntax, but also tense. For example the tense with “would” in English could be translated to “würde,” but also “hätte,” and some other versions of verbs in German, which depends on the meaning of the sentence even the tense would be the same.

Sophia: Same! Because of the huge differences in grammar, wording, and formal and conventional usage between English and Chinese, it’s especially difficult to translate a poem directly. I made adjustments to the sentence structures in order to ensure a smooth transition between sentences. I translated “I’d have wings of straw” as “我会拥有稻草般的翅膀” which means I’d have straw-like wings. As we can see, the literal meaning of this sentence doesn’t change, but it makes more sense in Chinese this way. However, if I translated it directly without making changes, it would become “I’d own straw’s wings” which would be a little weird.

Have you ever translated any poems or stories before? Which one do you think is more difficult?

AK: To be honest, I have never really translated a whole story or poem before. That’s why I cannot really say if a story or a poem would be easier to translate, but in general I would say a poem is more challenging. A poem is mostly just a few lines, but they are much more meaningful and you have to tell the story with these few lines. First I thought the longer the sentence, the more difficult it is to translate because there are more possible ways to say it, but now I would say the opposite. If there are just one or two words in one line, you have to find the perfect word in German to show the feelings at this part of the poem.

Sophia: I used to do some short pieces of translations in my own time, just for fun. However, it’s actually my very first time translating such an amazing poem which is concise and able to convey good will. I really cherish this opportunity and hope I can do a good job translating this poem as well as gaining experiences of translation during this process. Since I’ve never translated any short stories before, I can’t really compare these two things; but I used to practice creating Chinese subtitles for American TED talks. Based on that experience, I would say translating a poem is more difficult for me because for the TED talks, I can see the speaker’s gestures and how they present the speech so that I’m able to better understand them and, therefore, the speech. However, I need to figure out myself what’s the metaphorical the meaning of the poem during this poem translation.

Do you translate with the help of a translator? And why do you decide to do it this way?

AK: I tried not to use a translator because in that way I was not really able to make the mistake with translating word for word. But sometimes I looked for the translation of a word to see how different the sentence would have been with the exact translation.

Sophia: I thought using a translator would make my translation look inflexible and so I didn’t use it at first. However, I figured out if I can use the translator wisely which mean I use it to find out how should I work to improve my diction to better fit certain words into the poem. I’m really glad to have the opportunity to translate this poem. During the process, it’s interesting to see how translation of a poem could be different from everyday conversations and I learnt how to translate a poem going beyond its literal meanings.