Original Research

Translating poetry: Creative art or semantic science? A case study

C. Beckett
Literator | Vol 21, No 3 | a498 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v21i3.498 | © 2000 C. Beckett | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 26 April 2000 | Published: 26 April 2000

About the author(s)

C. Beckett, School of Language, Culture and Communication, Discipline: French, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

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There is an on-going debate as to the real value of translation: is it an art or a science? Is the translator engaged in genuine creation or is she merely transliterating the creation of someone else? In order to attempt to resolve this long-standing and thorny problem, this article examines the poet’s understanding of the “logos", the creative force of the word and the relationship which exists between the “signifiant" and the “signifié”. Extracts from poems by Alan Paton, Victor Hugo and Pablo Neruda serve to illustrate that poetic words not only transmit the poet’s experience but actually create it. If the poet is sensitive to the creative nature of language, as these two extracts suggest he should be, it follows logically that a good translator too must be aware of the degree to which language can create, and this perception must be implemented in the subsequent translation. Because only human beings and not machines possess sensitivity, it stands to reason that a machine is incapable of effectively translating the most emotional of literary genres: poetry. So as to illustrate this fact, this article compares and contrasts a computer-generated translation of Paul Verlaine's poem “Chanson d’automne" with three “human-generated” translations. In my own translation, comments and justifications are made as to the choice of a particular word or phrase proposed as translation. The conclusion is reached that translation implies a high degree of sensitivity towards the poet’s original intention as well as a collaborative process between poet and translator which results in an entirely new poem which involves as much, but different creativity as the original writing of the poem.


Computer-Generated Translation; Human-Generated Translation; Source Language; Required Level Of Language Proficiency; Target Language; Required Level Of Language Proficiency; Translation; Art Or Science; Verlaine; Chanson D’Automne


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