At John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1959, Robert Frost recited the lines:
“The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.” - Frost, “The Gift Outright”
Now, in 2021, at Joe Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman is saying the words:
“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we'll forever be tied together, victorious.” - Gorman, “The Hills We Climb.”
The two seem to be saying similar things--that the land bears witness to the acts of the people. And yet, coming from two different backgrounds, Frost and Gorman both expressed in poetry the nation’s goals and needs in times of difficulty. One was writing post-World War and the other writing in these troubled contemporary times of the pandemic.
But don’t they seem to speak to each other? Don’t they seem to speak to everyone who is listening?
If we wager a guess, from the variety of news sources reporting on Amanda Gorman’s poem, from the New York Times to The Guardian, it seems the whole globe was listening.
And of course, it opened up a new conversation regarding poetry and its translation: How do we extend a poet’s words to a world that can’t understand completely, a world that speaks a multitude of languages, a world that is coming from all kinds of cultural and linguistic barriers?
Translation Has Become Integral To This Conversation
Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, has sparked a worldwide conversation on how to translate her work. Her poem, “The Hills We Climb” has been translated into 17 languages thus far, with more to come. The conversation has mostly been about how to translate her own personal and cultural experiences.
This brings us to ask: how can we begin to translate poems deeply embedded in a certain culture?
Poetry is often emotional, evocative, and empathic. Its translation, to convey it accurately, must also bring value to the original text by retaining its nuances. One stray comma can change the meaning entirely.
In this conversation, some say, when the translator comes from a different cultural mindset than the poet, it may lose some impact, rather than if the translator and the poet came from similar backgrounds.
But not all translators can share the same background with the poet. And, if that’s the case, it will surely limit the audience of the poems. Certain demographics all of the world could be deprived of that content.
So how do we give access to beautiful poems that could potentially enhance the lives of people all over the world, while also retaining the cultural context of the poet?
Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes, weighs in, saying that the key to solving these issues may lie in collaboration with the poet and the translators. He says, “It’s important that the poet expresses the elements of the poem, such as themes, tone, and style, accurately to the translator. So that the translator can process the poem for that language. Collaboration can show how both the translator and the poet, using their varied expertise, can bring value to the work, and ultimately, to the reader.”
And certainly, Amanda Gorman’s 17 translations of her work have led to collaborative work between poet and translator. All of the translators were approved by Gorman herself.
The audience of the poetry should come first in this conversation, Ofer adds, those who will relate to it personally and deeply. And the translator’s role is to give them access to that poem that could potentially change their lives.
United in Collaboration Not Divided Along Personal Lines
Since the times of Frost and Kennedy, poetry took a backseat in popular culture, until certain key poets such as Lang Leav through her Instagram feed and, now, Amanda Gorman through the inaugural poem, came to center stage. And, although there is still a debate brewing about who will get to translate her work in different countries, poetry translation is at least becoming talked about.
In an opinion article in the Guardian, Kenan Malik said, "There has long been a debate about the ethics of translation, about how to translate not just the words but the spirit of the original, too. Today’s identity controversies, however, are not just about issues of formal translation but also about the kinds of informal translation in which we engage every day. Every conversation requires us to “translate” other people’s experiences and perspectives, to make sense of them in terms of our own experiences and perspectives. In a world divided on identity lines, both the possibility and morality of such translations have become questioned.”
The challenges of poetry translation will stay as long as Amanda Gorman’s lines will stay: We will rebuild / reconcile and recover.” We just need to ask ourselves to collaborate and unite, rather than become divided.