Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language. It is axiomatic that in a poem there is no exact equivalent for the valences of sound, the intonations and sequences of words, the rhythm of separate lines, the weight of accruing stanzas, the totality of musical effects. That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatableness. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

Today I came across this highly accurate quote by Edward Hirsch, on translation and the impossibility of translating poetry. As a writer and translator who has written poetry and gone through the rather agonizing process of translating it, I can attest to how true this is.

In poetry you can say so much in so few words, because each word carries with it so many feelings, associations, connections, and can expresses so many things unsaid. Just replacing a word with a literally accurate translated word in another language will not necessarily convey the same things that were contained in the word in the original language. The same is true for all translations of course, it’s just exacerbated in poetry. This is also a reason why I’ve found it very difficult to write poetry in another language than Swedish, my birth-language. I have written, and am writing, poetry in English, but it’s taken me a very long time to get to that point.


The quote is taken from Hirsch’s book A Poet’s Glossary, and I found the quote online at