The practice of translation seems to involve some mystery for those who are not translators. However, there is no magic potion or secret chant that changes a poem from one language into another. Mostly it involves lots of time with dictionaries, encyclopaedias, maps, and the Internet. It’s not magic; it’s work.
The translator’s goal is to take a text in one language and recreate it in another. The translator wants to write a poem which imitates the original but which is also effective as a poem in the new language, too. Typically, translators bring the text from some language that they know well into their first language. Sometimes a translator will have another writer create a literal version of a poem, for example, and then will complete the process of creating the poem in the second language using the literal version as a guide.
As you might guess, reading a poem in one language and trying to imitate it in your native language is a difficult challenge. Since there are no two languages with a one-to-one correspondence, there may be differences of interpretation from one translator to another. In fact, if there were an exact correspondence, we would not need translators, since our computers could do it for us. Therefore translators have to constantly be making decisions: How does this word sound? Is there a better choice? Does it convey the same meaning in both languages? Is this image clear to someone reading in my culture in the 21st Century? Is the line similar in length to the original?
Those people who study translations professionally have identified a range of types of translations. At one extreme is a translation which is very literal, exactly what the words say. At the opposite extreme is the translation which takes the text and creatively re-writes it so that it may not resemble the original at all. Take two famous movie titles as examples: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was re-titled in Spanish Mr. Smith va a Washington. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s easy to see where this title comes from and it would be an example of a very literal translation. But The Sound of Music was translated as La novicia rebelde (‘The Rebellious Novice’) in Latin America and as Sonrisas y Lágrimas (‘Laughter and Tears’) in Spain. These would be examples of creative translations. Generally, translators pick one mode or style and stick with it throughout the translation.
In the end, the test of effectiveness is how well the new text approximates the original and how well it reads in the new language. Does it sound as if it might have been written in the second language? Does it sound stiff and ‘foreign’? Do the images make sense to a contemporary reader? Does it carry the same emotional impact as the original?
Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever received from a translation was when the poet told me, “It sounds as if I wrote it in English myself.”