Blog Post

Frost in translation

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III ) 

Inspired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's laudable decision to colorize—um I mean translate Shakespeare into a more user-friendly demotic, I thought I'd just update Robert Frost's germane and helpful definition:

I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

To clarify for a modern audience, the way they're doing it at the OSF, with their Shakespeare knock-offs:*

One operational definition of poetry, whether you are referencing officially sanctioned poetry in a recognizable verse form or, more controversially, the elements of prose that impact us perceptually as "feeling like poetry feels" (as one could informally put it) might be usefully analogized as an as yet unsolved and perhaps unsolvable problem for machine translation.

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*Shakespeare knock-off, thanks to one contemporary translator who helps us with this update of a line of Macbeth's: "The deep damnation of his knocking-off."

Remember, Scotland runs on Duncan.

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).