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Latest comment: 20 years ago by IYY

Yes it can work and would be a great idea. Combined with a good search engine it would be super. I'd help. The GPL might be hard to work around in trying to get more contemporary poetry though. It would also be a great wiki to bring the various language users together on.Sunja

Mysterious, you have no idea how difficult translation - especially, as you say, translation of poetry - is. I like the idea of spreading the burden by using a Wiki, however. I would have translated your example, but the only language I know other than English is Hebrew, but the copy of MediaWiki used for hosting Wikipedia's Meta does not support this language (it can present it, but only by converting its characters to uneditable Unicode entities). -- Itai 00:57, 8 Mar 2004 (UTC)

Why not also translate books? Would wikibooks be an appropiate place? cronian

I think it would be a far better idea to translate poetry from other languages to English, or at least start from that. This is because there are far more English speaking users around and knowledge of a second language is no longer required once the first, literal translation is provided. One person would post a poem in a language other than English and a literal translation of it, and then other, English speaking users will translate it into English. --IYY 02:21, 19 May 2004 (UTC)Reply

On collaborative translation[edit]

Greetings, I am fairly new here at Wikipedia (meaning I just created an account right before starting to write this), but I just had to comment on your idea. By way of introduction, I have experience with both technical and literary translation, and currently make my living translating. My comments come from this experience and my own understanding of the nature of translation.

While I find your idea interesting, I do not think that it is a feasible alternative to poetry translation (i.e., I do not think it will produce better or more efficient poetic translations than the single-translator method). As an experiment in group creativity, of course, I think it may produce interesting results.

Now to the meat of my comment: why I do not think this method will "work" (using my parenthetical definition above). There are two main reasons, and they are as follows:

1) Translation is fundamentally not a collaborative venture. Where I translate (Korea: from Korean to English), there is much talk of "team translating." What this means is that two people get together, each with different skill sets, and attempt to translate a work together. To give a more concrete example, let us say that a native Korean speaker wants to translate a literary work from her native language into English because she feels that it is a masterpiece and deserves a wider readership. Her command of the English language, though, is sketchy at best, so she enlists the help of an English teacher from the United States. One would think that such a combination would be ideal. After all we have all the bases covered: an intimate knowledge of the source text and culture coupled with skill in the target language (this is assuming a best-case scenario, of course).

The reality, though, is that this solution is far from ideal. While our erstwhile Korean translator may have a good working knowledge of the Korean text and the culture that informs it, her attempts to render the meaning in English will most likely be woefully inadequate (and we all know that there is no worse kind of inadequacy than woeful inadequacy). Meanwhile, our well-meaning English teacher likely has a limited knowledge of the Korean text and culture, and any attempts to improve upon the initial translation run the risk of departing entirely from the original meaning of the work. Assuming a best-case scenario (our Korean translator has an intimate knowledge and understanding of the text, and our English translator is an exceptionally skilled writer), the best we will end up with will be a well-written (possibly even literary) text that is far from the original in terms of meaning and intent.

The reason this method was (and I say was because it is employed less these days, and will hopefully disappear completely at some point in the future) employed was because there was a lack of a) native Korean speakers with sufficient skill in English and/or b) native English speakers with sufficient knowledge of the Korean language and culture. Now there are far more people from both of these groups, and the "team translation" method is no longer necessary.

At any rate, the point of this example is to illustrate why collaborative translation (seemingly contrary to common sense, at least to non-translators) is ineffective at producing good translations. There is much more to it, of course, than what is illustrated in the example. For one, like the author, the translator is an ego, and having conflicting egos attempting to work toward a unified goal is counterproductive (oh, and don't think that the Wiki spirit will overcome these conflicts--when it comes to literature, all egos will conflict; it's simply a question of how much). In essence, one master chef will be able to cook a better meal than a dozen Food Channel disciples. One could raise the point that collaborative fiction has worked in certain instances, but suffice it to say that the act of translating differs immensely from the act of creative an original work (and it will have to suffice for now, since that's a very complex subject).

2) When people say that translating poetry is impossible, they mean that in certain instances it is impossible to preserve both meaning and form. In prose, there is generally no form per se (with the occasional exception), but poetry places great importance on form. If you shrink down the text of a novel so that it only fits 50 characters per line rather then 60, it will still read as the same novel. But if you decide to rearrange the line breaks in a poem, you will have a different poem. More often than not, the translation of poetry requires the decision to either convey the meaning at the expense of the form, or vice versa. It is rare that both can be preserved in a "perfect" translation.

Thus, while the skill of the translator does indeed have an effect on how good the translation may be, you very often have no real choice in poetry but to sacrifice. You said: "When editing the poem try to make changes which either, better represent the contextual meaning of the words, or better represent the original structure of the poem (rhyme, meter, etc). Ideally, people will find ways to do both." This goes beyond optimism, I'm afraid, into the realm of fantasy. More likely than not, you will find the poem vacillating between those who would preserve form and those who would preserve meaning (unless, of course, it is one those fortunate examples in which it is possible to preserve both, in which case the "single skilled translator" method will work far better). Simply having people make continual changes to a translation does not mean you will necessarily end up with a better translation. In fact, I think the more different egos participate in the process, the less satisfactory a translation will be produced.

Your methodology also worries me. You said: "Please feel free to start from a “word by word” translation." This implies that further modifications will naturally lead the translation toward a more authentic (i.e., readable) version. This is a translation fallacy to which I myself once subscribed, back when I knew less about translation than I know now. It is very inefficient to work from a literal translation to a more liberal translation. You would think that you could simply "transcribe" the meaning word by word and then "pretty it up" later on, but my own experience has taught me that it just doesn't work that way. You either end up with a stilted translation or one that strays far from the original. In other words, get it right the first time. Then you can go back later and get it righter. ;)

I apologize for the overall negative tone of this comment (and for the extreme length). My intent is not to discourage. If you can get people to participate, by all means go for it. I think it would be a very interesting experiment, and would cast some light on the nature of translation. On the experimental level, I think it's a very worthwhile idea (and one I would consider implementing were I ever to teach a class in translating at some point in the future).

Regarding IYY's comment, I agree that translating from other languages into English would probably be better. I strongly disagree with the reasoning, though. My comments above hopefully explained why a knowledge of the source language (not to mention the source culture) is always required. The reason I think it would be better to translate from other languages into English is because this is an English wiki, and a majority of the people here are native English speakers. It's always better to translate into one's mother tongue.

[Apologies. I deliberately created a user account before writing this to take some measure of responsibility for my words, but after I posted I saw that I was not logged in. Even stranger, when I did attempt to log in I was told that the account I had just created didn't exist. I have since recreated the account. My user name is Suho1004, although there is nothing on any of my pages yet.]


  • Actually Suho1004 you managed to hit on many of the exact reasons that collaborative translating is so good. While one translator may not have a great understanding of a language they may understand something of the particular culture, and another have better understanding of various slang (which all cultures have). As far as fearing to stray off into 'fantasy' translating, We would just need to state from the beginning that the intent of the translation was to remain as close to the authors intent as possible. This of course includes the authors' use of rhymes and rhythm. Translating poetry on a Wiki is about as close to ideal as you can get when translating poetry. I think perhaps you need to work with others a bit more. :). Sunja 10:39, 22 Sep 2004 (UTC)


I'm professional translator with a decade of experience and I vastly agree with Suho1004. While it would be "okay" to experiment with online collaborative projects in just about any field, a crowd would most likely *not* produce a masterpiece of poetry translation... Translation of literature, in a way, is art. And, there are forms and genres of art that are inherently individualistic, not collectivistic. You cannot replace creativity and personality with a kind of "democratic vote" - in arts; while you probably can do so - in technical/knwoledge projects, but not in art projects.

A good place to start[edit]

Douglas Hofstadter's book Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language.