Assignment: Translate Your Prose into Verse

Michael Odom on translation, poems, and pedagogy in the classroom.

“…it gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I will read for you tonight, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose!”

-W.B. Yeats


All reading is translation: translation from the language of one mind to the language of another. The worst possible translation is one that takes a great poem in one language and makes of it a terrible poem in another. For example, the translation in a student’s mind of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” into “Memento mori!” is a ‘lost in translation’ reading. This occurred to me as I tried to teach university freshmen the correct terms for genres, prosodies, tropes, and dictions.

My students recited verse as if it were an unusually unmusical type of prose. They could not hear it and they could not conceive of lineation as anything but an odd way to write sentences. They droned as they read, flattening every stress and evening out tones as they raced from the initial capital to the period of the last sentence. Their close reading was the same: racing past language to ‘the meaning’. Verse as weird prose; as if poetry were a gameshow where a writer says something cryptic or enigmatic and readers try to guess what was said. Readers who guess right win a PhD. Poets who stump the audience take home an MFA. My students seemed to think the consolation prize would be an easy A.

Translators know that game. The poet said it in Greek, now I repeat it in English. Did I guess the poet’s meaning? No? Well, I still have my MFA.

Fortunately, teaching English language poetry is a poet’s translation job (Linguists translate language. Poets translate poetry.) So I gave myself the job of teaching students to translate the direct, denotative, literal, stressless, and toneless text they heard, into the melodic and percussive, carefully placed words of literary verse. But I was teaching English language poems to a class that spoke English. Denotations glare in the eyes of the fluent speaker and obscurity appears only as an obstacle to be looked around. So I set about removing the very idea of dictionary clarity from their reading. What I tried, what worked, and what I should have tried or done differently was this:


˄    ˅      ˄   ˅        ˄    ˅     ˄

Ah ha     ee ha      ih ha    A

˄    ˅      ˄   ˅        ˄    ˅

A  ha      I  ha      EE ha

˄    ˅        ˄   ˅        ˄    ˅     ˄

EE ha    AH ha      ih ha    A

˅  ˄  ˅      ˄   ˅      ˄    ˅

An A ha     I ha     EE ha


  ˅  ˄      ˅      ˄     ˗

  en O   heh-EHson

                                     ˅        ˄       ˗   ˅    ˅

                                      o SWEE   SIon  AW

  ˗    ˄     ˗     ˗      ˅    ˄     ˅

ahSUHon Uh  ehMEHbre

                                                 ˗       ˄       ˗      ˄

                                                sah EEN uh  AS


˄    ˅   ˗        ˄    ˅   ˗         ˄    ˅   ˗       ˗      ˗

AH uh ee    AH uh ee    AH uh ee   AW aw

˄    ˅       ˗       ˄    ˅           ˅

AW dohduh    AL ee o    DEH

˄    ˅     ˄    ˅    ˗

O deh IH  UN eh



Whatever else you may think these nonsense lines are, they are an attempt to represent the tone and stresses of lines of verse as musical notation by representing just the sounds, here mainly the vowels. Bold font and caps indicate accents. Small letters and font indicate the unaccented syllables. Spaces and line breaks slow or speed for duple or tuple metrical feet. Tone is trickier: the arrows above indicate whether to raise, lower, or keep the tone the same. I, of course, had to start on a reasonable tone and instill the assumption that tonal changes are not extreme.

If I or my students were adepts at reading music, I might have used musical notation.  My purpose, however, was not critical, but illustrative. I wanted to awaken their sensibilities, not command them. The goal was to have them feel the effect of the music as if a cello or piano were playing it; to teach them that rhythm, tone, and pace have meaning even before they are language. I set about trying to sing these melodies first, then brought the students in. We went over each repeatedly. Once the songs were in their heads as melodies, TA-DA! The big reveal:


I saw Esau kissing Kate

Kate saw I saw Esau

Esau saw that I saw Kate

And Kate saw I saw Esau.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past


Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


Earlier in the semester, I had introduced scansion marks. I thought I’d given it enough time as many had the concepts from high school and I, (my failing as a teacher, I know) thought the work easy, even self-explanatory. On reading their papers, however, I found some students marked syllables randomly. Some marked every syllable. Some marked long strings of syllables with stresses followed by long strings unstressed. Others tried to guess the meter then marked the stresses for that meter with no variations. Some confessed frankly they could not hear any difference between iambs, anapests, trochees or dactyls. I had also taught them to mark rhymes and circle or highlight assonance and consonance. They were better, but not a lot better, at that.

Next, I played videos of poets or good readers reciting English poetry starting with Beowulf, other Anglo-Saxon poems, progressing through the Renaissance, Romantics, Victorian, to Modern. Then much of an entire lecture listening and reciting nursery rhymes. Training ears to hear the music of verse is closely analogous to translating from a language you don’t speak. You must first hear the language to experience its meaning.

So I introduced poems in languages the student did not speak. Step one, I told them, is identifying the sounds knowing nothing of the meaning. With the modern tools, YouTube videos of native speakers reciting,, and a dictionary or phrasebook that gives pronunciations, one can hear the language as pure music and get a sense of stress, tone and pace. Then the written poem: do you see the same words or letters coming up over and over? Mark that. If that repetition is at the end of the line or through most of a word, mark it as a rhyme. If anywhere else, mark it as alliteration or internal rhyme.

This walk through poetry as music was effective on the problem of prose ears, but the ‘grasp for paraphrase’ issue isn’t touched by any ear-training exercises. I turned to translation once more and the dictionaries, thesauri, and Google Translate. By assigning poems in a language they did not know, they could not hope to grasp an overall paraphrase without first piecing through the poem word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line. Nor could they simply grab the denotation of each word and have a coherent poem result; not every word that foreign and English language dictionaries match was a match for the speaker, the audience, the type of diction, the emotional tone, the trope, and/or the speech act of the assigned poem. Choosing the words to recreate the poem gave an existential praxis to the materials and tools of literature. The students needed to consider each choice the poet had, and in considering all possibilities, to choose for themselves the language that, when placed in the mosaic of the poem, could produce a meaningful and effective, English, work of art.

Although I gave the translation as a take-home assignment, I think some would have done better with it in class. And, of course, I made clear from the beginning I could not expect professional or even passable translations. But I could and did expect English poems to result, born of the originals, which showed an understanding of the issues of form, trope, diction, speech act. The last step was to find translations of the poem they’d done and compare their own with the professional. Not everyone was close, but all had detailed opinions of why one choice was superior to another. Detailed judgments on the language the poet chose. Not grasped at paraphrases of the whole. I counted that as success.