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Hilarious Mistranslation of Famous Poems

We all know the perils of mistranslation. Even if you haven’t been hit with it yourself, then you’ve at least heard hilarious examples of “Spanglish” or “Engrish.” But what happens when translating poetry, the form of writing that most relies on very specific word choice?

Since it’s National Poetry Month, we thought we’d take a look at some of the most famous poems and see how they end up once put through the translation wringer. First we’ll translate them (using a web translator) into another language, and then BACK into English and see what we get.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (Shel Silverstein)

First, here’s the first stanza of the English original:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Now, into Spanish:

Hay un lugar donde la acera termina
Y antes que la calle empiece,
Y allí el césped crece suave y blanco,
Y allí las quemaduras de sol se ruborizan brillante,
Y allí los descanso de luna-pájaro de su vuelo
Para refrescar en el viento con sabor a menta.

Now, back into English!

There is a place where the sidewalk finishes
AND before that the street harms,
AND there the lawn grows smooth and white,
AND there the burns of sun blush brilliant,
AND there the rest of moon-bird of their flight
to refresh in the wind with flavor to

I’m mainly surprised moon-bird translated directly! But overall, that wasn’t too bad. Let’s try another one.

The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost)

Here are the last six lines from this famous poem in the original English.

I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now, let’s translate it into another romance language, Italian:

Ho dubitato se mai dovrei ritornare.
Dirò questo con un sospiro
une in qualche luogo età ed une età quindi:
Due strade hanno diverto in un legno ed io-
ho portato il uno ha viaggiato meno da,
E ciò ha fatto tutta la differenza.

Back into English and we get:

I doubted if ever I should return.
Dirò this with an one sigh somewhere age and an age therefore:
Two roads amused in a wood and I-
I carried the one one has traveling except for from,
AND that did all the difference.

Starts out ok on the first line – then it’s all chaos after that! Some words didn’t even made the journey back into their native language. Also, I like how there are two instances of “one” in the next to last line all of a sudden.

Ok, time for one more of this most silly exercise.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Dylan Thomas)

This famous poem used by English professors and in many films ABOUT English professors might be a little less inspiring when we submit it to the web translator! Here’s the stanza we’re using:

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now, here it is in French:

Et vous, mon père, là sur cette hauteur triste,
cette Malédiction, bénissez, me maintenant avec vos déchirures féroces, je prie.
Ne pas aller léger dans cette bonne nuit.
La rage, la rage contre le mourir de la lumière.

But we’re not done yet! Let’s translate it into German:

Und Sie, mein Vater, da auf dieser traurigen Hцhe,
diesem Fluch, segnen, mich mit Ihren wilden Rissen erhaltend, ich bete.
Leicht an dieser guten Nacht nicht gehen.
Die Wut, die Wut gibt Kontra, ihm zu sterben des Lichte

Let’s keep going! Into Russian:

И Вы, мой отец, там на него печальный
H he, этому проклятию, одобряют, я с Вашими дикими трещинами получая, я молюсь. Легко в этой хорошей ночи не идут.
Ярость, ярость дает Против, чтобы умирать ему света

Now the big finale into English:

And you, my father, there on it sad H he,
to this damnation, approve, I with your wild cracks receiving, I pray.
Easily this good night do not go.
Fury, fury gives Against to die to it Light

Web Translators Aren’t What They’re Cracked Up To Be

Yikes! Wild cracks receiving indeed! Thanks to Mr. Thomas for showing us just how confusing translation can be if you don’t use Rev.com!

Happy National Poetry Month!