Poetry translation for language learners

Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap
Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap

Living among Somalis, I’m fascinated by their attachment to poetry.  The 19th century explorer Richard Burton wrote about Somalia, “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios’: every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines” (from First Footsteps in East Africa).  This feeling has not changed to the present day, even as far away from East Africa as we are in Minnesota.

I know that if I want to know the Somali language, I have to know Somali poetry.  I don’t know what to do because I’m a complete amateur of the Somali language.  Sometimes I’ll look for Somali poetry hoping that I’ll understand it if I just stare at it long enough.  I needed a way to bridge the gap–the chasm–between my basic, basic Somali and the great expanse of Somali literary beauty.


Then my prayers were answered when I found the website poetrytranslation.org.  I found poetry by modern Somali poems in the original Somali, once translated literally, and once translated fluidly.  It was perfect!  That way I can read the original and hear the “music” of the rhyme and meter.  Then I can work through the difficult, dense meaning of the poem with a helping hand.

You think this is good: you can listen to some of the poems read by the poets themselves!  This dimension adds to the music and bridges the gap from the written to the spoken word.  For learning the language, this ensures that you’re reading with the correct pronunciation.  Moreover, the poem becomes more intimate, more tied to an actual human.  You can even subscribe to the podcast of the recorded poems (only available through iTunes, unfortunately for me).


Much more than Somali, I found poems of many different languages.  Now I have a great resource for working on my Farsi thanks to several poems in that language, as well as in the closely related languages of Dari and Tajik.  You can find poems in even more obscure languages, too (eg, Assamese, Siraiki, Shuar).  A good portion of the poems come from Asia: from Georgia and Kurdistan, to China and Korea.  If I were learning Chinese, I would especially love that an audio accompanies many of the poems in that language.  The one thing the site lacks (I hate to even say it since the site has so much) is that the site does not offer transcriptions of non-Latin scripts.

Every poem demonstrates painstaking work.  The curators of the site collect these original poems by poets already established among their language communities.  The literal translation offers insight into the translation method, and then the poems are rendered artistically into English, which are themselves worthy of enjoyable reading.

Poetry can help your language

I encourage you to compliment your language-study with this site if possible because it will help you on multiple levels.  First, it will allow you to learn grammar and vocabulary from solid native sources.  Second, it will highlight the way that your language uses imagery to convey ideas.  Third, you will gain insight into what the speakers of you language consider most beautiful in their language, and you will deepen your knowledge about their point of view.  Enjoy your language in its most artistic form!

Have you found unlikely language-learning aids?  Do you use poetry to learn your language?

Photo credit: Valentina_A / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

6 thoughts on “Poetry translation for language learners

  1. Mehrin

    I think it’s also helpful with Farsi, because it’s full of proverbs, some of which have been taken from poetry. And also Iranians use poetry in their language very much. Though I can’t compare it fairly with other languages, cos it’s my mother tongue. I hope you enjoy Persian poetry anyway.


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