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Voice and Versification in Translating Poems

University of Ottawa Press | Perspectives on Translation

Great poets like Shelley and Goethe have made the claim that translating poems is impossible. And yet, poems are translated; not only that, but the metrical systems of English, French, Italian, German, Russian and Czech have been shaped by the translation of poems. Our poetic traditions are inspired by translations of Homer, Dante, Goethe and Baudelaire. How can we explain this paradox? 

James W. Underhill responds by offering an informed account of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and versification. But more than that, the author stresses that what is important in the poem—and what must be preserved in the translated poem—is the voice that emerges in the versification. 

Underhill’s book draws on the author’s translation experience from French, Czech and German. His comparative analysis of the versifications of French and English have enabled him to revise the key terms involved in translating the poetic voice and transposing the poem’s versification. The theories of versification from the Prague School of Linguistics, the French and Swiss schools of versification, and recent scholarship in metrics and rhythm in the UK and in the USA have been integrated into this synthetic but rigorously coherent approach to translating poems. The extensive glossary at the end of the book will prove useful for both students and teachers alike. And the detailed case studies on translating poems by Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson allow the author to categorize and appraise the various poetic and aesthetic strategies and theories that are brought to bear in translating Baudelaire into English, and Dickinson into French. 


These two videos allow us to become better acquainted with the work of James Underhill, and contextualizes Voice and Versification.

o James Underhill chairs a panel discussion on signs & sense as part of the Rouen Ethnolinguistics Project which is loosely tied to the issue of voice and versification

(https://webtv.univ-rouen.fr/videos/james-underhill-normandie-u/). 51 minutes; in French.

o Prague conference video: Prague conference will be online on youtube by now and is on. 46 minutes. English with Czech subtitles.



James W. Underhill was born in Glasgow in 1967. He is Full Professor and lectures on Literature, Poetics, and Translation at Rouen University in Northern France. He worked as a full-time translator of French and Czech, and published poems in translation from French and German. Underhill’s work focuses on both linguistic constraints at a deeper level, and the essential creative impulse by which individuals stimulate the shared language of the community.

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