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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator



Styliani Chomata


Introduction: Maya Angelou’s Background

Maya Angelou is one of the most known African American poets. Throughout her life, she received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. The truth though is that her early life was not a fairytale. Her childhood was a really harsh one, as we learn from her own book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1994). Maya Angelou in this book narrates her early years until she became seventeen. One of the first things I did before translating “The Lesson,” included in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994), was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The content of the book is quite revealing. Reading about the tremendous pain and suffering she has felt, one can understand the source of her poetic inspiration. The book has given me a more complete grasp of why she wrote what she wrote and of course the way she wrote it. As a fighter of Civil Rights and having to face everyday racism and discrimination, it is not a surprise that Angelou characterizes her life as a challenge in “The Lesson.” The struggle to keep on fighting is the core of the poem, in my opinion. It is quite remarkable that although she had to fight great struggles and suffer pain, she claims that she still loved to live. Life is such a precious gift no matter what we have to face – after all only the dead feel no pain.

Why this one: The poem selection

When I was faced with the choice of which poem I should translate, Maya Angelou came directly to my mind. She was already one of my favourite poets and I had read many of her poems. I have already found the poem very fascinating since it offers a very important lesson. The poem’s title is “The Lesson,” yet it is not spotted even once in the poem. In reality, though, after reading the poem you know what the lesson to be learned is. It is all about how we have to embrace pain and the difficulties in life. Angelou’s pain comes mostly from the way she has been treated, the racism she had to suffer, but, in my opinion, it still ends in a positive tone. The poem, in my opinion, teaches us that no matter how much pain people face, they should treat life as a gift. I maintain that this hopeful tone is needed especially nowadays. I think that Angelou manages to pass this message. Death is part of life as well as pain. You cannot have one without the other. The readers of the poem should fathom that it is worth fighting for what you believe in no matter the difficulties you have to face, be disposed to suffering, but at the same time enjoy the merry part of life.

Going deeper: Focusing on specific elements

When I started translating the poem, I was aware that some parts would be more challenging and would require more thinking than others. Firstly, I wanted to understand the poem to the core, so I read it many times. I wished to make readers feel the same way that the source text has made me feel. This is why I tried to be as faithful to the original as possible but be respectful of my readers at the same time. I really focused hard on the first and the penultimate line of the poem. It is the only line that is repeated (except for the word again) and I really struggled with it. I wanted to keep the line the same, but it was not possible to do so. It is for me the most important part of the poem since it gives the first impression and the last taste of the poem. After much thought, I decided my translation to be acceptable than adequate (Toury 1995). I translated the first and the penultimate line differently. I believe that it worked for both the beginning and the end of the poem. Especially the ending of the poem seemed smooth and the poem at the same time, in my opinion, ended in a high note.

Another part that I considered worth focusing on was punctuation. I spotted many commas and full stops from the first reading. In literature every comma and full stop has a significant reason for being in the place it is. I decided to keep the punctuation exactly as it is. Every time that I stopped in a full stop it was like reading a complete thought. If the punctuation did not exist, especially the full stops, it would be really difficult for the reader to read and comprehend the poem. Also, I kept the form exactly as it was respecting the reasons why Maya Angelou used this certainly unique form in her poem.

Lastly, the connotation part of the poem was truly demanding for me. Angelou uses this seriously intense imagery that it would be a challenge to mimic. While translating, I concentrated very hard on lines like “Veins collapse, opening like the/ Small fists of sleeping/ Children” (simile), and “The years/ And cold defeat live deep in/ Lines along my face” (metaphor). These lines are really powerful, and I wanted to do them justice. I used words that they were as close to the original as possible. This way it was easier, in my opinion, to communicate the feelings that the poem wanted to evoke.

The Actual Translation: Strategies and Procedures

Before starting the actual translation process, I knew that I would have to overcome many difficulties. First of all, I had to decide if the translation would be literal or free. Fearing that the magic of the original would be lost if I took too many liberties, I tried to be as close to the original text as possible. This is why the translation technique that I mainly used was that of rendering the text literally, a procedure firstly introduced by Cicero (first century BCE) and St Jerome (late fourth century) (Munday 30-31). Although I tried to be as literal as possible, there were moments that I had to be oblique.[1] As Newmark (1988) states there are many methods in translation. With my translation I tried to combine the literal translation with the faithful and the semantic translation methods.

Initially, when I came across the very first line “I keep on dying again,” I used the technique of repetition (Delisle 1997). I repeated the word again because, I wanted to give a more dramatic effect to the poem and focus on how many times the poetic persona has suffered. I wished to focus not on the fact that she has died but on how many times she experienced this feeling.

Also, one can notice that the word I (“I keep on dying again” / “I love to live”) is omitted from the translation. Using the technique of reduction (Newmark 1988) I chose to omit the pronouns since in Greek the pronouns, which are usually the subject of the sentence, are visible through the suffix of the verb. Moreover, emphasis is put on the verbs and the feelings and emotions evoked.

Last but not least, I have used the technique of equivalence. Upon reading the part “Not convince me against/ The challenge,” I knew that, if I wished to produce an acceptable translation, I would have to discover another way to translate this part, a way that would be easily accepted by readers. This is why I used the syntactic technique of equivalence by Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet (1958/1995). I knew that I would have a reduction in meaning, but I thought it sounded better and the gain was worth it. After all, according to the Skopos Theory, first introduced by Hans Vermeer (1978) it is more important for the target text to be internally coherent than be coherent with the source text.

In general, I wished to provide a translation that would be able to capture the actual feeling of the source text and at the same time be as acceptable as possible. This is why I used a mix of direct and oblique translation procedures.



Angelou, Maya. “The Lesson.” The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. Random House Inc, 1994.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House Inc, 1994.
Delisle, Jean. et al. “Part II: English Terminology.” Terminologie de la Traduction: Translation Terminology. John Benjamins Publishing, 1999.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2016.
Newmark, Peter. A Textbook of Translation. Prentice Hall, 1988.
Toury, Gideon. Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. John Benjamins Publishing, 1995.
Vermeer, J. Hans. “Ein Rahmen für eine allgemeine Translationstheorie.” Lebende Sprachen 23 (1978): 99-102.
Vermeer, J. A Skopos Theory of Translation. Heidelberg: TEXTconTEXT Verlag, 1996.
Vinay, Jean-Paul, and Jean Darbelnet. Comparative Stylistics of French and English: A Methodology for Translation, translated and edited by Juan Sager, and Marie-Jo Hamel. John Benjamins Publishing, 1995.

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[1] This echoes Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet’s Comparative Stylistics of French and English: A Methodology for Translation (1995) that makes a distinction between direct and oblique translation procedures.