Using Blackout Poetry to aid Translation

Cite as: Sheridan, Nathalie (2020): Poetic Inquiry as a Meaning-Making Process Across Languages. figshare. Online resource. 

Poetic Inquiry as a Meaning-Making Process Across Languages

I find translating from German into English particularly when it comes to academic text indefinitely more difficult than the other way around. Which is strange as I am fluid in both, big words and all. Some of it is that many of the nouns used in German academic writing have no equivalent in the English language, they are conceptual, and at times invented by the author. It also appears, at least in the current writing I am engaged in, that superfluous formulations, tautologies, and intentionally cluttered language are used to appear more complicated than the content is. There was also something wrong with copy-editing I found a couple of sentences, which weren’t. So to be able to share some of the insights from my reading with colleagues, I have to dig deeper and engage in this meaning making process quite differently.

I had an idea and it might just work! 💡

The process of writing poetry or thinking poe-tically helps us to collect the most relevant themes and phrases out of the sea of infor-mation available to us (McCulliss, 2013; Prendergast, 2009). Poetic inquiry gives us the opportunity to investigate both the individuality and universality of people through their communicative poem products.

Lorenz (2020)

The quote above reflects the learning from last week’s webinar, and I was wondering, how much easier–being forced through blackout poetry–translation would be, since I am focusing on said ‘relevant themes and phrases’ instead of trying to translate. So to put the idea to the test, I decided to take one paragraph I wanted to paraphrase and use blackout poetry to interrogate the German text for translation. Here Preiss (2020) summarizes the effect I was trying to employ rather precisely:

a narrative can be expressed in different ways; a poem can only be in a sole way.

Preiss, 2020

So poetry as form of expression would therefore force me to make a decision on meaning, which translation of text doesn’t do in this way. Particularly, trying to get at the meaning of the German text for English speaking colleagues. I was wondering if some of the embellishments of academic writing would truly matter to bring the various points across? I was a bit worried about this, as I usually spend a lot of time translating all these little interjections, side-remarks, addendum to a phrase. Because I felt insecure about being able to truly let go of this, and have the opportunity of ‘just in case checking the full sentence’ so I wouldn’t skew meaning I decided for the type of blacking out that leaves the original text still visible, if barely.

Step One: Blacking out

These are the images showing the quote and the blacked out quote for better readability please download the associated powerpoint slide

Step Two: Making it into an actual poem

Image of the poems, the left text box is German, the right text box is the English poem, again for accessibility and if you want to play around with words download the PowerPoint slide below

So if you have engaged with the text and by happenstance are a German speaker you will notice that I reordered some of the words in the left column. When beginning to write the poem, in the first half of the poem I pretty much fell into the translation trap and had to consciously remind myself of letting go of the restrictions of translating. After that it suddenly became much easier to write and distill the meaning I gathered from the author’s writing. And in the last four lines I even fell into a pattern–stance–I often use in my poems. Yes, I have written better poems before, but we are in the middle of an experiment here! Mastery comes later.

Step Three: Back to academic writing

I am in doubt that my poem makes much sense to others. It kind of transcends meaning. Preiss (2020) highlights the untranslatability of poetry and whilst I agree with it–most of my poetry is in English and I would struggle to express the same in German–I found that here poetry works as a tool for translanguaging. I can grasp the meaning in both languages but the expression of it is entirely different, and a frustration remains, things are inevitably getting lost in translation.

This is the image of the final slide, the translation of my poem into academic text. Again please find the PowerPoint version in the downloadable file below

What I also noticed is that in this type of translation, viz from poem to academic text, that I began to integrate elements of the article, which are not mentioned in the direct quote I translated. But I suddenly saw how these elements logically linked to the meaning of this quote (although some of it appeared pages later after much deliberation). I am happier with this from poem to translation approach, than I ever have been with any attempt to translate academic text before. It makes more sense in English, doesn’t sound quite as stilted (although some editing would not go amiss) and it doesn’t have all the swirls that just don’t work in English.

However, quietly in the back of my head, I am still frustrated that elements of meaning got lost.


Lorenz, D. (2020). Journal of Poetry Therapy My unique poem is me: our poems are universal. A creative interactive poetry Therapy inquiry.

Preiss, D. D. (2020). Poetry, meaning making, and mind wandering. In Creativity and the Wandering Mind. Elsevier Inc.

Scharlau, I. (2019 Sich verständigen. Überlegungen zur Frage der Evidenzbasierung. In Hochschulbildungsforschung (pp. 105-124). Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

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