Poetry, said Robert Frost, is what is lost in translation. Consider the opposite formulation: poetry is what is produced by translation. While what is lost would be an indefinable essence, related mysteriously to the language that conveys it, what is produced would inhere in the material fact of language on the page—its rhythm, its sonority. No two poems sound exactly alike, but a good translation produces poetry by taking advantage of the tonal and rhetorical opportunities afforded by the language at hand.
In English, those opportunities are of course different than they are in German, French or Italian.
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Until the last of these lines from “The Tower,” W.B. Yeats restricts himself mostly to little words derived from German (“dead,” “rise,” “dream”). Then a different language explodes from his mouth: “Translunar Paradise.” To speak these words derived from Latin in this sonic context is to feel the eruption of the spiritual realm that Yeats is talking about, especially since the two Latinate words fill out the iambic trimeter line (“Translunar Paradise”) as elegantly as the monosyllables (“That, being dead, we rise”).
Any language has different registers of diction, high and low, but speakers of English come by those registers in a particular way, one that reflects the entire history of the language. Originally, English descended from German, but after the year 1066, when the Normans invaded England, a new vocabulary derived from French (a romance language descending from Latin) began to migrate into English. Even today, we raise “pigs” (from German, via Old English) but eat “pork” (from Latin, via French), because the English language contains both Germanic and Latinate words for the same thing. We similarly inhabit a “body” but bury a “corpse.” We say “over the moon” or “translunar.” We say “the canal is big,” rather than “the canal is grand.” The Grand Canal in Venice looks pretty grand, but to a speaker of Italian, another romance language, it’s really just big (grande), the same way that your hat might be “too big” (troppo grande). To a speaker of English, a hat that was “too grand” would be a different problem. Latinate words that are completely ordinary in French or Italian can sound weirdly sophisticated in English, as lawyers and literary critics know well.
How does an English-language poem harness these choices between different levels of diction, between words derived from different languages? In the passage I quoted from “The Tower,” Yeats is careful to avoid any egregiously Latinate vocabulary until the end, but most poems in English take advantage of the fact that, speaking English, it’s almost impossible not to speak both German and Latin at once. For instance, when Shakespeare’s Macbeth says that his bloody hand will “the multitudinous seas incarnadine,” he wedges the Germanic “seas” between the Latinate “multitudinous” and “incarnadine.” William Blake speaks similarly of the “invisible worm,” Tennyson of “immemorial elms.” Notoriously, T.S. Eliot incorporated quotations from foreign languages into his poems, but in The Waste Land, when he jumps from German words (“das Meer”) to words borrowed from the French (“famous clairvoyante”), he is exaggerating what English-language poems do inevitably all the time. Shakespeare’s sentence “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” mixes German (“let,” “true,” “minds”) and Latin (“marriage,” “admit,” “impediments”) intricately. Readers of English are so used to hearing this mixture that it sounds to us like the very essence of poetry—the poetry of our poetry.