Translation by Julia Paster:


Original Text: 

"Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. 
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them, 
They think I’m telling lies. 
I say, 
It’s in the reach of my arms, 
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman 
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me. 

I walk into a room 
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man, 
The fellows stand or 
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me, 
A hive of honey bees.   
I say, 
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman 

Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me. 

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me. 
They try so much 
But they can’t touch 
My inner mystery. 
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say, 
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile, 
The ride of my breasts, 
The grace of my style. 
I’m a woman 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me. 

Now you understand 
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about 
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing, 
It ought to make you proud. 
I say, 
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me.

Translation Rationale:

Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” is about a woman who fights against
society’s stereotypical and formulaic idea of what the quintessential woman should look and act
like by being unapologetically herself. The speaker begins by explaining “where [her] secret
lies” to a group of curious women. Her “secret” is referring to the mesmerizing charm she has
regardless of the fact that she does not fit into societal ideals. Immediately, the speaker begins to
discuss body image and how she is not “cute” or other assumptions of what the meaning of
femininity are. Instead, she gives these women a new definition of femininity, and as she does
so, she demonstrates that this idea of being a woman and feminine are extremely subjective.
Rather than the importance revolving around the physical characteristics of a woman, she shows
that it is instead how a woman carries herself and uses the characteristics she was born with. She
says that it is “the stride of [her] step,” and “the curl of [her] lips.” The speaker then continues to discuss the way her confidence and pride entices men, saying that they “swarm around [her], a hive of honey bees.” This is one of several metaphors which Angelou uses throughout the poem including, “it’s the fire in my eyes” and “the sun of my smile.” The use of personification and metaphors are specifically used to describe herself.
Because English is a Germanic language and Finnish is a Uralic language, they have very few
similarities in terms of grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, I decided that it would be the best
translation if I focused on thematic and tonal elements, along with figurative language. It would
be nearly impossible to capture certain formal poetic features of the poem such as alliteration
because the literal translation would most likely not begin with the same letters. I wanted to
capture Angelou’s intention as I interpreted it and also make it a priority to maintain the theme of pride a femininity through my interlingual translation.
I chose to translate the first two stanzas of “Phenomenal Woman” because I wanted to see if
I would actually be able to be successful in maintaining the theme and intention. I was doubtful
because of the fact that, for example, Finnish is a gender neutral language, meaning that the
language does not distinguish between pronouns such as “he, him, she, her,” etc. Additionally, I
have been told, as heritage speaker in the United States, the Finnish sounds “harsh” or “angry.”
This poem is none of these things. Therefore, I wanted to make the presentation interactive, in
order to see what English-speakers heard as they listened to the translation regardless of their
understand of the language. I felt that an interlingual translation would be most appropriate
because I felt that I would do the poem most justice if I would be able to capture its thematic
Throughout the semester, we produced translations including the styles of Bok and Perec,
Jakobson, Wang Wei. For the first translation, I created a Bok translation, only using the vowel
“i.” I chose this letter so that I could use the word “girl” in place of “woman.” As I created this
translation, the stanzas became extremely shortened, because the number of descriptor words
which I could use to describe the speaker was extremely low. In addition, I was unable to
capture certain formal elements of the poem in terms of structure,including line and stanza
length. Most importantly, however, I was not able to capture the most crucial element of the
poem which was the theme. Although using the word “girl” was a “clever” substitute, the word
in itself is entirely different from the word “woman.” These are separate words which are not
synonyms for one another. Therefore, I made the decision to avoid this type of translation, as the
word “woman” is not only found in the refrain of the original, but also in the title. I chose to do
an interlingual translation because I tended to agree with Jakobson’s sentiment that a poem
cannot ever be perfectly translatable, but may still preserve its meaning. I believe that capturing
the essence and the overall meaning of a poem is the most salient part of translation. I was able
to do this through intralingual translation earlier in the semester, but had not made an attempt at
an interlingual translation. As a native speaker, I felt that I was able to translate properly the
emotion and tone of the poem through my intralingual translation and was eager to take on the
challenge of doing the same in an entirely different language. As a linguistics minor, I
specifically wanted to take the exploratory route of reconstructing meaning through sound,
because of the fact that those who would be hearing the poem do not speak or understand
My personal opinion of my poetic interlingual translation, in terms of content, was a
success. Personally, I felt that every word was chosen with intention to have a similar effect on
the listener as the original did. For example, the word, “upea” and “mahtava” were used to
translate “phenomenal” and “phenomenally.” In the Finnish language, these two words mean
loosely the same thing–outstanding, cool, incredible. I chose to use two different words because
in Finnish there is no distinguishing between an “-ly” adverb and a regular adjective. Therefore,
had I kept “upea” the word would be exactly the same in both lines. In these ways the structure
and sounds is different as in translation, I believe that a successful reproduction of a poem will
recreate the poetic beauty of the original. However, this will inevitably be different when
dealing with two languages of separate origins. In terms of capturing meaning through sound, I
based this success on the comments of students in class. To my surprise, many said that the
emotion and feeling were translated well if not better than the original. This deduction was made
by the students based purely on what they heard, and the intonation of speech in this foreign
While translation will never be a perfect representation of the original, it is a way in
which to creatively recreate an emotion or convey a message. In terms of the semester, my
opinion on translation has drastically evolved, especially through this project. Initially, I looked
at translation in a negative way, with the idea that if the poem cannot be perfectly recreated it is
not of equal importance or quality. After having worked extremely hard with the help of my
natively Finnish mother to translate Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” I have found a new respect for translation. I still maintain the belief that perfect translation does not exist, but I also believe that if the theme and meaning are maintained, the creative liberties which a translator takes in order to make the new version more suited to the language are ways in which new forms of beauty arise which are of equal importance. This can be connected back to the poem I chose and Angelou’s message that one person does not need to fit one set of criteria in order to be
considered important or beautiful. Similarly, a translation does not need to be a replica of the
original in order to be a “success.” I have enjoyed learning about the variety of different
translation styles, and gained a stronger connection to the original version of “Phenomenal
Woman,” by translating it to a language that I grew up speaking.

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