Translating Poetry

Obviously, any text on translating poetry has to begin with that (in)famous thing that Robert Frost once said: “Poetry is that which is lost in translation”. Or did he? Well, he did say something of this sort in Conversations on the Craft of Poetry, namely: “Poetry is what both prose and poems lose in translation.” And indeed, if you chase a text through translation software, much of its poetic impact is lost. And if a human translator only pays attention to the content – and not to the sound, the rhythm and the images – then, too, much of the poetry disappears. But translation can also work differently.

The languages: German, English, Russian

As a translator of poetry (and lyrical essays, dramas etc.), I have an unusual profile in that I mediate between Russian, German and English in all combinations (though I usually translate poems into German and English). My biography is such that I became a trilingual translator – and I always loved translating poems.

Poetry translation: from the highbrow to the jingle

My greatest passion is what is called “highbrow poetry” – be it traditional or experimental, rhymed or unrhymed – but I also like to translate light-hearted verses. Translating poems that were written for a company event or wedding is a different kind of pleasure than re-enacting great works of art. But a pleasure it certainly is, especially if I can make the text even more effective in translation: catchier, funnier, more romantic, whatever is desired.

Yet another special joy is the translation of songs. Not only does the rhythm have to be right in the translation – the whole thing has to be singable. Certain vowels are more suitable than others, the emphasis of the melody must match the emphasis of each word … A professional translator of poetry always pays attention to the flow, and this all the more important with lyrics. As it happens, translating German songs into English tends to be easier than vice versa: English words are shorter. If you translate into German, it is often more difficult to find the word that fits the style and timbre of the song and fits well into the lyrics. When translating rap and hip-hop lyrics, the challenge is particularly fascinating.

Then there are texts written for poetry slams; here, the translator has to imagine how it is read aloud, where the pauses are, where the voice becomes louder or softer. If a word hisses in a German slam text, something should also hiss at this point in the English translation; perhaps it is worthwhile to rearrange a few lines for this. As a translator, I prefer to make such decisions in dialogue with the author. And if the translation is to appear in subtitles or surtitles, brevity is particularly important.

Poetry in times of the corona virus

Perhaps our surreal times are particularly suitable for poetry. Coincidentally, exactly 50 years ago, Josif Brodskij, to whose poetry I have dedicated my PhD thesis (Brodsky Translating Brodsky), wrote a poem about isolation, referring, among other things, to the Hong Kong flu of 1968-1970. I could not resist translating this poem from Russian. Here are the last four lines of my English and German versions:

Don’t be a fool! Instead, be what others couldn’t be.

Don’t leave the room! Let furniture keep you company,

merge with the wall, barricade your irises

from the chronos, the eros, the cosmos, viruses.

And now German:

Sei kein Trottel! Sei einzigartig, wohl oder übel.

Verlasse dein Zimmer nicht! Verlasse dich auf die Möbel,

wachse in die Tapete, ins Zimmer. Barrikadier es

mit dem Schrank vor dem Chronos, dem Kosmos, dem Eros, dem Virus.

(The rights belong to the Brodsky Foundation.)

Do you want a translation to rhyme?

With poetry translation (or adaptation – in German, there is the beautiful word Nachdichtung, “writing a poem after an original”), it is especially important to me to emphasize key words – for instance, the word “virus” at the end of this poem.

You can also see here: I tend to recreate the rhymes and the meter. But as a translator I have to be honest with my clients: it is a rather unusual preference. Most “serious” poems and translations don’t rhyme nowadays; I can certainly also translate into blank verse or rhythmic lyrical prose. (This also makes poetry translation cheaper and faster.) For a company anniversary or a large family celebration, a rhyming translation is perhaps the most suitable. If you want to gain the attention of, say, an American poetry magazine, a translation without rhymes may be preferable. Such questions are always discussed and decided with the author before the translation work begins.

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