Translating poetry: well-versed in translation

“Poetry is what is lost in translation”, said the poet Robert Frost; it is perhaps the most famous quote on translating poetry. Well, actually he said it a little differently: “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation”. To him, poetry is a quality of the text that a translator cannot recreate – and this is true enough if we are speaking about an automatic or technical translation. However, there is such a thing as poetry translation. It’s not just about translating the content, but also the form, style and emotional effect (the most important part of the content, you might say). We read Shakespeare’s sonnets in German, and German poems in English; funny birthday poems get translated and remain funny in the other language; tragic love poems get translated and bring tears to the readers’ eyes. English song lyrics get translated and are singable in German. Hell, even “Hamilton” had been translated into German, and the rap musical works in translation!

Brodsky Translating Brodsky by Alexandra Berlina - Book Cover
Alexandra Berlina’s book on poetry translation; winner of the Anna Balakian Prize of the International Comparative Literature Association

Verse translation – translation that is all about rhyme and rhythm, style and beauty – has been my passion ever since I stopped writing my own poems. Poetry translation is where I can feel close to poetry. After winning several prizes for my translations into English, I now also dare publish my versifications. I also love reading poetry translations by others – which resulted in my first book, Brodsky Translating Brodsky, about the Russian poet Josef Brodsky translating his own poems into American English. For him, translating his own poems is a kind of editing; everything that is typical of his poetry – enjambments and compound rhymes, erotic imagery combined with philosophical themes – becomes even more intense in translation.

Poetry Translation: A Sample

Turning a work of art in German into a work of art in English, or vice versa, is fascinating; often, I translate just for pleasure. In recent years, though, commissions to translate poetry are getting more and more frequent. Sometimes, they come from publishers, asking to translate a particular poem or two for a collection – even more often, they come from author eager to find a wider audience for their poems. Every now and then, the poetry translation assignment is private, not meant for publication: I greatly enjoy translating poems for weddings and other big celebrations, love poems for a person who speaks another language. I often get to translate song lyrics, too. Here’s a sample of my work, the first stanza of a poem by Brodsky I translated from Russian into English:

I am infected with the usual classics.

You’re suffering from being too sarcastic.

It’s easy to become too sly and caustic,

my friend, if excise taxes are your trade.

We talked, though talking didn’t cut the mustard.

Besides, you said this age was made of plastic.

I couldn’t guess that I, with my unflustered

love for the classics, walked the razor blade.

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  • EXCELLENT
    101 reviews on
    Friederike Buchinger
    Friederike Buchinger
    7. April, 2023.
    Alexandra Berlina hat mir bereits mehrfach sehr schnell und sehr kompetent mit ihrem Fachwissen zur Seite gestanden. Die Zusammenarbeit ist jedes Mal ein großes Vergnügen - inhaltlich absolut fundiert und zuverlässig und menschlich einfach nur toll!
    Igor Neander Bar Knuckle
    Igor Neander Bar Knuckle
    12. March, 2023.
    Very professional translation and responsible approach. Many thanks.
    Mark Lipovetsky
    Mark Lipovetsky
    28. February, 2023.
    Alexandra Berlina is the best translator I've ever worked with. She is thorough, inventive, widely erudite. Working with her is like working with the translator and editor simultaneously. I highly recommend her for texts in humanities, scholarly or artistic.
    bayon1989
    bayon1989
    31. January, 2023.
    Thanks to Alexandra Berlina for a wonderful translation
    Юлия Ш
    Юлия Ш
    22. January, 2023.
    Я любитель поэт с недельным стажем)) «Мой» муза не понимает по-русски, текст переводили на немецкий. Я восхищена, мы восхищены, перевести стих с одного языка на другой, это фактически написать новый. Александра прочувствовала меня ❤️ Скажу честно, у немецких поэтов столь красивых стихов не видела, всегда считала немецкий техническим языком . Спасибо, Александра и до очередного сотрудничества.
    Aligeidar Tagiev
    Aligeidar Tagiev
    24. December, 2022.
    Für mein zukünftiges Buch habe ich eine Übersetzerin gesucht, die meine russischen Gedichte in die deutsche Lyrik übersetzt. Nach langer Suche und verschiedenen Anläufen freue ich mich, dass ich die Übersetzerin Alexandra Berlina gefunden habe. Ich freue mich über die durchaus anspruchsvolle Übersetzungsleistung und möchte daher gerne mit Alexandra mein komplettes Buchproekt umsetzen.
    nick teplov
    nick teplov
    16. December, 2022.
    Our commission was rather specific, we asked to translate a collection of traditional folk songs for a film project. A job that requires much literary talent. The result was both precise and artistic. I should also mention that it has arrived much ahead of time. Highly recommended!
    Ulrich Bäder
    Ulrich Bäder
    18. November, 2022.
    Schnell, zuverlässig, perfekt übersetzt. Besser geht es nicht. Vielen Dank!
    irina moessle
    irina moessle
    18. November, 2022.
    Vielen Dank!! Es war wunderbar, interessant und spannend zu sehen wie meine Texte anfingen auf deutsch zu leben. Frau Berlina hat nicht nur übersetzt, sie erkannte auch den Rhythmus und die richtige Intonation und gab es weiter, was meine Texte sehr lebendig machte.