“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!
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.