The Art of Poetry Translation


My original intention was to write about my work on the English translation of the poetry by contemporary Russian authors. In my mind poetry translation is walking a road alongside the author and his thoughts, imagery and poetic imagination,  where a translator’s role in reproducing the author’s intention  is of the same merit but usually  not recognized.

Maria Rybakova expressed this process in a splendid metaphor

the winds from the North and the West blow upon you,
your thoughts have just flown to Thrace,
but now waves carry you like a goddess on a shell to the shore of a paper sea,
and no one recognizes you.

But the process of working on the novel–­in-verse Gnedich by Maria Rybakova and other poetic works by contemporary   Russian poets became part of a broader reflection on the art of poetry translation as a unique part of the creative process.  It is especially important now if we want to bring many brilliant but unknown Russian poets to the attention of the Anglophone world.

Recreating the poetry’s imagery and meaning into another language connotes translator’s ability to reproduce both the poetry’s music and its essence.  When beginning work on a translation, a translator typically has before his or her eyes an original text which incarnates the poet’s soul: the poet’s own thoughts, sense of reality, and metaphors born by a poetic perception of the world.

In addition, this perception is always a unique snapshot of the universe.

The translator usually has the necessary knowledge and linguistic means for recreating the text in another language. However, reproducing the original poetry’s metaphors and epithets in the  other  language, or what Brodsky called the “fringe” of a language that actually creates the poetry, suggests a departure from simple reproduction of the  poetic work by linguistic tools to a new design  thinking.

This often needs the translator’s creative abilities for metaphorical thinking.  Translators often have two solutions to this situation.  The first approach is based on technically competent translation without touching the poetry’s subtext as the language  soul.

Another approach is when translators create their own poetic work using tropes and images from the original work. Brodsky called them “espousing certain poetics of their own” and was not happy with this kind of poetry translation. Both approaches could not lead to success in the art of poetry translation. Unlike other forms of literary translation, a successful translation of the poetic form requires absolute harmony between the original and the translated version.

In our opinion, the key part in a successful translation of the original poetic imagery is the metaphorical thinking of the translator.

The ability to recreate a poetic image in another language implies the translator’s creation of the adequate symbol in consonance with a poet’s own inner world. It depends primarily on the translator’s creative potential and metaphorical vision of the world. But these questions are open to discussion.

Elena Dimov, Ph.D.

Featured pictures by Alexander Borisenko

About Elena Dimov

Elena Dimov holds a Ph.D. in history from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her specialties include Russian culture and literature. She has also taught Russian Language at UVA. She is currently working on a study of Russian poetry in the late twentieth century and developing the bibliography of current Russian prose and poetry
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One Response to The Art of Poetry Translation

  1. your blog is awesome i love reading it again and again. keep writing such beautiful post

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