“Poetry is what is lost in translation” Robert Frost

“Poetry is what is gained in translation” Joseph Brodsky

A poet, by definition, is a translator. He takes the seemingly incomprehensible ramblings of the Muse and transforms them into a language that can be understood and enjoyed by his audience. One can argue that something is already lost in this process. No matter how good the poet, the audience won’t experience what he undergoes in his interaction with the Muse. Or, as another Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev, writes in Silentium!: “A thought once uttered is untrue.” (as translated by V. Nabokov)

This is a challenge for all translation in general. Translating poetry from one language to another often becomes a game of telephone, where one whispered message gets passed down the line, before it is finally revealed, usually with accumulated inaccuracies. The Muse’s message gets lost somewhere in-between and what is left is a mere frame, in which the original can hardly be discerned. This experience leads people to say that one should avoid translated poetry altogether. If you subscribe to the absurdity of this logic, all poetry is doomed to fall short as it will never capture the essence of feelings and experiences.

I would like to propose a different approach. Bad translations should be disregarded, no less than bad poetry. Readers should be wary of them as art collectors are wary of forged paintings. Translators of poetry need to be held to a much higher standard than simply relaying the general message. Their work must retain as much semblance to the original as possible; in particular, translating rhyming poetry into blank verse should not be acceptable. The same principle should apply to rhyming translations that greatly distort the content, meaning and images of the poem for the sake of sound. Beyond this, good translations should effectively relay idioms, references and allusions in a way that doesn’t make them appear strained.

I hope to show that such translations are possible. Great Russian poets deserve this much. And should I fall short in my attempts to reach the set standard, I would only be happy if another translator takes up the task and does it better than I.


Andrey Kneller