The Art of Poetry Translation

Foto2My 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 has become part of a broader reflection on the art of poetic translation as a unique element of the creative process. This is especially important now if we want to draw the attention of the Anglophone world to the many brilliant but unknown in the West Russian poets. Almost unknown are the translated books of poems by contemporary Russian women poets.

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 requires the translator’s creative ability to think metaphorically. 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 soul of the language.

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 unhappy with this kind of poetry translation. Both approaches could not lead to success in the art of poetic 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 my opinion, the key part in a successful translation of the original poetic imagery is the metaphorical thinking of the translator. This suggests the same level of metaphorical representation of reality as in the original.

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 and linguistic potential and metaphorical vision of the world. In this case we observe the successful union of the two creative potencies, when the translator is able to re-create a unique work in another language, as was the case with Homer’s Illiad translated by Gnedich. And this brings us back to the beginning of this essay: the translator’s own work is sometimes as good as the original, but remains out of the readers’ sight, “and no one recognizes it.” But these questions are open to discussion.

Elena Dimov, Ph.D.

Featured pictures by Alexander Borisenko

3 thoughts on “The Art of Poetry Translation”

  1. This is the precise weblog for anyone who desires to search out out about this topic. You understand so much its virtually laborious to argue with you (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a brand new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

  2. Is it true that foreign language poems with rhymes are usually translated in Russia also with rhymes in Russian?

  3. Dear Elena,

    Kindly read the samples and reviews of my translations below. You will find 50 Pushkin poems translated as well as all of the Doctor Zhivago poetry at
    I would greatly appreciate your interest and comment.

    From Pushkin:

    Could I forget the wondrous vision
    The day you first appeared to me
    As an elusive apparition,
    As genius of pure beauty’s glee.


    Oh yes, I loved you, yet it makes me wonder
    If love has run its course – perhaps not quite;
    But I have never meant it to encumber;
    To sadden you is furthest from my mind.
    In sorrow did I love you, silence only,
    Now timorous, now jealous to excess;
    I loved you, dear, as truthfully, as fondly
    As you’ll be loved, God grant, by someone else.

    From Pasternak:

    And death, a land surveying lady,
    Stood there to witness my demise.
    She eyed my face deceased already
    To dig a pit for me to size.


    But who are we, from where
    If all those years galore
    Left nothing but hot air,
    Yet we are here no more?

    Dmitri Bykov, a well known author, poet, critic and biographer, called some of my translation work “a phenomenal achievement”, “deserving a place in the English and American literature.” He wrote, ”Of all the translators of Pushkin I have read, you have demonstrated the most creativity, sensitivity and musicality. I’d venture to say that while reading your English-language Prophet I felt almost the same sacred trepidation as I experience each time I read the original.” Ann Pasternak Slater, Boris Pasternak’s niece, a writer, teacher and translator, wrote that my translations of Pasternak’s poetry reminded of her mother’s, which Pasternak himself believed were the best versions of his poems in English.

    Please read more samples and reviews at
    I do care for your comments.

    Thank you,
    Yuri Menis

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