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Translating Russian Poetry

by Bill Bowler

The original Russian poem is in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet. While retaining the stanza breaks to evoke the original, I decided to translate the poem into free verse, a very robust and flexible form in American versification. This allowed me to stick close to the meaning, line by line.

Translating poetry represents a set of compromises. The pull between form and content poses a big challenge. You can try to recreate the rhyme and meter of the original — both dominant elements in Russian poetry — but it will force you to compromise semantic accuracy, word choice and order, lexical levels, etc.

The words that rhyme in English, for example, are not the words that rhyme in Russian. That is, you can imitate the rhyme scheme, but you will have to rhyme different words. This change cascades through the translation. Alternatively, you can ignore form entirely and try for a “prose” translation of the meaning, but at the cost of the beautiful and exquisite “music” of the lines.

Pushkin translator Walter Arndt preserves Pushkin’s rhymes and meters, and the translations sound like doggerel IMHO. The reader wonders what possible interest Pushkin’s poetry could have.

Nabokov took the other extreme. He did a “literal” prose translation of Evgeny Onegin accompanied by pages of footnotes five times longer than the original poem. It’s rather dull reading, although extremely interesting if you want to study the poem rather than read poetry.

Just as an aside, it is not impossible to preserve rhyme and meter in translation. Konstantin Balmont has done so in translating Poe into Russian, with amazing results.

I try for a middle ground. I give up as self-defeating any attempt to capture the rhyme and meter, but I do take some liberties with the lines when necessary for the sake of the poem in English. I think one of the keys is that the translated poem also has to be a poem in its own right. Although, as someone has said, “poetry” is what’s lost in translation.

Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler

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