Translating Poetry

One added indignity of the translation project I had to undertake to honor my late father’s request is that the novel I’m translating has a lot of poetry by the poets from the Silver Age of Russian poetry. These are great poets but most of them have not been translated. So I have to provide the translations. The very last thing I want to be doing is translating any poetry and especially the Russian kind. But duty calls. Here is my rendition of a poem by Vyacheslav Ivanov.

First, the original:

Может быть, это смутное время
Очищает распутное племя;

Может быть, эти лютые дни —
Человечней пред Богом они,
Чем былое с его благочинной
И нечестья, и злобы личиной.

And here is my translation:

It might be that this tragic time
Is cleansing our perverted tribe.

Maybe the cruel days we see
Will more humane and godly be
Than our past that was so fake
And lacking honor like a snake.

I’m substituting the “ch” alliteration in the Russian version with the “k” alliteration in English because it has a similar effect.

And here is my translation of a poem by Natalia Krandiyevskaya.

The original:

Свидание наедине

Назначил и мне командор.

Он в полночь стучится ко мне,

И входит, и смотрит в упор.

Но странный на сердце покой.

Три пальца сложила я в горсть.

Разжать их железной рукой

Попробуй, мой Каменный Гость.

And the translation:

All alone

wanted to see me the Commendatore.

It’s midnight, and he’s knocking on my door,

He comes and looks me in the eye.

But I stay calm and I won’t cry.

I prepared my fingers for the sign of the Cross.

My implacable Stone Guest

tried to unclench them and lost.

To me, preserving the rhyme is more important than anything else. I’m a poetry philistine, and to me it’s not a poem if it doesn’t rhyme.

But Lord have mercy, what extraordinarily weird things does one find oneself doing our of grief.

3 thoughts on “Translating Poetry

  1. ” I’m a poetry philistine, and to me it’s not a poem if it doesn’t rhyme”

    I’m not quite that strict but it needs… something to set it apart from prose.

    I like your translations and am remembering a translation I had with a poem in it, that… kind of… made no sense in English. the biggest problem was that there were turns of phrase that work in Polish but not in English. I ended up completely changing it so that it was vaguely sort of similar but made some sense… and the client, very happy about most of my work was not pleased (client had written said poem) they ended up hiring someone else to translate the poem and it was very literal and didn’t make much sense but… not my problem…

    I was going to ask if copyright would be an issue but thought to check the dates for this silver age so I’m assuming it isn’t (too bad).


    1. Yes, these are old poets, so no copyright. It gets worse, though. There’s a page-long quote from an article by Lenin. I don’t have the energy to translation that kind of drivel, so I copy-pasted a translation from some American Leninist website. I’m hoping they welcome the collective sharing of their labor and reject the evils of private property.


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