The Poetry Month – in Translation

If anyone is guilty about not celebrating The National Poetry Month enough, do not worry — you probably didn’t even know there is a World in Translation Month as well. Or, at least, a celebration of that, according to PEN American Center for Translations. It’s in May. It is still April, but I thought I’d let the two overlap the calendar month boundaries, sort of like Zodiac signs, and let this post pass from the sign of Poetry into the sing of Translation.

I have been translating a lot of poetry lately — a secretly pleasurable and highly frustrating pastime, mercurial, moody. On one hand, there is the guilty pleasure of coming to the table with the hard work already done for you; no birthing pains, no self-doubt, the original author has already done all that and the poem is right there, under your nose, perfect. On the other hand, that’s exactly where it is — right under your nose — staring back at you, daring you, and wondering how you could be so dumb as not to be able to come up with perfect equivalence for its every backflip and somersault. You become nervous. You are faced with a work of an utterly foreign mind veiled in formal play wrapped in verbal brilliance contained in a past and distant context. Good luck.

Yet, I love translating. I come back for the same reason poetry exercises such an exhilarating hold on our imaginations: that moment of insight, of vision, when things fall into place and you can follow, you can predict where the poem is going; when the work of someone else’s mind wraps you and carries you, gently or violently, into a thrilling state of disembodiment and detachment. As a translator, you get to do that all over again, to yourself and all your readers. You can never be the original author, but you don’t have to be yourself, either. Translation is masquerade, the Bakhtinian bacchanal, when your own literary identity is left behind, and you have a chance to be someone else — Neruda, Virgil, Kotliarevsky.

Some will argue that that’s not possible; that an absolute equivalence, or an absolute blending of a reader’s mind and the mind of a poem are impossible, thus poetry is ultimately undecipherable and should be left alone. This, in my opinion, is a dead-end argument, one that leads to conclusions about intranslatability of poetry (or anything else, for that matter), but if you follow these lines of thinking, you are sitting at home ignoring The National Poetry Month. I am blogging about translation and enjoying myself.


Nina Shevchuk-Murray is a translator, poet, and editor.  Nina and Ladette Randolph are the editors of The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers.

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