Translingual Poetry and Self-Translation of Poetry by Andrey Gritsman

For many years there has been much controversy regarding the possibility to translate poetry and especially about the possibility to write poetry in non-native language. The conflicting reports come from such esteemed sources as Sir Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and a whole host of others. We also know about the differences in approach to the translation of poetry. Joseph Brodsky: translation (must be?) as close as possible to Russian syllabo-tonic verse into English. Vladimir Nabokov: demand to direct “descriptive” translation, such as his famous-infamous translation of Eugene Onegin (that is mostly descriptive narrative).

One thing that surprisingly is being almost entirely omitted in discussions of writing poetry in non-native language is self-translation. A poet writes about his or her own life, not translating an existing poem, but recreating a poem in the coordinates of different language and therefore different life. It is a well-known phenomenon that a person (including my own experience) feels differently in one language as compared to another language. You acquire different projection of your mind, which is natural, since it’s where a language resides. Such person is called not only bilingual, but also bicultural. Language is directly related to the surrounding life, it impregnates it and, to a certain degree, creates it. Thus, there are many examples of artificial translations of poetry by foreign people who may know the language well but do not know well the cultural idiom of life in which foreign language exists. Ability to write in non-native language requires not only being bilingual, but—most importantly—bicultural.

As Aneta Pavlenko, a well-known psycho-linguist, states: “The problem of the bilingual mind, using two different languages is not the lack of linguistic mastery, but the lack of an emotional and physical connection.” And I would add: to the surrounding life. That is, to the poetic context of life. It is known that sometimes a poet can express his feelings more freely in the foreign language than in his own. The current life circumstances sometimes can be rendered only though new sensibility, using new language. That is exactly my own experience. Sometimes I write a poem in English not because I would like to, but because in Russian I simply cannot express the same feeling directly and organically, such poem may be expressed only in English language idiom. An example is my poem ‘White Lies’:

I live my life by white lies.

And poetry is white lies.

Second language is white lies too.

As well as the first.

But language is the only way

to hide love.

White, black, transparent

Or otherwise invisible.

So, all day long,

All life long I say white lies

To hide my love. In fact

I never know to whom.

It may be to you

But if I say it, it would be a white lie.

But once it is said in a poem

It stays and as a bird flies away

In search of its destiny.

A well-known Slavic and Germanic scholar Adrian Wanner claims: “Given the rootedness of poetry in sound and form, this raises a host of questions: is self-translated version a variant of the original text, or should one speak of two parallel poems, or two originals? How does the passage from one language to another affect its form and content?”

This is precisely why I rarely do direct translations of Russian poetry into English or vice versa, but rather create so-called parallel poems. This means that the poems are created on the same emotional wave, due to same or similar stimulus or impetus but are put in the framework of a totally different language, Eastern Slavic vs. Romanic-Germanic origin. Sometimes time interval could be quite significant between writing a poem in two languages, that is creating parallel poems.

Professor Adrian Wanner called this method “Poetics of Displacement,” meaning that such poets, including myself, take a looser approach to self-translation, thus creating parallel poems. The translation, therefore, becomes a tool for exploring the transformation of self through time, migration, and changing linguistic and cultural environments. This is drastically different from self-translation in the case of both Nabokov and Brodsky.

It is a well-known notion that a poet’s home is his language. That is correct, but what if the poet has two homes or even more, several homes? That is typical case of a poet living and creating in Diaspora, especially in our times of globalization, displacement, and cosmopolitanism.

In foreign milieu, a poet is exiled into his own language or creates his own language (as once did Paul Celan). Now is the era of cultural globalization: “speaking in tongues.” Never before was a poet destined to move closer toward primordial, original language of poetry, a higher unspoken language which we all understand but speak differently in our own tongues: language of poetry. This is the language of poetry before Babylon. “Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words…”

I was asked several times in which language I see my dreams. I was thinking about this and realized that in my dreams: People are talking and I am talking; there is some language present. But then I realized that it is neither English nor Russian. It is some language which I understand, but it doesn’t have words or familiar sounds of one of the recognizable languages. And then it occurred to me that this is similar to the famous Pentecostal event in Jerusalem when a crowd of people of different nations heard the same sermon spoken in one “language” but all in their native tongues. So I make a conclusion that this probably could be qualified as the language of poetry or language above the languages, some metaphysical substance which a poet puts into a certain language but that exists before and is transferred into words, exists in the poet’s soul and mind. So to speak, monologue of the soul.

A poem is a personal communication in the language that is available, in the space where the author is operating currently. That is a language germane to the circumstances and landscape and to a poet’s life.

A poem is a composition on any theme. At the inception a poem is not an element of culture, but a unique creative event. It becomes part of culture later being incorporated into the current cultural context. Art exists primarily in the artist’s mind and heart, and only secondary: in the society. And this is precisely the explanation of the fact that an author, like myself, who mastered language as an adult, could express his soul in non-native language. The main condition is that this life becomes his own, with its patterns, smells and the language which impregnates that life. In my case it is American English. Therefore, poetry in English as a second language reflects second tongue of one’s poetic soul, a monologue of the soul.

The language itself dictates the way a poem is to be created. This is why attempts to squeeze a poem from original language, Russian syllabo-tonic verse, into the framework of a totally different language, exercised even by such great poet as Joseph Brodsky, sometimes gives cumbersome results. The number of words in poems in two different languages varies, which is only natural, considering the vast differences between Russian and English. From time to time, unexpected images or different idioms enter the plot of the poem. And sometimes language pulls apart the plot of a poem and adds additional layer to a poem in different language. However, the most important criterion in translation is recognizing the sound and cadence, although a poet translator should maintain fidelity to the words, as much as the other language allows.

Tess Gallagher once noted about translation of a poem, an English language reader would like to see a good poem written in English. This particular philosophy was shared by a great Russian poet Boris Pasternak, a famous translator of Shakespeare into Russian.

In discussion of artistic existence between two languages, it is worthwhile to touch upon a few formal points regarding the specific differences between two languages as they relate to the problems of versification. It is known that in the Russian language, as well as in Italian, there are almost twice the number of rhyming words as in English. English contains fewer vowel sounds than Russian. Most Russian words are polysyllabic and, therefore, Russian as a whole is a more inflected language than English. It is worth noting that a fully developed culture of versification emerged in the English language more than four hundred years ago. Therefore, Russian versification is a much younger art.

Now I will try to summarize my own experience and method in translating Russian poetry into English. I am also talking about self-translation or creation of the parallel poems. First of all, I listen to the sound structure of the poem. The phonic structure: the sound and cadence of a poem come first. The important moment is finding some English words or fragments of sentences that are similar in sound to the Russian original and are adequate to the psychological profile of the poem under translation. Interestingly, these fragments of speech do not always survive in the final version of translation. It is important to remember the words that the great Russian poet Nikolai Gumilyev once said to Osip Mandelstam: “What you showed to me is a very good poem, but when it is completely done, there will be no original word left in this piece.”

Further on comes the sound structure: the skeleton for the future translation. The portions of sentences and certain words fill already existing sound framework. Constructing sentences follows the first phase in an attempt to save as much of the syllabic structure of the original as possible. Then there is a pleasure of working with dictionaries, selection of the most appropriate and precise words, fitting into the structure and the words most suited for the historical destiny of the poem. Then, the final phase of straightening out the syntax: bending it according to the form of the original text within grammatically permissible boundaries, and adjusting the length of lines.

The method I described is quite different from the commonly utilized way of literal translation, word for word, followed by adjustment of the written and selection of the most appropriate and correct words. My approach to the translation, which I call emotional and rhythmical, is closer to the real process of verse creation. At any rate, this is what the reader wants to have: adequate poem in English or in Russian equal to the original poem.

As I mentioned before, acquisition of a new sensibility—in my case: American sensibility—is the most important condition of writing poetry in new non-native language. Growing into new life gives you the right to write poetry in new language. My poetic operational language was awakened by the foliage rustling in the backyard, remote sound of a police siren across the boundless parking lot of the town mall, conversation at the bar, in the office, cars zooming along the highway, NYC streets, an old saxophone player on the corner of Lexington Avenue, the fuel refineries of Houston Ave.

Some time ago I began losing interest in exploring and describing this new life, new sensibility, and felt the necessity to go into the metaphysical depth of American poetry. And that is when listening to the poetry of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson helps.

A very important condition of the creation of an adequate poem in different language is the knowledge of, what I call, cultural idiom of poetry. This is why many translations of contemporary poetry into English and vice versa in multiple anthologies are not quite adequate. The translators who may know a language perfectly well may not be familiar with cultural idioms of an era or specific idioms of the poet’s life. A very important aspect of translation is not only translating poet’s language but poet’s sensibility.

Here is an example, my poem, based on a language and American cultural idiom:

Static and dead air

on incoming calls.

You will experience

silence while you’re waiting

for the next available

operator. Your call may be

monitored for quality

assurance purposes,

unless dead and static air

interferes with your


Anything incoming

may not be transmitted

due to current conditions.

In the meantime,

please, be aware

that proper entities

are working to restore

favorable conditions.

Be advised to be alert

and prepared to immediate

change of circumstances.

All assigned personnel

should remain at their

present locations and await

further instructions.

All nonessential personnel

should proceed to the designated

areas, avoiding static and dead air

at all costs.

In summary, writing poetry in two poetic languages means that a successful poem appears when it is written in two languages on one emotional wave, based on the same thought, but is actually created as two original poems in different languages.


Andrey Gristsman



A native of Moscow, Andrey Gritsman emigrated to the United States in
1981. He is a physician who is also a poet and essayist. He received the
2009 Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention XXIII, was nominated for the
Pushcart Prize several times (2005 – 2011), and shortlisted for PEN American Center Biennial Osterweil Poetry Award.


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