Manifesto

Russian poetry is, to this day, generally metrical and usually rhymed. This presents a challenge to a translator, and the overwhelming majority of today’s practitioners of the craft deal with this challenge by dispensing with the poetic form of the original. The underlying logic seems to be: since English poetry has freed itself from the shackles of metre and rhyme, any poetry that gets translated into this language should be granted the same freedoms in the process, so that modern English verse may emerge as a result.

We strongly disagree with this position. There is nothing wrong with free verse, but there is equally nothing wrong with a poetic tradition that retains metre and rhyme – not as fancy decorations, but as powerful artistic features which often carry as much of the overall message of the poem as its verbal substance. As George Szirtes pointed out, "poetry is never a pretty way of saying something that might be said straight". Not only are metre and rhyme aesthetically pleasing, and thus contribute to the emotional impact of the poem, their repetitive nature makes them efficient rhetorical devices which can "drive home" the message, thus contributing to the impact of the poem on the mind. The musical qualities of poetic form are often used for semantic purposes: strong metrical positions can emphasise the key words, and end rhymes stand out much more prominently than simple line breaks. Rhyme is also capable of linking together words that would not otherwise be linked, to create additional shades of meaning. Poetic form supports a range of special effects and can engage in complex interplay with the meaning of the poem.

Importantly, metre and rhyme are not alien to English verse; in fact, they were at the centre of it not so long ago, and formal poems still constitute an integral part of the canon. We do not believe that it makes sense to do away with metre and rhyme in translation just because these features are no longer considered mainstream in English poetry. We cater for readers who appreciate the fact that there are genuine differences between the Russian and English poetic traditions and who do not expect the translator to pretend otherwise in order to give the reader something that sounds reassuringly familiar.

As for paraphrase, which is inevitably involved in reproducing or approximating poetic form in translation, our position is that it is only fair for the translator to be entitled to a certain amount of liberty in reproducing the aspects of meaning whose importance is secondary to the poem. After all, the respective fragments of the original would often have been worded by its author in a certain way not by pure preference but as a compromise, so that the demands of form could be met without affecting the key meaning of the poem. Therefore, reproducing the wording of such fragments with ultimate precision in translation is not artistically necessary – certainly not if this would mean destroying the poetic form that this wording was meant to support in the first place. Distinguishing what may be adjusted from what needs to be kept intact is an essential skill for a form-preserving translator. By putting this skill to good use, the translator can do better than a dictionary – in the same way as a pianist can do better than a mechanical piano, even though the latter is ultimately faithful to the score.