Dove Droppings

by Translation Guy on February 11, 2009

I promised that I would try to make this blog interesting. In that spirit, it’s only right to begin by quoting obscure translation poetry. Actually, I guess it’s not too obscure, since it appears to appear in a zillion postings on the Web (just did a Google search). So let’s call it an old chestnut instead. (On the matter of chestnuts, I promise no mention of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, on these pages ― but that’s just a promise, so stay tuned.) And there’s that “No Va” story about translation screw-ups, too.

Anyway, Nabokov on Translating Eugene Onegin:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose–
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elongated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task–a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion bent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

A brilliant summary of our scholastic passion bent on getting to the right style for a translation deliverable. Something that’s accurate and not too linear, culturally appropriate, with client-specific glossary incorporated into a translation memory, all served with a dollop of ESP (to read the minds of reviewers, those elusive Pushkins).


  1. I don’t necessarily agree with Nabokov that all translations must of necessity be inferior to the original works, but the poem does nicely state the dilemma faced by any translator. Nice find Ken.

  2. I’ve seen translation go both ways. Sometimes the translation helps to improve the work, but most times it doesn’t…

  3. B.A.M. says:

    Not my style, but I can appreciate the artistry as I am a fellow poet.

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