"It’s a much slower process to translate poetry than to translate prose. You have to have a feel for poetic language to be able to give a sense of what’s happening in the Russian."
Jamie Olson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the English department, contributed translations of five poems to "100 Poems about Moscow," an anthology of Russian poems and their English translations. "100 Poems about Moscow" recently won the prestigious Book of the Year award, in the poetry category, from Russia's Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications.
Poetry is a big part of Russian culture—such a big part that, as Jamie Olson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the English department, tells it, “Basically every Russian, every educated person in Russia, can recite poetry. They memorize poems in school, and they’re proud of it.”
Olson made his own contribution to the Russian poetry culture this year with translations of five poems that appeared in "100 Poems about Moscow," an anthology of Russian poems side-by-side with their English translations. "100 Poems about Moscow" recently won the prestigious Book of the Year award, in the poetry category, from Russia's Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications.
Olson became involved with “100 Poems about Moscow” through Anne Fisher, Ph.D., a Russian-to-English translator and friend. Fisher had been working on translations of poems by the Russian writer Maxim Amelin, the editor of “100 Poems about Moscow,” and she put out a call on Amelin’s behalf to the Russian-English translators she knew. Olson was intrigued by the project and decided to translate five of the poems.
“It’s a much slower process to translate poetry than to translate prose,” Olson says. “I try to hear it in Russian and then create a version of the poem in English that has some of the same sonic features that the Russian text has. I try to get the meter to correspond to the Russian text, and then I work on other features, like alliteration and rhyme.”
Olson adds that, if one were to translate a formal poem from Russian directly into a formal poem in English, with strict meter and rhyme, the results would be readable but bizarre. “It would sound like Dr. Seuss,” he says, smiling. “You have to have a feel for poetic language to be able to give a sense of what’s happening in the Russian, but not in a heavy-handed way that sounds clunky or old-fashioned.”
In addition to being honored with the poetry Book of the Year award, “100 Poems about Moscow” has been well received by the literary community in Moscow and elsewhere. As Olson explained, many articles in Russia about the book state that the anthology establishes “a Moscow text” that stands in contrast to a “Saint Petersburg text.”
“The contrast between the two cities is talked about a lot in Russian culture, in Russian history, and in the arts too,” Olson says. “Petersburg poets tended to be more traditional, more classically oriented, even to the point of bringing in a lot of classical allusions in their poetry. [Whereas] Moscow poets tended to be more avant-garde, pushing new forms, and bringing in more imagery that had to do with modern life.”
The poems that Olson translated for the anthology are permitted to be published in the U.S., and Olson provided his translation of Boris Slutsky’s “Landscape With A TV Tower” (as a PDF) to serve as an excerpt from “100 Poems about Moscow.” The anthology is available to purchase from booksellers in Russia.
Olson was recently awarded a Literary Translation Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to support his translation of Russian poet Timur Kibirov’s “When Lenin Was a Little Boy: Selected Poems.” Kibirov is a Moscow poet who has written more than 20 poetry collections and his work is largely unavailable in English.