“Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time” (Translating my favorite poem)

Almost three years ago I opened my subscription to the Atlantic Monthly and read a poem that has stayed with me: “The Necklace,” by Osip Mandelstam, a famous Russian poet. After I lost my copy of the magazine, I searched for the poem online, and I was shocked to find many different translations, some of which I wouldn’t have liked at all if I had read them first.

Below I have the “original” translation that I read, and links to two others.

The Necklace

By Osip Mandelstam

Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.

Here are two other translations:



Here is the last stanza of the poem, translated three different ways:

“Here, take—for the sake of joy—my wild gift,
this necklace, dry and unattractive,
of dead bees who turned honey into sun.”

“So for your joy receive my savage gift,
a dry and homely necklace of dead bees
who have transmuted honey into sun.”

“Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.”


These three translations have three different effects on the reader. They use different words, phrases, expressions, and sentence structures. Which one is the most accurate? Is it the one that best conveys the literal meaning of the original? Is it the one that sounds the most like the original? Or is it the one that gives the reader a “feeling” most similar to the one the original evokes?

“The Necklace” was written by Osip Mandelstam in the early 1900s. He wrote it in Russian, and my guess is it did not sound like any of the English versions. He almost certainly used different phrasing. Roy Campbell, a satirist, wrote of poet Federico Garcia Lorca after his death: “Not only did he lose his life/By shots assassinated/But with a hammer and a knife/Was after that– translated.” Translation is inaccurate and frequently clumsy. It cannot hope to capture every aspect of the original work. So why do we translate works of art? Because we want to experience them, and we can’t if they aren’t in our language.

The goal of translation, in that sense, can seem sort of exploitative or imperialistic. We want to experience a beautiful poem, and even though we can’t hope to fully without learning a new language or a new culture, we try to force it into our own language, a pain that Lorca felt was worse than being shot. But at the same time, it’s probably beneficial to foster the attitude that other cultures have art that is so wonderful that it’s still worthwhile to read a truncated, ruined version. What do y’all think about the attitudes and goals behind translation?


4 thoughts on ““Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time” (Translating my favorite poem)”

  1. Having the ability to read in other languages has made me a bit wary of translations, because I know how inaccurate they can be, even if a great deal of care is taken.

    At the same time, I do wonder how this issue and the issue of socio-economic status interact. With the exception of individuals whose parents speak multiple languages, the people who are most readily able to learn foreign languages are the people with the resources to expend a great deal of time and money on education. This makes me wonder if it is worthwhile translating works, so that way people who perhaps do not have the access to education that would allow them to learn the language a text was written in can still have some sort of access to a version of the text.



  2. The only language other than English that I can even remotely grasp is Spanish; I try to stay cognizant of that when reading translations, careful to tread very lightly with any reworked poem in hand. But even as I’m tiptoeing, I can’t help but form attachments to the translated poem, and those attachments sometimes stray into positive or negative observations of the original poets ability, or certain vibes toward their style or voice. So, perhaps, if it’s a question of why readers or translators don’t just sit down and call the endeavor futile, the answer has to do evocation entirely – both groups have to focus on emotions that could have been encouraged equally by the translation and the original, regardless of the poem’s exactness in wording or form. It might even be that the futility of translation comes from attempting accuracy in the more concrete aspects of the writing, like literal meaning or sound – while the only remotely attainable goal for a translation is to focus on the abstract ingredients, specifically on certain emotions present in the original version that can be brought about in the translated one.


  3. These kinds of issues in translation usually make me think of the various versions of “Beowulf” that exist. In the preface of his translation of the text, Seamus Heaney gave some explanation of his translation choices: while he had many different options for the first line of “Beowulf,” he chose to start it off with “So” because it reminded him of the way his family members used to begin storytelling. While translating Old English is a bit different from modern language translations because it’s not necessarily alive or open to changing interpretations, the example of “Beowulf” seems to lean towards making a readable text with a pleasingly poetic rhythm that would appeal to a modern reader.



  4. I tend to think of translation as the means by which certain countries may have access to what is considered the important literature of other countries (And that these latter countries are usually countries of power or wealth or some kind of recognized standing in the world). We see so many books written in English, published in America, being translated into 40+ languages (or some other crazy number) but it is much rarer (at least in my experience with school curriculum) that we are exposed to a non-European work that has been translated into English. It seems to me that, in order for a non-European piece of prose or poetry to be translated, it must achieve a much greater level of popularity and importance than that which an American work must achieve in order to be translated into other languages.
    But I agree that the issue of the act of translation and what gets “lost in translation” is still very alive. I also tend to link the translation of works in English to other languages as a tool by which Americanization is realized, but, curiously, I do not feel that way about reading translated works from other languages.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s