This poor man's marble - Joseph Brodsky

Most of us approach poems in translation as one is supposed to approach a captured animal - from the side, not headfirst. Warily, we move through a world of angles and oblique, pacific gestures. We calm the text, ease it out of its origins, and consume it at a distance. We are aware of how much we are missing in translation, and find ourselves trapped in paradox: on the one hand, we want a translation to be as faithful as possible; on the other, we want it to read well as an English poem in its own right, which thus might not be very faithful after all - a paradox caught by Borges's quip that Edward Fitzgerald's version of the Rubaiyat is clearly too good a poem to be a good translation.

In practice, when we lack, say, Russian, and read Mandelstam's poems in English, we convert them out of their poetic forms, and scan them as pieces of ornate prose. Instead of a voice, a music, an exact precision, we look for evidence of a literary mind, verbal refinement, intellectual compression, and so on. We tend to search for images (metaphors, similes, verbal pictures) rather than words and metres, because images carry over while words and metres change.

The problem is especially acute in the work of Joseph Brodsky, because this Russian poet, born in St Petersburg in 1940 but resident in America from 1973 until his death in 1996, became talented enough in English to translate his own work, and then wrote poems in his new tongue. Further, Brodsky insisted on faithful translations, "perhaps at the expense of their smoothness", as he once put it, and tried to carry into English the form and music of his Russian originals. And the problem seems acute, it should be said, because it is often hard to follow, and hence hard to judge, some of Brodsky's poems.

Brodsky is a great writer, once justly celebrated. But his eminence has suffered the usual decline of dead poets trying to breathe through the death-mask of translation. And there is no doubt that a number of passages in Brodsky seem clumsy, heavy-footed, clotted, with a peculiar insistence on awkward half-rhymes and - the bane of those (such as Nabokov) who become deeply proficient in a new language - crushing puns. A poem written in English in 1983, "Ex Voto", has the lines: "An aimless iceberg resents bad press: / it suffers a meltdown, and forms a brain." An iceberg melting into a brain is just about tolerable; but an iceberg resenting "bad press" (presumably a reference to the Titanic) has leapt out of surrealism into kitsch.

And it is not only the poems written in English. Several of Brodsky's earlier poems are almost ruined by translation. One reads, for instance, "Lithuanian Nocturne", written in Russian in 1974 and translated later into English by Brodsky himself, with amazement that a poet so obviously gifted, with such prodigalities of vision and hearing, could commit lines like "That's whence that mealy grain / of your cheeks" and follow them five lines later with the equally ugly (and more or less incomprehensible) "It is thence also its / upward spinoffs."

Lines like these have given rise, in some quarters, to whispers that Brodsky "isn't any good" - even in Russian. To his critics, Brodsky may seem a kind of poetic George Steiner, a windy versifier who just happened to have the bad fortune to be hostaged by world history, and who then became the great exiled, Nobelisable poet for the unpoetic readers of the New York Review of Books.

But take a poem such as "Plato Elaborated" (1977), and even in translation one sees abundant evidence of a rare mind, a fertile talent for metaphor, for exact detail, and for a philosophical or metaphysical playfulness. In that poem, Brodsky imagines an ideal city that has been invaded by history, like his beloved Petersburg. The ideal city would be peaceful and utopian. It would have, Brodsky writes, a river that juts out from under a bridge "like a hand from a sleeve", spreading its fingers towards the gulf "like Chopin, who never shook a fist at anyone as long as he lived". There would be an opera house, in which tenors sing arias to keep the Tyrant amused. The Tyrant would "applaud from his loge", but the poet from the back rows would hiss through clenched teeth: "You creep." This city would have a cafe "with a quite decent blancmange" where, if the poet should ask his colleague why we need the 20th century when we already have the 19th, "my colleague would stare fixedly at his fork or his knife".

And so this fine poem progresses, dropping from the happy caravan of itself these similes and images like treasure into sand. Brodsky is a highly metaphorical poet. His lines, like Mandelstam's, are a traffic of images, and at times this traffic can jam. (Brodsky thought a major difference between Russian and English poetry was that Russian verse insisted on sound before sense, while English verse insisted on reason and argument.)

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