“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” observed Robert Frost, and was only partly right. The thrust and sweep of epic poetry translates well enough: there is no dearth of decent translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante. Philosophical poetry also survives quite well: Eliot’s Four Quartets, for example, has been successfully rendered into a number of languages. Lyric poetry is the one that has the most to lose.

There is, obviously, the problem of rhyme. Unrhymed poetry fares much better in translation: Walt Whitman reads just about as well (or poorly) in French or German. Even as delicate an unrhymed lyric as Leopardi’s “L’infinito” has thrived in English. But rhyme is a killer. With elaborate rhyme schemes, tricky rhyming words, and short lines (dimeter, trimeter), the difficulty increases exponentially. Think of Byron’s Don Juan, or this, from Heine: “Sie sassen und...


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