LETTER FROM POLAND: ON TRANSLATING POETRY

Jacek Gutorow
Opole, Poland

I’m reading some Polish poets in English translation and asking myself: how to verbalize one’s intention in language? How to articulate and, at the same time, preserve something that emerges as inarticulate, wanting in words and basically having the aspect of the thing which is yet to be expressed? Very often first poetic impulses are vague. There is something preceding words – the very intention which anticipates language. Is this anticipation fulfilled when we write a poem? Rather not. Turn your intention into words and sooner or later you discover that you have been betrayed by them.

This is precisely the effect of translation. While being transferred onto the level of articulation (which is unavoidably linear and limited by the choice of words), first intentions are somewhat flattened and subdued. You imagined your poem to be more comprehensive, more abundant and grander. But it is not. It is just a shadow of your initial design. A compromise.

Josif Brodski

Still, there is something capital about the whole process. I mean, words are unpredictable and they may lead you beyond yourself. As Josif Brodski used to say, language is older than us. It simply knows better. Trust it and what you thought was a betrayal is in fact a chance to meet something you would never meet while remaining within the realms of your own intentions. Viewed from this perspective, translation turns out to be unavoidable but also wonderfully creative and capable of bringing more and more in terms of meanings and messages. Much depends on your immersion in the words of your native language and an instinctive ability to see words in their complexity. Just as abstract ideas are predictable, so particular words are not. And I guess most of the poets dedicated to their art know this perfectly well.

Kenneth Rexroth in suit at tree
Kenneth Rexroth

In his essay “The Poet As Translator” Kenneth Rexroth wrote about the translator’s identification with the poem s/he is translating. We are so close to words, goes the argument, that we cannot be objective and feel we have to render someone else’s speech in our own idiolect, the language we were born into and grew up with: “all the great translations survive into our time because they were so completely of their own time”. And their own region, I would add. When it comes to poems, translation is never neutral. It should stir our deepest recollections and associations, those connected with the private and communal past of language and those informed by what is unconscious in language. The translator has to be as inventive as the poet. S/he has to go deep into language so that his/her translation stands the test of time.

A good translator realizes that faithfulness is not always the best option. You can more or less try and repeat the poet’s evocations. But can you render one’s immersion in idiolect and regional intonations? To do so, you have to be sensitive to all the nuances, subtleties and colorings of your own language. And you have to invent the poem you translate anew so that it “stands” in your own speech. To keep the poem’s music intact, you have to experiment with the music of the words you have been born with. Obviously enough, one cannot go too far. But, as Rexroth reminds us, “The text is always there as a control”. The point is, you translate not only a poem but a poet’s sensitivity to language – and poets are definitely sensitive at that matter.

Readingthrough the Polish translations of American poetry may be helpful here. Take Eliot. Those Polish translators who attempted to be as accurate as possible very often lost the drift of Eliot’s characteristic inflections. The poems read OK, you easily get the sense of what is being said, you are grasped by the poet’s tremendous imagination – still, a personal tone is gone. I don’t mean only rhythm or occasional rhymes – these are usually preserved in translation. It’s the way Eliot formulates his thoughts, the melody of his sentences, something connected with his ability to allude to colloquial speech and discover in it the music of everyday. How to render this music in translation? It gives way to some vocabulary exercises. The result is one reads Eliot’s poems as translations and not as good poems.

Czeslaw Milosz

Now compare it to The Waste Land or The Hollow Men in Czesław Miłosz’s translations. These are accurate but, well, not too accurate. Miłosz is capable of changing a word or two, inventing a new phrase or throwing in a fresh colloquialism. Some solutions are unexpected and do not point to anything we can find in Eliot but the translations read much better and they don’t feel like mere translations. They are so strongly rooted in the tradition of the Polish poetry that sometimes it seems the poems were written originally in Polish. Miłosz has not always been so efficient as translator. But in Eliot he found a kindred spirit and a kindred ear. Such encounters are not frequent but when they do take place, the effects are usually astonishing.

Wallace Stevens

Something different happened to Wallace Stevens, another Modernist giant. Unlike Eliot, Stevens was not popular inPolandand did not create a stir. When in 1969 Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, a noted Polish poet, published a slender selection of Stevens’s poems, there was almost no response from critics, readers or other poets. However, the booklet deserves attention, not only because it was the first book-form publication of Stevens in Polandor because the translations were done by a first-rate poet. What is so interesting about it is that, quite surprisingly for those interested in Stevens, the American poet was translated in the idiom of Polish Baroque and Romantic poetry. Not directly, of course – Rymkiewicz tries to be an objective translator who does not interfere into the poems. But the ear accustomed to the melody of Stevens’s poetry will quickly discover some strange music with alien chords and assonances, and with rhythms which are oddly reminiscent of traditional Polish poetry. This is done very subtly and in a perfect pitch but the impression of tonal irrelevance remains. This is still Stevens, and a very good Stevens. Nevertheless, we cannot shake off a feeling that here we have a poet who must have read several Polish Romantics in his youth.

Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz

The example of Rymkiewicz’s translations is illuminating since it provides us with a case of an excellent translator who is highly sensitive to even the smallest modulations of speech but, strangely enough, misrepresents the poet. The reason for this is obvious – instead of adjusting his ear to the music of Stevens’s verses, Rymkiewicz tried to bend Stevens to the Polish idiom. Sometimes it works to the advantage of the original poems, which read as if they were composed by a Polish poet, but the overall effect is different from the one discernible in Miłosz’s renderings of Eliot. It is obvious when we analyze the list of poems selected by Rymkiewicz. Who could have assumed that the first presentation of Stevens would omit his great poetic meditations as well as his late poems and concentrate on such poems as “Autumn Refrain” or “The Dance of the Macabre Mice”? However, Rymkiewicz’s surprising predilections are perfectly understandable if we take into account his taste for anything macabre, gloomy and gothic.

The cases of Eliot and Stevens pointout a simple truth: you should translate not only a poem but also a poet’s linguistic sensitivity; also, you should respect its otherness and not try to absorb the poet you translate. Obvious as they are, the two imperatives set a high standard for any translator. You do not just “translate” poetry. Your relationship to poems should be so intense that you start identifying with them and, why not, even thinking along their lines. The language of the poem becomes your own, and then all you have to do is find proper equivalents to what you have in your mind.

There is something paradoxical about the effects created by poetry in translation. The poets who are deeply immersed in their native language, who are capable of articulating complex meanings connected with innumerable modulations of colloquial speech, and who manage to sound out the unique frequencies of their languages by experimenting with etymology or phraseology, are usually poorly served by translators whose technical abilities may be splendid but who cannot write with the nerve of common speech. On the contrary, the poems written in an abstract, impressionistic or philosophical manner read and sound good in translation, precisely because their language is neutral. Very often the popularity of a foreign poet is due to the fact that his or her poetic idiom is unmarked and devoid of strong local or personal intonation.

The American reception of contemporary Polish poetry is a case in point. Asked to enumerate several contemporary writers fromPoland, a reader interested in the subject would probably mention Czesław Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski. Indeed, their poems have been very well rendered into English. Yet this is mainly because of their immediate and non-problematic attitude to language. Not that they are not sensitive to Polish. They are. But they usually tend to tone down any individual modulations of voice in the name of the so called universal character of the poetic message. And it shows in their poems which usually translate easily into other languages – words and phrases are so neutral, direct and unequivocal that you don’t risk betraying the poet’s intention. As a result, the English translations sound good and they do not smell of idiomatic Polish. Well, the point is that the original poems are not very idiomatic in the first place. Theirs is a smooth literary jargon which is sometimes effective and sometimes not, but almost always lends itself to literary translation.

It is otherwise with those poets who consciously write in strong idiomatic Polish. Miron Białoszewski, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Jerzy Ficowski, Piotr Sommer, Marcin Świetlicki (to name only a few) have been recognized as absolutely crucial and central to the tradition of Polish poetry, even if they speak against the institutions of canon and literary hierarchy, as most of them do. Their poetic texts are linguistically engaged and credible because they evidently speak for themselves and as themselves. This, however, makes their poems almost untranslatable. You can translate each poem word by word and line by line but the essential quality vanishes into thin air. You are left with a vague sense that the poem is interesting but not so impressive after all. Now, what is best in it – care for individual expression, sensitivity to the many ambiguities inherent in words, unconventional attitude to language and speech – is very often absent in translations. What remains is a skeleton statement devoid of its original force.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Translating poetry, though, is a tricky business. It is an act and a process which demands special attention as well as an awareness of poetic language in general. You cannot feel too comfortably with the poems you want to translate. For one thing, transparency is out of question. What is at stake is one’s ability to identify with someone and something different and incompatible with our views and accents. Rendering a different intonation is quite a challenge, not only in terms of tonal imagination but also in terms of your own identity. As Kenneth Rexroth put it: “Translation is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human being”.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jacek Gutorow

Jacek Gutorow (b. 1970) is a Polish poet, translator, and literary critic. He has published five books of poems, which have recently been collected and published by Biuro Literackie in Nad brzegiem rzeki. Wiersze z lat 1990-2010 (At the River’s Edge. Poems 1990-2010). His 1997 volume, Wiersze pod nieobecność (Poems in Absentia), was recognized as the most important debut book of the year, receiving the celebrated Kazimiera Iłakowiczówna Award, while his most recent individual collection, Inne tempo (A Different Tempo, 2008), also published by Biuro Literackie, was nominated for the three most significant literary awards in Poland: the Nike Award, the Cogito Award, and the Gdynia Award. In spring of 2012, BOA Editions will publish a collection of his poems translated into English.

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2 comments

  1. Simple solution: Apply the “Modifying Principle of Materiality” or
    “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”

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