TSQ Library T 34, 2010TSQ 34

Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

Steinberg-coverArkadii Shteinvberg. The second way

Anna Akhmatova in 60sRoman Timenchik. Anna Akhmatova in 60s

Le Studio Franco-RusseLe Studio Franco-Russe

 Skorina's emblem

University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Adam Czerniawski


I think it safe to say that before World War II English-speaking peoples had no awareness of Polish literature. True, a scattering of translations were available, but they were hidden in obscure academic publications and were not very good. Here I offer my personal observations, mainly on the current situation in Britain. A full picture put together by a competent academic would of course include the United States and Canada, and it would need to cover fiction, drama and philosophy as well as poetry, for during the last half century publications and performances in those areas have also proliferated.

Hitler and Stalin, two great arts-loving leaders, helped bring about this change. Thanks to them, I and many other Polish writers found ourselves exiled in English-speaking countries; some of us acquired sufficient competence in English to attempt literary translations, often with the help of native speakers. Fortunately, a lot of Polish poetry composed during, but mainly after the war, was of high quality and therefore gained the support of such distinguished writers as Al Alvarez, Neal Ascherson, John Bailey, Donald Davie, Timothy Garton-Ash, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Tom Paulin, Stephen Spender, and others. It is astonishing that in Alvarez's The Faber Book of Modern European Poetry Polish poets outnumber those from every other country, including France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Moreover, this poetry was frequently politically charged and, given the constraints on information during the cold war, it was therefore also seen as an important source of information about life and thought behind the iron curtain. Therefore money became available in the West for its publication in translation.

With the end of the cold war I considered it likely that interest in Polish poetry would turn out to be a nine-days wonder. I was expressing these fears in The Mature Laurel, Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, even though by 1990 enough poetry books and material relating to poetry had been published in English to fill seven pages of the book's bibliography. Now its length would probably be doubled. My fears might have appeared unjustified also because the book was actually commissioned by the Welsh publisher Seren Books, who clearly therefore considered there was sufficient interest in the subject to undertake this initiative. But not everybody in Britain was at that time happy with the influx of translated poetry from Poland and indeed from other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Some British commentators justifiably claimed that the cold war encouraged tolerance of politically correct mediocre poetry lamely translated. However, it now is clear that good poetry in good translations has stood the test of time. It looks as if the poetry of Miłosz, Różewicz, Herbert, Szymborska, and perhaps a few others, is now here to stay. There are several reasons for this optimism. The names of Polish poets now frequently appear in articles and studies discussing modern poetry in general or even turn up unexpectedly in commentaries not directly related to the subject. As I write, I see a quotation from Herbert in Garton-Ash's article in The Guardian newspaper on British intellectuals. Their works are increasingly being included in variously compiled anthologies of poetry in the English language. There are now for example some thirty such anthologies in which poems by Różewicz appear. Other recent examples of how extensively Polish poetry is noticed: a doctor in America writes to me asking for permission to use six Leopold Staff translations in therapy sessions for his patients; a lament by Jan Kochanowski, taken from a 400-copies edition of the Treny published bilingually in Oxford - a remarkable achievement in itself - will appear in a Faber poetry anthology of 20,000 copies. Another Faber anthology will include a prose poem by Zdzisław Stroiński, a poet not so far much noticed outside Poland, or sufficiently appreciated in Poland either; Lori Laitman in America has impressively set to music poems by Różewicz, and also in America Daniel Schwarz uses four Różewicz poems as epigraphs in his sensitive study Imagining the Holocaust, which includes a chapter on Tadeusz Borowski's concentration-camp stories. In Helsinki there is a megalith-type granite monument inscribed in Finnish and English with Różewicz's poem on "Old Women." English being today's lingua franca, the English translations are increasingly being used by translators of Polish poetry into other languages; into Arabic, Chinese, Persian and languages of the Indian sub-continent. Brian Cole runs www.brindin.com a massive enterprise that collects bilingually all poetry translated into English. He has recently asked me for the original versions of poems by Kochanowski, Norwid, Różewicz, Szymborska and Czerniawski. But perhaps the most extraordinary example is the inclusion of a poem by Leopold Staff in Family Business, The New Cambridge Intermediate English Course Reader comprising a selection of prose and verse. A Polish poem for students of English!

I have mentioned Kochanowski's Treny. Five translations of this cycle now exist, of which four are very recent, including one to which Seamus Heaney has lent a hand. But of course Kochanowski is not a modern poet come to prominence as a result of the cold war. My translation of the Treny was greeted enthusiastically by the late Donald Davie, one of those who objected to East European poetry being lauded on political grounds. For Davie, himself a dextrous translator of a "reduced" Pan Tadeusz, this translation signalled an affirmation that presentation of Polish poetry abroad can be detached from political maneouvering, and no less importantly, that Polish poetry did not originate with Miłosz and Różewicz, but can boast a history of several centuries.

Last year Peter Jay of Anvil Press, a publisher with a distinguished list of original poetry in English and of great Europeans in translation, including Dante, Goethe, Hölderlin, de Nerval, Baudelaire, Rilke and many others, asked me to revise and update Różewicz's They came to see a poet, which he had first published in 1991. The new edition running to 260 pages has just appeared. But even more remarkably, Jay has simultaneously published my translations of Cyprian Norwid's Selected Poems. More remarkably, because as every Pole knows, Norwid in contrast to Różewicz is a difficult poet, at times very difficult. The difficulties are compounded in translation because a reader in the target language has to be persuaded that the difficulties, obscurities and idiosyncracies he is encountering are not caused by the translator's clumsiness, ignorance or linguistic incompetence, but are an essential element of the poet's mode of expressing himself, which yields its mysteries only on close reading. That after all is what an attentive reader of Norwid in the original experiences. The book is published as a recommended translation by the Poetry Book Society.

During discussion I was asked to speculate on what gets lost in translation. In this question lay the constantly voiced assumption that every translation of poetry is necessarily a failure. It is true that many translations fail for a variety of reasons, just as many original poems also fail. But there is no logical reason, nor is it a law of nature, that a translation must necessarily fail. It may turn out to be as good, or even better than, the original. This "Every translation must be a failure" thesis derives most of its persuasive strength from the indisputable fact that in each case the target language necessarily differs from the source language, and therefore no relationship of identity is possible. But absence of identity does not necessarily signal an inferiority of one of the two objects being compared. A brother is not necessarily morally inferior to his elder sister. Moreover, the target language may possess attractive attributes which the source language lacks. The brother may have a more pleasing voice than his sister. I develop my arguments on this topic extensively in my essays "Translation of poetry: theory and practice" and "The melancholy pursuit of imperfection" listed below.

The title of this contribution was suggested to me by Krystyna Milewska, the conference convener. I had no hesitation in accepting it.

Readers of the selection of my translations that follows will be able to judge how good my claims are. I am certainly not claiming that they are better than the originals, but I do claim that they are almost as good.


Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584)

From T r e n y

Tren VII

Pitiful garments, lamentable dresses
Of my beloved child -
Why do you draw my sad eyes
To heap grief on grief?
Never will they clothe
Her tiny limbs, there is no hope:
She lies gripped in an endless, iron, vice-like sleep.
Her brightly-patterned summer frocks,
Her ribbons, her gold-studded belts,
Her mother's gifts, all to no end.
Not to such a bed, dear child,
Were you to be led.
The wardrobe: a vest and shift -
Isn't what your mother pledged.
Beneath your head I place a clod of earth:
Alas! you and your dowry in one chest lie wedged.


Your flight, my dearest, caused
This vast emptiness in my house.
We are so many yet no one's here:
One tiny soul and so much is gone.
You spoke and sang for all alone,
Skipped around in every corner of the house,
Never let your mother fret,
Never let your father brood,
Hugging one and then the other,
Cheering all with joyful laughter.
Now all is silent, the house stands bare,
There's no laughter, song or joy.
From every corner stares remorseless grief
As gnawing heartache vainly seeks relief.

Tren X

My fair Orszula, where have you fled?
Are you above the celestial spheres, numbered
Among angelic hosts? Are you in Paradise?
Or are you taken to the Fortunate Isles?
Does Charon guide you over disconsolate lakes,
Offering draughts from the erasing stream,
So you can't know my tears?
Or, shedding human shape and youthful dreams,
Have you assumed a nightingale's form and wings?
Or are you being cleansed in purgatorial flames
Lest you carry still the marks of tainted flesh?
Or in death have you returned
To where you dwelt before you caused my pain?
Wherever you are, if you are, take pity on my grief,
And if you cannot in the flesh,
Console me and appear
As dream, shade or vision.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)

Above water vast and pure...

Above water vast and pure
Stood rows of mountain crags,
And the water's glassy deep
Mirrored their black brows.

Above water vast and pure
Black clouds rolled;
The water's glassy deep
Mirrored their mean shapes.

Above water vast and pure
Lightnings flash, thunders roar;
The water's glassy deep
Mirrors light, silence reigns.

And the water, ever pure,
Stands vast and clear.

Passing the proud crags,
Passing the lightning flash,
I see water all about
And mirror it in full.

Rocks must stand and threaten,
Clouds must carry rain,
Lightnings roar and vanish
As I drift on again.

Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)


Feelings - are like a cry full of war,
And like the current of whispering springs,
And like a funeral march...


And like a long plait of blond hair
On which a widower wears
A silver watch - - -


A deafness sad and rare -
When you hear
The Word - but miss
The accent and stress...


For an angel calls... But they mock:
So you slam the coffin lid over your face under
The rock.


You have no wish to cry
`Eloi... Eloi...' - why?
- Ah, God!... sails lap up the northern gale.
Seas rail.


A hum in my ear (I have no theory
Regarding storms)
So I dream and feel a folio of history
Turn to stone...

26[27] December 1860


(A Ballad)


You will not see her morning or night,
She's undressed...
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
She must be sleeping! - let her acolytes
Honestly stress,
Or she's up, but undressed,
And in her bath.

Meanwhile three seamstresses with their needles
And many a cobbler
Ignorantly tease the riddle
Of her size.

Meanwhile somewhere at dawn
Children march to school;
The ploughman tills, the Vistula flows,
As do the Varta and the San.

Tender morning air, a balmy sight
When the sky revives,
But alas! she's undressed
Unable to lean out!

The world responds: "Let her show
Herself in a three-fold
Eastern-Western-motley dress
Or a funeral gown!"

When I hear this, I have a different view
Of the undressed:
How radiant is Diana's
Uncovered breast!
Caught in brightness, Acteon grows pale;
Hounds ignore the blazing horns;
The Hyperborean Wood stands terror-struck,
Quivering like a tottering shack...

While she of course both dignified and fair,
Unarmed, undressed,
Is ever mindful that for all time
Gods punish crime!


Leopold Staff (1878-1957)


They order me to mount the tower
Upon a brazen horn to blow
In praise of fearsome knights
And a bloody armoured show.

But the tower's crumbling,
Spit chokes the horn,
There is chiselling, rumbling
And scraping all round.

In truth, I really can't
Make the horn sing -
If pressed, I just might
Handle a bow and string.

So in my garden, like the birds,
I hum a song by the fence
Where they're digging spuds
And will be planting beans.

Czesław Miłosz (b.1911)


We drove before dawn through frozen fields,
The red wing was rising, yet still the night.

And suddenly a hare shot across our path.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago and both are dead:
The hare and the man who stretched his arm.

O my love, where are they, where do they lead,
The flash of a hand, the line of movement, the swishing icy ground

I ask not in sorrow, but in contemplation.

Tadeusz Różewicz (b.1921)


the first tree

I don't remember
its name
nor the landscape
where it grew

I don't remember
whether I came to know it
with my eye
or ear
whether it was a rustle
a scent or a hue

whether it appeared
in sunlight
or in snow

the first animal

I don't remember
its voice warmth

all animals
have their names

only that first one
is hidden


Doors in walls of houses . . .

Doors in walls of houses
doors to kitchens doors to bedrooms
doors to lecture halls
and hotel rooms

one day
I saw a door
in a forest
beneath the door an ant-hill
a door in a garden
a door in a country lane
beyond the door a hare
a museum door
behind the door
"Stefan Batory at Pskov"

a door on the beach
beyond the door the sea
the closed door
of an airliner
behind the door the globe

the armour-plated door
of the Tower of London
behind the door a golden crown
a diamond the size
of a hen's egg
and Adam



I grow
in the bondings of walls
where they are
where they meet
and are vaulted

there I penetrate
a blind seed
scattered by the wind

patiently I spread
in the cracks of silence
I wait for the walls to fall
and return to earth

then I will cover
names and faces

Wiesława Szymborska (b.1923)


Some -
therefore not all.
Not even a majority just a minority.
Not counting schools where they have to,
and the poets themselves,
that's probably two per thousand.

Like -
but one also likes noodle soup,
one likes compliments and the colour blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes to have one's way,
one likes to pat a dog.

Poetry -
but what is poetry.
There have already been
several shaky answers
to this question.
But I don't know and I don't know and I hold on to this
like a saving hand-rail.

16th MAY 1973

One of those many dates
that no longer tell me anything.

Where did I go on that day,
what was I doing - I don't know.

If someone committed a crime
- I would be lost for an alibi.

The sun shone and set
but I didn't notice.

I have no diary note
of the Earth's rotation.

Would have been easier to think
I had briefly died
than remembered nothing,
though I lived without a break.

Assuredly, I wasn't a spirit,
I breathed, I ate,
my steps were audible
and there must be
traces of my fingers on door-handles.

My reflections were mirrored.
I wore something that had a colour.
One or two people must have seen me.

Perhaps that day
I found something I had lost earlier.
Or lost something I found later.

I was full of feelings and impressions.
Now it's all
like dots in brackets.

Where was I shrouded,
where did I hide -
it's rather a clever trick
to vanish from one's own eyes.

I shake memory -
will something slumbering for years
start rustling
from its branches.

Manifestly I demand too much -
no less than one second.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998)


The stone is well preserved The inscription (corrupt Latin)
proclaims that Curatia Dionisia lived forty years
and at her own expense had raised this modest little monument
Lonely is her banquet The cup half-drained
Unsmiling face Doves too ponderous
Her last years she spent in Britain
by the wall of the halted barbarians
in a castrum of which the foundations and cellars remain

She practised woman's oldest profession
She was mourned briefly but sincerely by the soldiers of the Third Legion
and a certain aged officer

She instructed the sculptors to place two pillows under her elbow

Dolphins and sea-lions signify a long journey
even though from here it's just a step to hell

Bogdan Czaykowski (b.1932)


Searching yesterday I found, held and loved you
This I'll not alter, and you have no power
To destroy any of what had come to pass.
Yesterday I found you, felt and loved you.
But who am I today, when I think of the night?
And what neither you nor I can alter now
I try to discover, but it is not there.
The darkness shrouding sleep, dreamlike variations!
The night storm of death and birth!
What was stirring in that wind and in my peace?
Was there thunder or was it a dream?
There is a record which I will unravel
And read it often, for it is the truth.


White stars now rise over Lake Vaseaux.
A moth strikes against the fires of light.
The hidden moon tints downy clouds
Of a blown-out storm.

Rocks that surface from a greyish downpour
Reveal outlines of pines; spectral shades
Of Eleatic geese cut through its evanescent sheen.

Becalmed waters harmonise with the smooth dark sky.
The last lightning incinerates the moth.
The white ash falling into darkness
Is a streak of the Milky Way.

And now the world is gone.

Only you and I are left.


Yet this universe isn't all that simple.
In the end, from a countless multiplicity of words,
you can choose a few telling
the truth, namely not about what certainly is,
but may be, may be.

So maybe, the universe,
the Newtonian, and the meta-Einsteinian,
is god-less, which means either
that our distance from its principle
is unbridgeably vast,
or that beyond the universe there literally
is Nothing, though we are,
and our time is, as in a bubble of ocean,
which one day will burst.

It is difficult to have such unbelief. But it's also
difficult to multiply principles of principles into infinity.
The catastrophe of my thought!
How dare I summon you, raise you on a cross!
Were I, having come to believe that I am the son,
proved this even unto death,
were I then to rise for three days of earthness
before an immortal descent into the abyss,
then I wouldn't need to believe in belief or unbelief,
but that cannot be had without death.

Adam Czerniawski (b.1934)


he fashioned a poem like a fish
the fish is a symbol of saints
it lives in the depths of secretive seas
and resists massive atmospheric pressures
its presence heralds mysteries
it fell into the nets of mankind
and lies cold on a moist slab
each of its verses has immaculate rhythm
scales of its metaphors glisten in the sun
eyes masked in film live in imagination
and when only the skeleton remains
a white negative of symmetrical pine
words will survive illegibly for ever


The world began thus: in the morning
I opened my eyes, a square of light in the pane,
roof-slates, garden, a plane
zooms low, the date
is today, inside the picture-frame
a mediaeval town.
I have dreamt the apple tree, the lynx and the moon,
I have dreamt the sea, a winged man drowns,
ruins of Babylon smoulder, horses gallop and snort;
now the sun falls on a bowl of fruit,
I touch its crimson scent.
A damp wind molests the shutter, I dream
a world in which all is possible:
someone will sing the fall of Troy
someone will bite the apple, paint
the Last Judgment, smash all the atoms.
A dream maybe on a steep bank
of a muddy river. I close
my eyes: cracks in the skull
trace the ruin of dream-forced world.


After my death
men will still be living and dying
still trusting and doubting
loving and hating
still pondering the purpose of existence
the birth and death of the universe;
during their violent century
they will relentlessly examine and praise
our age of affluence sage governance and peace
of poetry fecundity and sunlit days


Bronisław Maj (b.1953)

* * *

Rain on the window, a glass of tea on the table,
a lamp - thus, naively perhaps, I see you
in five, twenty or a hundred and twenty-five
years' time, reading this poem: thinking of me, a man
from twenty or a hundred and twenty years ago - how
did I live? I and my epoch's hopelessly tired people,
some dates, scenes of disasters, names: incantations which we repeated
then with a childish hope of the living, more foolish by
the wisdom which time has given you: living
at the end: after us, after all of us. - There is so little
I can transmit to you, as much as everyone. But, after all,
I have lived and don't wish to die completely: be
anyone for you, an object of statistical
pity or contempt. That which only was,
only me, is outside history. So I'll describe myself
in the only speech accessible to us both: the smell of wet
city dust outside the window (rain has fallen), the table-top
chafing my elbows, the ticking clock, the taste of hot
tea, the lamp-light which dazzles my eyes
when writing this poem - in the common speech of all
the five immortal

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