Artistic translation as a "self-sufficient" and an "integrated" object of interpretation

Notes on the margins to some Polish translations of Gottfried Benn

Stanisław Barańczak

Translated by Soren Gauger

pp. 91-112

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Stanisław Barańczak

Notes on the Margins to Some Polish Translations of Gottfried Benn


One of the key points of interest of the recently intensified research on artistic translation has been to develop a method of interpretation of individual translations. Soviet theorists have particularly delved into this issue. See, among others, E. Etkind, “Tyeoriya Obudozhestviennovo Pyeriyevoda i Zadachi Sopostavityelnoy Stilistiki,” Tyeoriya i Kritika Pyeriyevoda, Leningrad 1962, pp. 26-33; Y. Ryetzker, “Zadachi Sopostavityelnovo Analiza Pyeriyevoda,” ibid., pp. 42-52; in addition to numerous statements by translation theorists and practicing translators in the two-volume collection Aktualniye Problemy Tyeoriyi Khodzhestviennovo Pyeriyevoda: Materialy Vshyesoyuznovo Simpozyuma (25 Fyervrala – 2 Marta 1966 g.), Moscow 1967. It is entirely natural and requires no further justification that this sort of interpretation fundamentally differs from that of an original literary text. In the latter case, all the analytic procedures can in fact remain within the bounds of the single text, at times crossing into external contexts when reaching the interpretation stage. J. Sławiński, “O problemach ‘sztuki interpretacji’,” Liryka polska: Interpretacje, J. Prokop, J. Sławiński (eds.), Cracow 1966, pp. 12-13. In the case of translation, however, the matter is more complex: here immanent assessment is fundamentally impossible even at the stage of analysis, since the translation as the object of study is “integrated,” one might say, or non-self-sufficient; it can only be analyzed (to say nothing of interpreted) as a part of an at least bitextual unit of literary communication. I say at least bitextual, because alongside the problem of juxtaposing the text of the translation and the text of the original, a no less essential analytical operation is, in certain cases, juxtaposing other translations of the same text. In the literature on the theory of artistic translation there seems, as far as I am aware, to be a unanimity of opinion: if we accept that artistic translation is generally a “translational interpretation,” A term borrowed from: E. Balcerzan, Styl i poetyka twórczości Brunona Jasieńskiego…, p. 44, which refines the concept of “interpretation” introduced by I. Rievzin and V. Rozentzveig, Osnowy Obshchevo i Mashinnovo Pyeriyevoda, Moscow 1964, p. 59. the scholar’s statement on the topic is an “interpretation of an interpretation,” involving a text through which the primary text – the text of the original – constantly shines. In other words, for the scholar an interpretation of a translation is always of a comparative nature – in the initial phase, at least.

At this juncture, however, we ought to call attention to a seemingly evident matter, which is nonetheless overwhelmingly overlooked in translation theory. Interpretation of a literary text is not reserved for the scholar or the critic; every ordinary reader also makes an interpretation as they go along. If we transfer this evident thesis into the field of the study of artistic translation, we find that the interpretation of a translation is not always – or not even often – an act of comparison, or an “interpretation of an interpretation.” The sociology of literary reception – even in the form of intuitive and casual observations with no statistical reinforcement – tells us that things are quite the opposite: in everyday practice interpreting a translation in comparison with the original is an extremely rare phenomenon. This mode of reading is more of a postulate addressed at the specialized reader than a generalization of empirical observation.

Empirical reality though shows us a different picture. The reader of a translation of a literary work printed in a magazine or a book, to say nothing of the listener to a reading of a translated text, on a radio program, for example, only consults the original text when there are special reasons to do so, and special conditions make it possible. Let us note that there are more obstacles than facilitation for comparing the text of the translation with that of the original. Here we have in mind circumstances such as, above all, unfamiliarity with or insufficient knowledge of the language of the original, then a lack of access or impeded access to the original text (in terms of translated literature in Poland this problem is additionally strengthened by the fact that we hardly have any bilingual editions of poetry, so popular in the West, in which the original and translation are printed side by side), Rare exceptions include a selection of T.S. Eliot’s poems (Poezje wybrane, Warszawa 1960) or Jerzy Lisowski’s anthology of French poetry (Antologia poezji francuskiej, Warszawa 1966). and finally, psychological motives, such as an inability to recall a work after hearing it only once (in the case of “audio” renditions, e.g. through the radio), or a simple lack of interest. All of these factors mean that among the readers of a given translation, only a very small percentage will find themselves in a reading situation where they can and want to interpret the translation as an “integrated” object, i.e. in comparison with the original. For the great majority of readers, then, a translation is a “self-sufficient” object of interpretive attempts; the tacit acceptance of the fact that this is a translation carries no interpretive consequences, as there is no direct comparison between the translation and the original text. It does seem, however, that this conclusion might carry certain consequences in making evaluations, though they may be of secondary importance. Thus, various poetic licenses, stylistic shortcuts (e.g. those resulting from the necessity of observing the rules of versification), simplified verse patterns etc. are more easily tolerated, as has sometimes been observed, at the moment when the reader understands that this is a translation, and not a “primary” text. One of many examples: the commonplace use of short forms of possessive pronouns (from moja to ma, twoje to twe etc.) would be condemned in contemporary Polish as a pretentious stylization. Meanwhile, it suffices to realize that we are dealing with a translation – even of a contemporary work, though one that rigorously maintains a syllabic pattern – and the translator is given free license to use these words.

This thesis on the quantitative predominance of translation treated as a “self-sufficient” object of interpretation is confirmed not only by common sense (it is evident that, even in the case of the most popular languages, the majority of readers will always be those who do not know them, or who know them insufficiently to fully compare the translation and the original), but also by comparative literary studies. The latter supplies evidence and many particular observations showing that, quite often, a given literary work influences a foreign-language literature not in its original language form, but in the form of a translation: for example, certain stylistic peculiarities coming from the translator are accepted in this form and assimilated as a particular attribute of the original. A simple example: when we say that a Polish or German writer uses a Biblical style, we take a certain unprincipled mental shortcut – what we mean, to be more precise, is that the model for the stylization was, in the first example, the translation by, for example, Father Jakub Wujek, and in the second case, by Martin Luther. We would probably be able to find a great many similar examples in the history of literature, when concepts such as “the Petrarchan” or “the Byronic” mean less the styles of Petrarch or Byron than the styles of their translators.

Our present task is not, however, to carry out this or that conclusion borrowed from the sociology or the psychology of reception of translated literature (at any rate, such conclusions would not hold without statistical grounding); observations from these fields only serve us as a point of departure. We intend to prove that the “self-sufficient” or “integrated” nature of artistic translation as an object of interpretation is a term that not only generalizes empirical observations from the realm of “actual” reception (i.e. external with regard to the work), but – and this, it seems, translation theory has yet to acknowledge – that they are also immanent categories, properties of the translation that exist in its linguistic form. In other words, if we accept that the translator is simultaneously the Reader of the Sender’s message and the Sender of a message to the Reader, as Ryevzhin and Rozentzveig suggested in their model of translation communication, I. Ryevzhin, V. Rozentzveig, Osnowy Obshchevo i Mashinnovo Pyeriyevoda…., pp. 57, 58. we must also accept the notion that as the sender, the translator can design an image of the virtual reader See: M. Głowiński, “Wirtualny odbiorca w strukturze utworu poetyckiego,” Studia z teorii i historii poezji, Series I, M. Głowiński (ed.), Wrocław 1968, pp. 7-32. We need not add here that we are not speaking of the reader in the narrow sense of the word (marked by the presence of direct forms of address), but of the reader in the wider sense, in which “the poetic work positions the reader, as through its very structure it presupposes the reader's particular behavior, regulates and defines it, containing precise directives which must be respected if the reader does not want to come into conflict with the text, or utterly deviate from it” (ibid., p. 15). in the message they create (i.e. the translation), independent of the reader that might be designed by the Sender in the original text. In the most general terms, we might distinguish two types of virtual reader as designed by the translator in the artistic translation:

1) the virtual reader who treats the translation as a “self-sufficient” object of interpretation, i.e. who stops at the interpretation of the text of the translation without comparing it with the original text;

2) the virtual reader who treats the translation as an “integrated” object of interpretation, i.e. who interprets also by juxtaposing the translation with the original text (or possibly with other existing translations of the same text).

To date, translation theory has only attempted to distinguish between types of sender-translator images as designed in the translated text (it is on this basis that Edward Balcerzan has discriminated between authorial, polemical, and covert translation); E. Balcerzan, “The Poetics of Artistic Translation,” in this volume. it has not yet sought to design a virtual reader into the linguistic substance of the translation.

Nonetheless, the fact that a translator presupposes one of the two above-named types of readers may have substantial stylistic and compositional implications. It is well known that artistic translation, which is generally a “translatorial interpretation” (while maintaining literary correctness) and not a “translation proper,” always entails various transformations on different levels with regard to the original text. As noted by V. Koptilov, these transformations can involve: (1) condensing the original material, (2) expanding the material, (3) changing the order of its component parts, (4) substituting a certain part with its equivalent. V. Koptilov, “Transformatziya Khudozhestvyennovo Obraza v Poeticheskom Pyeyevodye,” Tyeoriya i Kritika Pyerevoda, Leningrad 1962, pp. 35-38. Koptilov deals strictly with the transformation of what he calls “artistic images,” but his observations can be naturally applied to units of lower textual levels. Each of these changes can be caused by one of four factors: (a) systemic differences between the languages of the original and the translation, (b) differences in the rhythmic form of the original and translation, (c) different levels of the development of the literary language and its varieties, and (d) The peculiarity of the author’s general manner of expression or certain idiosyncrasies of style, as felt by the translator. Ibid., p. 42. It should be evident that each of the above transformations can bring some inevitable loss or, on the contrary, some surplus of information with regard to that contained in the original text. Bearing in mind, of course, that the “quantity of information depends not only on the length of the text, but also on the probability distribution.” See: J. Ziomek, Staff i Kochanowski. Próba zastosowania teorii informacji w badaniach nad przekładem, Poznań 1965, p. 42. It is at that point that the translator is compelled to make a more or less conscious decision, to take a stance vis-a-vis the virtual reader. The translator can assume that the reader will be treating the translation as a “self-sufficient” object of interpretation; this assumption encourages a relatively liberal approach to transformations (particularly in terms of linguistic resources that have a “light load” of information). On the other hand, every loss of information that could destroy the semantic coherence of the text has to be immediately recompensed, as the virtual reader is cy definition incapable of filling in this information on the basis of his acquaintance with the original text. The reverse also applies: the translator can assume (however unmotivated this assumption might seem from the standpoint of the real sociology of reception) a virtual reader who is familiar with the original or who, in the course of reading, compares the original with the translation. This assumption can, to some degree, hinder the freedom in making transformations, as the translator is forever under close scrutiny. However, on the other hand, it tolerates a way of communicating that makes the translation less than coherent and self-sufficient semantically, it makes some of the information in it “potential,” as it can be revealed only through juxtaposition with the original.

To avoid any misunderstanding, at this point we ought to stress two things. First: the border between the two translation methods is, of course, quite fuzzy. Both types of virtual reader in their pure forms appear only in short segments of the translated text; they can only be treated as polar ideal types toward which this or that particular work leans. Second: the introduction of the above division has no direct link with the assessment of the translator’s achievement. It seems that each of the two translation principles can lead to equally brilliant or catastrophic results – we can make norules here. As I mentioned above, both methods facilitate the translator’s work, but at the same time involve complementary and equally burdensome difficulties.

We might ask, then, what makes the translator decide upon one method and not the other, upon designing one image of the virtual reader and not any other into the linguistic form of the translation. The answer here is complex indeed. Let us bypass, for the time being, the issue of individual conditioning, such as those that might concern the translator’s theoretical stance on translation, or in wider terms, the act of linguistic communication; a special case of such conditioning will be discussed at length at the conclusion of this essay. For the sake of order however, let us settle the scope of certain general and extra-individual conditioning that can sometimes exert pressure on the translator regardless of their personal intentions.

Such conditioning will surely include the historical state of convictions concerning the essence and function of translation (in the Enlightenment period, for example, the dominant type was certainly the “self-sufficient” translation). Secondly, it should be obvious that the choice of the “self-sufficient” translation strategy will be practically obvious when translating from an exotic language, or one that is largely unknown in a given society. We might presuppose that a translation into any European language from Japanese, Swahili, or Persian will be “self-sufficient,” as in such cases the virtual reader will represent the average actual readership, among whom these languages are known only to a precious few. And conversely, the more popular a given foreign language is among the actual readers, the greater the potential of the appearance of “integrated” translations. Another general determining factor is the average level of knowledge and cultural and literary background of general actual readers. Theorists point out, for example, that adaptation – which, according to our terminology, should be called an extreme form of “self-sufficient” translation – is generally a result of particular assumptions as to the model reader, whether it stems from accommodating the demands of “insufficiently prepared” readership, or an assumption of a difference of development in the languages and literatures of the given nations, or, finally, an acknowledgment of the taboos functioning in a given literature, which force the translator to edit or condense parts of his work. See: the statements by O. and Y. Oyamm in Aktualne Problemy Tyeoriy Khudozhestvyennovo Pyeyevodye, Vol. I, pp. 217-227. Finally, we ought to recall an extremely important factor: the presence of other, earlier translations of the same text in the target language. There is also a certain influence – though to a lesser degree – exerted by the existence of translations of other texts by the same author or translations of other authors from the same epoch, etc. The more such translations exist and the greater the popularity achieved by any one of them, the greater its impact on the native literary tradition, the higher the probability of every retranslation adhering to the “integrated” translation pole, and interpretable only when compared with the original and the previous translations. A typical example is Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat” translated into Polish by Adam Ważyk, which the translator himself described as a “translation that was navigated” by the famous rendering by Zenon Przesmycki.

Before we proceed to the central issue, namely how does the designed type of virtual reader manifest itself in the linguistic organization of the translation, let us add several minor observations. The adoption of the strategy of “integrated” or “self-sufficient” translation can be reflected not only in the linguistic shape of the translated text itself, but also in a certain surrounding context, or in certain editorial strategies, as we might call them. Thus, the above-mentioned form of publishing a translation in synoptic juxtaposition with the original text is a clear symptom of the assumption (made, of course, by the editor or publisher, and not necessarily by the translator) that the reader will perform– or is, at least, capable of performing – a comparative analysis of the two texts An interesting relevant comment was made by Zbigniew Bieńkowski with reference to Jerzy Lisowski’s anthology of French poetry (“Pomnika człon drugi,” Twórczość 1971): “This will sound paradoxical, but bilinguality [of this edition – S.B.] gives the translator more freedom with respect to the original, which is present right there, inviting confrontation/ … For the function of the original is not to keep guard but to complement [emphasis added – S.B.].” . On the other hand, one might list many “editorial” symptoms of the assumption that the translation will be read as “self-sufficient”: from various translator’s footnotes (e.g.: “This is a wordplay in the original...”), to translator’s introductions or afterwords to the translated works (presenting the reader with a description of what was for various reasons inevitably distorted or lost in the translation process), or separate articles or books that are commentaries on the translation (e.g. statements by practicing translators in the On the Art of the Translation O sztuce tłumaczenia, M. Rusinek (ed.), Wrocław 1955. volume, or Maria Kurecka’s book on translation problems encountered in Doctor Faustus M. Kurecka, Diabelne tarapaty, Poznań 1970. Kurecka’s book is a theoretical piece on the art of translation, an essay on Doctor Faustus, a memoir and even a reportage – all in one; however, it is most interesting as an example of a translator’s statement aimed at communicating to the reader all information which had to partly lost in translation due to differences in linguistic systems and cultures, as well as translation conventions. ). A similar role is played by another editorial strategy often adopted in publishing poetry translations, involving juxtaposition of several translations of a single original text: this would seemingly invite “integrated” reading, but it does nonetheless occur that the comparison of several translations leads to mutual supplementation of their information gaps or mistranslations, which in turn enables a reading without reference the original, and therefore “self-sufficient.” This particularly applies to works that make use of ambiguity and display a high degree of linguistic overstructuring.

We should like to demonstrate the strictly linguistic markers of the choice of one or the other translation method described above, labeled “self-sufficient” and “integrated” for the sake of convenience, based on the example of a few Polish translations of Gottfried Benn’s poetry – two poems from the poet’s early Expressionist period.

Benn has seldom been translated into Polish By Witold Hulewicz, Stefan Napierski, Adolf Sowiński, Witold Wirpsza, Mieczysław Jastrun, Jan Prokop, Feliks Przybylak, among others., and those who translated his poems as a matter of conscious decision and with a firm knowledge of the undertaking can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I put these works forward as exemplification primarily because the translators come from various literary epochs and are at various distances from the translated text: from Witold Hulewicz, who, placing a passage from Benn’s “A Song” in Zdrój magazine, could treat it as a fresh new literary item from the West, to Witold Wirpsza, who might have seen this early stage of Benn’s work from the perspective of his later development (indeed, this was probably inevitable), including the last stage, as represented by Statische Gedichte and the later volumes, which was diametrically different in many respects.

When we analyze the majority of these various translations a certain regularity we notice: the closer they are to the original text chronologically, the less they are a part of an “overcome” tradition, the more they are a part of the literary present the more the literary translation veers toward being “self-sufficient.” This regularity is perhaps most evident in a few translations of the same original text. Let us take, for example, Benn’s aforementioned poem, “A Song” (or rather its first part – by some strange coincidence both translators decided not to translate the second part). Here is the original:


O daß wir unsere Ururahnen wären.Ein Klümpchen Schleim in einem warmen Moor.Leben und Tod, Befruchten und GebärenGlitte aus unseren stummen Säften vor.

Ein Algenblatt oder ein Dünenhügel,Vom Wind Geformtes und nach unten schwer.Schon ein Libellenkopf, ein Möwenflügelwäre zu weit und litte schon zu sehr. Quoted from: G. Benn, Fleisch. Gesammelte Lyrik, Berlin 1917, p. 44.

Translation by Olwid (Witold Hulewicz):

Z Pieśni

Obyśmy byli własnymi dziadami;

Garstką błota w ciepłym trzęsawisku.

Życie i śmierć, płodność i rodzenie

Z naszych niemych płynęłoby soków.

Liściem na wodzie albo piasku wydmą,

Czemś, co wiatr ukształtował i co na dół cięży.

Bo główka ważki albo skrzydło mewy

Już za szerokie i za wiele cierpią. Reprinted in: Brzask epoki. W walce o nową sztukę, Vol. 1, 1917-1919, Poznań 1920, p. 225.

Translation by Stefan Napierski:


O, być nam, jako dawni praojcowie,

garsteczką błota na ciepłem bagnisku.

By śmierć i życie w tajemniczej zmowie,

Płód i płodzenie ze soków wytrysku

Spłynęły nieme. Bo kto to wypowie?

Liść drobny, piasek ów na usypisku,

Wszystko, co ciąży w dół i przez powiewy

Wiatru, jak podmuch, jest ukształtowane:

Ach: główka łątki, szare skrzydło mewy

Za wielkie, nadto już męką wezbrane. S. Napierski, Liryka niemiecka, Vol. 1, Lublin 1936, p. 11.

The two translations differ rather substantially, and yet either should fall into the category of “self-sufficient” translations. Applying a bit of psychology, one might say that the translators “were not thinking” about the possibility of the reader comparing the originals and the translations. To speak in more objective terms: these translations show no evidence of linguistic evidence to indicate that some information was consciously shifted toward the moment of comparison with the original text. Both translations, and the first one in particular, can be interpreted as almost utterly “self-sufficient” pieces; the minor losses or distortion of information, if they can be observed at all (particularly in Napierski’s work; Hulewicz’s rendering almost deserves to be called a literal translation), are immediately compensated for within the same translation. Thus, for example, Napierski clearly weakens the poetic impact of the phrase O daß wir unsere Ururahnen wären (lit.: “Oh, if only we were our great-great-ancestors”) by rendering it as a mundane comparison, O, być nam, jako dawni praojcowie (Oh, let us be like the old forefathers), but then compensates it by “strengthening” another fragment, where instead of the conditional form we find the indicative mood in a subordinate purpose clause (“By śmierć i życie... / Spłynęły” – “So that death and life.../ Flowed”) in place of Leben und Tod (…) glitte (…) vor. While dashing one metaphorical ellipsis, the translator constructs another elsewhere. Strategies of this sort do not arise, however, from fear of a critical comparison with the original; this can be seen in the liberties which both translators take with the strictly poetic information, such as the versification structure of the original. Benn’s almost entirely regular iambic pentameter G. Benn, Fleisch. Gesammelte Lyrik…. p. 81. , with its ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, is replaced in Hulewicz’s version by a structure that oscillates between free verse and very indecisive eleven-syllable lines with evident irregularities (particularly in line six), and no attempt at rhyme. With Napierski it is the reverse: We are dealing with a certain excess of versification structure as compared to the original, as demonstrated by the use of a subtler enjambment and a richer rhyme scheme (ABABABCDCD). A side effect of the latter is the extension of the poem by two lines, which means that practically all of the transformative changes in the poem boil down to “extension” (to borrow a term from Kopitilov). We might experimentally try to determine what might remain of Napierski’s translation if these amplifications were to be removed (leaving the hyperboles, such as nadto już męką wezbrane [“now risen with torment”] in place of litte schon zu seer):

O, być nam, jako [...] praojcowie,

garsteczką błota na ciepłem bagnisku.

By śmierć i życie [...],

Płód i płodzenie ze soków [...]

Spłynęły nieme. [...]

Liść [...], piasek [...] na usypisku,

Wszystko, co ciąży w dół i przez powiewy

Wiatru [...] jest ukształtowane;

[...] główka łątki, [...] skrzydło mewy

Za wielkie, nadto już męką wezbrane.

All the experimentally deleted fragments – which, as we can see, amount to twenty-five per cent of the words – are utterly neutral in terms of their meaning: they are either conventional epithets (“szare skrzydło mewy” – “the gray wing of the gull”), or tautologies (“dawni praojcowie” – “old forefathers,” “nieme, Bo kto to wypowie?” – “silent, For who could speak it?”), or basic “filler,” to plaster the holes in the rhythm (“piasek ów” – “that sand,” “Ach! Główka łątki” – “Oh! Damselfly head”). Nonetheless, even if these translator’s interpolations double the information supplied by the original, we must acknowledge that, treated as a “self-sufficient” object of interpretation, Napierski’s translation surely would not offend us so much with a surplus of unnecessary elements; it is only when juxtaposed with the original that it reveals its tautologies and the redundancy of some additions.

To sum up: both of the translations we have analyzed, which are at a relatively close chronological proximity from the Expressionist phase of Benn’s work, from which “Gesänge” derives, are premised upon being “self-sufficient” translations, and in particular Hulewicz’s rendering, which is more contemporary to the original. Their linguistic structure presupposes a virtual reader who will not compare the translation with the original, and for whom the translation is the sole source of information, whether “cognitive” or “poetic.” This is seen in the coherence and semantic self-sufficiency of each of the translations, and in the fact that their versification structures do not even attempt to match the original. We might say with a heavy dose of simplification that the poetic strength of either translation is in its “self-sufficient” treatment; a juxtaposition with the original proves fatal in either case. This is not because these translations are particularly bad; as we have said, in such cases there is no correlation of this kind. We could find many instances of splendid translations also conceived as “self-sufficient,” and for which a juxtaposition with the originalwould be unfavorable, too, as an event that was not “calculated into the equation.” To remove the aspect of evaluation once and for all, instead of “would be unfavorable” we might rather say: it would add nothing to the information of the translation in a way that was intended by the translator.

And yet – can we really imagine a translation in which the translator has clearly intended for the information to be “enhanced” by a comparison with the original? Of course we can; let us take, for example, Benn’s poem “The Cretan Vase” as translated by Witold Wirpsza several years ago (the piece comes from roughly the same time period as “A Song”).Here is the original text:

Kretische Vase

Du, die Lippe voll Weingeruch,

Blauer Ton-Zaun, Rosen-Rotte

Um den Zug mykenischen Lichte,

Un-geräte, Tränke-Sehnsucht

Weit verweht.

Lockerungen. Es vollzieht sich

Freigebärung. Lose leuchtend

Tiere, Felsen, Hell-Entzwecktes:

Veilchenstreifen, laue Schädel


Welle gegen Starr und Stirn,

Glüher tiefer Bacchanale

Gegen die Vernichtungsmale:

Aufwuchs und Bewußtseinshirn –

Spüle, stäube! Knabenhände,

Läuferglieder, raumumschlungen,

stranden dich zu Krug und Hang,

wenn bei Fischkopf, Zwiebel, Flöten

Leda-Feste rosenröten

Paarung, Fläche, Niedergang. G. Benn, Fleisch. Gesammelte Lyrik …, p. 81.

And Witold Wirpsza’s translation:

Waza kreteńska

Ty, o wardze z woni wina

gródź błękitne gliny w różach

pasmo mykeńskiego blasku,

bezstateczność, wszerz rozwiany

brak napoju.

Rozluźnienia. Tu się staje

wolna radość. Luźno lśnią

bestie, skały, jasno błędne:

pasma fiołków, ciepłe czaszki


Fala bije w czół czelności

i bakchicznych głębin żary

biją w znaki złej zagłady:

wprost ku mózgoświadomości

spłukaj, zakurz – ręce chłopców

i biegaczów wprzestrzeniowne

rzucą się o czary pierś,

rybi łeb, cebulę, flety,

w czerwień róży, w święto Ledy,

w kopulację, w płaskość, w śmierć. W. Wirpsza, “Gottfried Benn,” Gra znaczeń. Szkice literackie, Warsaw 1965, p. 125.

In both the first printing in a literary journal and its the reprint in a collection of Wirpsza’s essays (“A Play on Meanings”), the translation was situated in a double – and in the book even triple – context. The first was the context of Benn’s other translated works; it is crucial here that thisselection of poems was meant to survey all the stages of the poet’s work, from his Naturalist/Expressionist debut (Morgue, 1912) to the Constructivist Classicism of his final stage, initiated by Statische Gedichte (1948). From the outset, therefore, “Cretan Vase” was grasped from a historical perspective, as a link in a certain development, being not only a consummation of the early works, but also a forecast of achievements to come. This is confirmed by the second context: the brief sketch on Benn in Wirpsza’s preface to his translations. The third and final context is the remaining essays in the book, whose thematic “common denominator” – essentially, the principle of contradiction and play as the essence of literature – allows us to see Benn through the lens of the translator’s aesthetic views.

For the time being, let us put aside this more general issue in order to see whether Wirpsza’s translation is indeed, by intent, an “integrated translation,” i.e. if a comparison with the original will enhance the information in the text.

To begin, let us consider a single word: Benn’sUn-geräte, which Wirpsza translates as bezstateczność (unstaidness). In the original we have a neologism, stressed by the use of a hyphen: moreover, Un-geräte is a clearly ambiguous term. Our first association is that it has been created from the word das Gerät, in the plural form, Geräte (a tool, device, or receptacle), with the added negative prefix “un-”; but it can also be seen as a noun derivative of the participle ungeraten (failed or unresolved, not deduced). The object of the metaphorical description – the ancient work of art – is thus defined by two meanings that coexist in a single word: firstly, the Cretan vase is a “non-receptacle,” it has not been made for practical purposes, it is a pure work of art, free of pragmatic “everyday” dependencies; secondly, its Classical beauty nonetheless holds a mysterious flaw, an incompletion, a sense of lack (suggested by the following metaphorical definition: Tränke-Sehnsucht / Weit verweht – lit. a “far/wide-scattered yearning for a drink”).

How might a translator of a “self-sufficient” translation proceed in this situation? Obviously, he would have two choices: either he must abandon the ambiguity in favor of the meaning that strikes him as more crucial in the context, This is the conscious tactic chosen by another of Benn's translators, A. Sowiński: “(...) here and there I felt simply compelled to apply a certain amount of interpretation, for what in the language of the original texts might pass for ambiguity, when translated into another language, anchored in another poetic and – above all – etymological tradition it tends to become mired in simple obscurity.” See: A. Sowiński, “Gotfryd Benn – Wiersze,” Kultura, Paris 1959. or he must attempt to render both meanings, either by creating an analogous ambiguous neologism in the Polish language, or by introducing a longer descriptive term. Wirpsza finds a different solution altogether: he creates an analogous Polish neologism to render the meaning, but the ambiguity of the word appears exclusively in juxtaposition with the original text. If we were to interpret “Waza kreteńska” as a “self-sufficient” piece, all we might find in the neologism bezstateczność (“unstaidness”) is a derivative of the word stateczność (“staidness),” giving us a meaning that approximates what we find in the original association with ungaraten (except that the meaning of “incompletion” would be replaced by the related meaning of instability, impermanence, motion). Only a comparison with the original is able to suggest the derivation of bezstateczność from statek (“cookware/vessel”), though in the Polish language this sort of pseudo-etymological derivation of the word would in all likelihood go unnoticed by the reader (particularly given that the context of the poem indicates the first and more “visible” meaning).

Thus, we have a representative example of the “integrated” translation method: a word whose full informative load is gleaned only when the translation is juxtaposed with the original; an ambiguity is objectively there inside it, but it remains potential and camouflaged to such an extent that, if the translation were to be treated as a “self-sufficient” object of interpretation, it might well be considered the reader’s arbitrary and subjective invention (if, indeed, it is noticed at all). The fact that this translation strategy has been presupposed as a result of assuming a certain type of virtual reader can be proven in only one way: through an experimental The principle of experimentation in translation studies has been given special theoretical focus by Edward Balcerzan, Styl i poetyka twórczości dwujęzycznej.... See also: E. Balcerzan, “Teoria i krytyka przekładu w Związku Radzieckim,” Pamiętnik Literacki 57, 1966, pp. 658-659. construction of a separate translation of this passage, in which an equivalent for Un-geräte could be found in another ambiguous Polish expression, wherein this ambiguity is “uncovered,” or perceptible without recourse to the original. Here is one such experimental translation of the first stanza:

Ty, gron greckich wonna wargo,

murze dźwięczny, roto róż

w pochodzie mykeńskich świateł,

nie-do-statków płynna pustko

wkrąg rozsnuta.

If the ambiguity is not visible here at once, it can, at least, be rooted out without comparison to the original text: the use of hyphens (with a function analogous to how Benn uses them) lends a graphic “artificiality” to the word’s appearance, thus drawing the reader’s attention away from the meaning of the word as a whole (niedostatek – i.e. insufficiency) and shifting it toward its component parts (something that is nie-do-statków – i.e. is “no part of cookware”).

Wirpsza’s translation of Un-geräte, using “veiled ambiguity”, demonstrates a situation where the translator has managed to render a nearly exact equivalent of the original’s ambiguous term. Yet for a full depiction of the essence of the “integrated translation” we ought to also take a closer look at cases when the translator is, for various reasons, incapable of finding an equivalent. Thus, we have the line: Blauer Ton-Zaun, Rosen-Rotte translated by Wirpsza as: gródź błękitna gliny w różach.

The obvious sacrifice made to the syllabic equivalence is the surrender of semantic equivalnce: after all, Ton-Zaun is not only a gródź gliny [clay bulkhead/fence] but also a gródź dzwięku [sound buffer] (the German Ton is a homonym) – an additional meaning that would be quite fairly read into this context, but which simply “did not fit” into the line (much like Rosen-Rotte, literally “detachment” or “army unit,” though this meaning is perhaps secondary here). When we compare the translation with the original text we find that the elimination of this important meaning was no accident: at the moment of the juxtaposition with the original (and only at this moment) we catch the significance of the adjective błękitna [blue], which remains in the translation, though eliminating it would have allowed all the other meanings to “fit” (as we have shown in the above-quoted experimental translation). This epithet remains in the translation for a reason, and so, too, does a juxtaposition with the original accentuate its importance for a reason: “blue” [blau] is a key word in Benn, a cue for its crucial semantic field, e.g. “Mediterranean culture.” The key role of the adjective blau and other words in this semantic field was illuminated by a book by R. Grimm: Gottfried Benn. Die farbliche Chiffre in der Dichtung, Nürnberg 1962. In most general terms, Grimm defines blau as das Südwort, „the South-word” (p. 76). Similarly, B. Alleman claims in his analysis of the later poem “Statische Gedichte”: [das] blaus [ist] die Farbe des Introvertierten, die bevorzugte Farbe, Farbe auch des ligurischen Komplexes, der Sehnsucht nach dem Süden, nach dem Mediterranem und der Latinität (B. Alleman, “Statische Gedichte. Zu einem Gedicht von Gottfried Benn,” in: Interpretationen. Band I: Deutsche Lyrik von Weckherlin bis Benn, Frankfurt am Main–Hamburg 1965, p. 329. At the same time, only a comparison with the original text shows us that the synaesthetic effect lost through eliminating the second meaning of the word Ton [sound] is, to a certain degree, transposed to the first line; warga z woni wina is an example of synaesthesia (reinforced by the alliteration), while die Lippe voll Weingeruch is a poetic trope which more resembles ordinary synecdoche.

The substitution of śmierć [death] for the final Niedergang is also among the changes introduced to the translation whose information value can only be appreciated when the translation is compared to the original text. Niedergang literally means “descent,” “setting (of the sun),” or in a broader sense (also indicated by the context of the poem), “downfall” (of a culture, civilization etc.). Where does the “death” come from in the translation? Was it only the need for a rhyme that was decisive in choosing a substitute of such a relatively distant meaning? Other options were available, after all (again – if we take the time to experiment), wherein respecting the rhyme stands as no obstacle in finding near-precise equivalents for Niedergang. For example:

rzucą cię o czary pierś


w kopulację, w płaskość, w zmierzch.


rzucą cię do czary wklęsłej,


w kopulację, w płaskość, w klęskę.

However, the choice of “death” in Wirpsza’s translation serves a particular interpretive function. He interprets “The Cretan Vase” (as we have mentioned above) as a link in a certain developmental cycle; as such, he can equate the abstract notion of the “downfall,” pertaining to Benn’s historiosophy, See: D. Rossek, Tod. Verfall und das Schöpferische bei Gottfried Benn, Munster 1969, pp. 43-60 (Chapter IV: “Der Verfall in der Geschichte und die Zivilisation als Zerfallephase der Kultur”). Rossek notes that Benn's historiosophical views show a genetic dependency on the works of Spengler and Theodor Lessing. On the role of Antiquity in Benn, see, among others: Gottfried Benn, “Dorische Welt,” Gesammelte Werke in vier Bänden, Vol. 1, D. Wellershoff (ed.), Wiesbaden 1958; F. W. Wodtke, Die Antike im Werke Gottfried Benns, Wiesbaden 1963. to the biological concept of death, which had such a major role to play in the “prosectorial” poems of the Morgue volume that came only just before “The Cretan Vase” (it is significant that Benn included all of these works, on equal footing, in his first collection of poems, titled Fleisch [Flesh]). This totally harmonizes with Benn’s own views; he saw the development of civilizations, from Antiquity to contemporary times, in terms of atrophy and disintegration. Again, however, we must emphasize that the translator’s conscious interpretive strategy – key to understanding the overall meaning of the work – can only be perceived through a comparative analysis of the translation and the original: we have to know what was replaced by the word “death” in the translation to realize the gravity and function of this substitution.

As it turns out, Wirpsza’s translation is an interpretive strategy on a yet other level. Even without knowing the external commentary (fragments of an essay accompanying the translations) Cf. in particular the remarks on alliteration and phonological orchestration as “construction factors” and the analysis of these phenomena in “The Cretan Vase.” See: W. Wirpsza, “Gottfried Benn…,” pp. 120-121. we could well draw the conclusion that, starting from the Expressionist phase of Benn’s work, the translator perceives signs of a Constructivist solicitude for the linguistic organization of a statement (nota bene – quite unlike A. Sowiński, who states that this poetry is a “great, pioneering, but provisional poetic structure A. Sowiński, “Gotfryd Benn – Wiersze…,” p. 37 [emphasis – S.B.]. ). Coming to this conclusion, however, is chiefly possible when we compare the original with the translation. We need to be able to juxtapose parallel lines:

Du, die Lippe voll Weingeruch,

Ty, o wardze z woni wina

Gegen die Vernichtungsmale:

biją w znaki złej zagłady

Welle gegen Starr und Stirn,

Fala bije w czół czelności,

Then we realize that alliteration and echolalia appear somewhat excessively in the translation, even where they are absent in the original (the last example adds a etymological affinity to the alliteration of the original). This is not, as we observed with the rhymes in Napierski’s text, an “ornament” arbitrarily added by the translator (phonological orchestration is indeed one of Benn’s chief devices for structuring poetic language); nor is this a form of “compensating” for those fragments where the original alliteration could not be rendered, as there essentially are no such places (even the relatively stylistically neutral alliteration of “Losa leuchtend” is rendered by “luźno lśnią”). This is simply a case of making stylistic attributes that objectively exist in the original text more overt, in the interests of certain interpretive aims; this overtness is perceptible only through juxtaposing the translation and the original.

As we can see from the foregoing analyses, the “integrated” translation is a wasteful undertaking for the translator. In designing a virtual reader who compares the original with the translation, the translator simultaneously accepts that the overwhelming majority of actual readers do no such thing, and thus, that a great percentage of the information contained in the translation will remain “invisible” to them, much like the sculptures in Gothic cathedrals that are situated so high as to be imperceptible to most of the observers.

Why, then, would a translator consciously choose such a thankless role? We have already mentioned certain possible “external” determining factors, but these are so general that they are incapable of furnishing a complete answer. In the particular case of Wirpsza we have taken a closer look at, we ought to underline the complex of individual determinants that concern inherently literary problems. Our task is facilitated in that Witold Wirpsza himself explains his standpoint in a number of theoretical statements. Here is an excerpt from one of them:

I will accept Mallarmé’s principle, at least when it comes to contemporary poetry, that a poem is composed of words; to my mind, this means that various words are, in the creative process, mutually impenetrable, they contact one another only as bricks do in a wall. The contact between words transpires only in the next phase, i.e. in the phase of reception; it is only then that the contact between words releases the energy previously contained in them, what occurs is an ambiguous spray of this energy, and an intersection of the spraying of its streaks. In other words: in the creative act, the word holds only potential energy, while the act of reading releases energy that is kinetic; perhaps most importantly, this happens through the reader’s active participation. W. Wirpsza, “Parę aktualnych czynników współczesnego przekładu poetyckiego,” Poezja, 1967.

One more quote:

We are increasingly coming to realize that a work of art is essentially a provocation; the artist provokes the reader into independent play with its constituent elements, and in response to this provocation the reader comes into contact with the work and, in this symbiosis, becomes its co-creator in every act of reading. (…) Active readership is thus similar to interpretation in performing a work of music, staging a drama, or, taking a wider approach to the issue, rendering a translation. W. Wirpsza, “Sztuka czytania w XX stulecia,” Nurt, 1967.

The principle of the “play of meanings,” overriding in all of Wirpsza’s creative efforts, and complementary to his notion of giving the reader the status of a co-creator of the work, has two major consequences for translation theory. Firstly, when it comes to a translation, the reader who is the translator should primarily be given the status of a co-creator; the translation serves the important critical/interpretive function vis-a-vis the original text. Secondly, a greater independence than what is found in traditional concepts must be assigned to the readers of the translation as well; in the linguistic form of the translation we ought to design a maximized image of the virtual reader, i.e. supposing the greatest possible perceptiveness, sensitivity, and criticism on the part of the reader. From here it is only one step to the idea of the translation seen as an “integrated” object of interpretation; it would seem, at any rate, that it is not only in the case of Wirpsza that this strategy is closely tied to the notion of the “active reception” of the literary work.

Translated by Soren Gauger

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