The poetic model of the world and problems of artistic translation

Based on the Polish translations of G. M. Hopkins

Stanisław Barańczak

Translated by Soren Gauger

pp. 113-135

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Based on the Polish translations of G. M. Hopkins



The premise of the present article is the simple statement that the artistic translation — if indeed it is to deserve this name — must be a reconstruction of the model of the world implied in the original text.

Of course this statement in itself is nothing particularly new: phrased in slightly different terms, it has carved a niche for itself in contemporary translatology, and especially in its subfield that studies problems of poetry translation (among Polish scholars Edward Balcerzan puts special focus upon this question). My task involves using Polish translations of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins as a series of concrete examples to indicate the multiplicity of translation methods that attempt to access this model of the world; the various understandings of the essence of the original text’s model of the world in contemporary translatorial practice; and finally, the sources and mechanics of the resulting misunderstandings and failures.

The “model of the world” concept might well seem too general and imprecise, and thus we ought to begin our observations with a definition. Following semioticians Vyacheslav Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov, I construe a “model of the world” as something that:

constitutes a program for the behavior of the individual, the collectivity, the machine, etc., since it defines its choice of operations, as well as the rules and motivations underlying them. A model of the world can be actualized in the various forms of human behavior and its products, including linguistic texts – hence the emphasis on the verbal arts – social institutions, movements of civilization, and so forth. After Thomas A. Sebeok’s formulation (consulted with Vlacheslav Ivanov) in his: Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, Lanham 1976, p. 79-80. [...] we call every such enactment a ‘text’.

Moving on to poetry and the poetry texts to be analyzed here, we immediately note two important consequences of this universal definition. Firstly, it presupposes that a “model of the world,” as a “program” inscribed in a text, is enacted in certain sociological categories, in the social micro-model called the “internal communication situation” of the poetry text. From this we draw a key conclusion: a reconstruction of a model of the world requires less an analysis of directly formulated worldview statements than an analysis of the “internal communication situation,” the system of tensions between the poetic “I” and the “You” (singular or plural), the (external) “World,” “Language,” and ultimately the “Text” itself. And secondly, poetry is special in that its language (perhaps most of all) is in itself a project and a reflection of a “model of the world.” If we see poetic language as a “special organization of natural language, dictated by a specific concept of the world”, J. Faryno, „O języku poetyckim,” Pamiętnik Literacki 63.2, 1972, p. 118. then it is clear that this definition could well be upended, i.e. that we could try to decode a “specific concept (resp. model) of the world” through analyzing the laws of linguistic organization in a given poetry text.

Thus, to encapsulate this introductory and most general stage of the argument, we shall state that the reconstruction of a poetic model of the world must be rendered not only through examining the work’s concrete philosophical, religious, moralist, or social statements, but also through analyzing the “intratextual communication situation” and the organizing principles of the poetic language — as a model of the world is reflected in both these fields on the basis of a given homology. (Of course, this presupposition applies to an ideal state of things — it concerns maximally “poetic” poetry, so to speak. On the other hand, we can raise a whole gamut of examples — drawn from “philosophizing,” agitational, didactic, or devotional poetry, for example — where the language is relatively transparent in terms of its significance, and where its organizational principles betray no particularly precise or meaningful homologies vis-à-vis the overriding model of the world. Yet in addition, such writing in a way is fundamentally disloyal to the essence of poetic quality and the autonomy of poetry, occupying the margins, as it were, of the genre of poetry.)

So far, we have discussed the “reconstruction of the poetic model of the world” in general terms. But what are its rules when such a reconstruction is attempted not by a scholar or an ordinary reader, but by a translator — that special interpreter for whom the reconstruction is only an initial stage in creating the work itself, the translation, i.e. in transfiguring a given model of the world into the substance of another ethnic language? It is common knowledge that the poetry translator who seeks to replicate the model of the world from the original text as faithfully as possible is sometimes faced with insuperable difficulties. This resistance chiefly derives from the objective differences between two language systems and then the objective differences between two systems of literary tradition with differing principles and organization, including the poetic language. If the translator apprehends the essence of a model of the world in a primitive and simplistic fashion, as a set of one-to-one worldview statements appearing in the text — and this unfortunately occurs with remarkable frequency — then their task is obviously a relatively simple one. However, poetry translations of this sort are most often regarded as translatorial mistakes. What remains in them is the “bare” content of the worldview, while what vanishes is the peculiar poetic grasp of the worldview. Meanwhile, the ideal would be to communicate both these values at once. This is, naturally, an extremely difficult task, and one that involves a whole array of semantic compromises and substitutions that do not always render the full significance. Yet the more “poetic” the poetry (in the above-described sense), the more a translator is required to choose the most challenging method of translation: delving into the original’s “model of the world" by analyzing its intratextual communication relations and forms of organization in the poetic language, and then organizing the structure and language of the translation according to homological principles.


It seems that Gerard Manley Hopkins might serve as a particularly instructive case here. His work is, above all, an example of most “poetic” poetry, i.e. with a maximal degree of linguistic structuring, and at the same time strongly rooted in a particular worldview, in this case religious and philosophical. Additional difficulties arise for every translator in the peculiar place of this poetry in its native literary tradition: chronologically it belongs to the Victorian era, though its innovations in style and world-view look far into the future: it is no accident that Hopkins is widely regarded to be the forefather and precursor of modern Anglo-Saxon poetry, much as the Romantic poet Cyprian Norwid is in Poland. This last comparison is also appropriate in that Hopkins — and this is another attribute that makes the translator’s work difficult — is a “dark” poet, whose work often has layers of cryptic meanings. This quality of his work, combined with its stylistic innovation, made Hopkins an utterly unknown poet during his own lifetime, one who was “discovered” almost thirty years after his untimely death. English literary history likes to recall the astonishing paradox — a memento in the spirit of Norwid’s “None knows the paths to posterity...” — of the posthumous and lifetime fame of two poets: Hopkins and his close friend, Robert Bridges. They were peers, hailing from a similar intellectual environment, yet the first died at the age of forty-five, not having managed to publish a single poem, and the latter lived to the ripe age of eighty-six, releasing numerous books and receiving the greatest honor in the English literary world of his day — the title of Poet Laureate. Today, the former is considered a genius and a groundbreaking innovator, while the latter is recalled on occasion, though primarily as a publisher of Hopkins’s works... Nota bene, in releasing a selection of poems by his prematurely deceased friend in 1918, Bridges — even then! — felt compelled to note in the introduction that, in his view, this was a poetry full of “rare masterly beauty,” though not free of “oddity,” “obscurity,” “affectation,” and “faults of taste.”

If we add to this all of Hopkins’s attributes that make him such an individual and difficult poet, isolated from his own epoch, we can hardly be surprised that the vast majority of Polish translations of his poetry — which are not, at any rate, numerous — make for a textbook series of translatorial failures. These failures are worth examining up close — not only to provide facile criticism (I should like to avoid this accusation by proposing my own counter-solution in each case), but because they are, through negation, as it were, instructive examples of the vital importance of the translator’s ability to reconstruct the original’s “model of the world.”

Before we proceed to our translatological investigations, however, we shall require a longer digression on the problematics of Hopkins’s worldview. To delve into the latter, we ought to begin by recalling the basic biographical facts. Hopkins was not, essentially, a poet of autobiographical confession, yet following the paths of his life is crucial to appreciating the gravity of certain elements of his worldview.

The poet was born in Stratford, Essex, in 1844, as the son (the eldest of eight children) of a higher functionary, a wealthy man of wide-ranging scientific and literary interests. A religious atmosphere (in the Anglican spirit) reigned in the home, yet there was a free cultivation of artistic interests. Hopkins graduated from Highgate School with excellent marks (showing the first signs of a budding poet), and in 1863 he began studies in Classical Literature at Balliol College in Oxford. His fellow student was the above-mentioned Robert Bridges, and his instructors were such famed figures as Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold — the leading lights in England during the period. Hopkins, theretofore an Anglican and a fierce advocate of the “Oxford movement,” which strove for the spiritual restoration of Anglicanism, soon came under the powerful influence of John Henry Newman, a famous thinker who, twenty years previous, had converted to Catholicism (later becoming a cardinal). In 1866 Hopkins decided to follow his example, and after graduating, he joined the novitiate of the Jesuit order in 1868.

This is one of only two truly pivotal dates in his brief life. Pivotal also for his poetry since, upon entering the order, Hopkins set fire to his entire collection of poetry manuscripts (only four juvenile poems survived, without his knowledge), resolving “to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless by the wishes of my superiors.” He began a nine-year study period (at St. Beuno’s College in Northern Wales), preparing for the priesthood. For Hopkins, this was a period of spiritual ripening, formative for his worldview, whose first outlines were sketched in his early youth.

An extremely interesting journal of the future poet survives; it was kept in the period from 1866 to 1875. What catches our eye in these pages is an abundance of observations, of detailed notes and reflections on the natural world. Delving into the essence of beauty found in a tree, a knoll, or a cloud, Hopkins gradually constructs his view of the outer reality, in which every object is individual and unique, containing a peculiar quality characteristic of itself alone; at the same time, this is what makes it a concrete reflection of God’s presence in the world. To define this inner quality of an object, Hopkins used the neologism “inscape” in his journals, a term most difficult to translate. It signifies an object’s specificity and uniqueness composed of sensory data, making up its internal unity; the term “instress,” in turn, signifies the complementary concept of existential energy, which defines and animates the inscape. These two terms play a central role not only in shaping Hopkins’s concepts of the natural world, but also in shaping the outlines of his poetry theory.

The latter emerged only several years later, in 1872 to be precise, when Hopkins, who was studying Medieval philosophy, came across the writings of Johannes Duns Scotus and — by his own admission — “was flush with new stroke of enthusiasm.” As a later biographer, W. H. Gardner, phrases it (with perhaps a touch of exaggeration), the influence of Duns Scotus’s thought was decisive in that “this theologian seemed to give Hopkins a sanction for doing as a Christian poet what, as a Jesuit priest, he could not possibly do, that is, assert his own individuality.” Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises remained a signpost for the future poet, of course — as was soon to be demonstrated in the dazzling sonnet “The Windhover.” Yet Duns Scotus’s categories gave this ascetic religiousness a new dimension. Doctor Subtilis, as the philosopher, as the philosopher was called by his contemporaries, attached great importance to the principle of the unique individuality of people and things, which he called “thisness” or haecceitas. Haecceitas is Hopkins’s “inscape” — the “inner form” of the object, as it were, which makes it precisely what it is, instead of something else. While St. Thomas of Aquinas, the “official” philosopher of Catholicism, maintained that, unlike the “universal,” the “individual” is essentially unknowable to human mind, Duns Scotus stressed that it was precisely individuality that can be known directly, through the senses and the intellect combined. It is only the retroactive process of abstraction that allows the mind to travel from the “particular” to the “general.”

For the time being, the philosophy of the Medieval thinker (to whom Hopkins pays tribute in the sonnet “Duns Scotus’s Oxford”) only formed the general outlook of the young Jesuit: soon, however, it would also affect the shape of his entire poetics, the incomparable sensory aspect of his work, and his concrete vision of the outer world. As already Bridges so aptly phrased it, Hopkins’s poetry is “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism” — and however improbable this combination might seem, Hopkins did indeed manage to join a unique “selfhood” of the things of the world seen with the mind’s constant attempt to rise to the aims of the supernatural world.

Let us return to Hopkins’s biography, to the second pivotal date: 1875. In December of that year he broke his seven years’ vow of silence at the urging of his rector, and in an outburst of pent-up creative energy he wrote his greatest work: the brilliant long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” This is an occasional poem: it was a tribute to the memory of five German nuns who drowned in a widely-reported sea disaster off the coast of England. But Hopkins puts everything into the work all at once: his Christian notion of human fate, his complex thoughts on the paradoxical nature of God, his Scotus-inspired philosophy of nature and language, his new poetic style, even an innovative approach to verse rhythm. In this first work after his long-past juvenile attempts, he shows himself to be a fully mature poet — and one who was so original that he did not fit into any of the contemporaneous molds. Small wonder that the Jesuit journal The Month rejected the poem, and his closest friend, Bridges, was unable to conceal his distaste after a first reading.

Hopkins was embittered, but he did not abandon poetry. In 1877, when he entered the priesthood, he created a series of marvelous “sonnets of nature”: “God’s Grandeur,” “The Starlight Night,” “Spring,” “Hurrahing in Harvest,” and others. Their only reader remained Bridges, and later two of Hopkins’s other close friends, R. W. Dixon and Coventry Patmore, with whom the poet corresponded, tirelessly explaining to them the principles of his theory and creative work.

Until 1881 Hopkins served as a preacher and missionary in various towns in England and Scotland; he particularly worked in many of the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the large industrial centers, which took a depressing toll and weakened his already frail physique. The observations he took from the working-class environments also brought about the swift radicalization of his social views. This combination of factors made the monastery authorities withdraw Hopkins from the priesthood and steer him toward university work. From 1882 to 1884 the poet taught Latin and Greek at Stonyhurst College in Blackburn, then taking the chair of Classical Literature at University College Dublin. Yet his health was quickly fading, the tragic inner quarrels were multiplying, and his creative powers were also at a low ebb. A compelling testimony to this are the “dark sonnets" of 1885, or the final poems: “Thou art indeed just... and “To R. B.” W. H. Gardner is correct in stating, however, that even in these poems there is more heroic acquiescence to his fate than barren moping about, more faith in man — “that immortal diamond” — and in “the comfort of Resurrection,” than doubt and helplessness. This, at any rate, serves as the triumphal coda of one of the most outstanding poems of the last period, “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

In 1889 Hopkins fell into a typhoid fever, complicated by peritonitis. After a brief struggle with the illness, the poet died on 8 June.


Were he only a philosopher poet, a Christian artist pondering God, nature, and mankind, this would have been enough to make Hopkins, with his insightful sensitivity and depth, a remarkable poet. As it stands, he is a doubly remarkable poet in that, during the Victorian Era, in a time of didacticism and verbose rhyming philosophizing, he discovered that a poem should give the reader reflections upon the world in its own private way. It should less instruct the reader, directly supply them with information or didactic postulates, than focus their attention upon what is central to poetry: the language. Poetry is the art of the word. As such, it should govern the word and the sentence so that the very manner of their formation give the reader certain information — albeit in need of decoding. Furthermore: language should be a miniature model of the world the poem describes.

It is an extraordinarily difficult task to tear away from the conventions of the epoch in order to harness all the elements of a style to do poetic work, beginning with the tiniest atoms of speech. What is fundamental for Hopkins from the outset — from “The Wreck of the Deutschland” — it to choose stylistic operations which would bring to language what derived from Scotus’s “thisness” in the poet’s philosophy. If the intellect learns primarily what is singular, individual, and unto-itself through the senses, if we can see an inscape in each thing – what makes it what it is, and not something else – then the language of the poem (which is, after all, the discovery of the individual uniqueness of the things of this world) must be marked by an analogous drive toward the concreteness and uniqueness of names. “Down to the least separable part [a poem should have] an individualizing touch,” as Hopkins worded his creative credo in a lecture.

This tendency begins, of course, with the choice of vocabulary. Hopkins’s poetical lexicon abounds in unusual expressions, rare ones used once only, yet immediately striking in their concreteness, their semantic targeting of the crucial attribute of an object; often such words are additionally emphasized because of their placement in a rhyme scheme (see, for example, the remarkable rhyme of “billion — sillion — vermilion” in the “The Windhover”). Hopkins’s commentaries to his own works in essays or, more directly, in letters to his friends, bear testimony to his persistence in seeking words to render most precisely the sensory qualities of an object, as in the unexpected use of “foil” (whose meaning might seem rather too technical for poetry) in the second line of “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

The poet copiously justifies the choice in a letter to Bridges, stating that he was chiefly after a lighting effect created by gold foil when shaken — a flash that resembles lightning. He similarly corrected his correspondent when the latter, in the midst of a polemic, misquoted a passage from “Duns Scotus’s Oxford”: it was not “airy between towers,” Hopkins protested, but “branchy between towers,” as Oxford, as his memory informed him, was most striking for its thick foliage between its towers, and the poet felt the change of “branchiness” to “airiness” upset the “inscape” of the view he described. Seeking expressions with the most of an “individualizing touch,” Hopkins does not shirk from colloquial speech, or even from dialects (“God rest him all road ever he offended" from “Felix Randal”); through context he mobilizes peripheral meanings of words; and finally, he creates neologisms — an utter horrendum for the English poetry of the time — or multi-word compounds. “I have invented a number of new words,” he explains in a letter, “I cannot do without them.” Indeed: at the core is the necessity of individualizing naming, extracting the “inscape” of the things described — this end justifies violence to the stylistic conventions of the epoch, and even the grammatical and dictionary rules of the language.

And thus, the precision in names, and by the same token, the precision in image. Even when tackling the most abstract issues, Hopkins always translated them into a language of concrete, tangible visions. This was not only to avoid a rhetoric that was hollow and diluted; it was also because such a seemingly abstract problem as the presence of God in the world manifested itself to the poet through a range of extremely concrete phenomena and images, through the existence of those countless things “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim” in the poem “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plow;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.

Perhaps the poet’s most outstanding expression of an analogy between the nature of the world and the nature of language is the sonnet “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame.” Let us have a look at the text in the original and in an attempted Polish translation:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stories ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

[I ważek wartkie wrzenia, zimorodków zimne

Ognie; i krągła studnia, gdzie kamień rzucony

Brzmi echem; i ton struny tkniętej, i skłon dzwonu,

Co swą szeroką mową głosi własne imię —

Wszelka rzecz tego świata czyni to jedynie:

Wydziela z siebie wnętrze swe, tkwiąc w nim jak w domu;

Trwa sama w sobie — i swe ja rzuca nam do nóg,

Krzycząc Po tom powstała: by być tym, co czynię.

Więcej powiem: człek prawy sobą prawo tworzy;

Łaska jest w nim — i w tym, co czynić mu się zdarzy;

Tym chce się Bogu wydać, kim jest w oczach Bożych —

Chrystusem — bo w tysiącach miejsc Chrystus się jarzy

Blaskiem, co ciała cudze prześwietla i oczy,

By Pan mógł dostrzec światłość w rysach ludzkich twarzy.]

Here again we can make out, above all, the complete — and discursively presented — theory of “inscape.” Every thing of this world, Hopkins tells us, possesses a “self” that distinguishes it from other things. This “self” is a kind of inner essence of things but at the same time the thing, as it were, extracts its “self” from itself, manifesting the “self” through its sensorial work (“What I do is me”).

Yet something even more important is worth noting. Hopkins not only lays out his theory of reality in his poem discursively; his poetic speech also constructs its parallel reflection or illustration. An object manifests its “self” by acting on our senses — thus, let us not only describe, but also demonstrate this phenomenon through what is both the building matter and the tool of poetry: through language. And thus the “bell” in this poem indeed “is what it does,” because the words referring to it (“hung — swung — finds — tongue — fling"), monosyllabic and based on nasal phones, onomatopoeically imitate the ringing of a bell. The kingfishers “catch fire” and the dragonflies “draw flame” not only because these metaphors have a sound visual basis, but also because each of them is based on alliteration, creating, as it were, an extra bond between the parts of the metaphor. The link between the internal “self” of the object and its external sensory effect, including its name, is “proven” through language alone.

Thus, we come to the second fundamental problem in the relationship between the model of the world and poetic language. For the second basic component of Hopkins’s philosophy is his conviction that the visible world is a reflection of the Divine harmony of all things. Many poems — such as the above-cited “Pied Beauty” or “God’s Grandeur” — speak of this directly. But all of the poet’s works, even the most tragic and internally at odds, document this conviction in an indirect manner: through molding the poetic language to be a model and tangible proof of the harmony of Creation. Above all, this is the harmony between word and thing: the name selected by the poet is never accidental, as we have seen. It not only needs to define a sensory aspect of the object accurately, but, insofar as possible, it also has to be an aural equivalent of this aspect. This accounts for the great quantities of onomatopoeia in Hopkins’s verses, sometimes borrowed from a language outside of poetry, but more frequently foisted upon words through the poetic context. It is as if the task of the poet were to prove that, contrary to everyday experience, one can perceive a natural motivation and necessity in the relationship between the name and the thing.

However, the harmony of all things must find its reflection not only in the link between word and thing, but also among words themselves. This explains, in turn, the true orgy of alliteration and other means of phonetic orchestration that Hopkins’s contemporaries found excessive, while we tend to find it striking and delightful, as a show of remarkable poetic virtuosity that serves concrete aims. The phonetic orchestration, in the forms of alliteration, echolalia, and internal rhymes, has an important semantic effect in these works: it links expressions, makes us seek a certain hidden necessity in their combination, a certain deeper similarity or kinship (in such cases we might speak of the use of paronomasia or pseudoetymology). There is also a constructive effect, as the aural similarity extracts integrated structures from the words of the poem, thus more highlighting the inner architecture of the work. Thus, the poem as a whole becomes a reflection of the concealed plan according to which the harmony of the world was created; in both reality and in the poem, everything is necessary and exists in interrelation.

Hopkins would not have been a great poet, however, if this harmony lacked its opposite. The philosophy of this poetry is anthropocentric, and as such, it must contain an element of tragedy; unlike the harmonious world of nature, the human being is condemned to irreconcilable contradictions, to an awareness of the paradoxical nature of one’s own existence. As early as “The Wreck of the Deutschland” we find the conviction that God is the Creator of harmony, but also a harsh and punishing Father; that man’s lot is not only happiness, but suffering as well. These contradictions are both focused and resolved in the figure of Christ and the phenomenon of Incarnation: yet even for a Christian of such profound faith as Hopkins, the tragedy of human existence on Earth could never be a problem to be resolved with a gesture.

Such an important component of Hopkins’s “model of the world” must have found its analogy in the language of his poetry and its organizing principles, to highlight this point for the third time. Everything we might call “grating” in the poet’s style reflects the paradoxes and anxieties of human existence — and here we mean not only grating phonically, but also grammatically, syntactically, and semantically. Tactics so contrary to the ideal of harmony such as the seemingly arbitrary grammatical and lexical experiments, the defiance of word order hardly ever found in English, the oxymorons and antitheses that govern the poetic semantics, and finally, the general tendency to pile up the ambiguities and semantic surprises — it all seems explicable only through the fact that, in making his style, Hopkins sought an indirect means to communicate his understanding of human fate as dramatic and inherently contradictory to the extreme.

I would give a similar explanation for a unique phenomenon in Hopkins’s work — the poetic rhythm. Its genesis undoubtedly has many roots: following the explanations of the poet himself, we might perceive, for example, an attempt to make versification more flexible, to make it close to the prosody of colloquial speech; we can also see the roots of this concept of rhythm in the archaic forms of Medieval Anglo-Saxon poetry, as some scholars have suggested. Yet most important is the fact that the “Sprung Rhythm” invented by Hopkins is a dynamic, restless, and dramatic one. It juxtaposes the idea of regularity (a steady number of accents in a line) with a radical irregularity and freedom (varying syllabic spread of the lines), resulting in a singular tension, with enormous capacity for modulation and intensification.

“Sprung Rhythm,” Hopkins’s great and entirely independent discovery, is a rhythm of stormy emotions: euphoric delight (as in “Hurrahing in Harvest”), doubt and despair (as in “Carrion Comfort”), profound human sympathy and supernatural illumination (as in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”). This “explosive rhythm” (as we could, choosing from many possibilities, translate the English term) combines, by the poet’s own admission, “opposite and, one would have thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm – that is rhythm’s self – and naturalness of expression.” It is significant that even those poems which Hopkins wrote in “standard rhythm,” i.e. in syllabic or syllabotonic verse, have a powerfully dramatic flow, artfully produced through enjambments, disrupted word stress patterns, leaps of intonation etc. Sprung Rhythm facilitates the same in much greater intensity and with a much greater number of variants. Hopkins recommended that poems with this rhythm be read aloud, to make audible the “explosive” clashes of accents and the ecstatic accelerations of tempo in places where several unstressed syllables are clustered. The appearance of his original texts in manuscript form is characteristic: they recall musical scores, with masses of complicated markings pertaining to accent, intonation, and other aspects of prosody.

Yet it ought to be repeated that the musical drama of the rhythm is, like the other stylistic devices of analogous functions, not merely an end unto itself: it also reflects in poetic language a philosophical concept of human fate, strung between the poles of ecstasy and despair, happiness and suffering. If Hopkins’s style were to have stopped at harmony, the philosophical layer of this poetry would not have gone beyond an uncomplicated, ecstatic pantheism. Only the element of the tragic dilemma — introduced in part through style — made Hopkins a Christian poet: Christ appears in these poems as an ever-present link between the world of Divine harmony and human suffering.


For the translator, one basic conclusion emerges from all these observations on Hopkins’s poetry: as in the original, the stylistic dominant for the translation should be the constant clash between harmony, regularity, and similarity on the one hand and interference, irregularity, and contrast on the other. These values should coexist in mutual balance, in a dialectic interplay of forces that is never entirely resolved.

Let us take a simple example. In the first lines of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the translator finds the apostrophe:

Thou, mastering me

God! giver of breath and bread.

He must realize that the words breath and bread contain their literal meanings, but of equal importance is that these terms are clasped together by clear alliteration, and with this link they come together to render a new significance. At the same time, the regularity and similarity (a paronomastic link between two words) thus created is juxtaposed in these two lines with a strong aspect of contrast and surprise (a sharp enjambment). Thus, the rendering by a Polish translator (Janusz A. Ihnatowicz):

Władający mną Boże,

dawco chleba i tchu,

albeit philologically correct (something which cannot be said, alas, for the remainder of the translation), strikes me as utterly wrong-headed as a translation of poetry. It has lost both the aspect of similarity (the translator has omitted the alliteration) and that of contrast (the enjambment has been eliminated); the tension and dramatization of the initial apostrophe have vanished, leaving the “literal” information, albeit made mundane and colorless; there is only the “thematic information” with none of the “implied information.” We might argue that salvaging these two types of information intact in another language is impossible (particularly bearing in mind that the quoted beginning of the stanza is continued, requiring additional — rhyming, rhythmic, and semantic — adaptations in the initial couplet). Indeed this is true, yet with some compromises or substitutions of secondary importance — practically inevitable in translating poetry — we can salvage the main principle that governs the original text. A solution, for example, might be: Władco, mój, Boże, / który karcisz i karmisz.

This is not a “literal” translation, of course, but in a sense it is more faithful. The necessity of rhyming with a subsequent line of the stanza means foregoing the sharp enjambment here; yet the aspect of contrast that it contained has been shifted, as it were, to a different field, namely to the sphere of semantic relations between the words karcisz [you punish/rebuke] and karmisz [you feed], which are key to this couplet. The phonetic similarity is juxtaposed with a semantic opposition; the basic stylistic principle of Hopkins’s poetry is salvaged. Though there has been a substitution of meaning (“you rebuke and you feed” in place of “bread and breath"), it does not disturb the intratextual communicative relationships of the poem, nor the premises of its worldview; on the contrary, it even reinforces and emphasizes them, as the contrast between the severity and mercy of God, which is constitutive for the human fate, serves as the main theme of “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

To translate in such a way as to reconstruct the model of the world as implied by the stylistic form of the original text: this is, of course, a remarkably difficult task, and a risky one at that. As such, there is a notable trend of Polish translations of Hopkins’s poetry following the line of least resistance and settling for halfway measures.

We might observe two models for such solutions: in either of them the “halfway” reconstruction of the original’s model of the world involves something different. The first model, perhaps the most frequently chosen, is a translation that “lists” toward irregularity, abandoning the means and stylistic maneuvers which can balance off this irregularity with their considerable internal organization. Possibly the most extreme example of this sort of solution (so extreme that it deserves to be called a translatorial experiment, albeit a failed one) would seem to be a rendering of the sonnet “Felix Randal” by Jerzy S. Sito. The two initial stanzas will serve to explicate our point:

Felix Randal, the farrier, O is he dead then? My duty all ended,

Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome,

Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some

Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended

Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some

Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom

Tendered to him. Ah, well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

[Feliks Randal, od koni, ach, więc umarł? cóż, moje zadanie spełnione;

Kto go znał, grubokostnego, ho, ho, w ramionach szeroki,

chłop jak dąb, wiatr od niego wiał, kiedy tak młotem

po kładziwie, młotem, aż się potem, sadzą uwalał

i w zapamiętaniu, w kuciu, rozsądek i wszystkie zmysły w puch porozwalał

i zaniemógł; ciekawe? nie mógł zwalić choroby, więc go choroba zwaliła.

Klął, lecz kiedy go świętym olejem i ten... wydobrzał; choć serce

zanielało już pierwej, odkąd to ja, nasze słodkie zabieranie

darowanie mu przyniosłem. Ha, niech go Bóg pocieszy, jeśli co i zgrzeszył.]

This translation calls our attention with its absolute nonchalance with regard to the literal meaning of the original text. The majority of the first stanza (from the words wiatr od niego wiał [the wind blew from him] up to choroba zwaliła [illness struck him down]) has nothing in common with the meaning of the original, and is a fully self-willed addition by the translator. We might merely call it a failed translation, probably arising from an insufficient examination of the complex and ambiguous lines of Hopkins’s sonnet; this supposition would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Sito has not included this verse in any subsequent reprints of his Hopkins translations. The matter is not quite so simple, however. The chaotic and free-form structure of the translation is, at least in part, the result of a conscious translation approach. We can see that Sito was quite careful to ensure that his translation retained all those (indeed striking and unusual) attributes of the original text marked by irregularity, dissonance, surprise, and contrast. As such, he has salvaged the sharp enjambments. He retains the intralinear leaps in intonation resulting from the use of embedded questions or exclamations, and the contrast between long sentences and short ones. Finally, he also saves the original’s lexical/stylistic dissonance created through the deliberate use of colloquialisms, interrupted sentences (“being anointed and all” — lecz kiedy go świętym olejem i ten...), and dialect (“all road ever he offended" — jeśli co i zgrzeszył).

Yet even if this is a conscious concept, it is a halfway measure. In calling so much attention to the stylistic irregularity, Sito has failed to perceive that the poetic puissance draws from the contrast with the equally pronounced factor of regularity. This is represented in the original text, above all, by the versification (the use of Sprung Rhythm, the deep and sophisticated abba abba ccd ccd rhyme scheme, the sonnet’s consistent stanzas), and the phonetic instrumentation (a whole gamut of alliteration, as in the second line: “mould of man,” “big-boned,” “hardy-handsome”). Salvaging both of these contrasting stylistic aspects was not possible, of course. Here is one translation possibility:

Feliks Randal, kowal, och, więc umarł? nie moja już moc go wskrzesi,

Kto się przyjrzał grudzie gliny, grubym gnatom, upartej urodzie,

Kto go widział, jak marniał i marniał, jak w dal jego umysł uchodzi,

Aż cios cierpień poczwórnie potwornych na wskroś jego ciało przeszył?

Choroba go zwaliła. Z początku buntował się, klął i złorzeczył,

Potem, po namaszczeniu i tym wszystkim, ścichł; zresztą z niebem w ugodzie

Był od paru miesięcy, od kiedy dostarczałem mu ulgi ubogiej

Swą służbą. Cóż przebacz mu Boże, jeśli jakoś tam nawet pogrzeszył!

An analogous “halfway” concept is found in translations by Janusz A. Ihnatowicz. Here we have the same choice of a stylistic dominant; Ihnatowicz’s translation takes those qualities of Hopkins’s poetry which boil down to contrast, obscurity, and irregularity. This is how he translated “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” for instance: what takes place in this translation, the omission of the rhymes (appearing here in a defined structure that repeats in all thirty-five stanzas), the steady rhythmic structure of the stanzas, to say nothing of the remarkably rich and abundant instances of phonetic instrumentation, coinage, syntax, facilitates the task at hand, but it also upsets the whole model of the world implied by the language of the poem. Instead of a vision of a world that is tragic, though obedient to the unbending rules of God, we have a vision of the world as total chaos and absurdity. This is particularly true in that the language is structured to an even lesser extent than a reasonably correct colloquial statement would require. Ihnatowicz seems to purposefully pile on the methods for loosening syntactic structures — even where nothing of the sort can be found in the original — making unexpected ellipses and inversions, disregarding grammatical, and choosing “wrong sounding,” anti-euphonic solutions (consonant clusters, and a too-frequent masculine cadence of lines and sentences):

Uwielbiony wśród ludzi

bądź, Troisty bycie, Boże;

skrusz buntownika, co się czai w norze,

pożogą i burzą ludzką złość.

Nad wypowiedzenie słodki, ponad siłę słów,

tyś błyskawica i miłość, tyś zima i żar;

ojcze i miłośniku serc, któreś zgniótł: masz

ciemne swe zstępowanie i najlitościwszyś wtedy.

This is one of the relatively less chaotic stanzas of Ihnatowicz’s translation, and yet even here nothing remains of the organization and regularity so evident in the original:

Be adored among men,

God, three-numbered form;

Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,

Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.

Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,

Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;

Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:

Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

Any translation of this stanza that would pretend to a most basic fidelity to the stylistic virtues of the original would have to aim to salvage what is unquestionably the main dominant of the original text, i.e. the numerous parallelisms achieved through the work of alliteration, versification, and syntax, which seem to join forces. One solution might be the following:

Niech będzie pochwalone

Twe imię, troisty Boże;

Bunt i grzech ludzki skrusz burzą i gromem,

Jak zwierza, co zjeżył się w norze.

Nie wysłowi słodyczy Twej słowo, nie wyjawi jedności język,

Błyskawicą i błogosławieństwem jesteś — wiem — miłością i mrozem;

Ojcze i opiekunie serc, któreś skruszył, uwięził:

Z mroku do nas przyszedłeś i trwamy w miłosierdzia Twojego ogromie.

The model for translation solutions we have described here on the basis of a few examples might be called “halfway measures” in that, during the translation, it is only the stylistic aspect of non-regularity, dissonance, or chaotic tumultuousness that remains, at the expense of the contrasting aspect of regularity, harmony, and organization. The “halfwayness” of the second model involves something else entirely. The second path often taken by Polish translations of Hopkins involves a total, or almost total dismissal of “implied information” in favor of “explicit information”; it involves an attempt to transpose the literal information contained in the linguistic signs while neglecting the external formation of those signs and how they are organized, though this often carries a more pivotal set of messages than the literal meanings. In the previous solution the literal meanings of words and sentences were often considerably distorted (let us recall once more the first stanza of “Felix Randal” in Sito’s translation), while the translators attempted to salvage at least some of the stylistic qualities of the original text (the non-regularity, dissonance etc.). In terms of the solution which we presently aim to describe, the meanings of the words and sentences of the original text are translated in a way that is full and correct — such translations in their extreme forms approach “philological translations” — yet the translator disavows any attempt to reconstruct the stylistic attributes of the original in advance, as it were. In this way, almost all the “implied information” is amputated.

Here we should note that there is no clear and invariable line between these two models of how translators approach Hopkins’s poetry. It happens that the same translator has recourse to one method and then the other in rendering various pieces; it also happens that within the space of a single work the accepted model of translation has an “enclave” within which another sort of “halfway” translation seems to hold sway. This is the case with “The Wreck of the Deutschland” as rendered by Ihnatowicz, which is essentially an example of the first model, though in certain fragments of the poem the translator seems more concerned with a literal rendering than with communicating the aspect of stylistic tumult (one example might be the above-quoted initial couplet of “The Wreck...”). In other translations, the same Ihnatowicz decidedly opts for the latter “halfway” model. Such is the case in the translation of the poem “Carrion Comfort,” whose striving for philological literalness forces the translator to eschew all forms of poetic language structure: one result of this is the necessity to lengthen the work, which counts twenty-two lines in the translation, while the original — being a sonnet — has fourteen, of course. Amplification of text is, in general, a common phenomenon in translation solutions of this sort, partly due to the necessity to make a clear articulation of the meanings of certain ambiguous passages of the original, and partly from the abandonment of a poetic form of textual organization, whose devices can permit a maximum concision of statement with a maximum multiplicity of meanings.

With regards to Hopkins’s poetry, the second type of translatorial “halfwayness” would seem as insufficient as the first. In this respect, it seems worth analyzing the translations of Adam Czerniawski in particular, which most frequently correspond to the model of scholarly literalness, while eschewing the poetic information. Such is the case in the first couplet of one of the “dark sonnets,” “No Worst, There Is None”:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

In Czerniawski’s translation, we have a colorless statement:

Końca temu nie ma: poza obrębem

Nieszczęścia ból bólem spłodzony przebieglej rwie.

What vanishes here is substantial amount of “implied information,” which in this couplet is particularly found in the clear phonetic/rhythmic organization of the incipit, or to be precise, the second hemistich. “Pitched past pitch of grief,” with the persistence of the plosive “p” (echoed in “pangs” and “forepangs” in the second verse) and the equally explosive cluster of accents, is the phonetic indicator of the emotional temperature of the work, an aural image of the torment and thoughts in conflict addressed in the poem. A denial to make even a substitute rendering of this stylistic attribute in the translation is a semantic error tantamount to mistaking the Polish meaning of one of the words. Objective linguistic differences make it difficult to achieve an effect as pronounced as that of the original, yet it is possible to salvage the poetic information in part:

Nie ma dna udręk. Miota się za metą męki

Męka gorsza: przez tamtą szkolona i świeża.

And one more example, this time courtesy of Czerniawski in the translation of “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire...”:

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-

Built thoroughfare

[Obłoków purchawki, rwane, podrzucane pęki-jaśki | tańcują, harcują, gonią powietrza gościńcem]

The image of a piece of nature in Hopkins is generally supported by a vivid onomatopoeia. Such is the case in this excerpt: the clouds that “chevy on an airbuilt thoroughfare” are not only metaphorically compared to “torn tufts” and “tossed pillows,” but this image is backed with equal vigor in a whole range of onomatopoeia (first in a “natural” onomatopoeia — puffball — then in poetic onomatopoeias), chiefly grounded in the recurring “p,” “t,” and “f” sounds. Little remains of all this in Czerniawski’s translation; indeed, almost nothing. Meanwhile, if we make only minor departures from philological fidelity (exchanging, for example, the obłoki for chmury, i.e. the more for the less poetic Polish equivalent of “cloud”, admittedly somewhat less apt in this context), we can achieve an analogous series of onomatopoeias, derived (as in the original) from the natural onomatopoeia contained in the word purchawka [puffball]:

Chmur purchawki, puch darty, poduchy | porwane przez paradny huragan

Gonią górnym gościńcem.

Apart from the two “halfway” translation models we have described here, we should also find space for adequate solutions, which do not neglect the aspect of stylistic organization in favor of chaos, and which do not disregard the “implied information” in favor of the “explicit information.”When it comes to Hopkins, however, there are few such positive examples (at most we might find a few examples geared in this direction — I have in mind some of Pietrkiewicz’s translations and some of Sito’s — though on closer inspection even these ultimately raise too many objections and critical observations). There is a more general tendency at work here; it turns out that what frequently gives the translator the greatest problems, what forces him to resort to “halfway” solutions, is the particular essence of poetic language that involves communicating a model of the world in an indirect and often ambiguous fashion: through a specific organization of the linguistic level, one that purposefully juxtaposes incongruous stylistic aspects. We might say that, much as reflecting upon the essence of poetry is invaluable for the translator in making his interpretive and creative decisions, the reverse is also true — translators’ failures are valuable in that they help us to understand the special way in which a model of the world is made present in a poetic text.

Translated by Soren Gauger

Faryno Jerzy (1972) "O języku poetyckim", Pamiętnik literacki 63 (2), pp.117-144.
Gardner William Henry (1944) Gerard Manley Hopkins: a study of poetic idiosyncrasy in relation to poetic tradition, London, Penguin.
Sebeok Thomas (1976) Contributions to the doctrine of signs, Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press.

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