A small, but maximalist translatological manifesto

or: an explanation of the fact that one also translates poetry with the aim of explaining to other translators that for most translations of poetry there is no explanation

Stanisław Barańczak

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

pp. 137-200

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Or: An explanation of the fact that one also translates poetry with the aim of explaining to other translators that for most translations of poetry there is no explanation Translator’s note: This subtitle is untranslatable too, because it relies on a pun in Polish, in which the verb tłumaczyć means “to translate,” but also “to explain,” or “to interpret.” Translating Barańczak’s text felt rather artificial, as surely anyone who wants to read a critical analysis of poetry translations from English into Polish already knows Polish, and has no need of a translation, but I hope the English translation of this essay will be useful for students of Polish as well as for students of poetry translation. Where logic suggests that I should retain Polish words, I have added the English in square brackets to help the reader who is less familiar with Polish. All footnotes are mine except for the one marked with an asterisk.



Abandon all hope, ye who read these words: from start to finish there will be nothing here but remarks full of nauseating conceit, annoying arrogance and dogmatic confidence in the author’s own arguments. What else can you expect, when these are the remarks of a translator about the work of other translators, as well as his own? If you were to get into a train compartment occupied by five members of the national basketball team and start criticizing their dribbling or the way they shoot the ball from a distance, while also taking the opportunity to mention that your own attempts against the garage wall in the backyard are far more successful, even the most patient of listeners would regard you as an impudent show-off completely devoid of manners and respect. Whereas to a translator, for some mysterious reason, it seems entirely appropriate to have produced the fourteenth translation into Polish in history of a sonnet by Shakespeare, for example: as if the mere act of taking on this task were not a vainglorious form of intrusion – uninvited – into the company of the thirteen previous translators. And it’s a form of intrusion that wears a tactless, nasty look of superiority on its face: even if not directly criticizing the work of his or her predecessors, the translator only publicizes his or her new translation once his or her chest is puffed up with conceited confidence that his or her own product is better than theirs.

And what if the translator is also bold enough to step into the role of a critic and to question openly the quality of other people’s translations? It’s true that in this case s/he is in a slightly more honest position than the ordinary literary critic. While the latter almost never has a ready and adequate response to the infuriated snarl of a writer: “If you’re such a know-it-all, brother, why don’t you try writing something better yourself?,” the translator who plays at criticizing other people’s translations generally enters the fray precisely because s/he has his or her own translation of the work up his or her sleeve, which at a suitable moment s/he can pull out with an arrogant gesture, as if to say in response: “But indeed, I have already made an attempt, and here it is – mine came out far better than yours.” As I’ve said, this sort of answer makes for a more honest situation, but that doesn’t mean it sounds in the least bit less tasteless and insolent.

This sort of display of tasteless insolence is something I’ve been longing to perform for many years, although the last vestiges of my sense of decorum have held me back until now. So far, by and large I have not engaged in open, direct criticism of a translation (except perhaps for an exasperated sketch on Polish translations of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I took the liberty of writing in 1981), while spending a lot of time on indirect criticism instead, i.e. translating poems that had already been translated by other translators before me. At this point I should explain that for the past twenty-five years I have been a – literally – compulsive translator of poetry; there is no job so urgent, no obligation or deadline that I’m not capable of forgetting on the instant after reading a superb poem in a foreign language, which “demands” that I should translate it into Polish – or so I believe in my arrogant pride.

There are three situations that can prompt this “demand.” In the first situation, when the poem has never been translated before, I still manage to keep up a facade of altruism and personal modesty: in this case I can hide my stuck-up translator’s ambitions under the guise of the socially beneficial activity of filling a gap in Polish knowledge of English poetry, for example. The second situation is also characterized by a moderately decent facade, relying on the fact that the poem already has one or more superb translations: then I can mask my presumption, evident in the decision to embark on yet another translation, with the aim of enriching literature with my own, supplementary or polemical translator’s interpretation which – as I hypocritically explain to anyone willing to listen – may not be better, but casts additional light on the meanings of the original. Yet the ugly side of my nature is fully exposed in the third situation, when all the existing translations of the poem seem to me unsuccessful: then it’s no longer possible to hide the fact that, along with a few other goals, another, or perhaps the main reason why I translate poetry is to prove to the readers and to myself that I can do it better.

I can do it better (than the other translators): in these five words lies hidden one possible, and perhaps the most genuine answer to the question of why on earth one translates a poem that has already been translated by someone else. I can do it no worse (than the author): this is another possible answer, definitely the most sincere, to the question of why one translates at all. The wish to be of service to readers who don’t know a foreign language, the wish to enrich one’s native literary culture, the wish to pay tribute to a brilliant foreign poet: all these are noble, as a rule heart-felt intentions, but I think that under torture, or if treated to a shot of truth serum, sooner or later, any translator of poetry would admit to a deeply hidden truth: the motor driving his or her activities is ambition. One of the chess grandmasters, when asked why he took part in tournaments, replied: “Because there’s nothing I enjoy more than the moment when I can feel that I’m breaking my opponent’s spine.” Tasteless as it may sound, we have to admit that the reason why we translate a sonnet by Shakespeare is similarly to break the spine… no, God forbid, not of Shakespeare or his poetry, but of resistance by what appears to be untranslatable – and at this moment to feel a double sense of triumph: I can do the same (as Shakespeare), and I can do it better (than the other translators).

Isn’t there something similar involved in writing in general? Surely we write in order to back up the claims of our ambition and our inflated view of our own talents with measurable proof? Of course, but translating poetry is a special sphere of writing, where the most objective comparison of the results is relatively possible. If someone were to be very insistent, s/he might claim that Tadeusz Różewicz’s poem “Dytyramb na cześć teściowej” (“Dithyramb in honor of a mother-in-law”) is a better work than Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński’s sonnet “O krótkości i niepewności na świecie żywota człowieczego” (“On the Brevity and Uncertainty of Human Life”), but nobody would really know what could justify or make a comparison of these two poems possible at all. Whereas a translation can be compared with the original, and with other translations on an ontological basis with far more confidence: after all, they are presumably versions of one and the same work. A comparison to establish which version is the best can in this instance be moderately objective.

But quite: “moderately.” This one simple word contains a deep gulf of conceptual confusion and fundamental differences of opinion. We could only speak of total objectivity in comparing a translation with the original and with other translations if we were all agreed upon two things. As the criterion of faithfulness to the meaning (or meanings) of the original poem comes into play, first of all we would have to establish exactly what sort of meaning or meanings the original poem actually has. And it would be impossible to establish this without first resolving a second, incomparably broader problem: what is meaning in poetry in general, how and where does it manifest itself, and in what way does it determine the unique identity of the work.

And here’s the snag, a very serious one: the second of these problems is never, and the first is almost never seen and understood in exactly the same way by different people. We mustn’t forget the plain and simple truth: translating poetry is always an act of interpretation. The Polish language uses the words tłumaczenie and przekład Translator’s note: in English respectively, “a translation/interpretation/explanation” and “a translation/transposition.” as if supposing them to be identical in meaning, but the etymology alone of these two words indicates the difference between them. An analogous contrast exists in Latin. The Polish tłumaczę [I translate/interpret/explain] would be the equivalent of the Latin interpretor (which in its primary sense means “I explain”, and also “I understand” or “I determine”); przekładam [I translate/transpose] is a calque of the word transfero (in the participial form translatum, hence “translation” and “translator”). As we can see, the difference is considerable. In it lies hidden the valid conviction that the mechanical przekładanie [translating/transposing] of an expression from one language to another (a concept that in any case simplifies the true state of affairs, because there can be no such thing as a perfectly mechanical translation process, even when it comes to the simplest prose) is not the same thing as its tłumaczenie [translation/ interpretation/explanation], which treats the act of transposing a text into another language as the act of “explaining” it, an explanation based on “understanding” and “determining.” Thus, a translation is an interpretation in the same sense as in the case of interpretation understood as the explication of a text by a critic. It is even more than that, something like an explication of the text to the power of two: critical interpretation merely describes the properties of the text under discussion in its own metalanguage; in its ultimate effect, interpretation through translation creates an analogous text – one that functions in an analogous way – in a different language. A finished translation is like a tangible, measurable piece of proof that one has understood the original perfectly. So perfectly that it is capable of functioning in language B and literary culture B just as well as in language and culture A.

How can we check that it is functioning identically? The surest test – here, unfortunately, we must pass from the semiotic to the somatic, but it can’t be helped; at least physiology doesn’t lie and cannot be falsified – in particularly successful cases, is the shiver that runs down the spine, the tear that comes to the eye, or an uncontrollable burst of laughter. Ultimately, what do we read poetry for? In order – I repeat after Witkacy, who in fact refused to believe that poetry was capable of having an effect of this particular kind – for its unity in multiplicity to send us a shiver. A metaphysical shiver, but a quite literally physiological one too. And so the translator of poetry translates not just in order to equal and surpass, to break the spine of the original text’s linguistic and formal resistance, but also in order to feel a shiver of ecstasy down his or her own spine. To be more precise, in order to find out why s/he had goose bumps when s/he read the original; and we can only find that out for certain by checking whether we’ll have a similar sensation when we recreate the work in our own language.

Anyone who has had experience of discussions by translators and has the slightest idea of what translating poetry involves, might at this point put forward a basic doubt. Is such perfect “recreation” possible at all? Isn’t translating poetry, as even the translators themselves never stop assuring us, always an inevitable loss? Don’t the translated poets claim, along with Robert Frost, that “poetry is what’s lost in translation”? Isn’t the translation process essentially a series of concessions and compromises, and a translation itself a necessary evil, something we can assume to be incomplete, in the best case merely an approximation? In short, isn’t the trite aphorism true, which says that translations are like women – either beautiful, or faithful?

In my view, the apparent brilliance of this aphorism has always been an example of how idiotic all proverbs are when you take a closer look at them. Where do we get this male chauvinist certainty that a beautiful woman is bound to be unfaithful? Or that a faithful woman is only faithful because she’s not beautiful? Personally, I know plenty of women who are both beautiful and faithful: somehow the one does not preclude the other. And I know plenty of translations of poetry (no, not just my own ones) that somehow have also managed to reconcile these two features.

Except that this entire analogy makes no sense from the beginning, of course; while we can agree that we’re going to treat the faithfulness of women as an absolute value (either she’s faithful or she’s not; one single betrayal wipes out years and years of faithfulness), we cannot do the same thing with regard to the “faithfulness” of a translation. The latter is not absolute, but gradable: we cannot describe a woman as being “eighty-five percent faithful,” but we can say that of a translation. Besides, an understanding of the concept of the “faithfulness” of a translation depends on the methodology adopted. As the point here is “faithfulness” to the original meaning, the basic issue is what exactly we recognize in the poetic work as the domicile or vector of meaning, or as the factor that creates meaning. And that we recognize as the meaning-creating factor vital enough to demand of the translator its unconditional survival in the translation process. Since the essentially objective differences in language systems, versification systems, systems of literary tradition and so on mean that the translation of a poem is also an interpretation of it in the sense of an act of “determining,” making a choice of the least evil, a relative way of finding the closest equivalents, a resignation from one thing in order to preserve another – which criteria we adopt in the decision-making process is not of course a matter of indifference. What has to survive in a translation for the translator to have the right to say “I can do it no worse” (than the author), “I can do it better” (than the other translators)?

I have very particular, decisive views on this matter, but before I expound them, the right moment has finally come – after all the swaggering and bluster – for me to risk showing the Reader a specific example of my own handiwork as a translator. It will also act as an example of a situation where we can clearly see what an unexpected reply should sometimes be given to the question asked just now. First of all, here’s the original text:

Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648)


Where shall my troubled soul, at large


The burden of her sins, oh where?

Echo: Here.

Whence comes this voice I hear?

Who doth this grace afford?

If it be thou, O Lord,

Say, if thou hear my prayers when I call.

Echo: All.

And wilt thou pity grant when I do cry?

Echo: Ay.

O may that will and voice be blest,

Which yields such comforts unto one distress’d,

More blessed yet, wouldst thou thyself unmask,

Or tell, at least, who undertakes this task.

Echo: Ask.

Then quickly speak,

Since now with crying I am grown so weak,

I shall want force even to crave thy name;

O speak before I wholly weary am.

Echo: I am.

The most standard answer to the question of what in translation must definitely survive is supported by the age-old distinction between content and form: the content, in other words what the poem is saying to us, is apparently the more important element, while the form, in other words, how it is being said, can be modified in a translation, can be replaced with a different form, or – if there’s no other option – entirely omitted. Let’s take a look at what would be left of Baron Herbert of Cherbury’s poem if this assumption were applied to it. The greatest “formal” difficulty for the translator here are, of course, the rhymes, as is generally the case with the poetry of past centuries. So can we just drop them, and for this price insist on total accuracy in the way we render the “content”? In that case, the first stanza would come out like this (I shall mark working and hypothetical translations with an asterisk):

* Gdzie moja znękana i pozostawiona samej sobie dusza


Brzemię swych grzechów, o gdzie?

Echo: Tutaj.

Well, no. Anything but that. From the very first lines we’ve run straight into something unexpected: our slenderizing of faithfulness to the form has in effect dealt a fatal blow to the “content” of the poem, striking at the very heart of the basic information contained in it. What has happened is that the stanza has lost not just its rhymes, but also its meaning – its simplest, common-sense meaning. The echo can’t possibly reply Tutaj [Here] to the question gdzie [where]! If we shout the Polish word gdzie? [where?] in an empty church, the echo will answer us with exactly the same word, gdzie, or, if the acoustics aren’t that good, something like dzie. In the original English, the echo answers “here” to the question “where,” not so much to make it rhyme, but rather because – being an echo – that’s the only way it can possibly answer the question “where.”

Phew. All right, now we understand where the semantic essence of the poem lies – as well as the meanings that are explicitly expressed, there’s also the fact that it’s a dialogue, in which the Echo gives rhyming answers; and yet we still feel a reluctance towards the rhymes, as something that does, however we look at it, complicate the translator’s life. Perhaps we can make our task easier by applying a partial solution – by using approximate rhymes, for example?

* Gdzie moja dusza, nie chcąc samotnie się smucić,

Ma zrzucić

Brzemię, którym obciąża ją występków buta?

Echo: Tutaj.

No, that’s a washout too. No Echo, not even the most benevolent, would add a consonant at the end of a word or change a “b” into a “t” just to make it easier for us to find a rhyme. To the word buta the Echo would answer buta (what’s more, at risk of adding the confusing thought of footwear in the process Buta means excessive arrogance, but the same word is also the genitive form of but, meaning a boot or shoe.). Now we can see that just simple rhyming isn’t enough: as in nature, the Echo’s answers have to be complete and perfect rhymes. “Phew” once again: we realize that trying to find that sort of rhyme is going to be complete torment, especially when the Echo utters longer words – a complete and perfect rhyme is obviously harder to find the more syllables it involves. Hold on a moment – maybe in that case there’s a different way for us to make our task easier: by reducing the number of those syllables to the minimum, in other words by using a masculine rhyme?

* Gdzież moja dusza, nie chcąc samotnie się smucić,

Ma zrzucić

Ciężar tysiąca grzechów i występków stu?

Echo: Tu.

Better from the standpoint of church acoustics, but awful from that of classical poetic form. We have forgotten that the poem was written in the seventeenth century. In Poland in this period no poet would ever have used a masculine rhyme: Jan Kochanowski censured that sort of rhyme, and the anathema was still in force. We don’t have to make things overly archaic, or insist on absolute historical equivalence (which is hard to establish anyway, as the state of poetic language and literary culture in seventeenth-century England was very different from that of seventeenth-century Poland), but of course our translation should be obliged to observe basic faithfulness of another kind, which we haven’t yet mentioned: faithfulness to the style of the era in the most general sense. In translating a poem written before the Enlightenment into Polish plenty of things can be modernized, but the rhyme, like it or not, can only be an exact feminine rhyme. And as a result, it must involve the identical assonance of at least one-and-a-half syllables. In Edward Herbert’s poem the principle of an echoing response forces us to make the rhyme even stronger: it has to involve at least two whole syllables. How are we to reconcile this with the obligation to be literally faithful to the “content”? We’re never going to find a rhyme for the word tutaj [here] that precisely repeats the phonetics of both its syllables in their entirety! “Phew” yet again: time to roll up our sleeves, because this is where the real work begins. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn: as in this instance the dictates of “form” are inflexible, the “content” will have to give way. A substitute will have to be found for the word Tutaj [here]. What else might the Echo reply to the sinner’s question, if not “Here”? Let’s think a while: what exactly does the Echo mean by the word “here”? It’s the Echo of a church interior, and so “Here” means “in the church.” So perhaps the Echo will simply answer: W kościele [In the church]? “Simply,” I say – but w koś-cie-le is three syllables. And what on earth can we find to rhyme precisely and strongly, including three syllables, with w kościele? The preceding line would have to end with the verb ściele [lays/spreads] – that much is obvious, but what question could the subject of the poem ask that ends in the word ściele straight after something ending in -wko? What on earth ends in -wko? Drzewko [a small tree]?” Dziewko [wench or harlot in the vocative]? Krewko [hot-temperedly]? Nothing fits, neither with the word ściele nor the church setting. Just a moment… naprzeciwko [“opposite]? Naprzeciwko ściele [lays/spreads opposite]? We’re getting warmer...

But things are getting complicated: if in the line in which “sins” are mentioned something is going to ściele naprzeciwko [lay or spread itself opposite], we’ll have to drop the image of “discharging sins,” because these two actions together would create too great a muddle. The entire logic of the scene will have to be reorganized. If grzech [sin] ściele naprzeciwko [lays down opposite] – and it would be better and more vivid to say ciemność grzechu [the darkness of sin], like the gloom in the corners of a church – then it needs to be contrasted with something. The “darkness of sin” naturally “lays down” opposite the brightness of virtue; the latter doesn’t so much allow the soul to discharge, or cast off the burden of sin, as to repel its onslaught. One final glance at all these elements, to make sure none of them conflicts with any of the others, or with any of the poem’s contexts, from the Anglican theology of Edward Herbert to the literary style of the era, and we can go ahead and translate:


Gdzie światłość, którą to, co w duszy mej najlepsze,


Grzech, gdy się jego ciemność naprzeciwko ściele?

Echo: W kościele.

Skąd ten głos? To Ty, Panie?

Gdy zewsząd próśb tak wiele,

Czy każde me pytanie

Pojmiesz, każde westchnienie, choćby i najłzawsze?

Echo: Zawsze.

I okażesz mi litość, gdy cierpię po karze?

Echo: Okażę.

Błogosławiony głosie, za Twoją to sprawą

Mniej cierpię, za opiekę Twą wdzięczny łaskawą;

Lecz byłbym wdzięczny bardziej, gdybyś dał mi prawo

Spytać o to, co wciąż mi niejasne się zdaje.

Echo: Daję.

Kim jesteś? Przemów, aby

Grzesznik od płaczu słaby

Nie uronił ni jednej imienia sylaby:

U kogo dług ma wieczny dusza ma uboga?

Echo: U Boga.

It’s true that “Echo in a Church” is an extreme case: not the only seventeenth-century poem to rely on the principle of a dialogue with a rhyming Echo (a similar lyric poem, entitled “Heaven,” was written by Edward Herbert’s younger brother, the great George Herbert), it belongs to a special category of poetry where this or another formal device plays such a key role that it virtually assumes the form of an iconic symbol. Like the so-called “shape poems” of the seventeenth century, in which the graphic outline of the stanzas follows the shape of an altar or a pair of folded wings, this poem too not only describes a dialogue with an echo, and not only stages it dramatically, but is also an acoustic reproduction, a picture of the dialogue in sound. In a situation where the potential to create meaning of an apparently “purely formal” device is exploited to such a great extent, naturally – as long as s/he has some idea of what poetry is – every translator immediately realizes that in this case the absolutely crucial element for the meaning of this poem, its irremovable and irreplaceable “formal” component, which in essence is the key to the “content,” its (let’s introduce this concept) semantic dominant – is the rhyme. And it’s not just any old rhyme: it’s an “echoing” rhyme, precise and stronger than the usual feminine rhyme that would be acceptable in another work.Any kind of half measure will be useless here. If the translator says to him or herself: “Oh well, surely the reader will understand how terribly hard it is to find this sort of rhyme, and won’t hold it against me if by necessity I use an imperfect rhyme; after all, it’s only a translation,” s/he will be making a grave error and will suffer an ignominious defeat. To give the Polish translators their due, they have understood the demands facing the translator of “Echo in a Church” very well. So well that not a single one of them has risked putting the poem into Polish until now.

Yet perhaps the maximalism of the standards for translation that I’m proposing is only relevant to the poetry of past centuries? Perhaps the poetry of our era – which, on superficial inspection, might not seem overly concerned about sticking to formal discipline – can be translated in a less rigorous way? Let’s look at an example of a twentieth-century poem that differs from “Echo in a Church” in almost every respect. It’s by the superb, but still virtually unknown to us Poles, American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979):


Unfunny uncles who insist

in trying on a lady’s hat,

– oh, even if the joke falls flat,

we share your slight transvestite twist

in spite of our embarrassment.

Costume and custom are complex.

The headgear of the other sex

inspires us to experiment.

Anandrous aunts, who, at the beach

with paper plates upon your laps,

keep putting on the yachtsmen’s caps

with exhibitionistic screech,

the visors hanging o’er the ear

so that the golden anchors drag,

– the tides of fashion never lag.

Such caps may not be worn next year.

Or you who don the paper plate

itself, and put some grapes upon it,

or sport the Indian’s feather bonnet,

– perversities may aggravate

the natural madness of the hatter.

And if the opera hats collapse

and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps,

he thinks what might a miter matter?

Unfunny uncle, you who wore a

hat too big, or one too many,

tell us, can’t you, are there any

stars inside your black fedora?

Aunt exemplary and slim,

with avernal eyes, we wonder

what slow changes they see under

their vast, shady, turned-down brim.

This truly brilliant poem hides its genius and wisdom – in an artful way, so that it is still plainly visible – behind the disguise of a sort of nursery rhyme that sounds naïve, almost childish. (In this it resembles some of Wisława Szymborska’s equally superb poems, such as “Smiles” or “The Onion;” there are plenty of reasons why Bishop deserves to be called the American Szymborska.) This is a stylistic feature that the translator must take into consideration as an initial condition limiting his or her decisions in advance: it places very serious limitations on some of the simplifications that would be admissible in normal circumstances, such as the option of rendering English iambic or trochaic tetrameters in Polish deca- or hendecasyllables. No, in this case that can’t be done; the lines would be more capacious, and it would be easier to set out the words and meanings within them, but the verse would lose its nursery-rhyme style comicality, and would become a neutral, transparent factor within the work.

Yet, that’s not all. The semantic dominant here is made up of another stylistic feature too. The nursery-rhyme-like meter of the verse is made to clash with the vocabulary and syntax, which ostentatiously, with parodic exaggeration, evoke typical academic style. It’s actually an anthropological treatise in miniature, a small-scale analysis of the semiotics of a particular kind of behavior by an individual in the context of social trends and customs. Sentences such as “Costume and custom are complex. / The headgear of the other sex / inspires us to experiment” could be transferred without any change into an academic dissertation on the ritual of trying on other people’s headwear within some Amazonian or Polynesian tribe. The impression of an academic tone is also intensified by ostentatious care in the selection of some extremely precise epithets. As its Greek etymology suggests to us, the adjective “anandrous” with reference to the noun “aunts” can just mean “unmarried” (or, more broadly and more brutally, “not having one’s own man”), but in English there are more common and natural epithets to describe spinsterhood. The word “anandrous” has been sourced not from everyday speech, but from botanical terminology, where it refers to flowers with no stamen, i.e. deprived of a male reproductive organ. The adjective “avernal” to qualify the word “eyes” stands out even more boldly for its rarity and oddness in this context: this epithet (which even the British or American reader has to look up in the dictionary, and a good one too), refers, and here I quote Webster’s dictionary, “to Avernus, a lake near Naples, in Italy, represented by the poets as the entrance to hell. From its waters rose poisonous vapors that ancient writers fancied were so malignant as to kill birds flying over it.” You only have to read this definition to doubt if Elizabeth Bishop’s poem can be reasonably translated at all.

But that’s still not all. The poem’s next striking stylistic feature is the fact that its academic style is subjected to methodical sabotage, perpetrated not just by means of parodic exaggeration of the pseudo-academic style – solemnity, onomastic precision, a tendency to use long foreign words and so on – but also by undermining it with the use of linguistic jokes. The poem is rich in puns, comical wordplay and surprising transformations of idioms. These jokes appear just where the style is at its most solemn and academic. The sentence I have quoted, “Costume and custom are complex,” dresses up its professorial content in ostentatious alliteration and the punning clash of the almost identical-sounding words “costume” and “custom.” The sentence “perversities may aggravate / the natural madness of the hatter” starts by marching off with its long, foreign words, as solemn as an academic procession, but when it hits the point where the stanzas divide, it jumps the gap with a comical somersault, flashing from under its academic gown the underwear of a language joke (“the natural madness of the hatter” twists and revises the idiom “mad as a hatter”).

And that’s not the end of it! When we read the poem aloud, we’re struck by yet another stylistic trick that’s used in it. Just as we reach the liveliest degree of language play, following a series of ever crazier jokes about ever grander forms of headgear (“opera hats collapse,” “crowns grow draughty,” and then the miter flaring in the phonetic fireworks of “what might a miter matter”), the tone of the poem suddenly changes surprisingly. Surely anyone reciting the poem would read the last two verses in an altered tone, lowering their voice, slowing the pace and growing serious, as if forced to be. By what? By a very simple device – a change of rhythm. The words “Unfunny uncle” in the penultimate verse, echoing the opening words of the poem, still retain the iambic meter that dominates the whole of the first part, but soon after the iamb is displaced by the trochee. And the change in the poem’s pitch changes its perspective. The derision that has dominated until now – all the more caustic for being crowned (to remain in the realm of headgear) as if by the jester’s cap of the pun and the biretta of academic style simultaneously – shifts into the key of what looks like gentle mockery, but in fact it’s sorrow and shame. We understand what we haven’t been told until now: the unfunny uncle and the eccentric aunt are just a memory (as the introduction of the past tense tells us), they’re no longer here, they can’t be derided any more – they’re not alive. And being dead, being no longer among us, as they tour their heaven or hell, now they can see more and know more than we do, who felt so superior to them when they were alive.

But what is the unfortunate translator going to do with all this? How is s/he to preserve this package of four features of style, each of which is equally important, and which all together create the semantic dominant of the whole, in a foreign-language version? Here we are witnessing the classic dilemma of the translator: however hard s/he tries, however many equivalents and substitutes s/he finds, s/he will never preserve it all – s/he’ll have to let something go. But what? That is the basic, strategic decision which, once taken, will be fundamental to the translation’s interpretative tactics. I think that in the case of this particular poem, which so masterfully combines the four aspects of style mentioned above, it would be an unpardonable error to drop any one of these aspects entirely. If, for example, one were to translate it into hendecasyllables, or if one were to eradicate the presence of academic style entirely, or make no attempt to find equivalents for the English puns. Or especially – this would be a fatal decision, utterly distorting the meaning of the poem – if one failed to apply a change of rhythm and tone in the last two stanzas analogous to the one that occurs in the original. This last characteristic of the poem has to remain intact. And so must the principle of interweaving four aspects of style. The compromises – if they have to be made with one’s own maximalism, and at first glance we can see that this cannot be avoided – can only involve weakening the intensity with which the first three aspects manifest themselves in the original. At the same time, of course, the aim is for this weakening to be as imperceptible as possible, as a way of keeping the inevitable losses to a minimum. We know in advance, for example, that there’s no point in hoping to find short, one-word equivalents for the words “anandrous (aunts)” and “avernal (eyes).” Bezpręcikowe ciotki [literally: anandrous aunts] doesn’t really meet our needs. Unfortunately, the only option is to strip these ambiguous terms of their attendant implications and leave at least the basic meaning: thus bezmężne ciotki [husbandless aunts] and smolne oczy [tar-like eyes] (or better, to keep the association with lakes while also strengthening the allusion to hell that’s already present in smolne: smolne otchłanie źrenic [literally: tar-like abysses of the pupils]). In the sphere of puns, instead of the triple echo of “might a miter matter” we should probably make do with just a double echo, e.g. mity mitry [literally: myths of the miter], or something of the kind. But now we can at least try our best to preserve almost everything else. And who knows, maybe in some parts the specifics of our language and our own brainwork will allow us to surpass the author? (I immodestly direct your attention to lines 7-8.) The end result might for example go like this:


Nieśmieszny wujku, który damie

ściągasz kapelusz i przymierzasz –

choć nas dowcipem kiepskim zmieszasz,

wiemy, że drzemią w nas te same

chętki, właściwe transwestycie.

Strój stroi żarty z nas przedziwne.

Nakrycie głowy płci przeciwnej

po uszy wciąga nas w Odkrycie.

Bezmężna ciotko, co na plaży,

fikając i bryzgając piaskiem,

z ekshibicjonistycznym piskiem

porywasz czapki z głów żeglarzy

z jachtów, te z daszkiem i kotwicą,

i wdziewasz na żałosny bakier –

och, przypływ mody zerwie takie

czapki za rok, poniesie w nicość.

Swój kulturalny czubek głowy

stroszyć indiańskim pióropuszem,

kłaść na nią z sztucznym animuszem

banan na spodku papierowym –

o, ileż nam perwersji chytrych

wytrząsa z kapelusza mania!

Te szapoklaków załamania...

przeciąg w koronie... mity mitry...

Nudny wujku, coś z uporem

brnął w kapeluszowe figle –

czy lśnią roje niedościgłe

gwiazd pod czernią twej fedory?

Ciotko szczupła i porządna –

smolne źrenic twych otchłanie

jakiej wielkiej, wolnej zmianie

przyglądają się spod ronda?


One of the most tedious platitudes of modern literary criticism is to complain about the poor state of translation from foreign literatures. Blame for this state of affairs is usually ascribed to the fact that there are too few translators and translations. I have never been able to fathom the logic of this argument. Surely the situation is exactly the other way around: translation is in a poor state because there are too many translators and translations! How many bad translations would never have seen the light of day if, before attempting the high jump of translating a good poem, the translator had set the crossbar at the right level for the artistic value of the original ‒ on realizing that they weren’t capable of scaling that height, they wouldn’t even have taken a run-up! Unfortunately, far more often situations occur in which the translator – with the sort of grand gesture with which we find it easy to abuse somebody else’s property – decides for the author that his “formal” methods can be cast into the mud; the poem won’t suffer, and if it does, too bad ‒ “after all, it’s only a translation,” and translations, as everyone knows, are like women: either beautiful, or…

This happens particularly often in the case of works that employ a form that’s not so unrepeatable, and that appears to be conventional, not so closely dependent – or so some might think – on the semantic teleology of the given poem. The translators of works of this kind often argue – what on earth won’t mankind invent in order to wriggle out of making an effort? ‒ that in the language of the original this way of organizing the text is for some linguistic or historical and literary reasons “natural,” so to speak, whereas trying to find its equivalent in the target language can only succeed at the cost of excessive changes to the literal meanings. In the US, for instance, there exists among translators a fairly widespread theory that it is easier for Russian poets, and perhaps Slavonic poets in general, to rhyme than it is for Americans. As I write these words, I have just had the ponderous experience of making a very close reading of the entire poetic output – 700 poems – of Anna Akhmatova, translated into English in free verse with the occasional rhyme thrown in, and recently published in two hefty bilingual volumes in the US. In the introduction the translator, Judith Hemschemeyer, employs this very same argument: in her view, in each poem it’s possible to distinguish the “meaning” and the “music,” and these two things can be separated. The Russian language – to continue patiently summarizing the translator’s reasoning ‒ possesses certain special inherent capacities to produce “music” which the English language does not have. (The fact that the Russian language has inflections, for example, supposedly broadens the repertoire of rhymes, because each word can feature in many different grammatical forms. An incredibly naïve thesis: what’s the use of thousands of possible grammatical rhymes for the poet or the translator when even so s/he must use them very sparingly? And doesn’t the English language have its own special advantages, such as brevity of syntax and an abundance of short words, which mean that each line of the poem is more capacious?) The conclusion for the British or American translator would appear to be like this: instead of stretching the “meaning” to fit the “music” it’s always better modestly to drop ambitions of any kind of recreation of the latter, and in exchange focus on the far more important task of reproducing the literal meaning of the words and phrases, i.e. simply “what the author wanted to say to us.” For any sentimental soul who regrets the lost charms of the “music,” Ms Hemschemeyer has some practical advice: “My suggestion is that the English-speaking reader find a Russian friend to read aloud (or recite, as many Russians will be able to do) some of the poems and thus gain some idea of the rich texture of sounds and the driving rhythms that Akhmatova achieves.” (Hemschemeyer 13)

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the two volumes published by Ms. Hemschemeyer cost as much as 80 dollars, somehow the booksellers don’t also throw in a box with a Russian friend inside. And even if you go the trouble of hiring some performers at an hourly rate, thus contributing to solving the problem of unemployment among Russian immigrants to the US, there are still parts of North America where you’d be hard pressed to find a good recitalist straight from Leningrad or Odessa. But seriously, you don’t have to be a great expert on poetry to understand that the theory of translation that’s based on the supposition that it’s possible to separate the “music” and the “meaning” in a poem has to have something wrong with it from the outset. In any good poem the “music” is the “meaning,” or at least a component of it. It is not a separate, lacy ruffle that’s pinned onto the plain shirt of the “meaning” for decoration, and can be pulled off and cast aside without harm to the effect of the whole thing.

Unfortunately for Ms. Hemschemeyer, it would be hard to find clearer proof of this fact than Akhmatova’s poetry. Of all people, that austere and tragic poet did not sew any decorative frills onto her poems. Rhyme and a regular meter were for her a matter of life and death: the life and death of the poem (which in Stalinist Russia it was safer to preserve by memorizing than writing down: in this regard rhyme and rhythm were mnemonic tools), the life and death of the culture (in which regularity and precise verbal construction magically preserve and sustain a human order that’s being thrown to the lethal chaos of the world), and probably her own life and death too. To strip Akhmatova’s poems of the “music” that serves this sort of aim is like translating every one of her nyets as “yes.” But in any case, where any genuine poet is concerned, the translator’s minimalism that is typical of Ms Hemschemeyer (and of so many other translators too, not just American ones) ‒ setting the crossbar for one’s own standards at a level where we can be sure of clearing it with room to spare and without dislocating one’s ankle ‒ is not much less of an error. Poetry that truly impresses us in a way that’s impossible to fake or counterfeit – the sort of poetry that sends that basic shiver down our spines – does so by being in itself a maximalist exploitation of the capabilities of language and imagination. Faced with this sort of poetry, only equally total maximalism on the part of the translator makes sense. If anyone thinks it a waste of time and energy, if s/he assumes in advance that s/he can’t manage it, let him or her devote his or her spare evenings to bingo or cultivating cacti, and leave Akhmatova’s 700 poems to a bolder translator ‒ an adjective that can also be taken to mean “more arrogant” or “conceited,” for those who find that a more suitable interpretation.

Let’s go back to the Polish translation patch, to test by looking at a specific translation whether or not the Stanisław Barańczak Theory of Translator’s Maximalism that’s gradually being drafted before our eyes is really valid or not. Perhaps on the contrary there are some poems that draw all their brilliance from reservoirs of “what the poet wanted to say,” and not the way s/he said it; which, to put it another way, really should be translated by doing one’s best to preserve the “content” and humbly paying the inevitable cost of that salvation by giving up on the “form”? Maybe, to put it yet another way, there are poems whose conceptual coherence, cognitive charge and specific logic are more important than their formal poetic organization, and as a result they can be translated as prose without suffering any harm?

This was probably how the translator Adam Czerniawski saw the specific nature of “The Definition of Love,” a poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), because he translated this famous seventeenth-century poem – which we could call a metaphysical trifle ‒ as prose:


My love is of a birth as rare

As ‘tis for object strange and high;

It was begotten by Despair

Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing

Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,

But vainly flapp’d its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended Soul is fixt,

But Fate does Iron wedges drive,

And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous Eye does see

Two perfect Loves, nor lets them close:

Their union would her ruin be,

And her Tyrannic pow’r depose.

And therefore her Decrees of Steel

Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,

(Though Love’s whole World on us doth wheel)

Not by themselves to be embrac’d.

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,

And Earth some new Convulsion tear;

And, us to join, the World should all

Be cramp’d into a Planisphere.

As Lines so Loves oblique may well

Themselves in every Angle greet:

But ours so truly Parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debars,

Is the Conjunction of the Mind,

And Opposition of the Stars.


Tak osobliwy ród mojej Miłości,

Jak cel ma dziwny, lecz stały:

Razem z Niemożliwością

Rozpacz ją powiła.

Jedynie wielkoduszna Rozpacz

Mogła ten boski ujawnić ideał.

Tam mdła Nadzieja na próżno kołacze,

Próżno trzepocze Błyskotkami Skrzydeł.

Jednakoż rychło mógłbym przybyć,

Gdzie ma rozpięta Dusza wiedzie.

Lecz Los nakazał wbić między nas Kliny

I drogę naszą nam zagrodził.

Okiem zazdrosnym Los bada

Dwoje kochanków doskonałych; trzyma ich z dala;

Ten związek byłby mu zaszkodził,

Gdyż moc Tyrańską by obalił.

Stalowe jego więc Dekrety

Ślą nas na przeciwne Bieguny

(Choć na nas obraca się cały Świat Miłości,

Obłapić się nie możemy).

Chyba że zawrotne Niebo padnie,

W Konwulsji nowej pęknie Ziemia;

I, by nas złączyć, Świat się zmieni

Na kształt już płaski, Planisfery.

Linie pośrednie, również i linie Miłości,

Pod każdym Kątem mogą się witać,

Lecz nasze absolutne Równoległości,

Choć nieskończone, nie mogą się stykać.

Więc Miłość, która nas zespala,

A los tak zazdrośnie rozdziela,

Jest Umysłów Połączeniem

I Gwiazd Przeciwstawieniem.

The “music” of Marvell’s poem (as Czerniawski is evidently close to the views of Ms. Hemschemeyer, let’s stick with her terminology for a while) is simple, and in effect not particularly original: an ordinary four-foot iamb in stanzas that rhyme abab. The sphere of “meaning” seems incomparably more important. The most dazzling feature of the poem is its special, paradoxical logic – paradoxical, but at the same time irrefutable, amazingly precise and exact, not without reason pointedly making use of a fund of notions and theorems from geometry, astronomy, cartography and astrology (“Conjunction” and “Opposition” in the final stanza are basic astrological terms relating to the position and influence of the celestial bodies). So perhaps Czerniawski was right to decide for Marvell that his versification is so non-essential that one can entirely forget about it – and translate the poem as prose, while scrupulously preserving its literal “meaning”?

But just a moment… Before we reply to say if he was right or not, first let’s check if he really did preserve it; whether in fact any of the meanings explicitly expounded by Marvell has been left out or distorted by Czerniawski. The very first stanza prompts serious reservations. Czerniawski hasn’t been restricted by the demands of versification, so why isn’t his supposedly literal translation literal? Literally it would, for instance, read like this:

* Moja Miłość jest tak rzadkiego/niespotykanego rodu,

Jak dziwny/niezwykły i wzniosły/niedościgły jest jej przedmiot/cel:

Została poczęta przez Rozpacz

W łonie Niemożliwości.

Even if we understand and accept that from a couple of almost synonymous meanings the translator has in each case had to choose just one, what strikes us when we read his version is that he has semantically bungled something in it. Why does he describe cel [object/purpose] as stały [permanent/fixed]? This meaning is not there at this point in the original, and cannot be justified, as a translator taking the “music” into consideration would do, by saying that the rhyme, for instance, demanded it. But above all: why have Rozpacz [Despair] and Niemożliwość [Impossibility; as stated below, both nouns are feminine in Polish – A.L-J.] been made into two women giving birth (to one child jointly!), or, let’s say, a woman in childbirth and the assisting midwife, instead, as in the original, of playing the role of parents (hence the mention of “birth” and hence the syntax “It was begotten by… upon…,” with a clear division of roles into maternal and paternal: “X begot Y upon Z” means “X became father to Y by impregnating Z”)?

The answer is simple: by abandoning the poetic discipline and taking the easy way out when it comes to “form,” Czerniawski did not have enough incentive to preserve the intellectual discipline, or to choose solutions that are trickier, but also more apt when it comes to “content.” (Especially characteristic in this respect is the penultimate stanza, totally ruined by Czerniawski, who has even failed to consider the logic of the metaphor – a logic which at this point in the original is particularly precise, because it refers to the laws of geometry ‒ and translated the adjective “oblique [lines]” into the quite meaningless [linie] pośrednie [indirect lines]; the context clearly indicates that here it’s to do with lines that are not parallel, and thus for example zbieżne [convergent]). Taking the easy route typically means that once you go down it, it’s hard to back out of it. Additionally, here this particular poem has played a wonderful trick on its idle translator. For it is concealing semantic potential that would actually make the job easier for a Polish translator with greater ambitions. That’s not always the case in translation, but it’s definitely true of this stanza: anyone who assumes they can put it into Polish using a regular nine-syllable meter (the syllabic equivalent of iambic tetrameters) with a full abab rhyme, will find it not harder, but easier to achieve “faithfulness” to the literal meanings and logic of the original. That’s how it happens to come out at this point: here the regular, rhyming poem seems to guide the translator itself, suggesting the right solutions to him or her. The fact that Czerniawski did not notice this in the first stanza proves that he did not try to translate this poem as a poem at all, but that from the very start he opted for the easier choice of prose.

Let us reconstruct the decision-making process of the Ambitious Translator. First of all, s/he considers the first line: “My Love is of a birth as rare” – “Ród mej miłości tak jest…” what is it like? Osobliwy [singular/curious] or niespotykany [unusual/unprecedented] aren’t suitable for “rare” – they don’t fit into the nine-syllable mold. Maybe rzadki [rare/sparse], which in any case is literally the same as in the original? “Ród mej miłości tak jest rzadki…” sounds perfect, so let’s keep it for now. But before we keep the first line for good, we must check what rhyme the word rzadki might find for itself in the third line. The seasoned translator’s memory for rhyme tosses up a long stream of words: gładki gadki siatki odpadki wypadki armatki bławatki bratki kładki pośladki hadki makatki szmatki… matki! The common meanings of these words are: gładki - smooth, gadki - fairy tales, siatki - nets, odpadki - scraps, wypadki - accidents, armatki - small cannons, bławatki - cornflowers, bratki - pansies, kładki - footbridges, pośladki - buttocks, hadki – (a regional word) hideous, makatki - tapestries, szmatki - rags, and matki - mothers. Excellent – matki [mothers or mother’s] is semantically bang on target. What’s more, its appearance also suggests a simple solution to the syntactical problem posed by the verb począć [to beget or to conceive]; the Polish language, perhaps because of its famous prudery, refuses to probe too closely the question of who did the impregnating and who was impregnated, and so with this bisexual verb it covers the participation of both partners in the act (in the English language there is greater specialization here: “to beget” refers to conception by the father, and “to conceive” by the mother). In Marvell’s poem the whole matter is further complicated by the fact that the nouns referring to the two parents – Despair and Impossibility – are feminine in Polish (Rozpacz and Niemożliwość). (This must have been what gave Czerniawski the unfortunate idea of maneuvering the two feminine personifications into the situation of two-person childbirth, an absurd image that from the very start disrupts the logic of Marvell’s use of metaphor, which, as ever in this poet’s work, is paradoxical, but scrupulously realistic). If there’s a matka [mother], then there’s also an ojciec [father], and here we have the solution. And after this promising start, as if gifted to the translator by the benignly smiling Marvell from the world beyond in return for respecting his “music” (NB this particular poet had a rare love of music, beautifully defining it as “the mosaic of the air”), the translation is off like a shot, proving with every single line and stanza how very much “faithfulness to form” supports “faithfulness to content,” if one understands what really matters in both of them:


Ród mej miłości tak jest rzadki,

Jak jej intencja jest zawiła:

Ojcem jej Rozpacz; co do matki —

Czysta Niemożność ją zrodziła.

Jedynie Rozpacz szczodrobliwa

Mogła tam popchnąć moje loty,

Gdzie się Nadzieja próżno zrywa

Na słabych skrzydłach z blaszki złotej.

A jednak mógłbym na wyżyny

Unieść się w ślad za moją duszą.

Lecz Los żelazne wbija kliny,

Co naszą więź rozciągłą kruszą.

Gdyż Los, zazdroszcząc doskonałym

Kochankom, zejść się im przeszkadza;

Na serc ich zjednoczeniu trwałym

Jego tyrańska cierpi władza.

Stalowym więc dekretem głosi.

Że trwać jak dwa bieguny mamy

I — choć się kręci na tej osi

Miłość — nigdy się nie spotkamy:

Chyba że chwiejne niebo runie

Wprost do rozwartej piekieł paszczy

I, kładąc biegun na biegunie.

Nasz świat się w planisferę spłaszczy.

Linie miłości, choć odległe.

Gdy zbieżne, gdzieś się w końcu przetną:

Nasze, tak ściśle równoległe,

Nie kończą się, lecz się nie zetkną.

Miłość więc, co nas rozpłomienia.

Choć Los nam szkodzi i zazdrości.

Składa się z naszych dusz złączenia

I naszych gwiazd przeciwstawności.

After everything that – providently pre-empting the reader’s angry reaction – I have already managed to say about my own ambition and arrogance as a translator, I must now correct myself, by adding an important distinction to this double self-diagnosis. It’s that as much as my ambition as a translator is unlimited, to the same degree my arrogance is not. In other words, the maximalism of my personal standard poetics as a translator relies on the fact that I would wish to set myself – and at the same time other translators – the maximum demands, and also on the fact that sometimes I am immodestly convinced that I have succeeded in outclassing other translators; whereas it does not rely on the conviction that it’s impossible to produce a translation of the same poem that is even better. It can be done better by another translator who, in polemic with my reading of the original, will offer a different reading, more complete or more to the point, and will convincingly incorporate it into the Polish language; some time later I myself might come up with my own better solution, in polemic with myself as it were (which has happened to me very often before now; I shall provide an example later on in the course of my reasoning). As we know, naturally it’s impossible to achieve perfection. But the point is at least to attempt to come as close to it as possible.

What criteria should we adopt in these endeavors? I think we could agree on at least a few utterly basic criteria without smashing any chairs or jumping down any translators’ throats. In this respect and in this capacity, what I as a translator regard as the standard poetics for my own use also forms a proposal offering a few basic criteria to be used for the critique of translation in general (criteria that the critique should of course apply without any trace of leniency towards my translations too – I have nothing against that). In other words, my personal maximalist program contains the nucleus of a minimum program, which is already reduced to such basic and obvious ideas that – in my view – it should be adopted by anyone who embarks on translating poetry or on critiquing translations of poetry. This minimum program consists of just two, very simple prohibitions:

Prohibition Number One: Do not translate poetry into prose. The translation of Andrew Marvell’s poem by Adam Czerniawski that I have analyzed above probably provides adequate illustration of all the dangers entailed in adopting the false assumption that a prose translation of a work of poetry may not be as “beautiful” as the original, but is more “faithful” to the original than a poetic translation. This assumption is not in the least bit true. Apart from purely technical applications which are not to be regarded as legitimate literary works and are not designed for publication (e.g. a word-for-word or philological translation), translating poems into prose always ends in serious semantic mutilation of the original text. In this case the product of the translator’s work is not just second-rate aesthetically (“in form”) compared with a good poetic translation of the same poem; it is also – quite contrary to its pragmatic intentions – less capacious “in content,” less well-organized in its logical sequence, less transparent in terms of meaning – quite simply less comprehensible. Anyone who’s still in doubt about this is asked to re-read Czerniawski’s translation, and to admit – but honestly, hand on heart – whether or not all the sentences in this prose are really clear in meaning to him or her, and whether s/he thinks one sentence connects with another to form a logical whole. Another good object-lesson is provided by the philological translation of Hamlet produced in the past by Witold Chwalewik: a translation so extremely prose-like and literal, so afraid of any poetic abbreviation or synthesizing of meaning at all that – like the official circulars written in Ptydepe, the artificial language invented by Vaclav Havel in his play The Memorandum – it becomes not just linguistically disorganized and prolix, but in places completely incomprehensible. The purported greater capacity of this sort of translation to explain to us “what the author wanted to say” is, to put it in academic terms, classic eyewash and tommyrot. If the author of the poem really wanted to say the same thing as his prosifying translator, he’d have written his text in prose to begin with. Of course, there are poetic works that lose little or nothing when translated into prose. But, as Paul Valéry once shrewdly observed, the very fact that the loss is so small casts doubt on their poetic value. In this sense Robert Frost’s above-quoted statement that “Poetry is what’s lost in translation” would be more in line with the truth (though more obvious, and thus less striking) if it were rounded out to say: “Poetry is what’s lost in translation into prose.”

Prohibition Number Two: Do not translate good poetry into bad poetry. But we can also say: “Poetry is what’s lost in mediocre poetic translation.” In my view, another translation practice that’s inadmissible is one that results in the original, a superb work of poetry in language A, becoming an unremarkable or aesthetic failure of a poem in translation into language B. We often hear the justification: “But it’s only a translation – naturally it can’t be as good as the original”; although in principle based on a true premise (I myself have just said above that even the best translation can always be better, which would imply that it can never succeed in achieving the perfection of the original), as a rule this remark expresses too much indulgence – it lowers the criteria, allowing us to opt for the easy translation route and to abandon our ambitions. To poetry – which, in Joseph Brodsky’s simple definition, is “the perfect version of language” – we should apply the highest standards, and we should see no reason not to apply exactly the same highest standards to a poem which, in terms of genesis, is a translation. How many tons of wasted paper we would save by accepting the elementary assumption that bad poetry is of no use to anyone. There’s no justification for bringing bad poetry into being: its non-existence is always better than its existence. Bad literature is not just, as a Thomist would say, the absence of good literature, it is rather – as in turn a Manichean would put it – the active presence of aesthetic Evil. And Evil shouldn’t be given any help by justifying its appearance and dominance with the excuse that it has pragmatic aims. Issuing bad translations of W.H. Auden, for example, just because there are no good ones to hand, but we do need to give the Polish reader “some notion” of this important poet, is a fundamental error: reading a small collection of bad Polish poems will give nobody any “notion” of Auden’s work, because in the English language he did not write such bad poems.

From what I’m saying there emerges – so it would seem – a certain practical consequence for the critique of poetry in translation. A critique of this kind, whether it involves Polish or any other literature, usually starts the evaluation process from the wrong end: first it compares the text of the translation with the original in terms of “faithfulness of content,” catching with easy satisfaction all the instances of imprecise verbal equivalents, wrongly understood idioms, dissimilarities in images, and so on, but only then – if it happens to feel like bothering – does it devote a little attention to the independent value of the translation as a work of poetry in itself. “The translation of poet X’s poem by translator Y is full of dreadful mistakes, e.g. instead of ‘the flawless alabaster of thy body’ it should say ‘the Carrera marble of thy body’, instead of ‘at dawn the lark awoke us with his song’ it should say ‘at sunrise the lark’s song tore us from our sleep’, and it is an utter scandal that the translator talks of a ‘garden breathing the scent of lilies’, i.e. Lilium candidum, when in the original it says ‘lily-of-the-valley’ (Convallaria majalis). On the other hand, one should note with respect that the translation does rhyme.” That’s what the typical critique of a translation is like.

But we should adopt the reverse order: at the first stage of our appraisal we should ask ourselves the basic question, does this poem, that we see here on the page – removed for the moment from the context of translation, to be evaluated independently and responsible for itself alone as a work written in the Polish [i.e. the target] language, written in order to perform certain tasks that only poetry is able to perform – does this poem have any value as a work of poetry? If it doesn’t, if it doesn’t in itself represent an excellent aesthetic achievement – put simply, if it doesn’t inspire us or seems poetically lopsided, then we should stop our critique at this first stage of the appraisal, sparing ourselves any comparison of the translation with the original; ultimately, even if it did include the scent of lilies rather than lily-of-the-valley, even if it proved to be one-hundred-percent “faithful” to the meanings apparent on the surface of the work, it would not change our opinion of its basic uselessness. If, on the other hand, we find the translation to be an excellent work of poetry in the autonomous sense – ah, then we can move on to the second stage of our appraisal: considering what price the translator has paid, in the coinage of deviations from “faithfulness” to the surface meaning, for the poetic excellence s/he has achieved.

By this I do not mean to encourage the toleration of translations in which the translator blithely takes liberties with the important meanings of the original (even with the wretched lily-of-the-valley, if that particular scent really is important to the lyrical action of the poem), contorting and adulterating them in pursuit of artistic effect. Not in the least: if the violation of the original meaning goes too far, not even the loftiest autonomously poetic artistry will save the translation from my criticism. However, there will be time and space for this sort of critique at the second stage of the appraisal: at that point I shall also be a moderately fair critic, because I will be in a position to judge deviations in meaning in terms of their functional usefulness for aesthetic effect. Whereas when the critic starts his or her appraisal by pointing out in detail the translator’s “content-related” transgressions, as a rule s/he can’t see the wood for the trees – s/he isn’t in a position to functionalize those observations and to consider the more general, not just “content-related,” poetic semantics of the translation.

But someone will say that – just as in any kind of aesthetic appraisal – there is no place in the appraisal of a translation for drawing such a categorical border line between “good” and “bad”; instead of the black-and-white opposition of these concepts it would be more appropriate to use a gradable scale of tones and relativized appraisals of the “better-or-worse” type. I agree, but not entirely. Of course, good translations vary by degree of “superiority” achieved; of course, bad translations too can be positioned at various points on the “inferiority” scale. Nevertheless, I would insist that a distinct and – within the scope of the adopted system of criteria – indisputable border between “good” and “bad” translations, acceptable and unacceptable, does in fact exist. Within the art of critical explication of the text, assuming that there is a multiplicity of possible readings does not impede the fact that certain readings are objectively incorrect, in complete contradiction to the work’s inflexible and irreducible kernel of meaning (I know that a deconstructionist would not agree with me, but I’m not in the least concerned because according to the assumptions of deconstructionism that disagreement itself is, as a text, devoid of any definite meaning anyway). Similarly, within the art of translation it’s possible to establish a border beyond which the translator’s interpretation is not only “worse” than any “better” interpretation but is also in itself an objectively “bad” interpretation.

Establishing this sort of border is exactly what a responsible critique of translation needs to do. But how is it to be established, using what sort of criterion?

I would suggest using the category I have already introduced, of the semantic dominant of the work of poetry. To understand this concept correctly, first we must reject the long since compromised (yet still surprisingly prevalent in typical considerations by the critic of translation or by the actual translator) division into “content” and “form.” It should be replaced by a general concept of meaning understood as the height of semantic potential, consisting in words and sentences that are directly readable, as well as in poetic organization of expression. Every outstanding work of poetry is a model of the world in miniature, and in this model literally every component – from the sum total of the statements expressed to the tiniest atoms of phonetics, by and large devoid of independent meaning, from genre affiliation or references to tradition right through to intratextual issues of syntax or grammar – is able, thanks to appropriate organization of the text, to take part in the process of producing meanings. In this process, the aesthetic value comes from the fact that generating meanings within the given work can be subjected to a certain overriding principle, which brings all the meaning-producing elements of the text down to a sort of common plain or points them all in the same direction. Witkacy, to cite him once again, would have talked in such cases of unity in multiplicity, Shklovsky would have called this principle the work’s chief “device,” and a structuralist would quote the term “semantic gesture” – with the greatest caution we speak of the semantic dominant, the primacy of a defined element of the work’s structure that constitutes the more or less perceptible key to the totality of its meanings. To perceive this key and to make appropriate use of it – that is a task as much for the reader as for the critic-and-interpreter, and finally also for the translator of the work.


Let’s start with a few examples of poetry written several hundred years ago, and which is also (not just for this reason) extremely difficult for the translator. Here is a poem by John Donne (1572-1631) in the original and in Aleksander Mierzejewski’s translation:


Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you

As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to breake, blowe, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.

Yet dearly’ I love you, and would be lov’d faine,

But am betroth’d unto your enemie.

Divorce mee, untie’ or break that knot againe,

Take mee to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.


Roztrzaskaj serce moje, Boże Trójjedyny,

Boś dotąd pukał jeno, szeptał, błyskał, winy

Me przeliczał, naprawiał. Lecz bym wznieść się mógł.

Musisz zgiąć mnie z wszechsiły i obalić z nóg.

Złamać, zmiażdżyć, przepalić i nowym uczynić.

Jam jak miasto pod szturmem wroga, cytadela

Zdobyta, trudzę się, by przyjąć odsiecz Bożą,

Gdy Rozsądek, Twój we mnie namiestnik, zatrowożon,

Przez zło opętan, słaby i udręczon wiela.

Miota się, zniewolony od nieprzyjaciela.

Nie broni mnie. Jam, Panie, wroga oblubieniec.

Lecz ogromnie Cię kocham. I miłości wzajem

Pragnę Twojej, choć czasem niewiernym się staję.

Rozwiedź mnie. Rozszarp węzeł. Weź mnie jak w więzienie

W siebie. I od małości uwolń. Zwiąż przybłędę —

I posiądź — zgwałć — bo jeno wtedy czysty będę.

Somewhere Antoni Słonimski tells how after the publication of his debut Sonnets one of the reviewers wrote: “The sonnet on page 18 is particularly nice – what a pity it’s so short!” The sonnet as executed by Mierzejewski is also very nice, but what a pity it’s so long. In justification of the translator we might add that in the early seventeenth century in English genre terminology the word “sonnet” was not yet a fully defined and codified term; Sir John Suckling, a poet writing a little later than Donne, gave this title to his lyric verse, which someone more pedantic than he was would have called “songs” – poems that are generally longer than fourteen lines and have nothing in common with any of the familiar types of sonnet structure. Well, yes, but this is not the case with Donne. This particular poet’s entire cycle of Holy Sonnets includes nothing but poems that represent the classic Elizabethan sonnet in its technically more difficult version, with a rhyme scheme that doesn’t follow the arrangement abba cdde effe gg (as used by Shakespeare, for example), but the Italian arrangement, abba abba cddc ee. Carping about the fact that Mierzejewski has extended this pattern by two lines may look like pointless pedantry on my part. Ultimately, the familiar difference between the English and Polish languages – the fact that of these two languages English includes a higher number of short words, especially monosyllables – means that some sort of lengthening of the Polish version is in the translator’s practice the rule. Another example (to follow shortly below) will show us what disastrous effects can come of a translator’s insistence on mechanical syllabic equivalence and on translating English iambic pentameters into Polish hendecasyllables. The translator who reasons not in arithmetic but functional terms is well aware that in most cases there’s no point in taking this approach: one pays for maintaining the shorter meter by having to drop important words and meanings that do not fit into the line. So one does have the right to render iambic pentameters in thirteen-syllable Polish alexandrine; if the poetry is stichic, and not stanzaic, like the dialogues in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, one can preserve the hendecasyllables, but only because in that case one has another unwritten right – to an insignificant increase in the number of lines, e.g. to lengthen one of Hamlet’s monologues by three or four lines.

Mierzejewski boldly makes use of both these possibilities all at once: he lengthens the poem by two lines and uses a thirteen-syllable meter. We would be able to forgive him for this (especially as he compensates for this concession with a fairly complicated rhyme scheme – aabba cddcc – in the first two stanzas) if any other poem were involved rather than this one. This poem not only belongs to a sequence of rigorously treated fourteen-line sonnets that cope masterfully with their own rigor, but additionally makes the sonnet genre into a component of the work’s meaning-producing dominant in an inimitable way. “Sonnet XIV” is, more than Donne’s other sonnets and certainly more than any other piece of English seventeenth-century poetry, an example of the clash between rigor and excess, typical of the aesthetics of the era. The semantic dominant of this poem is located at the point where the discipline of an extremely stabilized and codified genre collides with unrestrained excess, breathless haste and the emotionally expressive extremity of what the subject of the poem has to say – or rather to disgorge. The key to this sonnet’s meaning, which is paradoxical and full of dramatic ambivalence, is the stylistic device of cramming a crazy excess of tangled, internally contradictory thoughts and emotions into the instantly recognizable frame of the sonnet structure, treated here with iron-clad consistency. Just as God is supposed to “imprison” the human soul and, paradoxically, at the same time enter it by way of sexual violation, so the sonnet form both imprisons a stream of violent expression within its invariable, unbending shape, and at the same time enters this stream by “ravishment,” disturbing its free flow with the constraints of its rhyme and meter.

In deciding to abandon the sonnet form, Mierzejewski has proved that he either did not perceive or did not understand this specific quality of the poem. By lengthening it and increasing the number of lines – and also, incidentally, “pacifying” the syntax and intonation by breaking Donne’s long, breathless sentences into shorter phrases and by easing the uncompromising sharpness of key statements (the dull, cautious choć czasem niewiernym się staję [though sometimes I am unfaithful] for “But am betroth’d unto your enemy”) – perhaps he has achieved the effect of the poem’s fluency and fluidity, but neither fluency nor fluidity is what matters here. This poem is meant to be an example of difficult poetic speech, with every word and every syllable breaking through the resistance put up by a faltering, breathless voice, an insufficiently agile tongue, the pressure of inexpressible emotion, and finally the Addressee’s plain indifference. So if this poem is to be translated, maybe it should be done like this:

Zmiażdż moje serce, Boże, jak zmurszałą ścianę,

Którąś tchem, blaskiem dotąd muskał potajemnie,

Naprawiał; niech mnie Twoja moc złamie i zemnie,

Spali, odnowi; zwal mnie z nóg — dopiero wstanę.

Jam jest miasto zdobyte, innemu poddane,

Trudzę się, by Twą odsiecz wpuścić, lecz daremnie,

Rozum, co miał mnie bronić. Twój namiestnik we mnie,

Wzięty w niewolę, zdradza miasto pokonane.

Tak, kocham cię, chcę Twojej miłości, lecz jeszcze

Ciągle Twój nieprzyjaciel jest mym oblubieńcem;

Rozwiedź mnie zatem, rozwiąż, rozerwij nareszcie

Ten węzeł, weź mnie w siebie, uwięź; swoim jeńcem

Gdy mnie uczynisz, wolność dopiero posiędę,

I tylko gdy mnie weźmiesz gwałtem, czysty będę.

Let’s stay for a while with Donne’s sonnets, because there’s a translation of another, no less famous one, that will serve as an extremely instructive example of a different kind of erroneous interpretation by a translator, made for different reasons. The poem in question is “Sonnet X,” as translated by Jerzy S. Sito:


Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,

Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,

And poppie or charmes can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Nie pusz się, Śmierci, chociaż lękiem dławisz

Człeka lichego, za jaje Twa groza;

Ani mnie zetniesz jeszcze, ani mrozem

Ściętym żywota, Biedactwo, pozbawisz.

Ze snu, co ledwie za obraz swój stawisz,

Pożytki wielkie; za Twoim więc wozem

Rozkosz iść musi; im rychlej zejść możem,

Tym pewniej przecie duszę moją zbawisz.

Królom powolnaś, losom i żołnierzom;

W truciznach siedzisz, zarazie i wojnach;

Przecz się więc puszysz? Śpi barziej spokojnie.

Kto maku zażył, jak Twoich uderzeń;

Krótki sen minie i wstaniem zbudzeni.

I sczeźniesz, Śmierci, i w proch się przemienisz.

At first glance two features of this translation leap out of the page: its way of ostentatiously archaizing the language, and its semantic ambiguity resulting – we suspect – from the need for excessive condensation of what is being said. We can see both these features without even comparing the translation with the original. So – following the two-stage method for critiquing translation outlined above – first let’s consider Sito’s translation as an independent work of poetry in the Polish language, and let us try to give ourselves a sincere answer to the question of whether or not we like this poem. The archaizing really is ostentatious: it is not just limited to the usual methods, familiar to translators, of subtly hinting at antiquity with archaisms that are either phonetic (barziej), morphological (człeka, przecie), lexical (precz), inflectional (możem, wstaniem) or syntactical (word order such as Tym pewniej przecie duszę moją zbawisz). No, these moderate methods aren’t enough for Sito: right in the middle of the second line he buries a veritable anti-personnel mine of an archaism – the reader wading through this text only has to step on it for the aesthetic shock to blow him just about sky-high. Nie pusz się Śmierci, chociaż lękiem dławisz Człeka lichego, za jaje Twa groza! This equates to: “Do not put on airs, Death, though with fear you throttle wretched Man, your menace is as naught!” Za jaje – “as naught” – means entirely literally “for eggs.”

It would be hard to imagine a greater stylistic dissonance in a poem that casts Death a challenge than the farcical-comical phrase za jaje; I don’t think it could be felt any other way, not even by someone well-read in old Polish literature who will remember that it’s a phrase which in the Polish language of the past had citizen’s rights. We know it for instance from Kochanowski’s trifle – not in the least humorous, but cheerfully lyrical – O Hannie [On Hanna]: Ale to wszystko za jaje, / Kiedy Hanny nie dostaje [But all this is as naught / When Hanna is out of reach]. But the very fact that we are aware of such a specific provenance for an old-fashioned phrase means that its stylistic value will be inseparably linked in our minds with the source from which the phrase was taken. Not even browsing through dictionaries of old Polish will confirm how frequently the phrase was used, or how stylistically distinctive it was on the lips of sixteenth-century man; for example, we don’t know if the preacher at a Renaissance funeral could have said: Za jaje ta śmierć w obliczu Wieczności [This death is as naught in the face of Eternity] without being bopped on the bonce with a mace by an offended mourner. Perhaps he could have; let’s just remember that Kochanowski used the phrase in his light-hearted amorous trifle. And neither this epigrammatic context, nor considerations of comparative historical poetic techniques (the language of Kochanowski’s poetic technique is at a far earlier stage of development than that of Donne, who could have been his grandson) can justify the use of such a specific quotation – or even literary allusion – in a translation of this particular poem by this particular author. Sito’s archaizing is both anachronistic and aesthetically off the mark.

It’s also inconsistent, and that may be the greatest artistic error, not just of this one, but of all Sito’s translations of classical English poetry. Who knows, maybe the laughter with which we greet the unexpected za jaje arises from our ignorance: maybe Kochanowski would have used this phrase in one of his Laments, had he written more of them.

* Author’s note added in 2002: Asked about his famous editorial meticulousness, Mieczysław Grydzewski is said to have replied: “Even if faced with something that seems completely obvious, e.g. that Mickiewicz wrote Kordian, I always check.” Once in my life I didn’t “check,” and it serves me right: while tracking down other people’s gaffes in this essay, I made one of my own. Kochanowski didn’t have to write any more Laments to use the phrase za jaje in one of them - he had already used it, in the fourth stanza of “Lament 16,” and he did so with reference to Death: W dostatku będąc, ubóstwo chwalemy, W rozkoszy – żałość lekce szacujemy,

A póki wełny skąpej prządce staje,

Śmierć nam za jaje.

[In plenty we praise poverty;

In pleasure, sorrow seems to be

Easy to bear; each living breath

Makes light of Death.

(trans. Stanisław Barańczak & Seamus Heaney, 1995)]

How could I have forgotten about it? While I was writing this essay, I was sure I knew Laments by heart, and as a result I felt free of the obligation to check scrupulously, with the text in hand, to see if I was right or not. Of course this gaffe weakens the weight of my accusation, though I still believe that in the context in which Sito used the phrase in his translation it sounds awkward. For in spite of appearances, Sito in his Śmierć nam za jaje and Donne in his “Death, be not proud” are not saying the same thing, because they are not talking about the same thing. Donne is talking about the negation of Death through Salvation, whereas in Kochanowski the talk is of an attitude that ignores death, which is a tragic błąd ludzki [error of our minds], because it arises from the blind illusion that the world depends on our will and that the affluence or happiness we achieve will last for ever. For the author of “Lament 16” the phrase Śmierć… za jaje is thus the quintessence of human hubris – he himself, after the sudden invasion of Death into his life, already has similar szalone dumy [insane conceit] behind him, and never used this contemptuously belittling phrase as an expression of his own views. So in my interpretation and appraisal of Sito’s translation I’m sticking to my guns, though at the same time I am not going to wipe out the evidence of my own intellectual blunder; let it remain as a reminder – to others as well as myself – of the need to “check” even the most obvious statements.

But even if he had lived to a hundred, he definitely wouldn’t have rhymed żołnierzom-uderzeń, wojnach-spokojnie, groza-mrozem-możem or even zbudzeni-przemienisz. Inexact rhymes of this kind were not rhymes for him at all; and the authority of the unbending rules of Kochanowski’s system of versification was, as we know, so immense, that this sort of assonance remained outside the range of permissible rhymes for the next three centuries. Sito’s archaisms are of a remarkably, so to speak, opportunistic nature – they only appear when their use doesn’t force him to make an effort. It’s very easy to make morphology or phonetics sound archaic: it’s enough to remove the “s” from wszystko, or the “d” from bardziej and at once we have those fine words, wszytko and barziej. To find an exact rhyme is much harder, because it involves sitting down for a while and doing some brainwork. Sito doesn’t waste his time on that: ninety percent of his rhymes are the easiest possible – either grammatical (e.g. the dreadful fourfold dławisz-pozbawisz-stawisz-zbawisz), or imprecise. Read in isolation from the original, in terms of its autonomous aesthetic value, a poem such as his translation of “Sonnet X” sounds like the grating of iron on glass – the archaized language trying to pass itself off as sixteenth or seventeenth-century produces an unbearable dissonance when it comes up against rhymes that have nothing whatsoever to do with old Polish, and are pretty sloppy anyway.

That’s not all. We’re still looking at this translation as a separate work, without examining how it relates to the original – and in this separate reading there’s yet another striking feature: the fact that some of the words and phrases used here are – put simply – impossible to understand, and as a consequence the work as a whole is incomprehensible. A king’s ransom to any reader who can understand what exactly is meant by: Ani mnie zetniesz jeszcze, ani mrozem / Ściętym żywota, Biedactwo, pozbawisz. [literally: You will not cut me down, nor will you deprive those cut down by the frost of life, Poor thing]. Is it about people ściętych mrozem żywota [cut down by the frost of life], whom death will not pozbawi [deprive] of something (of what?), or is it that death will not pozbawić żywota [deprive of life] people ściętych mrozem [cut down by frost]? The syntax alone is unclear, nor we do know where the frost has come from and what it signifies. If for example we accept the second interpretation, is it meant to refer to a situation where one freezes, but not to death? How come the speaker is so certain that someone “cut down by frost” will in no case be “deprived of life”? Maybe it’s to do with frost in some other, figurative sense? But what? After all, it isn’t a symbol of Death, because in this sentence frost and Death are separated from, and even contrasted with each other.

Further on: im rychlej zejść możem, /Tym pewniej przecie duszę moją zbawisz [literally: the sooner we may descend / The more surely you will save my soul]. Once again, what does that mean? Even if this syntactically lopsided sentence is understood as “the sooner we (people in general?) die, the more surely (you, Death) will save my soul,” there’s absolutely no logical dependence linking these two phrases. And there’s definitely no known theology or metaphysical system where we’ll find an answer to the question why the imminent dying of some human community would make the salvation of an individual soul more certain, and in particular why Death itself would perform the task of salvation in this instance. Further down we find: Śpi barziej spokojnie, /Kto maku zażył, jak Twoich uderzeń [literally: He sleeps more peacefully / Who has taken opium, like your blows] – what on earth does this clumsy sentence mean? And finally, the last two lines: they’re correct in terms of syntax, but incomprehensible on the ideological plane, so to speak: we sense that there’s something missing here, some sort of explanation, some ultimate argument that would convince us there is a specific logic in the defiant negation of Death’s eternal existence. The poem is nothing more than a patchwork of vague, disjointed sentences.

Now that we have rejected Sito’s translation on these grounds after the first stage of our appraisal – now that we have simply found it to be an unsuccessful, objectively bad poem in the Polish language – we might not even bother with the second stage of critical analysis. But purely out of curiosity let us turn to the original – and what’s this we see? Donne’s poem, for all its seventeenth-century, inspired paradoxicality, strikes us with its clarity and the iron logic of its reasoning. The power and threat of death are placed in doubt by a whole sequence of rational arguments. Firstly, if sleep, being only the image of death, brings a nice rest, how much nicer death as such must be. Secondly, if death is at the service of fate, chance, war, etc., it clearly isn’t the most powerful thing in the world. And so on, and so forth. In Sito’s translation this entire logical chain has been broken apart for one simple reason: some of the links are missing. For example, such an absolutely necessary link as the adverb “eternally” (in Polish wiecznie or rather na wieczność), which in the penultimate line of the original qualifies the verb “we wake.” Only the fact that “we wake eternally” (i.e. within the Christian world outlook professed by Donne, after the Final Judgement), explains why “Death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”

And all this because of a single erroneous interpretative decision by the translator. Sito has appointed the charms (dubious, as we have seen) of archaizing as the semantic dominant of his translation, and has focused on producing them, and as a result he fails to devote any attention to the logic of the paradoxical argument that is the cornerstone of the specific character and artistic cohesion of Donne’s sonnet. Furthermore, thanks to another decision of a technical nature – the unnecessary choice of hendecasyllables as the equivalent of Donne’s iambic pentameters ‒ there simply wasn’t enough space for certain words and their meanings within the lines of the translation. In almost any translation one or another original meaning has to be dropped, but it matters which meanings are dropped. Absorbed by his archaisms, Sito has blithely dropped the most important links in the logical argument ‒ such as “chance” or “eternity” (while elsewhere introducing his own mróz [frost] and wóz [cart] for the sake of rhyme, unnecessary links that only increase the translation’s incoherence and lack of clarity). We only have to use a thirteen-syllable meter and to give some thought to the logic of the original for the sonnet, which in Sito’s translation was full of confusing riddles, to assume the character of a text that is dense with meanings but at the same time completely comprehensible:

Śmierci, próżno się pysznisz; cóż, że wszędy słynie

Potęga twa i groza; licha w tobie siła,

Skoro ci, których — myślisz — jużeś powaliła,

Nie umrą, biedna Śmierci; mnie też to ominie.

Już sen, który jest Twoim obrazem jedynie.

Jakże miły: tym bardziej więc musisz być miła,

Aby ciała spoczynek, ulga duszy była

Przynętą, która ludzi wabi w twe pustynie.

Losu, przypadku, królów, desperatów sługo,

Posłuszna jesteś wojnie, truciźnie, chorobie;

Łatwiej w maku czy w czarach sen znaleźć niż w tobie

I w twych ciosach; więc czemu puszysz się tak długo?

Ze snu krótkiego zbudzi się dusza człowieka

W wieczność, gdzie Śmierci nie ma; Śmierci, śmierć cię czeka.

Let us stay with the same translator, but let’s give him a chance, and turn to an example by a different poet. Maybe Sito will cope better with an author whose crystal clarity and positively classic structural precision will leave no doubt as to what the semantic dominant of his poem is? Here is a short verse by George Herbert (1593-1633), and then its translation by Sito:


Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The bridall of the earth and skie;

The dew shall weep thy fall to night:

For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave

Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:

Thy root is ever in its grave,

And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

A box where sweets compacted lie;

My musick shows ye have your closes,

And all must die.

Only a sweet and vertuous soul,

Like season’d timber, never gives;

But though the whole world turn to coat.

Then chiefly lives.


Dniu, w którym Ziemia przyjmuje Niebiosa,

Tyle spokojny przecie, ile jasny;

Upadek twój opłacze rosa,

Bo musisz zgasnąć.

Różo żarliwa, łza mąci spojrzenie

Śmiałkom, gdy barwy twoje gniewem płoną;

W grobie albowiem tkwisz korzeniem,

Przyjmij śmierć oną.

Wiosno dni słodkich, pełna róż płonących,

W szkatule twojej słodycz ułożona;

Muzyka moja dla ginących

Jest przeznaczona.

Jedynie Dusza, słodka i cnotliwa,

Trwa niby drewno dobrze wyprawione;

Gdy świat popiołem się okrywa,

Ma w nim osłonę.

It’s better, but there’s still something that’s not right. Right at the first stage of our appraisal, without comparing the translation with the original, we get the same sort of impression as last time: in its Polish version, the poem is stylistically inconsistent and logically incoherent. The inconsistency is not just the same as in the translation of Donne – a clash between archaized language and clumsy, makeshift rhyming (e.g. jasny-zgasnąć). It also appears in the fact that in the last two stanzas there are so many słodycze [sweets]: we suspect that a poet like Herbert either would have avoided multiple repetition or, if he really were to use an epithet so many times in the same form, in at least one instance he would have given it some other meaning, in order to avoid monotony. A glance at the original confirms that we were right: Sito has fallen victim to hasty reading, or simply didn’t know that in seventeenth-century English the word “sweets” did not mean “sweets” in the sense of “candy,” but “scent” or “perfume.” (Some may be surprised that I dare to accuse an experienced translator of inadequate knowledge of the language, but Sito makes similar slip-ups quite often. In one of his translations of another seventeenth-century poet, Richard Crashaw, he wrongly understood the word “turtle” in its modern sense (“tortoise”), which prompted him to create the image of a pair of lovers tangled in an embrace “like sweet turtles, curled into a ball” – a rather improbable image, based on our common-sense guesses with regard to the forms of intimacy technically accessible to shell-bearing reptiles of the species Chelonia; it would have borne fine witness to the Baroque bravado of Crashaw’s imagination, if not for the fact that in the seventeenth century the word “turtle” meant the quite conventional “turtle dove.” But I don’t want to be malicious; every translator has gaps in his or her knowledge of the language, and the chance of making an accidental gaffe through misunderstanding a word is a nightmare that nobody can avoid. I shall never forget how in a translation of a poem by Joseph Brodsky I almost came up with the image of an ancient legionary dressed w lśniące łaty [in shining rags]; I was saved, in the nick of time, from what in the process of translating I took to be a refined oxymoron but was in fact a compromising mistake, by Viktor Voroshilsky who, on reading my translation before publication, guessed that I was calquing the Russian word латы [similar in sound to the Polish word łaty – rags], which simply means armor.)

Let’s go back to Sito’s translation. The second feature that we have noticed, the logical incoherence of his Polish version of “Virtue,” is also striking without comparison with the original. For example, it seems quite impossible for the precise Herbert to have produced the meaningless line (Dniu,) Tyle spokojny przecie, ile jasny [literally: O day, just as calm after all as bright]. What is przecie [after all] supposed to mean, and to what or whose statement does it polemically refer? And whence the comparison tyle,… ile… [as much… as…], suggesting tautologically (and thus unnecessarily), as well as imprecisely (and thus also out of place in precise Herbert), the existence of some invariable proportion between the “calmness” of the day and its “brightness”? (Let’s take a look at the original: indeed, these are all Sito’s own additions, no doubt incrusted into the text because they give it a semblance of the archaic.) Here’s another example of incoherence: Muzyka moja dla ginących / Jest przeznaczona [literally: My music for the dying / Is destined]. A sentence that sounds nice, but perhaps ‒ we suspect ‒ is once again based on a semantic misunderstanding. Herbert’s “music,” i.e. the poetic praise he sings, is composed in tribute – as the final stanza implies – to the virtuous Soul, and thus to something that doesn’t really belong to the world of “the dying,” but lasts eternally. (Another glance at the original: oh yes, it’s another one of the translator’s linguistic blunders. Sito evidently didn’t know that in the context of “music” or “notes,” to be understood literally here, the ambiguous word “close” – generally meaning “close” in the sense of shutting or ending ‒ has the specific and exact meaning of cadence or coda). And finally, the last two lines, which send us into a state of utter confusion, not even of the logical, but simply the syntactical kind. Which word here is the subject, and what does the pronoun nim represent? Does the sentence mean: “When the world is coated in ash, it, i.e. the world, has protection in it, i.e. ash?” Or does it mean: “When the world is coated in ash, it, i.e. the Soul, has protection in it, i.e. the world”? Or maybe: “… in it, i.e. ash”?

But all these doubts fade into the background when in comparison with the original we notice something incredible: the translator has failed to spot, or else to make his work easier has chosen not to spot the semantic dominant of the poem that positively leaps off the page. Of course, it is its reliance on the refrain formed by the final rhyme of the fourth, short line of each stanza, a rhyme that first of all repeats the same word, “die,” three times without change (its regularity reinforced by the preceding “must,” which is also repeated three times without change), and then in the final stanza it undergoes disruption and semantic reversal. The steady memento mori of the thrice-repeated “must die” changes into “lives.” Moreover, other regular features that have accrued in the meantime also undergo disruption, such as the anaphoric start to each of the first three stanzas, or their way of turning to the addressee in the second person, which in the final stanza is replaced by the third person singular.

One thing’s for sure: even if it’s impossible to preserve the entire packet of measures applied here by Herbert in translation, at the very least it is absolutely essential to keep the rhyming, parallel shape of the last lines of the first three stanzas, the ostinato effect of the reference to our inevitable demise, repeated three times as if in order, on the opposite scale-pan ‒ in the last line of the final stanza ‒ for the reference to the chance of conquering death through virtue to take on triple weight and significance. But for this purpose once again a little brainwork is required: “must die” in the original is not only repeated thrice, but each time it rhymes with a different word, so the translator has to find three different – and precise, because this is the seventeenth century! ‒ rhymes for the word umrzeć [to die] (which is obviously impossible) or for example umiera [dies]. Probably put off by this necessity, Sito gives up on the refrain entirely, and thus deprives the poem not only of its orchestration of sounds, but also of everything else that is crucial to it: the tension arising from the paradoxical equivalence of parts of the work that are not identical in size (the final stanza on its own is equal in weight to the three preceding stanzas), the precise structural design, and finally the entire moral philosophy contained within it, according to which one righteous soul is capable of surviving the daily demise of elements of the world, as well as its future destruction in an all-consuming conflagration. A translation with the ambition of preserving all these meanings would have to assume that the semantic dominant represented by the refrain is inviolable, and as it were build the rest of the semantic substance of the poem around this fixed refrain. For example:

Dniu, taki piękny, jasny i pogodny,

Z niebem, co czule na ziemię spoziera:

Rosa opłacze dzisiaj zmierzch twój chłodny,

Bo każdy dzień umiera.

Różo, choć w tobie barw palących tyle,

Że widz niebaczny oko aż przeciera,

Twoje korzenie tkwią w własnej mogile:

Kwiat każdy też umiera.

Wiosno, pogody i róż poro słodka,

Jak puzdro perfum twój czas się otwiera,

Lecz ma kadencję swą, jak pieśni zwrotka;

Bo cały świat umiera.

I tylko dusza prawa i cnotliwa

Trwa niczym dobrze wytrawione drewno:

Choć świat w popiołach wszystek dogorywa,

Ona żyje na pewno.


If George Herbert’s “Vertue” is treated as a model of the world in miniature, it is not hard to reach the conclusion that the chief structural principle of this model is faith in the fact that one positive exception (the individual “sweet and virtuous soul”) is capable of counterbalancing the terror of negative regularity (all the instances of “dying” or departing into non-existence that are known to the world). Hence the fundamental role of the structural device in which this philosophy is expressed: the paradoxical, wavering balance between, on the one hand, the ballast of the thrice recurring refrain, and on the other hand, the single breaking of the steady refrain within the ending.

This leads me to my next example: the translation of a deceptively simple poem, over which numerous translators have already toiled, and which I myself have attempted several times. In this work, written over 150 years after Herbert’s poem, the same problem arises – philosophically speaking – but as if seen from the other side: the question is to what extent an individual instance of evil can shake our faith in the God-given and therefore just order of the world. This ethical question also has its own aesthetic undercurrent – it is further complicated by being aware of the aesthetic harmony that might characterize some manifestations of evil. The famous poem I’m talking about is “The Tyger” by William Blake (1757-1827), which as everyone knows is one of the lyrics that appears in his cycle Songs of Experience, which was the contrasting supplement to his earlier cycle, Songs of Innocence.


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The phrase “fearful symmetry,” recurring in the opening and closing stanzas of the poem, is not just the key to the aesthetics – and at the same the theology ‒ of the whole of Blake’s work (the critic Northrop Frye called his famous book about it Fearful Symmetry), but is also circumstantial evidence that leads us straight towards the semantic dominant of this particular poem. It is the aesthetic category of “symmetry that prompts fear,” terrifying harmony. It is imposed by the poem’s very first, famous line, in which the symmetry of four trochees and their alliterative arrangement (t, t – b, b) clashes with the phonetic effect of back vowels and the fourfold “r” sound – this line is like the phonetic reproduction of a tiger’s growl, its “fearfulness” co-existing with the “symmetry” imposed by the meter. Blake transfers the directly posed question – how could the Creator of Good have created Evil? and how could he have created Evil that is at the same time Beauty? ‒ into the semantics of poetic meter, rhyme, phonetics, intonation and strophic structure, which means that altogether – in this instance I would dare to put it in extreme terms – the poem as a whole becomesan iconic symbol that represents a tiger. Or instead, that repeats its intrinsic coupling of opposing qualities: on the one hand aesthetic harmony, beauty, symmetry and functionality; and on the other tensed, muscular, wild “fearfulness.” For the translator, there’s only one conclusion: in its Polish version the poem should reproduce this association of opposing qualities. It should be charged, so to speak, with coiled force, and at the same time subject to the laws of unconditional harmony, both “muscular” and “symmetrical,” “wild” and “put in order” all at once.

At the time when – more than a dozen years ago – I made my first attempt at translating “The Tyger,” there were already a few Polish translations of it, none of which I found remotely satisfactory. Here, for example, is Roman Klewin’s translation:

O Tygrysie, w gęstwinie nocy

Gorejący, jakiej mocy

Nieśmiertelna dłoń lub oczy

Mogły stworzyć twej symetrii grozę?

W jakiej głębi czy nieba oddali

Twoich oczu ogień się palił?

Na jakich skrzydłach wzniósł się płomień

I jakie go chwyciły dłonie?

I czyje ramię, jaką magią,

W twym sercu nerwy mogło nagiąć?

I kiedy serce bić zaczęło,

Co dłoń, co łapy trwogą zdjęło?

I jakiż młot? Łańcucha człony?

I w jakim tyglu żądz twych płomień?

Jakież kowadło? Jakie cęgi

Ciebie strasznego mogły sięgnąć?

I kiedy z gwiazd rój strzał się cisnął,

A niebo spadło łzą rzęsistą,

Czy rad był Bóg? I czy być może,

Że Ciebie i Baranka stworzył?

O Tygrysie, w gęstwinie nocy

Gorejący, jakiej mocy

Nieśmiertelna dłoń lub oczy

Śmiały stworzyć twej symetrii grozę?

In this version, all the “fearfulness” is gone, and so is all the “symmetry.” The very first line entirely does away with these two qualities, replacing the intense, distinct trochaic pace with a rhythmically indecisive nine-syllable meter, while simultaneously losing all the “fearful” phonetics along the way. Let’s be fair to the translator: in this poem, the objective differences between the two language systems present him with an almost insoluble task. The fact that in Polish there’s a vocative case – and that in addressing someone, especially in literary style, we have to use this case – means that the Polish equivalent of the initial “Tyger! Tyger!” can be anything except those two insistent trochees of the original. Tygrysie! Tygrysie!” [the Polish vocative form – A.L-J.]? – that’s two amphibrachs. O Tygrysie!? – that’s a tertius paeon; even if we pretend to ourselves that it’s a slightly diluted version of a pair of trochees, it lacks the repetition of the word, which gives the direct address to the tiger in the original such dynamic intensity. One of the later translators of “The Tyger,” Józef Waczków, attempted to solve this and, in the process, some of the poem’s other problems in the following way:

Tygrys, Tygrys, blask twój bije

W borach nocy, ale czyje

Oczy nieśmiertelne, czyje

Ręce rzeźbiły twą symetrię straszną?

Z jakich niebios, z jakich dali

Twoich ślepi żar się pali?

Kto go skrzesał, wzbił z głębiny,

Rozpłomienił bielm łupiny?

Czyja sztuka i rąk siła

Z mięśni serce utoczyła?

Kto je wprawił w ruch i jakim

Prztykiem strasznym lub kopniakiem?

Jakie piece? jakie formy

Wypalały mózg potworny?

Jaki giął go młot czy kleszcze,

Żeby siał śmiertelne dreszcze?

Gdy się z gwiazd sypnęły strzały,

A niebiosa łzy zwilżały,

Rad był z ciebie pan przestworzy?

Stworzył Jagnię! Mógł cię stworzyć?

Tygrys, Tygrys, blask twój bije

W borach nocy, ale czyje

Oczy nieśmiertelne, czyje

Ręce rzeźbiły twą symetrię straszną?

This version is distinctly better than Klewin’s translation, and there are a few pretty good poetic ideas in it (Rozpłomienił bielm łupiny for “Burnt the fire of thine eyes”), but doesn’t cope with all the problems. The initial Tygrys! Tygrys! imposes exactly the same meter as in the original, but the literary inaccuracy of addressing someone in the nominative seems somewhat out of place. Even more stylistically out of place is the line Prztykiem strasznym lub kopniakiem [literally: with a terrible poke or a kick] for “What dread hand? & what dread feet?”: Klewin has misunderstood the relevant bit of the original (ascribing “dread” to the “hands” and “feet” ‒ which belong, as we understand it, to the Creator and to the Tyger ‒ instead, as he should have, to a capacity to inspire dread); Waczków has basically understood it correctly, but his image of the Creator treating the Tyger prztykiem [with a poke], and especially kopniakiem [with a kick], is grotesque, and its absurdity totally defuses the terror. Instead of the pseudo-accentual, or in fact irregular verse to which Klewin resorts, Waczków uses regular trochees (with the exception of the final line of the first and last stanzas, which I’ll come back to shortly), but unfortunately comes a cropper in a couple of places. E.g. the line Stworzył Jagnię! Mógł cię stworzyć? [literally: He created the Lamb! Could he have created you?] for “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” has clearly been forced into the mold of a trochaic tetrameter: the interrogative particle czy, essential in this question, didn’t fit into it, nor did the emphatic form of the pronoun ciebie [“you” in the accusative, rather than the literary form cię], which in this context would be the only one suitable, because the logical stress falls on it.

In any case, Waczków’s decision to use trochaic tetrameters opens up a new field of doubt. It is the same meter as in the original (Blake is in fact more metrically variegated, disrupting the trochaic flow by inserting other meters, or by introducing an extra syllable – but even so, in English versification there is in principle no such thing as strict accentual-syllabic verse) – but in translation from one language to another does “the same” in the substantial sense always mean “the same” in the functional sense? For natural reasons of prosody the English language favors the iamb; for it the trochee is a meter that diverges from normality, as if characterized by greater force of expression. In Polish poetry, it is exactly the opposite: our paroxytonic stress makes the trochee a more “natural” meter – the role of a vector of forceful-sounding expression, intensity and anxiety should instead be performed by the iamb.

Finally, both translators make the same mistake of destroying the “symmetry” of the poem at the very point where in the original it is most strongly emphasized, as it is being directly cited. I am thinking of the aforementioned fourth line of the first and last stanzas. At this point both Klewin and Waczków have erroneously assumed that the words “eye” and “symmetry” in Blake’s poem do not rhyme. Whereas in the English poetry of past centuries this sort of juxtaposition of two-word endings was regarded by the standards of established convention as a full rhyme (see, for example, in the previously cited poems by Marvell and Donne rhymes such as “high-impossibility,” “enemy-I,” or “eternally-die”). And thus, the very word symetria [symmetry], so extremely essential for understanding the entire set of meanings in “The Tyger,” is in this poem the last word that could possibly be excluded from the rules of rhyme symmetry!

For the translator into Polish, the fact that the word symetria absolutely must rhyme with something might seem a practically insurmountable obstacle. When I made my own first “attempt” at The Tyger, after many hours spent searching in vain for a rhyme, with a heavy heart ‒ as in doing so I was going against my own maximalist principles ‒ I opted for a partial solution. Symetria refused at any price to fit into the rhyming clause of the line – so I realized that I’d have to pack it into the middle, but despite this concession I also had to make sure that this line, like all the others, rhymed. The result of this decision was a first stanza that looked like this:

* Tygrysie, błysku bystry, dziki!

Mknący przez nocne mateczniki:

Jakich rąk, oczu wieczna siła

Straszną symetrię twą rzeźbiła?

But the partial nature of this solution agonized me for years on end, like a pang of guilt at the back of my subconscious. Not so long ago I felt totally ashamed when another translation of “The Tyger” was published in which the translator, Adam Pomorski, had succeeded in finding a rhyme for symetria! Yes, but was it really a success, and had he paid too dearly for it? Translator’s note: Here Barańczak writes: …czy skórka (tygrysia) opłaca się za wyprawkę?, wittily inserting tygrysia – “of a tiger” into the idiom nie opłaci się skórka za wyprawkę, literally “the skin won’t pay for the tanning,” i.e “it’s not worth it at that price.” I have failed to find an equally witty way of saying “had he paid a (tiger’s) skin for the tanning?” in English.

Tygrys! tygrys! twoje oczy

Płoną jasno w kniejach nocy;

Z nieśmiertelnej ręki czyjej

Jąłeś swej strasznej symmetryjej?

W jakiej przepaści, w którym niebie

Taki ogień wziąłeś w siebie?

Jakichże się skrzydeł ima?

Czyjaż ręka ogień wstrzyma?

Czyjeż ramię, sztuka czyja

Muskuły w sercu twoim zwija?

I serca dzwon w twych piersiach żywych

Spod nóg czyich, rąk straszliwych?

Z jakich oków i hamerni?

W jakiej mózgi twe giserni,

Jakich kuźnic zdławią cęgi

Mordercze mózgów potęgi!

Gdy gwiazdy kopie zniżyły

I łzami niebo zwilżyły,

Czy rad był? czy chciał, byś ożył,

Ten, który wprzód Baranka stworzył?

Tygrys! Tygrys! Twoje oczy

Płoną jasno w kniejach nocy;

Z nieśmiertelnej ręki czyjej

Jąłeś swej strasznej symmetryjej?

Unfortunately, if symetria can only be placed in a rhyming position at that sort of price, it’s better to leave the poor word in peace and pack it into the middle of the line. Pomorski’s solution is awful. The form symmetryjej grates with its artificial baroque-Sarmatian patina, out of place not just in this particular poem (where it departs from the style of all the rest of the work, which has not been subjected to any particular archaizing), but also in any translation of a poet who lived at the turn of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. His linguistic inaccuracy is even more grating, using incorrect syntax: jąć się czegoś [to set about something; jąć is a verb that requires the reflexive pronoun się] would be the correct phrase, but jąć on its own can only be followed by coś [something – in the accusative], not czegoś [the genitive; swej strasznej symmetryjej is also genitive in form]. In any case, the translation is full of other shortcomings (a poor fourth stanza which unnecessarily repeats – and who knows why in the plural ‒ the word mózgi [brains], etc.).

But an undoubted service that Pomorski has rendered, at least to me personally, was to fire up my ambition. Maybe it is possible to find a rhyme for symetria after all – a better one, even if not one hundred percent perfect – while also preserving the poem’s characteristic link between “symmetry” and “fearfulness”? I leave the answer to the question of whether I really have succeeded to the Reader’s discretion.

Tygrysie, błysku w gąszczach mroku:

Jakiemuż nieziemskiemu oku

Przyśniło się, że noc rozświetli

Skupiona groza twej symetrii?

Jakaż to otchłań nieb odległa

Ogień w źrenicach twych zażegła?

Czyje to skrzydła, czyje dłonie

Wznieciły to, co w tobie płonie?

Skąd prężna krew, co życie wwierca

W skręcony supeł twego serca?

Czemu w nim straszne tętno bije?

Czyje w tym moce? kunszty czyje?

Jakim to młotem kuł zajadle

Twój mózg, na jakim kładł kowadle,

Z jakich palenisk go wyjmował

Cęgami wszechpotężny kowal?

Gdy rój gwiazd ciskał swoje włócznie

Na ziemię, łzami wilżąc jutrznię

Czy się swym dziełem Ten nie strwożył,

Kto Jagnię — lecz i ciebie stworzył?

Tygrysie, błysku w gąszczach mroku:

W jakim to nieśmiertelnym oku

Śmiał wszcząć się sen, że noc rozświetli

Skupiona groza twej symetrii?

Before I move on to my final example in this discussion, representing twentieth-century poetry, here’s just one poem that illustrates the singular problems facing the translator of an extraordinary nineteenth-century poet, who seems to me more modern than many authors alive today. The poet in question is Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), and here is one of her most typical poems (as usual, without a title):

The Soul selects her own Society —

Then — shuts the Door —

To her divine Majority —

Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —

At her low gate —

Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling

Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —

Choose One —

Then — close the Valves of her attention —

Like Stone —

A pioneer of the popularization of Emily Dickinson in Poland was Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, and her translations, without doubt artistically skillful and arising from a definite interpretative concept, imposed a particular image of the American poet’s personality on her Polish readers. Here is Iłłakowiczówna’s translation:

Dusza dobiera sobie kompanię

i drzwi zamyka.

Odtąd nawet swych najwierniejszych


Bez zdziwienia spostrzega karocę

u swoich niskich wrót

i — jak klęknął cesarz na macie,

co kryje próg.

Bywa, że z ciżby nieprzeliczonej

jednego wybiera skinieniem,

a potem zatrzaskuje na głucho uwagę

i staje się — z kamienia.

At this point I must loyally draw attention to a certain secondary, but important circumstance. As is widely known, Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts were discovered in her room after her death by her sister, and did not appear in a collected form, as a book, until 1890; as they were so shockingly different to the convention of the era, the publishers treated them in exactly the same way as Tadeusz Pini treated C.K. Norwid’s poems in Poland, meaning that they removed the atypical punctuation (the characteristic long dashes and capital letters) from the printed version, and also took it upon themselves to “correct” the odder expressions, and so on. As a result, they produced a version of this poetry that was largely standardized and simplified. For instance, in this edition the first stanza of the poem cited above looked like this:

The soul selects her own society.

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more.

When she translated Dickinson’s poetry, Iłłakowiczówna did not have access to the first complete critical edition of her work, which wasn’t published in the US until 1955 ‒ by restoring to the texts the form they had in the manuscript it purged the poetry of the layers of conventional readings that it had acquired over the years. Of course this fact to some extent explains Iłłakowiczówna’s interpretative decisions – but only to some extent. Possibly her interpretation was more influenced by her own concept of lyric poetry, if not her own personality. To put it another way, even if Iłłakowiczówna had been familiar with Emily Dickinson’s texts in their authentic form, she would probably have translated them in exactly the same way. Her translation of the poem “The soul selects…” is undoubtedly correct in literary terms (and thus passes through the first round of our critical appraisal without much difficulty); it shows that she reads Emily Dickinson as by and large a Victorian poet, linguistically lucid, tending towards an anecdotal or moralizing tone (e.g. in the cited translation, Bywa, że… [literally: It sometimes happens that…] – an aphoristic generalization instead of the specific and direct “I’ve known her,” in which one can feel the entire weight of personal experience), poetically fairly conventional, more sentimental than intellectual, and on the whole unambiguous and “affable.”

Meanwhile, there was more to Emily Dickinson than that, and the original text cited above shows it splendidly. This was the poetry of the tragic, dramatically expressed paradoxes of existence, with at center stage the paradox of one’s own participation in the world alongside one’s sense of alienation from the world, the difficulty or impossibility of communicating with it. This dilemma led Dickinson to a conscious choice of adopting an attitude of withdrawal, which for her is the only possible response to the fact that – as another of her poems puts it, one can never have everything: “The Missing All ‒ prevented Me / From missing minor Things...” Barańczak translated this as: Skoro nie mogłam mieć Wszystkiego - / Nie dbałam o brak mniejszych Rzeczy. Emily Dickinson’s attitude of withdrawal – which moreover in her real life took on the form of a neurotic tendency to avoid contact with people, literally “closing the door” of the little upstairs room in Amherst where she spent her entire life – finds its parallel in her poetics, which for those days were revolutionarily innovative. These were the poetics of asceticism, giving up everything in poetic language that represented those unnecessary “minor things,” everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. Expression stripped of adornment and irregular verse without rhythmical padding is the speech pattern of someone who only speaks up when forced to do so by dramatic necessity, and does so with effort, with resistance, faltering and taking an occasional breath (hence the crucial role of the long dashes as pauses). These stylistic features are especially plain to see in the poem quoted above, in which the ascetic language and defiant speech are like an illustration in themselves of what is being said explicitly: withdrawing from the world behind the “shut Door” of one’s own “self,” which is proudly “unmoved” by (nie dba [doesn’t care about], rather than bez zdziwienia [without surprise], is how I would understand the word “unmoved” in the original) the world, since to oneself one is the world. Here is my suggested translation:

Dusza dobiera sobie Towarzystwo —

I — zatrzaskuje Drzwi —

Jak Bóg — ma w sobie prawie Wszystko —

A z Reszty sobie drwi —

Nie dba — że tłoczą się Rydwany

U jej pochyłych Bram —

Że na wytartym jej Dywanie

Przyklęka Cesarz sam —

Wiem, jak z nią jest — gdy z Rzesz wybiera

Kogoś jednego — raz —

Zamyka się jak Śluza — zwiera

W sobie — jak Głaz —

Following this discussion so far, in which a significant role has been played by the limitations and necessities imposed on the translator by the conventions of pre-twentieth-century poetry – such as regular versification, precise rhyme, a complicated strophic system, lexical and situational decorum – the Reader might be expecting my analysis of the final translation, drawn from twentieth-century poetry, to start with a big sigh of relief. One might well assume that the translator can wander about the Central Park of the poetry of our era at a more relaxed pace and in more casual attire than in the gardens of Versailles of the older tradition. But that’s not the case at all. Or at least not when our preferences lead us towards those twentieth-century poets who, instead of riding along the paths of their Central Park on noisy skateboards and mopeds, would rather sit on a small bench and enter into conversation with us. As a translator I’m interested in encountering poets of this kind – poets of dialogue, not the Ginsberg-style “howling” or the inaudible whisper of many of today’s solipsists.

So the thing about the work of these poets of dialogue that I find most interesting is – despite all sorts of innovations – basically the same as what attracts me to some poets of the past: the inner conflict between dynamism and discipline, which appears in all manner of individual versions. On the one hand, our century has created an extremely strong need for poems whose individual voices would resound with what the British and American critics define as “urgency.” It refers to the quality, set within the poem, of a certain inner necessity, capable of convincing us that this particular poem had to be expressed, that the poet was forced to open his mouth by the dynamism of irresistible forces, whether slumbering within his or her “self” or external to him or her. On the other hand, it also refers to the sort of poem that is capable of resisting the pressure of external or internal forces when they push it towards the easiest poetic option. The dynamism has to remain balanced and reined in by discipline. Only the contrast of these two contradictory elements within the poem is truly able to interest and convince us. Robert Frost, the author of the aphorism cited a couple of times above defining poetry as what is lost in translation, is also the author of the famous declaration that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. As with the earlier aphorism, one would wish to qualify this one too. Free verse, as the reader of e.g. twentieth-century Polish poetry is perfectly well aware, does not have to be amorphous verse at all, devoid of any sign of linguistic organization. But Frost was right in a more general sense: poetry arises where “urgency,” a need to express something, collides with and is taken in hand by the limitations of voluntarily adopted discipline. Faced with poetry of this genesis, the translator is by no means in an easier situation, or one that demands less ingenuity and effort on his or her part than where the poetry of earlier centuries is concerned.

As we keep quoting – and polemically too – the authority of Robert Frost (1874-1963), why not take our final translation from his work? Especially as the short poem cited below is surely the most popular work in the history of American lyric poetry, often regarded as ideal case-study material, the object of analysis in high-school English literature lessons and university poetry classes. Indeed, this poem astonishes and impresses with its faultless combination of extreme simplicity and a casual tone alongside the exquisite intricacy of its structure and versification:


Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But 1 have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

At first glance, Ludmiła Marjańska’s translation copes pretty well with this refined combination of contradictory qualities:


Myślę, że wiem, czyje to lasy.

On ze wsi mnie nie dojrzy; czasem

Przystaję tutaj, aby w oku

Utrwalić leśne śnieżne zaspy.

Mój koń zdziwiony patrzy z boku:

Przystawać, gdy farm nie ma wokół.

Tuż przy jeziora zmarzłej toni,

W lesie, w noc najciemniejszą roku?

Dzwonkiem uprzęży lekko dzwoni,

Pytając, czy pamiętam o nim.

Prócz tego dźwięku tylko jasne,

Puszyste płatki wietrzyk goni.

W lasach głęboka, piękna zima,

Lecz ja obietnic mam dotrzymać

I wiele mil przejść, zanim zasnę,

I wiele mil przejść, zanim zasnę.

But the malcontent and pedant writing these words will even find fault with such a neat translation. Its careful effort to preserve Frost’s elaborate ladder of rhymes in the Polish version is certainly notable (it only lacks the final rung – the triple rhyme in the last stanza; but the translator makes up for this lack by rhyming the final zasnę not just with jasne but also with the three rhymes lasy‒czasem‒zaspy that appear in the first stanza, and thus intriguingly enriches the poem with a circular structure). The same can be said of her way of contrasting a dense network of rhymes with ostentatiously simple syntax and vocabulary. Nevertheless, here the critic will express a couple of small but significant reservations. At its first reading, before comparing the translation with the original, our generally high estimation of the product of Marjańska’s work loses a mark or two, e.g. because we’re not entirely capable of understanding what is happening in the first stanza or what it’s about. Who is the mysterious “he”? Why is “he” “in the village”? Why is the fact that this person “will not see” him somehow significant for the narrator? And above all: what is the poem’s time frame? Does its lyrical action – “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” – imply a one-off, momentary event, or, as the adverbial czasem [sometimes ‒ which is in Marjańska’s translation but not the original] implies, the sum of similar events recurring on various occasions? In other words, what is meant by the poem’s present tense? Does it mean the same as in the sentence “I am riding [jadę, the determinate form] along this road in the woods” or as in “I (regularly) ride [jeżdżę, the indeterminate form] along this road in the woods”?

Comparing the translation with the original immediately dispels these doubts, but even more urgently prompts one to question the way in which the translator has resolved its squaring of the circle through both rhyme and meaning in the first stanza. The word czasem is not there in the original – the translator has used it for the sake of rhyme (an unprofitable decision, as we can see, because it introduces unnecessary semantic confusion). The situation as described in the original is much more transparent: starting the first line with the possessive pronoun “whose” immediately puts emphasis on the question of to whom the woods belong, and so “his” and “he” in the lines that follow refer to a specific person, who is known to the narrator as the owner of this land, and who lives in the distant village. The connector “though,” which Marjańska has dropped, explains the logical relationship between the first line and the ones that follow. “I think I know who the owner of these woods is; though the owner has his house in the village [and not near the woods]; subsequently, he will not see me [from there] as [at this moment] I stop to watch his woods fill up with snow” – it could be set out like that in prose, adding other logical connectors or extra words for total clarity, and also emphasizing elements that the translator has dropped. As we can see, these also include the pronoun “his” in the fourth line, which in normal circumstances the translator from English into Polish could, or perhaps even should leave out for stylistic reasons, but which in this context plays an important role: it clarifies why on earth the narrator is bothering with the question of whether or not he is within visual range of the owner of the woods. They are his (the owner’s) woods, and it’s not appropriate to examine somebody else’s property too insistently, just as it’s not right to stand outside somebody’s ground floor flat and stare in at the windows. This slightly absurd idea, emerging as if from the narrator’s subconscious while he’s thinking about something else and soliloquizing in passing, is the essential key to the meaning of the poem: it betrays in the narrator a certain susceptibility, a sensitivity to how other people see him, and also, dormant within him, a seam of townsman’s (or maybe in this case farmer’s) ethics of solidity and neighborly decency. These features of the narrator will come in handy for our understanding of the poem’s fourth, key stanza.

On comparison with the original some other, lesser shortcomings of the translation come to light. In the fourth stanza the requirements of the number of syllables have meant that “to go” is rendered as przejść [to walk through] (which is incorrect, in that the narrator will most definitely be riding or driving, not walking), and in the second stanza “evening” has become noc [night]. This change would be an unimportant detail in any other poem, but in this one it’s a deviation of no small significance: the “darkness” of the woods, which we read about in the final stanza of the original, is not the same darkness when set against the deep darkness of night as opposed to the darkness of evening that is only just falling; the distance the narrator has yet to go “before I sleep” is not the same distance when one is simply going home in the evening and when one is on a late-night journey. The passing mention of the “mistake” that in the original the horse senses in his owner’s atypical behavior (in Marjańska’s version the horse just pyta, czy pamiętam o nim [literally: asks if I haven’t forgotten about him]), is perhaps not accidental in Frost’s original, bearing in mind that in the fourth stanza the narrator’s perspective suddenly widens, taking in not just the specific moment, but also the thought of what matters in life, and what in it might turn out to be a “mistake.” Wietrzyk [a little wind] in the translation is perhaps too idyllic an equivalent for “easy wind,” especially as it is already the third diminutive within the stanza, following dzwonek [little bell] and płatki [little flakes]. (In my own translation, to be demonstrated below, I was forced by rhyme to turn the knob marked “easy wind” the other way, thereby intensifying the “easy wind” to make it a zawieja [snowstorm/gale], but a zawieja is not necessarily a wild storm, whereas a wietrzyk is always mild and buoyant).

Marjańska’s semantic inaccuracies as listed above are all trifles, insignificant deviations from the original meanings – if only these were the only kind to occur in translations. But along with the idyllic atmosphere introduced – in defiance of the original ‒ in the third stanza, an avalanche of bucolic mildness relentlessly starts to slide onto Frost’s woods. And its mild whiteness drives the “darkness” out of the final stanza. It drives out a word which from a certain viewpoint is in this stanza ‒ and in this poem ‒ the one with the greatest weight, the last one that ought to be removed.

What on earth has happened here? When we pack for a journey and we can’t fit all the things we need into a suitcase that’s too small, we have three options: 1) replace some of the things that take up a lot of space with others of lesser volume, 2) instead of two things pack one that will be able to perform the functions of both, 3) recognize some things as less essential and take them out of the suitcase. The translator of the first line of the fourth stanza of Frost’s poem faces the equally headache-inducing task of packing the seven words used in the original into a nine-syllable line in the translation. In a situation of this kind, the Polish language, with its limited repertoire of short words, makes its users feel as if they’re suffering from a hereditary illness. Of course, to some extent Polish makes up for its flaws with virtues: one of them is the fact that Polish syntax can drop the conjunction i [and] in a list, and the verb jest [is] in a predicative sentence without suffering any harm. So we don’t have to worry about “and” and “are.” But all the other words are important: even the article “the” matters, because it implies with stress that it’s not about any woods in general, but about the specific woods before which the narrator is standing at this moment. The four remaining words are even more indispensable: in this line there absolutely have to be “woods” and the three epithets defining them: “lovely,” “dark,” and “deep.” At this point Marjańska commits the first of two fatal errors: instead of looking for equivalents that take up less space or words with double meaning, she decides to discard one of these four elements. This decision is a direct result of the fact that, in her view, keeping each of the four elements in the first line is less important than retaining the literal meaning and exactly the same word order for the famous, positively proverbial second line, “But I have promises to keep.” So she puts Lecz ja obietnic mam dotrzymać: if one wants to be literal while also preserving the word order of the English sentence there is no other way to say it. But in that case, the first line must not just fit in four words of a defined meaning, but one of them must also have a phonetic form that will allow it to rhyme with dotrzymać [to keep]. As it’s impossible to find a synonym for any of the four words that could serve as a rhyme, Marjańska opts for the simplest solution: she introduces a new word that rhymes (zima [winter]), and to make room for it, of the previous four words she drops the one that she regards as the least important. As such she regards the word “dark,” probably fortified in this decision by the fact that “darkness” has already been mentioned earlier on in the poem anyway.

And here she commits a second fatal error. By removing the mention of darkness, she strips the line of its most important element. What remains is a peaceful, dreamy, picture-postcard image of głęboka, piękna zima [deep, lovely winter], with none of the force of murky attraction (NB as well as implying piękno [beauty] the word “lovely” also contains a sense of allure or charm, so perhaps in this poem it should be understood as “alluring,” “tempting” or “attracting”). The three epithets defining the woods in the original could also refer to the inside of a well, or to the depths of the sea opening underfoot. The narrator is attracted by the murky depths. At this point in the translation each of these three meanings is entirely essential for us to understand what this apparently calm and cheerful poem is actually about. It’s about the sinister allure of Nothingness, Death, and the Void (in another poem Frost mentions his own inner “desert places,” more terrifying than the void of outer space); the only defense against their magnetism are the social ethics of a sense of duty and punctuality, sensibly persuading oneself of one’s alleged duties in this world to fulfil, the “promises” that one has “to keep.” The foundation of this poem is a paradox: although it “should” be terrifying, the narrator finds that the thought of plunging into Nothingness has irresistible charm; the thought of plunging into the real, human world, although it should be attractive, speaks with the dry voice of established social responsibilities. Hope, if it exists, contains none of the charm of dreaming; the sphere of Hope is the reality of soberly made and soberly kept “promises,” the obligations towards people and the world that one assumes as if on the principle of a contract with conscious life, repeating like an incantation that there are still many miles to travel before one will ‒ finally ‒ be able to plunge into sleep.

That’s how I understand Frost’s deceptively blithe and simple, but actually difficult and gloomy poem, and this reading prompted me to translate the fourth stanza in a way which ‒ as I am fully aware ‒ might elicit some critical objections. Is the line Lecz woła trzeźwy świat nadziei [literally: But the sober world of hope is calling], which apparently has nothing in common with the meaning of the original line “But I have promises to keep” a translator’s “reinterpretation,” or is it rather – as I myself would of course be inclined to believe – a legitimate interpretation of the basic meaning of the poem? I shall leave the patient Readers of my self-righteous translator’s effusions on their own with this poem and this question. Not entirely on their own: I hope they will feel the presence of Frost’s ghost behind them, still standing before his wintry woods, staring into the deep darkness while also automatically checking with a fingertip to see if the tennis net of rhyme and meter is tight enough, and if just this once the poetry has not been “lost in translation.”


Wiem, czyj to las: znam właścicieli.

Ich dom jest we wsi; gdzieżby mieli

Dojrzeć mnie, gdy spoglądam w mroku

W ich las, po brzegi pełen bieli.

Koń nie wie, czemu go w pół kroku

Wstrzymałem: żadnych zagród wokół;

Las, lód jeziora — tylko tyle

W ten najciemniejszy wieczór roku.

Dzwonkiem uprzęży koń co chwilę

Pyta, czy aby się nie mylę.

Tylko ten brzęk — i świst zawiei

W sypiącym gęsto białym pyle.

Ciągnie mnie w mroczną głąb tej kniei,

Lecz woła trzeźwy świat nadziei

I wiele mil od snu mnie dzieli,

I wiele mil od snu mnie dzieli.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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