Home > Polish literature > Two versions of Survivor (the poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz)

Two versions of Survivor (the poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz)

[As an afterthought, I’m adding this disclaimer: Just to be clear, none of what follows is meant as a critique of the two books mentioned. It most emphatically isn’t. I am overjoyed that these two volumes exist and that English-speaking readers will be able to access poetry by one of the most important and influential Polish poets alive today. These are simply my notes about one particular verse in one particular poem, there is no implication about the quality of the translations. In fact, there cannot be, since I clearly state that I am not even 100% certain that I am the one who is right. Since writing this post I’ve talked to one person about the subject, and that person was not really sure whose version is right either. Plus, I have not read through either volume in its entirety. So I couldn’t make serious overall comments about the translations even if I wanted to. I think my post shows to some extent the difficulties inherent in all translation, and particularly in translation of modern poetry. I think it is wonderful that a volume of new Różewicz translations has been published. And I think it is wonderful that a volume of older Różewicz translations is to be re-published. And I sincerely hope both volumes will meet with great success. And I hope this post will add to that, by making more people aware of the poet, of his English translators, and of the difficulty of their job.]

In my work, I sometimes compare multiple translations of a single text. Usually, the translations are into Polish. But yesterday and today I was perusing English versions of two poems by Tadeusz Różewicz.

In the course of that work I learned that there were at least two collections of his poetry in English translation with this year as their publication date – this abundance is most likely due to the fact that the poet turned 90 earlier this month. One of these is a volume of new translations and it has already appeared in print, the other is a third edition and amazon lists it as scheduled to be published on 15 November. The translations in the former volume (Sobbing superpower) are by Joanna Trzeciak. The translations in the latter (They came to see a poet) are by Adam Czerniawski.

What caught my attention and prompted me to write this post was the way both translators have approached a certain line in the famous poem Ocalony (The Survivor or Survivor, depending on translator).

In the original Polish the line goes:

To są nazwy puste i jednoznaczne

– and is followed by a striking list of very “elementary” antonyms (such as love and hate, or darkness and light).

The Trzeciak translation of this line goes:

These words are empty and equivalent:

(Tadeusz Różewicz Sobbing superpower: selected poems of Tadeusz Różewicz, transl. J. Trzeciak, New York: Norton 2011, I quote from the amazon preview, p. 32)

I have no access to the specific Czerniawski volume just mentioned, neither in the new edition (not yet released), nor in any of the older ones, but I checked a different source, a Polish bilingual volume of poems by Różewicz in Czerniawski’s English translations – and there the line is rendered thus:

The following are empty synonyms:

(Tadeusz Różewicz Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems, transl. by A. Czerniawski, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie 1991, p. 7)

Now, what I find quite striking (apart from the introduction of a colon) is that the translators chose to render the words nazwy… jednoznaczne as words… equivalent or synonyms. Personally, I think that this may be a misreading (though not one of great consequence). And then again, maybe I’m wrong. Here’s an explanation.

The Polish word jednoznaczne is the plural nominative case of the adjective jednoznaczny. Jednoznaczny means ‘unambiguous, unequivocal.’ I believe that in the quoted context nazwy jednoznaczne means, roughly, ‘words whose meaning cannot be questioned or discussed, words which are absolutely straightforward, which have an obvious, clear meaning.’ These words are at the same time also empty (puste). This is an oxymoron of sorts: if words have an obvious, unequivocal meaning, one could also say that they are “loaded” with meaning, that they are, simply put, “meaningful.” Yet, the poet says that they are “empty”! As if despite their semantic “strength” they had no power. Which makes perfect sense in the context of the entire poem – it is a poem about, among other things, the impotency and weakness of language, of poetry, of ideas (represented in/by words) in the wake of World War II atrocities.

The English translations just quoted seem to be based on an interpretation different to mine (though it is not a dramatic difference). An interpretation where the word “jednoznaczny” is taken to mean “synonymous” or “equivalent”. But to what? Are we to understand that those words are equivalent to each other (within each pair, probably)? I guess that would be the translators’ intention – and it wouldn’t exactly go against the general meaning of the poem: it would mean that antonyms have become synonyms, language has completely collapsed. And yet I feel that this translation is less straightforward, to me it is even a bit counter-intuitive, it requires a very specific way of understanding the language of the poem (well, that’s my impression).

I can imagine a line of argumentation that would support the translators’ choices. First of all, currently, the proper Polish term for synonym is bliskoznaczny (or rather wyraz bliskoznaczny), and not jednoznaczny. But the term wyrazy jednoznaczne (jednoznaczniki) does exist and means “perfect” synonyms – it’s an old word that Różewicz could have easily known back in 1947. Still, I doubt if an interpretation in terms of linguistic terminology is what he expected of the reader. And then there’s another, related possibility. The word jednoznaczny takes on a slightly different meaning in the construction jednoznaczny z, which means synonymous to. In the poem there is no z (to). But that is hardly a clincher because, well, this is poetry, creative use of language is to be expected, and ellipses are nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I definitely prefer my reading. 😉

(As a side note, let me add that my personal feeling would be that the construction jednoznaczny z is normally used to connect an action – not a word – with an equivalent word or other action – as in: “doing that would be equivalent to…” In the poem, we are clearly dealing with words, not actions. But my “personal feeling” may be wrong – a quick search in the PELCRA corpus returned lots of results with nouns…)

Anyway, I am surprised that both translators chose what I find to be the less natural reading of the poem. Did one of them influence the other? Perhaps not, they may have done so independently. And perhaps they were right to do so. In the end, I don’t know.

As an addendum, let me nitpick just a little bit more: the word Różewicz uses is nazwy, which, to be precise, does not mean ‘words.’ It means ‘names.’ Probably in the sense ‘nouns’ (as in the Latin nominanomina propria, nomina appellativa etc.). At least that’s how I understand it. So nouns would perhaps be more precise a rendition (they are in fact all nouns), but one has to admit that words is really quite fine as well (and so is synonyms, a hyponym of words). It is difficult to say if These are empty and clear nouns would actually sound any better than either of the two versions I’ve quoted above.

I probably sat down to write all this with some point in mind, but I’m not sure anymore what it was. Just an observation about two translations of a certain poem, I guess. I know there’s nothing particularly illuminating in saying that translations are always specific readings of a work, but maybe there’s some interest in looking at one more example of the process…?

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