Archive for the ‘Polish literature’ Category

Two versions of Survivor (the poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz)

18 October 2011 Leave a comment

[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…?

Polish Season in the UK about to start

17 April 2009 7 comments

For quite a while now I’ve been meaning to mention the upcoming “Polska!Year” (argh, who thought up that name?). But somehow it kept eluding me. But now the Sounds New festival in Canterbury is upon us. And it marks the start of “a year of contemporary everything from Polska” (aaaaaaargh!) so I guess I can’t put it off any longer.

I’ve read the description of the festival on their web page. The absence of Polish cinema seems rather conspicuous and odd in the introductory part (feature films, documentaries, animation – there are distinct “Polish schools” in all these fields, even if they can’t be said to exactly thrive today). But films are in fact mentioned further in the text so at least a bit of that is obviously going to be present.

The Sounds New festival (contrary to the information on their site) has already been preceded in joining the Polska! Year by the Scottish Tides Festival (with a concert of the Warsaw Village Band on 6th March) but they can probably still be called the first major event in this cycle. They have a great lineup of performers, including the London Sinfonietta, Rolf Hind, Olga Pasiecznik, the Silesian String Quartet, the Camerata Silesia and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. There will be concerts featuring music by some of the leading Polish composers of today, including Paweł Łukaszewski, Hanna Kulenty, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Paweł Mykietyn, Zygmunt Krauze and Paweł Szymański. I’m a bit surprised by the absence of Krzysztof Meyer’s name in the program (as well as a few other composers, most notably members of the “Stalowa Wola Festival Generation“).

The main attraction of the festival, however, will be the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, featured in the program in generous doses. The composer himself will conduct a performance of his Passion according to St Luke.

There’s also going to be a smattering of less contemporary Polish composers. The program features pieces by Wacław z Szamotuł, Mikołaj Zieleński, Stanisław Moniuszko, Karol Szymanowski, Grażyna Bacewicz, Andrzej Panufnik and Witold Lutosławski (the last two appear quite a few times, actually). I am surprised by the omission of three names: Chopin, Tomasz Sikorski and Marek Stachowski (the latter two are a different league, obviously, but they definitely deserve to be present). But then, one simply can’t please everyone when preparing a festival of this kind.

In other events festival-goers will get a chance to see two of the worst Polish films ever: Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (which has been justly criticized for both historical inaccuracies and lack of artistic merit) and Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Silent Touch (not even Max von Sydow’s acting can redeem this utter dud made by a director who on other occasions has created some of the greatest films in Polish cinema).

Check the festival page (linked to at the beginning of this post) for more details.

And finally, a longish note for those who do not understand my disgust (well, distaste) at the (mis)use of the word “Polska” in the quotations above. First of all, I personally find the mixture of two incompatible languages irritating. And I’m saying this as someone who is (moderately :lol:) bilingual and therefore engages from time to time in various types of code-mixing and code-switching. But my reservations are not purely aesthetic, they are also grammatical. Polish is an inflectional language. Depending on their place in the syntactic structure of a sentence, Polish nouns take on various cases (grammatical forms). “Polska” is a noun in the nominative case and it means “Poland”. But if “Polska! Year” is supposed to mean “Poland Year”, then the proper form to use would be the genitive “Polski”. In that case we should be speaking about a “Polski Year” not a “Polska Year” (the appalling mix-up between incongruous languages remains). I have a sneaking suspicion that what the organizers in fact had in mind was “Polish Year”. In which case the proper word to use would be the adjective “polski” – it happens to be homonymous with the genitive of the noun “Polska”, though here the “p” is lowercase. Which again brings us to “Polski Year” or “Year Polski”, depending on whether we decide to use the English or Polish word order (in this situation even in Polish the adjective would be spelled with a capital “P”). End of rant, you can go back to whatever you were doing.

Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)

24 May 2008 6 comments


Yesterday marked the 125th anniversary of the death one of the greatest Polish 19th century poets – in fact one of the greatest Polish poets, period (and also sculptor, graphic artist and painter): Cyprian Norwid. This post is interspersed with his etchings and paintings as well as photos (daguerreotypes) of the artist.

As is the case with practically all the great Polish poets who never got a Nobel Prize (and, of course, there was no such thing as a Nobel Prize in the 19th century 🙄 ), Norwid‘s oeuvre remains essentially untranslated into English.

Norwid‘s poetry was groundbreakingly innovative, therefore the older he got – the more destitute he became. His drawings, paintings, and sculptures did not sell very well either. In fact, of the at least 15 canvases known to have been left by him, only 4 have been found and identified (3 of them are owned by the National Museum in Warsaw, one – by the Wrocław Ossolineum). He spent the last years of his life as an unwilling recluse, a tenant of the Dom Świętego Kazimierza (Saint Casimir House) – a shelter, tended by Daughters of Charity nuns, for indigent Polish émigrés who had no other place to live.

His works anticipated linguistic poetry – a 20th century current in Polish literature. They are full of brilliant, many-faceted puns, neologisms and word games which expose the hidden workings of language, the concealed relationships between words, they reveal unseen meanings which suddenly explode into unexpected epiphanies of newly discovered sense. This is where the novelty of Norwid‘a poetry lay: in his approach to language which is not only the medium of communication in his poems but also an object, in a very literal, material sense of the word.

The term “word games” used earlier is not meant to imply a sort of postmodern play with language (a “game for game’s sake”). Norwid was very serious in his “play” (which does not mean his oeuvre is completely devoid of a facetious side), his poetry is of a deeply reflective, philosophical kind. He was primarily concerned with ethics and religion. A quest to motivate man’s actions on this planet, indeed his very existence, pervades Norwid‘s works. In his art Norwid developed a very personal brand of Catholicism which was extremely radical and modern for its day – in many ways it prefigured late 20th century theology.

He died on May 23rd 1883. A single 😯 volume of his poetry had been published during his lifetime – in 1863:

It was this volume that Zenon Przesmycki – a Polish poet of the Young Poland era – accidentally discovered while visiting the reading room of a Vienna public library in 1897. This incident marked the beginning of Norwid‘s great reappraisal: Przesmycki was the one who initiated and oversaw the re-publishing and publishing of Norwid‘s literary output. Norwid became a hero to a new generation of poets who saw in him not only a literary genius but also a symbol of what happens to great art in a bourgeois society (BTW, it wasn’t until the 1970s that an edition of Norwid‘s complete works finally appeared).

As mentioned, apart from being a poet, dramatist, and excellent prose-writer, Norwid was also a painter and sculptor. It occurs to me now that there is some vague (and perhaps even tenuous) link between Norwid and another prodigiously gifted Polish writer (Bruno Schulz notwithstanding), this time of the 20th centuryLeopold Buczkowski (another genius, and similarly undertranslated). Leopold Buczkowski is said to have also been a good pianist and gifted amateur composer…


Which brings me to the last but perhaps most important topic. There is a strong link between Norwid and music: he was one of the handful of Chopin‘s contemporaries who recognized the Polish composer’s genius – perhaps not fully but to a great extent anyhow. He gave testimony to that fact in two wonderful texts: the poem Fortepian Chopina (Chopin’s Piano) and a section in the book Czarne kwiaty (Black Flowers).

The first of these two comes from Norwid‘s greatest poetic achievement (incidentally, not published in its entirety until 1947!): the cycle Vade-mecum (it is spelled that way, with a dash in the middle: see? you get a glimpse of his avant-garde approach to language already!). The poem is a meditation on the transience of all earthly things but also of the evanescence of great art, which on the one hand, through the fusion of effort and beauty – embodies the greatest ideals of the human spirit, on the other hand – is doomed to be destroyed and forgotten (eerily enough, one of Norwid‘s recurrent topics was how contemporaries never recognize the great men they share their times with).

The poem reaches its culmination in a description of the sacking of Chopin‘s old Warsaw apartment by Russian soldiers who throw the composer’s piano out of the window. The lyric closes with this disturbing vista: the instrument, which seemed to embody absolute beauty and all of its purity, hits the hard, paved road and is destroyed. Harsh, brutal reality gets the upper hand. Or does it?

Black Flowers is a prose cycle in which Norwid described his last encounters and last conversations with several people, among them two other of the greatest Polish poets: Juliusz Słowacki (d. 1849) and Adam Mickiewicz (d. 1855). But also a virtually anonymous Irish girl (of whom the poet knows very little – in fact, he isn’t even completely sure of her nationality). Among the meetings recalled in the book are also those with Fryderyk Chopin. The whole book is extremely moving, as it describes the actions of people who, for the most part, are aware of their own impeding end. Sometimes, however, that end seems to be more present in Norwid‘s thoughts than in theirs. As in this famous passage, wherein he describes one of his encounters with Chopin:

…then came the moment when it was best to leave him to rest, so I started saying goodbye, and he, grabbing me by the hand, threw back the hair that had fallen over his forehead, and said: “I am moving out!…” – and began to cough. Upon hearing this and knowing that it did his nerves good to sometimes vehemently contradict him, I assumed a feigned tone and, kissing him on the arm, said, as one says to a person strong and full of courage: “…That’s what you say every year… and yet, thank God, we still see you alive.”

Chopin responded by finishing the sentence his cough had interrupted: “I’m telling you that I’m moving out of this apartment to Place Vendôme…” That was my last conversation with him. Soon he moved to Place Vendôme and died there but I never saw him again after that visit at rue Chaillot…


[This post used to contain more images. All that is left at the moment comes from Wikimedia Commons and I’m assuming it is all public domain.]

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