|Wislawa Szymborska: First Original
Monologue of a Dog
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
Harcourt, Inc. 2006
When exiled intellectual Czeslaw Milosz (b. 1911) selected, translated, and found a publisher for Postwar Polish Poetry: An Anthology in 1965, he could not have known that a poet to whom he had dedicated ten pages would in fifteen years be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The poet: Czeslaw Milosz.) In terms of the Nobel, this was the best anthology to be in ever. Sixteen years later, Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923), one of two women in the anthology, was awarded the same prize.
Irish Nobel winner Seamus Heaney once wrote that Milosz, who died in 2004, was "among those members of human kind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing far more reality than the rest of us." I'm sure this refers to what happened to Poles throughout their recent history. (Heaney has written extensively and well on the twentieth century woes of Eastern European poets. See The Government of the Tongue.) "A historical steam-roller has gone several times through a country whose geographical location, between Germany and Russia, is not particularly enviable..." is the droll way Milosz once put it.
Milosz in the 60s was not a huge fan of Szymborska's writing. (She was given two pages.) He found her "witty, daring, resourceful, but often too fond of conceits." For Milosz a conceit was a one-way literary device that could turn a poet into an automaton. But he had deeper reservations. "I didn't like her early work," he later told The New York Times. "She went through a Stalinist phase."
O we've all had our Stalinist phase, haven't we Czeslaw? (Not you, I suppose, Mr. Perfecto.) I'm thinking of the poets in Nicaragua who were the earliest supporters of young Somoza. Ezra and his Mussolini. Neruda and, well, wasn't his also a crush on Stalin? Bunny Wilson and hmmm, also Stalin, although I suspect Bunny, being so fond of the radical ladies, was a closet Trotskyite. (See To the Finland Station if your local library hasn't incinerated their copy.) I won't go on. That's why someone invented the concept of renunciation. I renounce the denunciation of fellow travelers. (Rot in your lowly circle of hell, Senator McCarthy!)
Szymborska has renounced her Stalinist phase. Being His literary lackey didn't do her any good. She was forced to take a series of dead-ended, repetitive jobs and never had enough money to finish her education. She had to marry a poet!
(The only person I know of who ever made a non-consensual soviet job work for the betterment of world society was Mandel'shtam's widow, Nadezhda, who labored long nights in a spinning factory, making socialist cloth for the war effort, yes, but also memorizing her husband's poetry so it would survive her nation's Stalinist phase. It did. See Hope Abandoned.)
Luckily for us, in the ensuing years between the anthology and winning the Nobel, Szymborska stayed hidden in the backwaters of Krakow. (I'm thinking it's unlikely there is an ultra-modern, flashing Krakow, but I could be wrong.) There she metamorphosed into an entirely different poet. I'm not sure the century has yet found a word to describe her post-Stalinist artistic temperament. One critic referred to her later phase as "sardonic," but this word, which hints at a deliberate lack of perspective, seems too limited. (Stalin was being sardonic when he sentenced his offending poets to "life without correspondence" in his gulags.) Milosz, perhaps trying to atone for his earlier torpedoes, came up with: "...she is very attenuated." The botanical meaning of that word is "tapering gradually to a point." And the post- Cold War Szymborska is slender, like a rapier. She hasn't gotten any less daring, witty, or resourceful, and now she attenuates, makes things leaner, slicing away pretense and deception.
When I pronounce the word Silence
I destroy it.
Sadly there's only so much reduction you can accomplish before you are left with nothing.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.
One of Szymborska's earliest translators, Adam Czerniawski, tried a more rewarding tack. "Szymborska," he wrote in 1990, "is a daylight poet." He was writing about intellectual illumination -- that light-bulb moment when all becomes clear in a flash of inspiration. And undoubtedly many of her lines do work that way (see above). But more subtly, and for me, more engagingly, her poems are full of the gradations of light. Daylight, to be sure, but also twilight and starlight and light filtered through clouds or seeping out of fog or reflected from various hard and tender surfaces of human activity, like buildings, rivers, streets, bridges and other people.
The same star keeps us in its reach.
We cast shadows based on the same laws.
We try to understand things, each in our own way,
and what we don't know brings us closer too.
The path to a common humanity may always require the glint or glare of translation. In Szymborska's case, despite the numerous mono-lingual books put into circulation by Milosz and his tireless, brilliant co-translator, Robert Hass, we must deal with Polish, a language almost no one is familiar with in America. (Szymborska's Monologue of a Dog is her first bilingual book in English.) I do not believe, as Frost insisted, that something is certainly or always lost in translation or that its absence, whatever it is, kills sustained interest. But I do think that we often fear or suspect that despite our best efforts, we are doomed to be cheated out of something essential during the translation process. Jacqueline Osherow puts it charmingly: "... I came to love Eugenio Montale from a single translation of Robert Lowell's that I loathed when I finally learned Italian. The surface of a great poem is always miraculous; it's no wonder we are often too bewitched to look beyond it."
I suspect a lot of writers turn to language courses because of the many inherent imperfections that may surface during the act of translation, not the least of which is the small miracle of being able to do it at all. In an essay on her favorite English writer, Samuel Pepys, whose work she reads in Polish, Szymborska referred to "... that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes -- how on earth do I put this? -- becomes a second original."
It's very tempting to portray Szymborska as that ageless aunt who sat in the corner of every family gathering, wearing high heels and stockings, and a dress with flowers on it, her perfect-for-wisecracking voice tempered by years of cigarettes and vodka. But even though Szymborska collects self-described "trashy postcards" and cuts and pastes them into wacky collages for her friends, her personality refuses easy categorizing. In fact each of her translators seems to have discovered a different poet. JoannaTrzeciak describes Szymborska's writing as "adroit elegance." The poet's ideals,according to Trzeciak, are not kitschy or post-modern, but rather "precision...respect...diversity...logical consistency...and attention to poetic form..." Who knew? Apparently many of her poems in Polish are metrical and written with end-rhymes, not a particularly good fit for post-modern English. The truth of the matter is that aunties aren't allowed to hide in the corners of our wired and wicked society anymore. However bashful and old-fashioned the real Szymborska may be in fact, she has been dragged out of her Krakowian cocoon by the Nobel and the Times, and thrust, with the complicity of her translators, into the world of celebrity.
Szymborska's recently published work in the U.S. is now a sort of first original, if you will permit me, because I can find only two books in English to compare with the translations of Cavanagh and Baranczak. Adam Czerniawski, for example, lives in the U.K., and his rendition of the poem "Miracle Fair" came out as "Miracle Mart," bless his heart. A line that he translated as "They sit before us like ridiculous gnomes..." has been translated by C. and B. as "The dead sit before us comically, as if on buttered bread..." Well, that would be comical, but without a number of good side by side editions of all the poems in English and Polish, there is simply not enough contrasting or even conflicting evidence to do meaningful work with yet.
None of Szymborska's other translators have worked with the poems in Monologue of a Dog, and I'm harboring only a few suspicions because the tone of the translations is so consistently, relentlessly post-modern. Such consistency is good for readers, but in writing from another language, it may be either the result of terrific translation (and as a fellow translator, I am rooting for C. and B.), or the result of over-translation, too much striving for transparency that, if used injudiciously, can result in homogenization.
Cavanagh and Baranczak are to be commended for their stunning transmission of Szymborska's wit, daring and resourcefulness, no easy task in and of itself. All the rest will come with time. I mean that those future readers who will be lucky enough to have the Polish to look at will be faced with years of searching for (and finding) the other, perhaps secret delicacies which are surely residing in her lines.
I can't speak for others --
for me this is
misery and happiness enough:
just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us