Giving us a look behind our recent feature, “Polish Poetry in Translation: Bridging the Frontiers of Language,” Jakob Ziguras reveals the intricacy and complexity—as well as the music and pleasure—that inform his every decision as a translator. He also takes us back to his childhood in Wrocław, Poland, and deep into the pages of his poetry collection in progress, Venetian Mirrors.
Carolyn Kuebler: You translated eighteen different poets for this feature, an ambitious and possibly maddening project. Did you find that certain poets’ voices came more easily to you?
Jakob Ziguras: Generally speaking, I found it easier to translate the formal, and more traditionally lyrical, poems —for instance, those by Leśmian—than the leaner and more austere free-verse, for instance, Białoszewski’s. Both when writing and translating, I sometimes find such constraints more conducive to the discovery of serendipitous solutions. When translating free-verse, there are, in a sense, more options, since a choice between various apt synonyms is not constrained by the exigencies of rhyme and meter. However, finding a felicitous resolution to some translation problem—through which one manages to communicate various shades of meaning, all while attempting to at least echo the musical texture of a poem, its particular variations on a given metrical schema and its rhymes—is not only immensely satisfying, but also sometimes seems to bear the stamp of a certain aesthetic necessity, which is I think as close as a translator gets to that thin, permeable, but ultimately uncrossable membrane separating the translator from the original author. I can’t really explain this sense, which may be just an idiosyncrasy, except to say that for me the relative lack of options seems to intensify the functioning of that region of the mind operative in all poetry, which distinguishes it, without radically separating it, from prose.
I’ll give one concrete example: there is a line in my translation of Tuwim’s “Rushes” with which I was particularly satisfied. In Polish it reads: “wiew sitowiei miętę owiał.” The original line contains a beautiful series of echoes: the “wie” in “wiew” and “sitowie” and again the “owie” in “sitowie” and the “owia” in “owiał.” I translated this as “wind rushed across, the mint and rushes swathed.” “Owiać” has a range of meanings: in relation to wind, fog, mist, smoke, and scents it means “to blow so as to envelop something”; it can also mean “to permeate something”; in relation to granular substances, like wind-blown pollen, it can mean “to cover something with a layer.” In the context of the poem, I could not help but see an implied relation between the wind that envelops, permeates, and blends together the swaying rushes and the fragrant mint, with the breath that bears the words that evoke them. There may be a subtle hint of this, in the dual meaning of the Polish word “wiew,” which can mean both a stream of air, and the perceptible presence of something immaterial. Given that the poem is concerned with an earlier, childlike experience of the relation between language and world, in which name and thing are not as alienated from one another as they later become, this blending, even at the level of these internal rhymes, is very important. Of course, it is usually impossible to directly transpose the sounds of one language into another, so these relations had to be suggested in other ways. I did this by means of the relation between “rushed” and “rushes,” as well as “wind”and “mint.” The relation between the verb “rushed” and the noun “rushes” performs the transition from speech as activity, the unity of immaterial meaning and material medium, to the thing spoken as a relatively reified product, namely the “rushes” and also the, as it were, newly “minted” mint. At the same time, in so far that which has been spoken is given to experience, the wind/breath has already rushed. The naming which confers identity on the thing named has already happened; though, expressed and hidden in the “rushes,” it still rushes. In the original, there is no verb corresponding to “rushed.” However, in this case, I felt that this addition involves a deeper faithfulness to the sense of the original line, since it suggests important relations that would have been lost in a more word-for-word translation.
CK: What were some of the most difficult poets (or passages) to translate for the NER feature, and why?
JZ: I could reply with a few general examples; however, I think it may be more interesting and revealing to focus in detail on a single, deceptively simple one.
Sometimes, the success of a translation appears to hang upon a single line, or even a word. This was the case with Miron Białoszewski’s “We, Starfish.” Of course, any translation is necessarily an interpretation. On my reading, the poem is really anchored by its final word—the neologism rozgubieni— which plays on two essential elements in the poem, combining them in a striking way: firstly, the word zgubione in the second line; secondly, the prefix roz-. The latter has a number of meanings: movement in different directions away from some single starting point; division of something into parts; the depletion of some resource by the repetition of an action (e.g., distributing food); and, finally, the beginning of some action, involving an intensification or acceleration. So, I thought it might be interesting to explain how my interpretation of the poem lead me to translate this final word by the unusual choice “disastered” (found, for instance, in Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia—“disastered changeling”).
In the first sentence, I chose to translate “zgubione włosy” (“lost hair”) as “fallen hair” for two main reasons: firstly, because the loss in question is that of hair, which falls from the head; secondly, because the Polish verb “zgubić” means both to misplace something through inattention, and to bring someone to ruin, or death. If I say, “I lost my keys,” this suggests agency, even though the “act” of losing something necessarily eludes conscious awareness. Similarly, “getting lost” is something that befalls one. In the poem, this is complicated by the fact that the “object” lost is not something artificial, like a set of keys, but something that grows naturally, that is an organic part of a living body, and that falls out as part of a process (aging with its terminus in death), which, depending on one’s metaphysical commitments, is either a natural part of the circle of life or an unnatural deviation brought about by some original calamity (as in the biblical notion of the fall). The fallen hairs seem to be related to the subjects of the poem, the “starfish.” Thus, the subjects of the poem seem to be presented as falling away from an organic connection with a living body. Their lost state is something that happened to them, rather than something they did.
The second sentence was particularly tricky: “The place abandoned / often aches.” The main problem here is that this sentence involves some complex issues to do with the logic of pain. Initially, I translated “boli” as “hurts” rather than “aches.” In Polish, as in English, “to hurt” primarily means to cause pain, rather than to suffer pain. This is a reflection of the more general point that passions have traditionally been understood as something that happens to us, rather than something we do. Thus, on the most natural reading, the line suggests that the abandoned place often causes pain to someone. Though this implied sufferer is not explicitly named, the most likely candidates are the titular starfish.
The logic of this sentence is unusual on a number of levels. Firstly, it locates the source of the pain, suffered by the subjects of the poem, in something that is absent and seems, within the context of the poem, to be irrecoverably lost. If I say, “an amputated limb often aches,” I seem to be locating the pain (which I actually experience) in a (former) part of my body that is absent. In the same way, the second sentence of the poem seems to be locating the source of the pain experienced by the starfish in their abandoned (and thus absent) origin. Secondly, and more importantly, this seems to reverse the usual order of priority between part and whole. Even in the case of the phantom pain caused by an amputated limb (as opposed to, say, a headache), the putative source of the pain, though absent, nevertheless is conceptually (or was physically) a proper part of the person. In the same way, in the first sentence, the subjects of the poem seem to be presented as formerly proper parts of some original whole, which have fallen away from it. But, in the second sentence, the priority seems to be reversed by the implicit logic of pain. In presenting the abandoned place as the source of their pain, the poem seems to treat that place as if it were still a part of each individual starfish, as if it were like an absent limb that causes pain to the former possessor of that limb. In his book on Białoszewski, Stanisław Barańczak comments on a line from another poem, which is relevant here. The line in question might be translated as “[my] head hurts me and itself.” Baranczak notes that Białoszewski seems here to be playing on the apparent illogicality of the common phrase, “my head hurts.” In saying this, I seem at once to be locating the pain in my head and describing my head as something distinct from the experiencing self who feels the pain; though, of course, as “my” head, it is not really separate from me, and is not itself a conscious subject.
I ultimately chose “aches” rather than “hurts” because the notion of a dull, persistent pain that could also imply a longing for something (for example, homesickness) seemed more fitting, insofar as the separation of the starfish from their original place seems to be their metaphysical condition, rather than something intermittent. This adds a layer of ambiguity to the word “often.” Although the separation is continuous, the pain of separation is bound up with the consciousness of that pain, which may be intermittent. This seems to me to be in tune with the logic of the poem, which I read as, in part, a meditation on the mysterious nature of finite selfhood and identity.
This theme of the relation between part and whole is augmented by the following lines: “We multiply / severed / by longings.” Longing is inseparable from separation—we only long for what we lack. On the other hand, we only lack something that once was, or potentially is, or perhaps should be a proper part of us (or, in the context of the poem, of which we were once a part). What these abstract reflections suggest is that, in this poem, relation seems to be presented as equiprimordial with identity: the individual identity of the fallen hairs/starfish, their multiplication and thus particularization of an original unity (they are all “starfish,” all instances of a kind) is inseparable from their separation from and longing for their origin. All three—separation, longing for the origin, individual identity—are aspects of an indivisible whole.
This is all summed up in the final word: “rozgubieni.” This plays, as I said, on zgubić, and on the prefix roz-, also contained in the Polish word for starfish, “roz-gwiazda,” which combines the prefix with the word “star.” The very word seems to suggest a movement outwards, as if these earthly “stars” were expressing themselves by radiating out from some central point. Since the subjects of the poem are “stars,” whose identity is determined both by their falling away from, and their longing for, an origin, this suggests some analogical likeness with regard to that origin. Here, it is interesting that the title, which is also somewhat ambiguous, could also perhaps be interpreted as “We, the Starfish’s”; in other words, we the scattered individual starfish, who belong to the original Starfish. The individual “starfish” seem, then, to be constituted by the accelerating, intensifying self-dispersal (or perhaps self-dissolution) of an original starfish, a dispersal/dissolution that is not even clearly an expression of the agency of that original, being possibly the result of a prior impersonal fate (since, if it was a case of it losing them, rather than of them getting lost, it could hardly be said to have done so intentionally).
In order to translate the final word “roz-gubieni,” I tried to keep all of the preceding in mind. I knew from the beginning that a simple choice like “scattered” would be inadequate, since it would fail to communicate the poem’s linguistic complexity and wordplay. Finally, I settled on “disastered,” which draws on the explicitly astrological etymology of the noun “disaster” (an “ill-starred” event). However, I also intend this coinage to draw on the various meanings of the prefix dis-(which seems the closest in meaning to the Polish prefix roz-): exclusion or expulsion from (e.g., “disbar”), deprivation of (e.g., “disenfranchise”), and, most centrally, movement apart or away from (e.g., “discard”). As a verbal adjective, “disastered” is intended to describe the present state of the starfish as result of a prior ruinous fall away from some origin. Their state is ambiguous, because within the logic of the poem, it seems that their present individual identity is inseparable from this fall.
CK: You’ve also translated books by Jan Kott, the Polish activist and critic, and contemporary poet Marcin Kurek. Why did you choose these writers to translate?
JZ: Actually, in both these cases the projects came to me, so to speak. In the first case, I was commissioned to translate Kaddish, Jan Kott’s book about the Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor, by the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw. In the second case, Marcin Kurek, whom I had met in Wrocław, asked me if I would be interested in translating his book. The translation was funded by a grant from the city of Wrocław, which was at the time the European Capital of Culture. Indeed, most of the texts I have translated so far have been commissions of some sort, or have been suggested to me. I quite like this state of affairs. Since I don’t write poetry in Polish, translating in response to requests from other people feels like a sort of literary community service. It is a way of contributing to the literary culture here, in addition to, and ultimately more important than, publishing my own work. It is also a wonderful way of discovering texts that I may not have come across otherwise.
CK: Can you tell us a little bit about your own collection of poems, Venetian Mirrors, which you’re working on right now, and how it got its title?
JZ:Venetian Mirrorsis my third book of poetry (following Chains of Snowand The Sepia Carousel). Unlike my previous books, it is not a collection of distinct poems and sequences, but a single very long poetic sequence “about” Venice and the history of its representations in historiography, literature, the visual arts, music, film, philosophy, and so on. It is a poetic portrait of the city as a process in time, a sort of thick description (to use a term from the social sciences) that blends together historical events and actors with myths and fictional characters. I put “about” in quotation marks because, while the city is not a mere pretext, the book can also be seen as a series of poetic meditations on broader issues of a philosophical character: for instance, the nature of poetry and its relation with the discourses of religion and philosophy, the nature of representation and the relation between original and copy, and so on. But the collection includes poems on a very wide range of themes, including, among many others: sumptuary laws and dress codes, the history and significance of masking and carnival, Venetian waste-disposal practices, the Biennale, Venice during the Fascist regime, the plight of refugees in Venice and their role in the underground economy, Casanova and his Venetian escapades, the sojourns in Venice of Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Henri de Régnier, the life and poetry of Gaspara Stampa, Eleonora Duse and her affair with Gabriele D’Annunzio, the role of the Venetian Republic in the 4th Crusade, which resulted in the barbaric sack of Constantinople, the role of Venice in the printing and dissemination of classical thought and literature, the place of Venice in economic history and in the development of double-entry book-keeping, etc.
The title suggests one of the fundamental philosophical issues dealt with in the book, namely the relation between immediacy and reflection, original and image; but, it also refers to Venice’s role in the production and sale of high-quality mirrors, in which it once dominated the market, and, finally, to the distinctive formal characteristics of the work. The book is composed of two columns of text, which will be printed on facing pages: on the left, metrically regular and rhyming poems sharing the same stanzaic structure of four quatrains; on the right, free-verse “reflections” of these more traditional originals composed by rearranging the words of the corresponding formal poem, ideally without adding any words or leaving any words unused. The underlying conceit here is the relation between Venetian architecture and its reflection in the water of the city’s canals. However, it suggests also the inseparable correlation of many other apparent dualities: myth and reason, poetry and philosophy, dreaming and waking consciousness, nature and culture, form and process, and so on.
The book is already quite far advanced, though given its length and complexity I find it very difficult to estimate how close it might be to completion. If I were to write no more of the formal poems, and simply completed all of the free-verse reflections, the book in its present state would be almost four hundred pages long. Even at this length, it still seems incomplete to me, though this may change once I focus more on organizing the poems already written. The “narrative” that emerges from this process may help me to see its overall shape, which is, at present, still not evident to me.
CK: You were born in Poland and emigrated to Australia in 1984. How long have you been back in Poland? Did it feel like a homecoming to you? In what ways was it different from what you expected?
JZ: I came to Poland almost five years ago. Initially, I was unsure about the length of my stay. However, through a combination of factors both personal and poetry-related, my stay has been indefinitely extended. Apart from my work on Venetian Mirrors, which has required repeated visits to Venice, there is also the fact that I have stumbled, happily, into various translation projects. My experience of returning to Poland has been complicated by the fact that I returned to Wrocław, the city of my birth. Apart from my first seven years in Poland, this has now been my longest continuous stay in the country. My experience of Poland has always occupied a strange middle-realm between familiarity and strangeness, and this is still very much the case. In fact, this duality is even more pronounced now, since many parts of Wrocław are associated in my mind with vivid childhood memories. One of these memories is described in sequence of poems “Windows in the Dust,” in my second book, The Sepia Carousel. The first poem describes playing in the courtyard of my grandmother’s apartment block and being lured onto the street, by the noise of a tank rolling past, to see a soldier throwing tear-gas canisters. One of these tear-gas canisters landed in the stairwell of my grandmother’s apartment building, which made it impossible for me to go back inside. I was finally carried back up to the apartment on my stepfather’s shoulders, while both of us kept our eyes shut against the gas. Another poem in the sequence records a sort of local “folk-tradition,” which I thought indigenous to the children of that particular neighborhood but which I was very surprised to find existed also in other Polish cities. This involved creating little three-dimensional collages out of various bits of junk, flowers, and other odds and ends (like a childish version of Joseph Cornell’s boxes) in holes dug in the dirt of the courtyard, and covered with pieces of glass. When I visit that courtyard, and the apartment where my grandmother still lives, they are infused with such recollections.
There is a quote from Joseph Brodsky on the back of Tomas Venclova’s The Junction, the selection of his poems edited and in part translated by Ellen Hinsey. Brodsky suggests that every poet “has an idiosyncratic inner landscape against which his voice sounds in his mind.” It seems to me that Wrocław, with its grayness, its scarred buildings, dusty courtyards, and occasionally malodorous stairwells, has shaped my own inner landscape and suffuses it with a particular mood, by no means solely bleak or melancholy. So, I must admit to feeling a stronger connection to those parts of the city that have eluded renovation. As someone who did not experience the waning years of the Polish People’s Republic as an adolescent and adult, or the transition to a new order, I find it difficult to react, at least poetically, to the complexity of that transformation or to its present form. Generally speaking, my work tends to be very far removed from the confessional. The Sepia Carouseldoes contain a number of poems about Poland, but even in these the subject is rarely contemporary Poland, but rather the interplay between the present reality and the dreamlike echoes of a past that, through my partial childhood loss of place and language—I barely spoke Polish through most of my adolescence—sometimes seem like memories of another person’s life.
In my adolescence and early twenties I was very drawn to the raw, grounded nature poetry of someone like Ted Hughes; but, I eventually realized that—as much as I might admire poets who seem capable of at least hinting at the inner reality of the natural world as something transcending our own cultural codes, a world of beings with their own integrity and life-worlds (to draw on the term coined by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll)—this is not a natural idiom for me. For whatever reason—being a refugee is certainly one factor—while I am not in sympathy with those theoretical tendencies which see a radical division between nature and culture, and as a result tend to present nature as a sort of inaccessible thing in itself and culture as a realm of the sheerly arbitrary—I still find that nature appears in my poems most often as something inseparable from the marks, and in many cases the wounds, of human habitation and history.
CK: You speak and write in both Polish and English. Do you find these two languages useful in different ways, for different purposes, apart from the obvious need to communicate to the people closest at hand?
JZ: Although I write in Polish for purposes of everyday communication, I don’t write poetry in Polish. Indeed, I don’t think that I could, given the nature of my work, which tends to be formal, musical, and reliant on dense webs of reference and allusion. I simply don’t have that effortless, intuitive sense of Polish literary language (together with a thoroughly digested knowledge of local poetic conventions). As a result, I’m sure any attempts to write poetry in Polish would lead only to embarrassing results.
Even though I sometimes regret never having acquired the sort of mastery of the Polish language that could only have come from growing up and being educated here, in some ways my complex relation to it is useful in the context of translation. The fact that I am more fluent in my adopted tongue (English) than in my mother tongue, means that my relation with the latter is marked by a strange combination of intuitive intimacy and reflective distance. As a result, I think I may occasionally be more attuned to the implicitly figurative dimension of the language than Polish friends who have lived their whole lives here and who move in the language as in a relatively transparent medium of communication, and so are sometimes less alert to the partly opaque layer of the language’s own distinctive sensuous and idiomatic dimension. As a result, I sometimes bother Polish friends with obscure grammatical or etymological questions that had never occurred to them. And, of course, this layer of idiom and indigenous imagery in any language is the very soul of poetry and precisely what most resists translation.
To give just one example, I was excited once to find confirmation of an etymological conjecture, to the effect that there might be some relation between the Polish words for world (świat), daybreak (świt) and light (światło). Such fundamental terms, and the relations between them, suggest very interesting things about the implicit ontology of a given language. There is a very distinct poetic and phenomenological difference between referring to the world in terms of what is revealed to us by light (the world seems here to be pictured as a realm of shining appearance) and conceiving of it, for instance, in temporal terms, as in the etymology of the English “world,” which derives from the Old English “woruld” (“age of man”).
Of course, these sorts of considerations are not always relevant, but sometimes the choice in translation between one synonym and another cannot be decided by reference to some single, relatively abstract dictionary meaning, but relies in part on such subtler, more subterranean associations.
JAKOB ZIGURAS was born in Wrocław, Poland, in 1977. His family emigrated to Australia in 1984. His debut collection, Chains of Snow (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award. His second collection, The Sepia Carousel, was published in 2016. He has translated Jan Kott’s Kaddish: Pages for Tadeusz Kantor (Seagull Press, 2019) and Marcin Kurek’s book-length poem Oleander (winner, in 2010, of the prestigious Kościelski Award). He is currently living in Poland, working on his third poetry collection, Venetian Mirrors, and translating various Polish poets.