ranslation is a mysterious, imperfect art. Its impetus often arises out of unforeseen circumstances: impromptu voyages, a book’s accidental discovery, or the punishments and revelations of exile. These chance factors mean that, despite the increasing so-called globalization of the world, one can never definitively be sure that a text, no matter how important it is for one culture, will make its journey across the frontier of silence to another language. And if a text does complete that journey, there also remains the possibility of “blank spaces” in the translation—gaps or misunderstandings, where the tools of language, always inadequate, simply fail us.
In Warsaw I had the honor of addressing a conference that spoke to these exact questions and took them a step further. The event, organized by Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik, Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz, and Beata Sniecikowska, in the presence of fellow scholars Andrzej Karcz and Agnieszka Kluba, was entitled “Poetics of (Mis)understanding: Culture-Making Potential of Inter-ference in Artistic Communication,” and was held under the auspices of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Center for International Polish Studies Foundation. Rather than seeing mistranslation as an unequivocal deficit or loss, those at the conference explored its unexpected outcomes.
Individual cases of mistranslation soon led us to broader questions of cultural misunderstanding, and we returned to the question of the seemingly irreconcilable gap between a culture’s view of its own seminal works and the works that another culture brings into translation. On the one hand, when I spoke about Robert Frost’s well-meaning, but at times misguided, 1962 trip to Russia during the Khrushchev Thaw, it became clear that few present knew Frost’s poems (despite the late translator Stanisław Barańczak’s considerable efforts to remedy this). This quickly brought us, conversely, to questions regarding Polish poetry in English translation.
Those present expressed a strong concern that the breadth and depth of Polish poetry still remains largely unknown in English, despite the immense undertakings over the last half-century, of translators such as (to name only a few) John and Bogdana Carpenter, Tony Howard and Barbara Plebanek, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Bill Johnston, Alissa Valles, Mira Rosenthal, Jennifer Grotz, Claire Cavanaugh, and Stanisław Barańczak himself—who remained in exile in the United States after the 1981 declaration of Martial Law in Poland. Although these translators have brought a wealth of essential Polish poets into English, including Nobel Laureates Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Julia Hartwig, Tadeusz Różewicz, Adam Zagajewski, Ewa Lipska, and Piotr Sommer, other major poets have failed to attain the same level of recognition, or are known only in a fragmentary way to English-language readers.
In particular, missing from such a list are many of the writers who gained prominence during the period in Polish history between the country’s regained independence in 1918 until the aftermath of World War II. During these years, Polish poetry was characterized by both experimentation and profound lyrical reflection. The Kraków Avant-Garde, or First Vanguard and Futurist movements, which included writers such as Tadeusz Peiper, Julian Przyboś, and Aleksander Wat, debated with the more civic and lyric Skamander poets and their sympathizers, including Julian Tuwim, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Antoni Słonimski, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Jan Lechoń, and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. The late 1930s saw the emergence of the Second Vanguard, which embraced catastrophism and was represented by Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Zagórski, and Józef Czechowicz, among others. After 1945, important heirs to the Polish avant-garde tradition emerged, including Stanislaw Grochowiak, Miron Białoszewski, and the better-known Tadeusz Rózewicz, whose works fuse the horrors of history with linguistic originality. In his classic anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), Miłosz strove to call attention to this literature, though to date it remains overshadowed in English by his own work, and that of 1968 “New Wave” poets such as Zagajewski and Lipska.
While some would say such gaps in knowledge are inherent in the distance between cultures, in Warsaw we conceived the idea to try, if only in an extremely limited way, to highlight—or reinforce in the case of Miron Białoszewski and Tadeusz Różewicz—a knowledge of these lesser-known Polish writers in English translation. But the question immediately arose: how to choose among so many brilliant authors? Should one pick a range of poets, or focus on individual key texts that might reflect a Polish reader’s idea of major “missing” poems?
As such questions were being pondered, we had the great fortune to welcome to the project the Polish-born Australian poet Jakob Ziguras. Originally from Wrocław, Ziguras’s family, like Barańczak’s, went into political exile after Martial Law was imposed. After spending time in an internment camp in Austria, Ziguras continued on to Australia. Once again living in Wrocław, Ziguras is an award-winning bilingual and bicultural poet, whose talents are exceptionally suited to take on the challenges of Polish poetry, informed by his own complex relationship to Poland’s traumas and history.
Finally, faced with the enormity of great, untranslated poems, a modest proposal was adopted: Magdalena, Tamara, Beata, Andrzej, and Agnieszka in Warsaw would each draw up a short list of essential Polish poems that, with a few exceptions, are unknown in English translation. Despite learned conversations about historical criteria and canonical subtleties, they avowed that, in the end, their choices were governed above all by love. This is not, of course, the worst of criteria. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote, “all is moved by love,” and so, similarly, it seems fitting that passion for a poem should be the reason for such a choice, and subsequently, for the act of translation. To this list were added a few additional poems that Jakob Ziguras and I strongly felt deserved translation or re-translation.
Another group of readers could easily have chosen a completely different, but equally electrifying, selection. The NER feature also includes poems by poets who have emerged after 1989, such as Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, Andrzej Sosnowski, and Tomasz Różycki—though there are many other younger poets who deserve recognition. Fortunately, a number of excellent recent anthologies such as Altered State: The New Polish Poetry (eds. Mengham, Pióro, and Szymor) and Six Polish Poets (ed. Jacek Dehnel) give readers insight into some of these important voices.
At a time when certain actors on the world stage would like to build walls, working on this project allowed for the building of bridges between Warsaw, Paris, Wrocław, and the New England Review ’s offices in Vermont. The project was guided, above all, by the belief that literature is an essential form of dialogue: a way to listen to the other, in our differences and in our human similarities. In this way, each translated poem seemingly enlarged the circumference, not only of poetry, but of understanding between cultures. In turn, this affirmed that translation—with all its errors, blank spots, and misunderstandings—remains a precious vehicle that, through its sympathetic labor, can mysteriously create a shared home in our dangerously divided and unstable world.
In addition to recommending poems for this feature, our colleagues in Warsaw were invited to offer their thoughts on a poem of their choice. These commentaries appear at the end of this feature.
—Ellen Hinsey, Paris