Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Poem by Wislawa Szymborska

Some Like Poetry

not all, that is.
Not even the majority of all, but the minority.
Not counting school, where one must,
or the poets themselves,
there'd be maybe two such people in a thousand.

but one also likes chicken-noodle soup,
one likes compliments or the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes to prove one's point,
one likes to pet a dog.

but what short of thing is poetry?
Many a shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and hold on to it,
as to a saving bannister.

-- translated by Joanna Trzeciak, in the collection Miracle Fair

Some People Like Poetry

Some people--
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand.

but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
or compliments, or the color blue,
your old scarf,
your own way,
petting the dog.

but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

-- translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh and printed in The New Republic, October 28, 1996

To conclude National Poetry Month: One poem, two translations from the Polish. Which do you prefer?

This is why working on translations is so hard and so interesting, and why you have to find the right English "voice" for every foreign-language author and book (your cousin who speaks fluent Spanish won't do): Translation requires interpretation of the meaning of the text, and an adjustment of the translator's voice to serve the author's point. I like the second translation better, because its personality is warmer (all that use of the second person), less formal, more personal, as poetry should be: something you live with, that helps you get through the day, like dark chocolate or true friends. And I like the word "redemptive" in the last line. But I also like the "do not know and do not know" in the first translation, the active demonstration of and insistence upon that not-knowing; and the elegance of the word "bannister," as opposed to the plain dull "handrail." In translations even more than in other writing, I'm aware of an author actively making choices, and every word counts.

Thanks for sticking with me all this month! We'll be back to the usual approximation of "normal" here in May. And more Szymborska, all translated by Trzeciak: here, here, and here.


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Fabulous post, Cheryl.

    I would add that the "so hard and so interesting" issues of translation reach beyond poetry. Jean-Henri Fabre (often called the poet of science, by the way), wrote about his bugs in a most beautiful way. Reading different translations of a single piece has me longing to read the original French.

    I wonder if it is too late to learn?

    Loree Burns

  2. How interesting! I like the second translation better, more personal (with the use of 2nd person), tighter. But there were a few lines from the first that were oh-so good.

    This from a poetry-moron, of course. I also rather liked handrail - maybe because I grew up hearing banister. Now back to bed for me. Oy, teeth.

  3. Actually, I thought the first two stanzas of the first translation were a little punchier, a little meatier. But for the last stanza, the second translation worked better for me, though I also liked the "not knowing and not knowing" line.

    I like reading several translations of the same work to be sure of what I'm missing. You'd think it'd be more time-efficent to just learn a second language, though.

  4. Point by point, you wrote exactly what I was thinking, Cheryl. The second person, the repeated phrase, the bannister, all of it!

    This post makes me want to go back to school, or spend more time reading differing translations of the Bible. Fascinating (and fun) stuff.

  5. I agree with Melinda. The first one has an attractive repetitive quality in the first two stanzas, but I got lost in the third. the second is warmer, but more prosaic at first, but the last stanza seals the deal for me. So I, too, choose two (overall).

    Nice poem in either translation.

  6. I like the second one better, as well. First one reads choppy to me.

  7. I was curious about this, so I looked up the original Polish (which I don't know) with some help from a translation into Russian (which I do know). As I suspected, the word "like" (same word as "love") is repeated in every line of the second stanza. The verb appears to be a reflexive, and there isn't a "your" in sight. So while the second translation "reads better" (ironic that this post is adjacent to Nabokov, who railed against people who judged translations by whether they "read well"), I find the decision to ignore the visual, phonic and emotional impact of this repetition to be questionable. I also think the repetition of "do not know" should be maintained.

    For the curious, here is the original:
    Niektórzy lubią poezję

    Niektórzy -
    czyli nie wszyscy.
    Nawet nie większość wszystkich ale mniejszość.
    Nie licząc szkół, gdzie się musi,
    i samych poetów,
    będzie tych osób chyba dwie na tysiąc.

    Lubią -
    ale lubi się także rosół z makaronem,
    lubi się komplementy i kolor niebieski,
    lubi się stary szalik,
    lubi się stawiać na swoim,
    lubi się głaskać psa.

    Poezję -
    Tylko co to takiego poezja.
    Niejedna chwiejna odpowiedź
    na to pytanie już padła.
    A ja nie wiem i nie wiem i trzymam się tego
    Jak zbawiennej poręczy.

  8. Fascinating, kittypye! Thanks for posting.

    Also, I would be curious to read the Nabokovian railings you mention. . . . Would you know where I could find that?

  9. Here's Nabokov railing (not to be confused with banister) in his inimitable Nabokovian way: "I have been always amused by the stereotyped compliment that a reviewer pays the author of a 'new translation.' He says: 'It reads smoothly.' In other words, the hack who has never read the original, and does not know its language, praises an imitation as readable because easy platitudes have replaced in it the intricacies of which he is unaware. 'Readable,' indeed! A schoolboy's boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization, and it is when the translator sets out to render the 'spirit,' and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce the author."
    in the Foreword to Nabokov's own (completely unreadable!) translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Princeton Univ. Press, 1981, p. ix.