Translation lie


Another of those times we (or at least I) must accept the lie and limitations of translation. I can look at the Polish original and glean what I think the meaning and ultimate English-language translation should be, but ultimately it could go so many ways. I fed this infernal despair and frustration with translation years ago by immersing myself in language study so that I could create reasonable simulacra of translations. Never ended up particularly happy with these seeming facsimiles or even with comparative studies of existing translations.

Yet, at the same time, I want people to see and read these works, even in translation, because there are so many works in the world that just scream out to be read!

Gratitude (links to a different translation, which might be useful for comparison’s sake)
Wisława Szymborska
I owe a great deal
to those I do not love.

The relief with which I accept
they are dearer to someone else.

The joy that it is not I
who am wolf to their sheep

Peace unto me with them,
and freedom with them unto me,
and that is something that love cannot give
or contrive to take away.

I do not wait for them
from window to door.
almost like a sundial,
I understand
what love does not understand,
I forgive
what love would never forgive.

From meeting to letter
passes not an eternity
but merely a few days or weeks.

Travels with them are always a success,
concerts heard,
cathedrals visited,
landscapes in sharp focus.

And when we are separated
by seven mountains and rivers
they are mountains and rivers
well known from the map.

It is thanks to them
that I live in three dimensions
in a space non-lyrical and non-rhetorical,
with a horizon real because movable.

They themselves do not know
how much they bring in empty hands –

“I owe them nothing,”
love would say
on this open question.

Here’s the original if you’d like to put your skills to work deciphering its code and interpreting its meaning and unveiling it in English as well.

Wisława Szymborska

Wiele zawdzięczam
tym, których nie kocham.

Ulgę, z jaką się godzę,
że bliżsi są komu innemu.

Radość, że nie ja jestem
wilkiem ich owieczek.

Pokój mi z nimi
i wolność mi z nimi,
a tego miłość ani dać nie może,
ani brać nie potrafi.

Nie czekam na nich
od okna do drzwi.

prawie jak słoneczny zegar,
miłość nie wybaczyłaby nigdy.

Od spotkania do listu
nie wieczność upływa,
ale po prostu kilka dni albo tygodni.

Podróże z nimi zawsze są udane,
koncerty wysłuchane,
katedry zwiedzone,
krajobrazy wyraźne.

A kiedy nas rozdziela
siedem gór i rzek,
są to góry i rzeki
dobrze znane z mapy.

Ich zasługą,
jeżeli żyję w trzech wymiarach,
w przestrzeni nielirycznej i nieretorycznej
z prawdziwym, bo ruchomym horyzontem.

Sami nie wiedzą,
ile niosą w rękach pustych.
“Nic im nie jestem winna” –
powiedziałaby miłość
na ten otwarty temat.

Image (c) Stephen Donaghy

The urgency of now


We were walking through Wrocław, a place he knew better than I did. It was only my first visit, but he had been living there part time, on and off, for months. During our walk, he grabbed my hand, with some urgency and purpose, less as a tender gesture and more as the take-charge guide, leading me to the next spot on the tour he had apparently planned and perfected.

“Poland,” he said authoritatively, “is a hidden gem.” I smiled but said nothing. Poland is a kind of hidden gem. I had no argument and nothing to add. It’s an especially bright gem once you start being able to pronounce the words. Say it with me: Wrocław. Could you do it? No? Give it time.

I didn’t tell him how much I had once dreamt of visiting Poland, at the apogee of my “Slavic/eastern-central-southern European studies” life. In fact I shared so little about myself because that was not the nature of things. This was not going to be one of those ‘confessional’ entanglements. Revelations about ourselves were doled out not as linear narratives but as footnotes to what we observed around us. Strolling past a courthouse, for example, he might comment, “It was total drudgery practicing law”, which would lead to a lecture on corruption in the legal system where he came from and the complete sense of helplessness and anger that arises from being unable to do anything but quit (which he did… and moved to Europe). But this was not deep or personal reflection on his vocation or life events that led him to or from it.

In this way, we knew each other incrementally, just as we came to know the city. Nothing of the roller-coaster arc on which most stories jaggedly rise and fall. Even more liberating, there was nothing of the “who-I-was” and “who-will-I-be”. No, there was only right now. Fortuitous, given that the “right now” of those moments filled quickly with the challenges of mastering the idiosyncrasies of basic Polish: dziękuję. Or most useful of all for two itinerant non-Poles wandering around together: nie mówię po polsku.

Photo (c) 2014 Nico Trinkhaus used under Creative Commons license.