On Translating Szymborska

By Joanna Trzeciak

Featured Art: New York Sky Line, Dark Buildings by Childe Hassam

I got into translation early in life, but instead of playing the field I have tended to go steady and stay with one poet for a long time. My first was Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet whom I have translated since the early nineties. Szymborska’s poetry, rife with wit, graceful and deeply humane, has earned her the Nobel Prize, a permanent place in the pantheon of poetry, and admirers such as Woody Allen. Her response to the world is rendered in one of her poems as one of “rapture and despair.”

In the 2002 collection Miracle Fair, I intimated six themes under which her poems might be clustered. One of them is our relation as human beings to animate and inanimate nature. Our attitudes toward other sentient beings is central to poems such as “Tarsier,” “Monkey,” “Seen from Above,” and “Birds Returning.” When it comes to the inanimate world she has devoted entire poems to the contemplation of water, rock, clouds, and sky. Or if not “sky” then perhaps “heavens”? Or maybe “heaven”? The Polish word is niebo [pronounced NYEH boh]. Here we start.

A number of Szymborska’s poems trade on the bivalence of niebo. This presents the translator with a clear problem, whose solution is not always so clear. It is particularly acute in the case of her poem “Niebo,” from the 1993 collection The End and the Beginning (Koniec i poczatek) where, not counting the title, the word figures fifteen times. Since meaning is contextual, the usage will determine which of the two meanings predominates. The poet may riff off the bivalence of the word, but the translator is often forced to choose—there is no word in English that means both sky (the physical entity) and heaven (the metaphysical entity).

The arc of “Niebo” begins with the conception of the paradoxically boundless beyond (ordinarily with supernatural undertones), and moves to that which is close, then to the air, and finally to what occupies cellular microspace. One way I read the poem is as metaphysical, or shall we say anti-metaphysical, for Szymborska systematically naturalizes the supernatural through the ambiguity of the word niebo, step by step reducing its meaning to the physical. Furthermore, she performs one more trick—she renders the natural preternatural, extraordinary that is. To complicate things further, in the final stanza, she directly takes on the book of Genesis. Hence it wasn’t easy to settle on the word sky.

So what are the options? The two words that are in play here are sky and heaven, or rather heavens. Given the arc of the poem heaven was a non-starter, because it would tip the scales too much to the side of, well, the heavenly, which could be baffling and misleading. The heavens looked promising with its mixture of the physical, the cosmic and the supernatural. However, it had its antiquated feel, and echoes of a pre-Galilean cosmology working against it. Also, the heavens is more akin to the Polish word niebiosa, equally archaic with its semantic valence slightly skewed toward the divine abode. But the ultimate test would be how it sounds, how it works in the poem. Translation or no, poetry doesn’t lie.

The tension between sky and heaven is revealed in the first stanza: “an opening wide open, with nothing beyond it.” In other words, the poem announces, there is no heaven beyond the heavens, while the sky indeed has no bounds: “Window without a sill, without a frame, without a pane.” Let’s take the second stanza and experiment with the heavens:

I don’t have to wait for a starry night,
nor crane my neck,
to look at the heavens.

(Using heaven would be much bolder, though much too obvious for a poet who, after all, is only a gentle subversive). The heavens feels a bit stilted, but acceptable. Now, consider the following lines:

I have the heavens at my back, close at hand and on my eyelids.
It is the heavens that wrap me tight
and lift me from beneath.

The crispness of the Polish is gone and there is the matter of usage: although the nineteenth century used the heavens synonymously with sky, the twenty-first century does not. To say “the heavens . . . lift me from beneath” would be to force the issue in a way that is not being done in the Polish. Another problem with the heavens is that they are “out there,” whereas the sky is contiguous with our habitat. When you look out a second floor window as I am right now, you are certainly not looking at “the heavens” or “heaven.” But are you looking at sky or are you just looking at air? Peering out at winter trees devoid of leaves, I could swear that the sky is between their branches, and quite nearby. Hence sky stayed as it did throughout the next stanza, where the natural predominates:

The highest mountains
are no closer than the deepest
valleys to the sky.
No place has any more of it
than any other place.
A cloud is as ruthlessly
crushed by the sky as a grave is.
A mole is as high, sky high
as an owl beating its wings.
Whatever falls into the abyss,
falls from sky into sky.

Well, I am actually hiding something here. In Polish sky simultaneously exalts the mole and brings the heavens down to earth. Yet, what I rendered as “high, sky high” is the word wniebowziety (“ascended”) with strong religious overtones, literally “taken into heaven” as in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus. The poet avails herself of the fact that wniebowziety also has a secondary meaning— “intensely happy” or “delighted.” Sky high seeks to elevate the mole in body and spirit. Where niebo is treated as a substance rather than a place, a mass noun rather than a count noun, there were no doubts, hence “friable, fluid, rocky, / flammable, volatile stretches / of sky” (rather than stretches of “heaven”), and “specks of sky, / gusts of sky, heaps of sky.”

Yet languages differ in what they may say, and also in what they must say. Hence, translation is the art of choosing one’s regrets. Perhaps my worst fear in opting for sky throughout the poem was the risk of obscuring the Jobian stance of rebelling against the God of Genesis. In Polish, the allusion proclaims itself. In Genesis, the sky is created as a firmament to separate the waters above from the waters below, separating that which was once a unified whole into its component parts. Szymborska plays with the possibility of heresy, weighing in against Genesis in the opening lines of the poem’s final stanza:

Dividing earth and sky
is not the right way
to think about this wholeness

The heresy also extends to the degree to which this bivalent word is naturalized. In choosing a scatological process—”I eat niebo / I excrete niebo”—the poet is putting the Polish reader in an uncomfortable position: either narrow niebo to its physical meaning, or excrete heaven. In Polish the excretion passes, but uneasily. In translation, I mourn the loss of the sweet profanation of the sacred, a possibility all but impossible in English. Given how entrenched the religious valence is, the heresy of “excreting heaven” would be unwelcome, even from an aesthetic standpoint.

Not every translation choice is difficult, even when the poem contains the word niebo, and even when it figures in the title. Take the following tribute to Szymborska’s beloved singer Ella Fitzgerald, “Ella w niebie”:

Ella in Heaven

She prayed to God,
prayed hard,
that he turn her into
a happy white girl.
And in case it be too late,
then Lord, see how big I am
and cut my pounds in half.
But the good Lord said NO.|
He laid his hand on her heart,
checked her throat, stroked her hair.
And said: when all is done,
you’ll bring me joy when you come to me,
my sweet black child, mother lode of song.

Clearly here the naturalized niebo is not even an option. Szymborska, who has written a review of Ella’s biography, and followed her life and music, places her squarely in heaven.

This past year I returned to Poland in the middle of winter to attend Wislawa Szymborska’s funeral. She was 88, yet no one was quite prepared for this. Well, almost no one. The day before she died she spoke with Michal Rusinek, her friend and literary executor and told him that she was. She had thought through many things and for her last collection had readied a title: Enough. Sober-minded, unsentimental, disarming, open, and curious about the world, ready to respond to its wonders with rapture—this is how I think Szymborska should be remembered. She approached the end of her life without despair. When her closest friends gathered to reminisce about her life, albeit in a televised setting, it was something joyous. They recounted her practical jokes. I have one of my own: she once laid out for us a bowl of grapes, which had an artificial grape inlay, only we didn’t know and tried to pluck them—that was a tactile teaser.

Funerals of public figures can turn grotesque with long, uncomfortable speeches, uninvited guests, uncomfortable speeches by uninvited guests, and in a country like Poland, predominantly Catholic in the postwar period, they are almost always religious. Thinking through her funeral and leaving precise instructions, Wislawa Szymborska departed this world the same way she had inhabited it—on her own terms. Although her eulogists—ironically of course—spoke of what Szymborska might be doing in the afterlife (the worst case scenario had her sitting at a table signing autographs), Szymborska herself was somehow still present in the only world she believed existed, master of ceremonies at her own funeral. In place of a march or dirge, we listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “I Cried for You (now it’s your turn to cry for me),” Szymborska’s way of preempting any note of sentimentality. And as her ashes were lowered into the ground, Ella’s “Black Coffee” resounded across the cemetery in musical waves of sky.

Joanna Trzeciak is Associate Professor of Russian and Translation Studies at Kent State University. Her research concerns Nabokov as a self-translating author. Her translations of Polish and Russian literature have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Field, and New Ohio Review, among others. Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska (W.W. Norton, 2001), was awarded the Heldt Translation Prize. Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Różewicz (W.W. Norton, 2011) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, and is the winner of the Found in Translation Award and the AATSEEL Award for Best Scholarly Translation.

Piece originally published in NOR 13.

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