The Stones and the Earth: On translating Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone

By Bill Johnston

Featured Art: Alpine Scene by Gustave Doré

Wiesław Myśliwski’s magisterial 1984 novel of Polish village life Stone Upon Stone (Kamień na kamieniu) is a text in which language plays a central role. The entire novel reads like a magnificent sustained spoken monologue; Myśliwski’s gift for conveying the pithy, unsentimental wisdom of peasant language is apparent in every sentence, and it is language, not story, that ultimately drives the narrative and makes the book the masterpiece it is.

In the more than five-hundred pages of this astounding book, no word is more central than ziemia. Yet at the same time, no word is more untranslatable into English—despite the fact that ziemia is a seemingly ordinary, everyday word. The problem is that ziemia, unremarkable as it is, occupies the semantic space of several equally ordinary, overlapping notions in English. Foremost among these English meanings are: earth, in meanings such as that of one of the four classical elements, contrasted with air, water, and fire (it is, for example, the name of our planet in Polish); land, as in something one can farm, and that is measured in acres—it also appears in Polish in phrases such as “homeland” and “promised land,” and in this meaning is used in a phrase like “on land” to contrast with “on the sea”; ground, for instance in a phrase such as “lying on the ground” or “the ground under one’s feet”; and soil, the actual material in which one grows things.

The point is not that Polish is simpler than English—it also has words that carry related meanings, such as ląd (land in contrast to sea), grunt (ground, as in solid ground under one’s feet), gleba (soil). But words always include multiple meanings that are not shared from one language to another, and it’s often the commonest ones that are richest in associations. Ziemia is so crucial in Stone Upon Stone not because there are no alternatives, but because it happens to gather a large number of denotations and connotations that are central to the themes of the novel: life and death, including both birth and burial (throughout the book, Szymek is building a family tomb); working the land and the relationship between people and the natural world; the sense of place and belonging.

In translating Stone Upon Stone, it became immediately apparent that it was not possible to select one of these English equivalents to use throughout the book. Such a one-to-one solution, sometimes touted as desirable by translation theorists, rarely works in practice; in the present case, it would have led to gross distortions of meaning and, equally problematically, to unreadable English. All I could hope for, I quickly realized, was that the network of related words in English—earth, land, ground, soil, and even in places dust—would together create an interlinked web of significance that taken together would convey the Polish concept of ziemia situated at, yet absent from, its center. The one point at which a major choice needed to be made was in the title of Chapter IV, which comprises the single word “Ziemia.” Here, I decided that the English word that contained the most significant meanings in the context of the novel as a whole was the word “earth,” and thus, the chapter is titled “The Earth” in the English version. Elsewhere, though, I permitted myself to select the most appropriate translation in local context. I was far from satisfied with this solution—indeed, I consider it the major failing of the translation of which I was conscious (recognizing that there are numerous others of which I’m unaware)—but it carried me through the process of translating the entire novel—up until the penultimate page . . .

In the devastating closing scene (I’m not giving away the plot, for the novel     is not linear in its narrative), Szymek, the narrator, is speaking to his brother Michał, a former communist party bigwig who seems to have run afoul of the authorities, and is returned home to the village unable to speak, presumably having been tortured and suffering brain damage (we’re never told any of these things outright, but have to infer them). Szymek is trying to teach Michał to use words once again. Szymek says, “Start maybe from the first ones at hand, the ones that are closest to you.” He suggests three words: matka (mother); dom (home); and ziemia. For the next page—the final page of the book—Szymek expands on the various meanings of ziemia, and the different circumstances   in which it is used, as if trying to remind Michał of this most fundamental of words. Here, in the translation it was going to be necessary to pick one word and stick with it throughout the passage. I opted, again, for “earth” as the one carrying the most central meanings of ziemia.

Right from the start there were problems. Szymek’s first example is: “Where do you spit? On the earth.” To my ear, it would be more natural to say, “to spit on the ground.” But I thought this one might slide by, perhaps as sounding more natural in the mouth of someone brought up in the country, working on a farm. What comes next is a little easier: “You know, what you walk on, what houses are built on, what you plow.” In each of these cases “earth” seemed an appropriate response. A few lines later, Szymek returns to the uses of the word ziemia. “Moles, they know how to dig in the earth, trees put down their roots in it, men dig trenches in it in wartime. Springs rise up out of the earth and people’s sweat soaks into it. It’s this earth, no other, that every person is born in.” So far so good. The next line too: “And remember when anyone was leaving the village, they’d always take a little bit of earth with them in a bundle.” Here, though “soil” would also work, “earth” felt appropriate too.

Next, though, came a couple of more significant problems. In the Polish the following sentence reads, roughly: “Or sailors, when they see ziemia still far far away, they shout, ‘ziemia! ziemia!’” Obviously, the only valid English equivalent would be land—sailors shout “land ho!” in English; and if the sentence appeared in isolation, this would of course be the right choice. Here, though, the context makes it crucial to keep the word earth. Trying to change the meaning as little as possible, I came up with: “Or sailors, when the land’s still way far away, they say they want the earth under their feet again.”

A few lines further on, there is another interesting moment. Szymek talks about how, “when people die, they’re buried in the earth.” That sounds okay in English. But he adds: “It’s said, may [the] ziemia weigh lightly on him” (Polish has no articles, so using one in English is always a judgment call). This phrase, a close Polish translation of the Latin phrase Sit ei terra levis that appears on Roman funerary inscriptions, is indeed widely known in Polish, being used in formal situations of mourning such as funeral speeches and obituaries. Its meaning is clear in English—close to our phrase “May he rest in peace”—but it is not a familiar expression to English speakers. I decided, then, that this was  one of those cases where borrowing a turn of phrase from the source language was a valid option. I signaled the borrowing by tweaking the opening phrase “Mówi się” (It’s said) to make it seem as if Szymek is presenting a less familiar expression that Michał may or may not know, thus also mediating the phrase for English-language readers: “There’s a saying, may the earth weigh lightly on him.”

It’s not my place to say whether or not the final version of the passage “works” in English. But I’ve appreciated this opportunity to explicate the decision-making processes around a particularly thorny—or, perhaps, rocky—passage involving one of the most important words in Stone Upon Stone. Below I give the final version of the passage in its entirety.

“Life begins with a word and ends with words. Because death is also just the end of words. Start maybe from the first ones at hand, the ones that are closest to you. Mother, home, earth. Maybe try saying, earth. I mean, you know what earth is. Where do you spit? On the earth. You know, what you walk on, what houses are built on, what you plow. You’ve done your share of plowing. Remember father teaching us to plow? He taught us one by one, you, me, Antek, Stasiek. Whenever one of us had barely grown taller than the plow, he’d take us with him when he went out to do the plowing. He’d put our hands on the grips, then put his hands over ours and walk behind, like he was holding us in his arms. You could feel his warmth at your back, his breath on your head. And you’d hear his words like they were coming from the sky. Don’t hold it like that, it needs to be firmer, follow the middle of the furrow, it has to go deeper when the earth is dry, when your hands get bigger you’ll also be holding the reins in this hand and the whip in that one. You’ll learn, you will, you just have to be patient. Moles, they know how to dig in the earth, trees put down their roots in it, men dig trenches in it in wartime. Springs rise up out of the earth and people’s sweat soaks into it. It’s this earth, no other, that every person is born in. And remember when anyone was leaving the village, they’d always take a little bit of earth with them in a bundle. Or sailors, when the land’s still way far away, they say they want the earth under their feet again. And God came down to the earth. And when people die they’re buried in the earth. We’ll be put there too. I’m planning to have a tomb built. Eight places, so there’ll be room for all of us. Maybe Antek and Stasiek will agree to be buried with us. There’s a saying, may the earth weigh lightly on him. So wherever it’ll be lighter for them. They say that when a person’s born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.”

From: Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone, translated by Bill Johnston. New York: Archipelago Books, 2010.


Bill Johnston’s most recent translations include Jeanne Benameur’s The Child Who (Calypso Editions, 2020), and Adam Mickiewicz’s rhyming verse epic Pan Tadeusz (Archipelago Books, 2018), for which he received the 2019 National Translation Award in Poetry. He currently holds a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship to translate the first two volumes of Maria Dąbrowska’s 1934 novel cycle The Nights and the Days. He teaches literary translation at Indiana University.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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