Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The revenge of the mortal hand

By Mariusz Kubik, (Own work, = Kmarius) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And so another month begins, and it begins with the death of one of our great poets, WisÅ‚awa Szymborska, a Nobel laureate and a fascinating writer. She was 88 and apparently died peacefully in her sleep. Even though she gained much more fame after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, she remains virtually unknown outside Poland. Even among poetry buffs, she is hardly a household name. And more’s the pity. She was a truly great writer.

I still remember the first poem of hers I encountered: The Joy of Writing. There are several translations of this work, but I have yet to encounter one I enjoy as much as the excellent version done by Magnus Kyrnski and Robert Maguire in the collection Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. The poem perfectly captures the incredible feeling of power that can inhabit you as a writer; the amazing world of possibilities open to you, if only you let your imagination run free; and the sense that maybe, in some small way, you are reaching across time to touch the future. I was completely blown away by it. 

I have not the slightest knowledge of the Polish language, but I love this translation. My instincts as both a poet and a translator tell me that it’s fine work. Compare it with this one, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, whose translations of Szymborska seem to be generally well received. And yet there are strange little unpoetic slips in the B/C version. Take for instance “xerox her soft muzzle” instead of K/M’s “copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper”. The latter is longer, but how can one seriously reconcile the word “xerox” with “soft muzzle” in English? There is an alliteration of the "z" sound in xerox and muzzle, but the all those z's and x's aren't very doe-like. Or BC’s “perched on four slim legs” versus KM’s “poised on four fragile legs”. Again, I don’t know what the Polish says, but I know I like “poised” better than “perched” and “fragile” rather than “slim”. I could go through the whole poem like this, but it would get boring. To be fair, I think both versions have their strong and weak points, as any translation of poetry will have; and I have always felt that to truly get a feel for a poem in translation, one should read several interpretations if possible. But the KM version flows beautifully for me and works well in English. I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions. I’ve certainly made mine.

The Joy of Writing
      Wislawa Szymborska (translation by Magnus Kyrnski & Robert Maguire)

Where through the written forest runs that written doe?
Is it to drink from the written water,
which will copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper?
Why does she raise her head, is it something she hears?
Poised on four fragile legs borrowed from truth
she pricks up her ears under my fingers.
Stillness—this word also rustles across the paper
and parts
the branches brought forth by the word "forest."

Above the blank page lurking, set to spring
are letters that may compose themselves all wrong,
besieging sentences
from which there is no rescue.

In a drop of ink there's a goodly reserve
of huntsmen with eyes squinting to take aim,
ready to dash down the steep pen,
surround the doe and level their guns.

They forget that this is not real life.
Other laws, black on white, here hold sway.
The twinkling of an eye will last as long as I wish,
will consent to be divided into small eternities
full of bullets stopped in flight.
Forever, if I command it, nothing will happen here.
Against my will no leaf will fall
nor blade of grass bend under the full stop of a hoof.

Is there then such a world
over which I rule sole and absolute?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence perpetuated at my command?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
The revenge of the mortal hand.

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