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Treny. The Laments of Kochanowski

Reviewer: Steven Clancy

Translated by Adam Czerniawski, Foreword by Donald Davie. Edited and annotated by Piotr Wilczek. Bibliography and bibliographical notes. Oxford: Legenda, 2001. Studies in Comparative Literature 6. ISBN 1-900755 55 6/ISSN 1 466-8173. 94 pages. Paper.

First published in Kraków in 1580, Jan Kochanowski's Treny (Laments) recount the grieving process of the poet himself, a father mourning the death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Orszula. The Treny are arguably the most well-known work of poetry from the Polish Renaissance and already appear in multiple previous translations. So the question arises, why was it now time for a new translation into English? Challenge might be the answer. For Adam Czerniawski, the translator of this volume, the process of translating the Treny has been going on for forty years as he faced "a great poem executed with considerable technical virtuosity and brilliance, a real challenge to a translator" (xv).

This bilingual edition of Kochanowski's work will be enjoyed by the casual reader of Polish poetry and it will be useful to the scholar or student of Polish language and literature. The Polish text used in this version of Treny has been edited by Piotr Wilczek and is based on the last approved version of the poems published during Kochanowski's lifetime. For the most part, it retains older endings and spellings, and could be deemed suitable for scholarly study and reference. The explanatory notes, including short descriptions of the literary, mythological, and historical figures of the Greco-Roman world so often referred to in Kochanowski's work, will be of considerable benefit to the general reader. It is a further statement of Kochanowski's literary milieu that very few notes are needed to explain particularly Polish elements in the poem.

Readers who desire to puzzle out the Treny in the original Polish will not have their experience spoiled by a one-to-one correspondence between the Polish text and Czerniawski's rendering on facing pages. Czerniawski's translation distinguishes itself from previous, more literal or metrical translations of the Treny in that his mode of translation is "radically" different from others beginning with Bowring's 1827 edition and ending with the 1995 version of Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak. Czerniawski strives to convey the "Treny's accessibility and directness, as well as their pathos" (xv), avoiding "the pitfalls of mawkishness and familiarity, for the strength of Treny derives from a balance of immediacy and homeliness, on the one hand, and a sense of gravitas and dignity, on the other" (xv). He has "aimed at rendering meanings faithfully in an uncluttered modern idiom without padding," in the process loosening "somewhat the strict metrical patterns of the originals" (xvi).

In his foreword to this edition, the late Donald Davie decries the lack of a natural interest in Kochanowski, saying that his status as a canonical figure in Polish poetry "commend[s] him less, now when ‘the canon' is widely taken to be of its nature an arbitrary and oppressive institution" (xii). Subsequently, contemporary translators of poetry tend only to translate the work of modern poets. However, Davie asserts that "translation becomes an art, and a work of imagination and learning, only when the translator undertakes to bridge the gap, not just between linguistic cultures but also over centuries, between historical periods" (xii). This is precisely the goal of Czerniawski. In searching for a twentieth-century poetic voice for Kochanowski, Davie encourages the translator to avoid the now false language of an Edmund Spenser on the one hand and on the other, a completely modern rendering. Rather, "at every point, with every word, the translator has to negotiate between English that is current and English that is delicately resourcefully archaic. . . an idiom that is not quite modern English and yet not fancy-dress" (xiv). In what Davie calls a "momentous" translation, we see Czerniawski "continually negotiating between what is strange in Kochanowski and what is familiar" (xiv), revealing to us "translation as an imaginative act" (xiv). An adequate translation of Kochanowski will retain his "challenging strangeness", which is "not exotic at all, thanks to our common humanity and his Horatian commonsense" (xiv). The proper poetic idiom will retain the text's "instructive and chastening strangeness, what teases us into recognizing how earlier centuries entertained feelings and perceptions that we have lost and now lack" (xiii).

Czerniawski's task is, essentially, to create a new poetic work in English from Kochanowski's source material. In order to gauge his success let us first identify some criteria by which to judge his poetic translation. Among the things a reader might hope for in a translation are consistency, accuracy, and faithfulness in translating the general structure, style, syntax, flow, meter, rhyme, and meaning of the poems. However, no poetic translation will succeed perfectly in all of these areas and translators will focus on a few of these categories depending on their own poetic sense and the needs of the particular poem. Kochanowski's Treny vary in length and meter, but most are made up of thirteen syllable lines with rhyming couplets. Structurally, Czerniawski's poems are composed of short lines, generally more concise than Kochanowski's verses, with no discernible meter and only the occasional rhyme, usually no more than one or two rhyming lines per poem.

The translator who decides to imitate the meter and rhyme schemes of the original Polish in a more literal translation has from the beginning an excuse for a less than excellent translation. The structural constraints of the poem and the semantic and syntactic constraints of the original text place limits on the translator and restrict his freedom and creativity in carrying out his task. The reader will give the translator and the poet the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the poems truly are great in the original language and suffer only from inadequate translations or the inadequacy of translation in general. This is not to say that some excellent translations cannot be produced within these constraints and limitations. However, having chosen another path, the greater burden is on Czerniawski to select the precise words, to use line breaks and rhythms effectively, and to create poems that sound excellent as contemporary poems in English, all the while being faithful to the sense and meaning of Kochanowski's work.

Czerniawski is certainly to be commended for engaging in this task and in general may also be congratulated for succeeding quite often. Certain readers will be frustrated with these translations, especially those readers who constantly compare to the Polish original, but there is much beauty in Czerniawski's renditions. Among the most successful poems are Treny I, V, VIII, IX, XII, XV, XVII, and XIX. Note the powerful building energy in Tren I, marked by the repetition of all at the beginning of each line:

All Heraclitean tears and woes,
All plaints and dirges of Simonides,
All the world's sorrow, griefs, and cares,
All lamentations and wringing of hands,
All but all enter my house at once
To help me mourn my precious girl
Whom impious Death has gripped,
Suddenly ending all my joy.

The beginning of Tren V paints a bucolic picture of the shoot of a young olive tree, thriving amidst the other plants, which is cut down by a careless gardener. The suddenness of this act is conveyed by a line break, further emphasizing the cutting of the shoot, and followed by a rough and rapid following line:

As when a young olive plant
Among tall trees--lacking twigs
And leaves, being but a tender shoot,
Climbs in her mother's path--
Lopped by a hasty pruner's knife
That clears sharp thorns and rampant growth

Also present are the many touching scenes, in which the poet-father describes his daughter's habits and character, as in Tren VIII:

You spoke and sang for all alone,
Skipped around in every corner of the house,
Never let your mother fret,
Never let your father brood,
Hugging one and then the other,
Cheering all with joyful laughter.

And the many Greco-Roman references, which Kochanowski relies on so heavily, frequently are just as powerful for conveying the poet's thoughts and feelings in Czerniawski's rendering:

Mourning her young, Niobe also turned to stone.
       Upon Sipylus enduring marble stands
Nursing concealed a living wound.
        Her heartfelt tears soak through rock
And fall in lucid streams,
        A source for beasts and birds;
And she bound forever broods
        In the rock exposed to raging storms.
This tomb holds not the dead; this body,
        Not entombed, is itself a tomb.

Tren XVII is quite successful and features a variation in Kochanowski's verses. The Polish original features short eight-syllable lines, for which Czerniawski has produced a rolling, relentless pace in the translation. Tren XIX is remarkable for the lengthy passage in prose, emphasizing the breakdown in the poetic structure as the Treny come to an end and marking a sharp break from the voice of the poet as the vision of his mother speaks to him in what appears to be a dream. The prose passages here contain some of the most poetic phrases in the entire volume: "The sun always shines, the day never ends, the dark night never comes. We behold the Creator of all in majesty, which you, in the flesh, vainly seek to see" or "She could not escape death, even were she to live longer than the ancient Sibyl."
However, not all of the poems are equally successful. One wonders occasionally if Czerniawski does not sometimes go too far in his refashioning of Kochanowski's verse. Many passages are rendered awkwardly in English or inaccurately when compared to the Polish. Other lines fail to convey vital meanings of certain words or phrases and occasionally the translations could profit from more faithful structural reproduction. As regards semantic accuracy, there are instances where Czerniawski seems not to have chosen the best word possible and other instances where the same word is repeated in Polish, yet rendered differently in English. For instance, in Tren VII, the noun posag is rendered as dowry, which is perfectly accurate, but given the emphasis in the poem on his daughter's now useless clothing and her funeral dress, the word trousseau, with its associations of clothes and linens laid aside for marriage, would be preferable to the connotations of money and property which come to mind with dowry. Use of trousseau would also tie together in English what is present in the Polish: the fusion of the trousseau's hope chest with Orszula's coffin. Also in this Tren, one misses the interplay of the longer, propositional thirteen-syllable lines with the shorter, responsorial eight-syllable lines. Consistency of translation is lacking in Tren I, which features the Polish word próěno four times in five lines. Czerniawski translates this as (in) vain three times, but the relentlessness of this word is broken off early by a final rendering as futile.

Sometimes the choice of word is simply awkward or unfortunate in English and Czerniawski appears not to have walked his fine line between archaism and modernity. Tren V features a translation of Polish matka [mother] as dam, an archaic form usually used of horses, here referring to the mother of an olive plant and, ultimately, to Orszula's mother. Other passages, on close analysis, fail tests of inner consistency, such as Tren XIII's "Oh careless death, you are amiss:/She was to mourn me, not I her loss," which is meant to translate either "She was to mourn me, not I her" or "She was to mourn my loss, not I hers," but ends up a confusing contrast of the two mourned objects, one a person and the other the loss of a person. Additionally, "her loss" might be more readily identified with the mourner's loss of a loved one, rather than a person's death. With regard to names, Czerniawski prefers to retain the Polish forms. Davie praises Czerniawski's decision not to translate the title of the work into English as Laments, Threnodies, or some other similar choice. Kochanowski's daughter is referred to as Orszula (Ursula). The Polish versions of Greek and Roman names are restored to their English counterparts with one interesting exception. Kochanowski refers once to the Roman Proserpine (Prozerpina, Tren II) and twice to her Greek counterpart Persephone (Persefona, Tren IV & V), yet Czerniawski renders all forms as Proserpine, far less resonant in English than Persephone.

Whereas the father's love for his daughter does successfully come through in Czerniawski's English in poems such as Tren VIII quoted above, the sweetness and affection of several Polish diminutive forms (as in Treny III, VIII, and X) are not rendered at all. The Polish text in Tren III reads:

Nie lza, nie lza, jedno sie za toba gotowa,
        A stopeczkami twemi ciebie naszladowac
Tam cie ujzrze, da Pan Bóg, a ty wiec z drogiemi
        Rzuc sie ojcu do szyje reczynkami swemi.
[my boldface, S.C.]

The second line here might be rendered as "And follow in your little steps" and the final line as "Cast your little arms around your father's neck." However, Czerniawski's reductive version in only two lines is:

        I must make ready your steps to trace,
        There, God willing, feel your embrace.

In this particular instance, the meaning of the diminutive forms is lost altogether. The translation is too abbreviated and comes off as syntactically and tonally awkward. The first line implies the motion of following and seeking, but the second implies a location, which in actuality may never be reached. The use of must appears decisive and matter-of-fact in "I must make ready," whereas the sense in Polish is that there is no other alternative available to the poet. Another passage where the absence of some creative rendering of the Polish diminutive is felt occurs in Tren VIII, in which the poet remembers how Orszula would play throughout the house. He refers to every corner of the house, kaciki, as playful and full of life, yet after Orszula's death the house is empty, grief abides in every corner, which has subsequently grown up into kat. One misses the diminutives and some acknowledgement of this huge semantic correlation. The missing diminutive in Tren X refers to the zmazeczka, the possible "little stain" of sin that Orszula may be being cleansed of in Purgatory. However, Czerniawski's translation condemns the body and magnifies this tiny sin into the "marks of tainted flesh," inaccurate both with respect to the Polish text and to the theological content of the poem. All of these absences of diminutives in the translation make the appearance of Orszuleczka in Tren XIX all the more surprising.

Czerniawski concludes the volume with a short interpretive essay, providing some brief background material on Kochanowski's life and work and a reading of the poems as a cycle. He asserts that the Treny's status as a masterpiece is due to Kochanowski's ability to "present his personal tragedy within a framework which broadens it into the public domain" (57). This too is Czerniawski's challenge and goal as a translator, to recreate this account in English in a way that speaks to modern readers as a fresh poetic work. To a large degree, he has been successful in this risky and innovative translation.

This compact, new volume of Kochanowski's Treny comes to us from Legenda, an imprint of the European Humanities Research Centre of the University of Oxford, and appears in a series titled Studies in Comparative Literature. This translation has undergone further revisions from Czerniawski's Katowice/University of Silesia edition of 1996.

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