This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


Selected Poems

by Cyprian Kamil Norwid

Reviewer: Kevin Christianson

[Selected Poems] Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Translated by Adam Czerniawski (Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation). Introduction by Bogdan Czaykowski. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2004. 95 pages. ISBN 0-85646-369-8. Paper. $13.95.

This new collection of Norwid’s poetry has much to recommend itself. Awarded the (UK’s) Poetry Book Society’s Recommended Translation in winter 2003, the translations represent decades of diligent effort at bringing Norwid’s verse to the attention of the English-speaking world. Attractively designed with one of the poet’s watercolors and his last self-portrait gracing its covers, the book features many of Norwid’s most famous poems including a healthy sampling of lyrics taken from the poet’s major opus Vade-mecum. Regrettably, Czerniawski tells us, “Chopin’s Piano” (“Fortepian Szopena”) was omitted due to its untranslatability. Perhaps this accounts for the absence of “To the Citizen John Brown” (“Do obywatela Johna Browna”) which would interest American readers. Poet-scholar Bogdan Czaykowski has contributed an illuminating essay “The Poet as ‘Christian Socrates’” which, among other things, offers insightful comparisons of Norwid to Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Ezra Pound. A page of notes (alas, too few) appears at the back of the book.

According to his translator’s note, Czerniawski consulted original manuscripts edited by the Norwid scholar Juliusz Gomulicki and also conferred with Polish scholar Agata Brajerska-Mazur, whose article “The Untranslatability into English of Some of Norwid’s Semantic Techniques” outlines the major challenges facing the Norwid translator. Although Czerniawski’s translations have been “severely tested” in seminars at three Polish universities, certain difficulites I encountered indicate they might have benefited doubly from being tested on native English speakers at British or American universities.

“How to verify Norwid’s genius?” asked Adam Czerniawski in the Afterword to his bilingual translation of Norwid published in 1986 in Poland. Czerniawski’s answer reflects his methodology: “One should reveal Norwid’s originality.” Partly to that end, Czerniawski has “scrupulously maintained Norwid’s idiosyncratic punctuation and quirky use of italics” as well as endeavored, “wherever possible,” to reproduce Norwid’s rhyme schemes without “padding or distortions of meaning.” While some may argue that typographic fidelity is merely cosmetic and superficial, Norwid’s punctuation and italics-like Emily Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization-represent an innovative feature of the work, producing not only syncopated colloquial rhythms but conveying nuances of thought and feeling. On the other hand, Czerniawski’s stated desire to duplicate Norwid’s rhymes aroused skepticism. How can a translator use rhyme schemes without inevitably padding and distorting the original’s meaning? Moreover, how does reproducing rhyme schemes help convey a poet’s “genius” or “originality” more effectively than other formal and rhetorical elements?

Compared to those done by Claire S. Allen, Barry Keane, and others, Czerniawski’s translations mark an advancement in Norwid translation. In general, his are more accurate and faithful, boasting greater lucidity, vitality, and grace. For all their merits, however, Czerniawski’s translations achieve uneven success, marred by lapses in fidelity to Norwid’s diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, and line structure. In most cases, not surprisingly, such deficiencies result from the translator’s efforts at producing rhymed and metered facsimiles of the Polish originals.

Norwid’s “Their Strength” (“Siła ich”) illustrates a few strengths and weaknesses in Czerniawski’s work as well as certain problems which Norwid’s poetry presents to a translator. Relying solely on Czerniawski’s translation, I struggled to understand this poem. After consulting the Polish version, I realized that Norwid’s epigram appears to be an attack on censorship and political oppression in the poet’s homeland under German and tsarist Russian occupation. The “few thoughts . . . which aren’t new!” might refer to the concepts of liberty, national sovereignty, social and political justice, human rights, and so on.

Their Strength

Valiant commanders, armies fully trained,

Police-male, female, uniformed and plain-

Thus united against whom? -

A few thoughts . . . that aren’t new! . . .

Siła ich

Ogromne wojska, bitne generały,

Policje-tajne, widne i dwu-płciowe -

Przeciwko komu tak się pojednały? -

Przeciwko kilku myślom. . . co nie nowe!

Though Czerniawski maintains Norwid’s idiosyncratic punctuation, his compulsion to duplicate the formal structure of an epigram-even though he ends up substituting couplets (AABB) for Norwid’s original ABAB rhyme-results in distortion of meaning. In the first line Czerniawski reverses the order of phrases and takes liberties with the original diction for rhyme’s sake. Rather than literally translate generały as “generals,” Czerniawski chooses “commanders,” and the “armies” (wojska) which Norwid describes as ogromne (“huge,” “enormous”) become “fully trained” in order to provide a rhyme for “plain.” Although translating policje as a singular noun (“police”) instead of plural (“police forces” or better, “police units”) does no serious harm to comprehension, Norwid’s use of parallelism and the combined effect of his three plural nouns-“generals” (generały), “armies” (wojska), and “police units” (policje)-which underscore the ironic contrast between their large quantities and the “few thoughts” has been muted. Translating widne as “uniformed” rather than the literal “visible” or “seen” is astute on Czerniawski’s part. But why “plain” for tajne, which literally means “secret”-as in “secret police”? Does “plain” describe the police’s attire, facial expressions, speech, attitudes, or behavior-as in the sense of “drab,” “common,” “ordinary,” or “direct and to the point”?

If “plain” is shorthand for “plainclothes” police officers, then Norwid’s meaning has been severely distorted. In common usage the term “plainclothes” refers to police officers who do not wear uniforms but either suits and ties, as in the case of detectives, or street clothes, as in the case of undercover officers who infiltrate gangs and illegal organizations which threaten society. In both cases, “plainclothes” police are viewed by law-abiding citizens as benevolent protectors of society, whereas the same cannot be said of the feared and despised secret police who terrorized society in tsarist and Soviet Russia, and in other Soviet-occupied states. In the English speaking world, “plain”(clothes) police officers do not have a reputation for arresting, imprisoning, beating and torturing, and even murdering innocent citizens for political reasons. That is a significant difference which a translation ought to make clear, without regard for the artificial demands of rhyme.

In this same line Czerniawski’s choice of “male, female” for Norwid’s peculiar, and perhaps untranslatable, dwu-płciowe is understandable. This plural adjective describing the police is formed from the prefix dwu- (“di-, bi-, dual-, two-, etcetera) and płciowy, which is the adjectival form of płeć meaning “sex” or “gender” as in “sex organs,” “gender discrimination,” “sexual reproduction.” Here is an instance where the translator could convey Norwid’s semantic inventiveness by creating a portmanteau word that replicates the poet’s original, as in “dual-gendered” or “two-sexed.” Moreover, where “male, female” is neutral in tone, Norwid’s original seems to carry a negative tone, suggesting that the “dual-gendered” or “two-sexed” police are a species of living creature separate and distinct from the human variety. English speakers might benefit from a footnote alerting them to Norwid’s unusual diction as well as providing relevant background information about censorship and political oppression which Poles were subjected to by their German and Russian occupiers in the nineteenth century-and prophetically in the twentieth.

Without question Czerniawski’s translations of Norwid’s verse deserve praise for their accuracy, lucidity, and vitality. In general, when compared to those of other translators, Czerniawski’s liberties are less damaging. On the other hand, English-speaking readers may struggle to comprehend what Norwid is saying and talking about. To provide readers with a more immediate experience of this poet’s “genius” and “originality,” the translator might pay less attention to rhyme schemes and greater attention to Norwid’s diction (especially connotation), syntax, as well as rhetoric structures, tropes, and line-structure (especially the poet’s use of enjambment). Adding more footnotes would alert readers to the complexities of Norwid’s semantic and thematic elements, as described by Brayerska-Mazur, as well as provide useful political and historical background information. Such an approach may result in prosaic translations lacking the recognizable “bounce” and “jingle” of conventional rhymed-and-metered verse, but they may help English speakers comprehend more successfully the contents of Norwid’s verse.

Back to the January 2005 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated