The Collected Poems 1956-1998
James E. Reid
By Zbigniew Herbert. Translated by Alissa Valles. Additional translations by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott. Introduction by Adam Zagajewski. New York: Ecco Press, 2007. xviii + 600 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-078390-7. Hardcover. $44.95.
Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry and prose have been out of print far too long. How welcome it is to have an edition of his Collected Poems. Although he is looking down in the photograph on the front cover as he lights yet another cigarette, the blackness surrounding the hard light on his face suggests his unflinching gaze into darkness. Informative notes to the poems and a chronology of Herbert’s life support and extend the promise on the cover. Readers who are discovering Herbert or reading him again may wonder how it is that a man who could write such original and profound poetry did not receive the Nobel for literature.
Reviews of Alissa Valles’s translation have been mixed. In the New York Review of Books (April 26, 2007), Charles Simic credits them as “admirable” in spite of “an occasional awkward phrase.” Then, he seems to damn them with faint praise by quoting lines from the Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott translations in this collection more than six times as often as the Valles. In a review that is not as engaged as usual (New York Times Book Review, July 29, 2007), David Orr cautiously avers that “Herbert is now a complete poet in English, and he’s not as strong as he should be.” In Poetry (May 2007) Michael Hofmann criticizes the Valles translation in ways that are both astute and concerned. He loves Herbert’s work, and from his position outside the modulated reviewing in North America, he damns her translation as “a disaster.”
A few comparative translations may clarify different approaches to translating Herbert. “The Trial,” from Report From The Besieged City, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, opens with these lines: “During his great speech the prosecutor/kept piercing me with his yellow index finger.” The scene is set in clear and immediate language. The defendant, whether Herbert or you or I, is under repeated and merciless attack by a representative of the state. For Valles the attack is presented as one occurrence: “When he gave his great speech the prosecutor/punctured me with his yellow indicator finger.” A balloon or a ponderous dirigible is punctured and deflates with finality, whereas Herbert’s defendant resists during the trial and hopefully throughout his life, in spite of the continuing temptation of the “third dark solution” in the second to last stanza. The impact of the dark and continually proffered choices of betrayal, collaboration, or worse is weakened by the closure in Valles’s opening lines. As for Valles’s awkward “yellow indicator finger,” the best response is to return to the Carpenter translation for a sense of the continuing trial and quiet struggle in the face of overwhelming odds.
Additional comparisons with less commentary may help. Poetry is best when read aloud, and it is here that more of the problems in the Valles version become evident. “Report from the Besieged City” is a meditative cri de coeur that calls to be read aloud. Here is the Carpenter transition from the third to fourth stanza:
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time
Here is Valles:
we here are all suffering from the loss of a sense of time
Her cumbersome version pales in comparison to the celerity and grace of the Carpenter. “We here are all . . .” even verges on a tongue twister. The change in tense from one line to the next is also problematic. Her use of the definite and indefinite article is inconsistent-even in her title, “Report from a Besieged City.” This is one of Herbert’s best known poems, and one of the reasons is that it is so clearly a report from “the” city where the poem’s writer, narrator, and possibly its reader is besieged. It is not a report from “a” city somewhere. Occasionally there is also a rushed quality to some of the translations.
Admittedly, Alissa Valles is challenged by the reception of the well known translations that precede hers. The Miłosz and Scott, and Carpenter translations have the advantage of fruitful collaboration between two translators, one of whom in each case spoke English and Polish fluently. A similar advantage is also visible in the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of the Russians. Working alone, Valles occasionally rises to the challenge. Her version of “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” from Mr. Cogito carries Herbert’s voice so well that it reads as if it were composed in English. Does the second to last stanza recall Osip Mandelstam’s death in internal exile? He was last seen searching for food in a garbage dump near Vtoraya Rechka near Vladivostok:
for this they will reward you with what they have at hand
Whether Herbert was referencing Mandelstam’s fate is unclear. It is clear that the conclusions of this melancholy envoy are anodyne for a poet who wrote under the dangers of a totalitarian state and survived. Mandelstam and many others failed. In “The Envoy” Valles does capture the taut contradictions of living under oppression, while refusing the easy decision to betray others.
Anne Carson has said, “Translating . . . must line itself with the solid body of the original text and at the same time with the shadow of the text where it falls across another language” (New York Review of Books, June 14, 2007). This is an apt analogy. With the political struggles now afoot in Poland, the chiaroscuro of Herbert’s poetry falls heavily across the recovering body politic of that country. The Valles translation casts long and unfortunately sometimes indistinct shadows in English, shadows that hopefully lead in the direction of the next complete translation. In the translations of Herbert by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, John and Bogdana Carpenter, or even Joseph Brodsky’s “Achilles. Penthesilea,” the reader responds to the bright light and dark shadows in the poet’s voice. Zbigniew Herbert’s voice occasionally surfaces in the Valles. Of course, the nature of the author’s voice in translation is one of the most shadowy questions of all. Where others have succeeded, she has often failed to capture the resonances of his voice at its best-as he plays with its guarded, wry, gentle, self-deprecating, ironic, and wisely layered foundations. These foundations lie at the core of his voice, although he can be bitter, angry, and unreasonable-be thankful you are not the target in Rovigo.
There are a number of minor cavils and hard questions about the provenance of this argument-provoking book. Why does the publisher’s page state “Translation Copyright © Alissa Valles,” and not list a translation copyright for the seventy-nine poems translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott reprinted here? I have been informed that neither the Miłosz estate nor Scott was contacted for copyright permission to use their translations in this controversial collection. Would it have been too much effort to provide appropriate credit to Miłosz, the Nobel laureate whose poetry was memorized and recited to provide hope in Soviet-occupied Poland?
Why are the Miłosz and Scott translations not credited on the pages where they occur? Readers should not have to search the index for the little (M/S) credit each time they discover a translation that seems to be exceptional. When Adam Zagajewski’s five-page introduction is featured on the dust jacket, why was the inclusion of more than eighty pages of Miłosz and Scott translations not credited here where one would expect to find it? There are thornier questions about the agent, publisher, and translator of this book that will not be raised here. Michael Hofmann has posed these questions in a somewhat roundabout way in his review in Poetry.
Answers to some of these questions might help us to appreciate what this edition of The Collected Poems has to offer, at least until it is superseded by another translation. We must be careful how and where we place our feet when we step onto the shoulders of those who have come before us. Zbigniew Herbert knew, as deeply as any twentieth-century writer, that we have to live with what we have done. This is not one of those ironic statements that sometimes pass for informed discourse, so unlike the terrible ironies of oppression that Herbert knew in his bones. Yet there may be an irony in this book that perhaps only Herbert could fully appreciate and roundly condemn in a moment of calm, were he still with us-did his collected poems survive state oppression only to appear in English in a version that prompts a multitude of nagging questions?
Michael Kaufman, the former Warsaw bureau chief for The New York Times, succinctly summarized what is at the core of the answers to some of the above questions. In 1986 he reviewed Herbert’s polemic, “Spitting Everything Out,” published in Independent Culture. It contained accusations Herbert returned to in an interview in The Sarmatian Review a decade later (Vol. 15, No. 2). Kaufman’s opening sentence remains emphatic and prescient for anyone who approaches the clarity in the shadows of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century: “THE subject, as always, is collaboration.”
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