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April 2005

Volume XXV, No. 2

Cyprian Norwid’s obscurities

I read with great interest Kevin Christianson’s review of my Norwid translations, especially his close analysis of the “Siła ich” epigram (SR XXV/1, January 2005). My comment on his analysis is to say that the historical context of this poem, on which the reviewer places such emphasis, is of secondary importance. It is because the epigram applies to twenty-first century police forces, as it did to the nineteenth-century forces, that makes it worth translating. Good poetry transcends its time.

I was amused by Christianson’s insistence that as translator I care more for rhymes than for other features of the poems. I have on a number of occasions upbraided translators of Polish poetry precisely for adhering to rhyming schemes at the expense of other formal qualities. On this and related topics I commend to him my essay “Translation of poetry: theory and practice,” Modern Poetry in Translation, no.15(1999). I do retain rhyme, or at best assonance, only where this does not interfere with other qualities. For this reason I have abandoned rhymes altogether in, for example,“Rzeczywistość,” “Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod,” “Zródło,” “Fatum,” and all long poems. His failure to notice this effectively invalidates the main contention of his review.

Ultimately, every translation is a compromise, and I am not afraid to say so. Some compromises are better than others. Christianson’s preferred compromises would, as he himself admits, result in “prosaic translations.”

Christianson comments: “Although Czerniawski’s translations have been ‘severely tested’ in seminars at three Polish universities, certain difficulties I encountered indicate they might have benefited doubly from being tested on native English speakers at British or American universities.” I happened to conduct seminars on translating Norwid at Polish universities because I was invited to do so; no such invitations came from British or American universities.

Pace Christianson, in my preface I specifically mention the help I received from my wife who is a native English speaker, as well as from Agata Brajerska-Mazur and Bogdan Czaykowski. Brajerska-Mazur is the author not only of the article Christianson refers to but also of a full-length book O angielskich tłumaczeniach utworów Norwida (Lublin, 2002) devoted to all aspects of Norwid’s English translations. As regards Czaykowski, I pay tribute to “his poetic sensibility and his deep understanding of Norwid.” Brajerska-Mazur and Czaykowski may not be native English speakers, but I am prepared to claim that their command of the language exceeds that of some 90 percent of the native speakers in the United States and Great Britain. I have been fortunate in having the assistance of these three people, and I doubt whether I would have done any better with those English and American academics Christianson recommends. In any event, poets and poet-translators must be careful not to get too involved with academia. The mass of cloned poetry that now issues from the American and British translation-and-creative-writing courses is a major cultural disaster of our time.

Overall, the reviewer worries that “English-speaking readers may struggle to comprehend what Norwid is saying or talking about.” As it happens, Polish-speaking readers have so struggled for many years. When reviewing my 1986 Norwid selection, Bogdan Czaykowski complained that I had clarified the poet’s obscurities.

Adam Czerniawski, Monmouth, Wales, Great Britain

Professor Christianson replies:

Given the fact that a reviewer’s task is more thankless than a translator’s, I’m flattered that Adam Czerniawski has responded to my review of his translations of Norwid (SR, XXV, January 2005, 1099-1101). I regret that my review suggested that most of his translations contain overt rhyme schemes or, worse, that their accuracy has been compromised by adherence to rhyme schemes, however assonant the rhymes might be. On the other hand, a good third of Czerniawski’s translations make noticeable use of rhyme, including his “Obscurity,” “Nerves,” “My Country,” and “Feelings” (Czułość), and this compulsion to rhyme bears some responsibility for unnecessary liberties with the originals which undermine fidelity.

It came as a surprise to learn that my review had suggested that the translator’s wife and Polish colleagues possess an inadequate grasp of English. I also do not recall advocating that these translations be tested out on “British and American academics.” When Czerniawski refers to the seminars he conducted at Polish universities, I interpret that to mean that his translations were analyzed in conjunction with the Polish originals by Polish students majoring in English philology-not by a group of Polish professors and scholars, as the term “academics” implies.

Apparently Mr. Czerniawski shares my assumption that the audience for a book of translations is not, or at least should not be, a small group of academics and specialists but the general reader encountering the foreign poet for the first time. In reviewing Czerniawski’s book, I adopted this role and sought to imagine how undergraduate students, for example, enrolled in World Literature courses would “decode” the texts placed before them. After all, in the United States at least, students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two probably constitute the largest pool of consumers (albeit often unwilling ones!) of literature in translation. In my own work as a translator I find myself constantly stepping back and asking: “How might my students misinterpret this word, phrase, line, et cetera?”

With regard to Czerniawski’s distaste for translations that are prosaic, I wonder why up until a few decades ago Penguin Books published only prose translations of verse written in foreign languages. If notoriously obscure poets like Norwid and Emily Dickinson are indeed not untranslatable, perhaps prose translations combined with glosses and notes can provide a more direct and intimate reading experience for the general reader than versified renditions.

Accuracy about Katyn

Professor Raymond Gawronski’s excellent review of Lynne Olson’s and Stanley Cloud’s A Question of Honor (SR XXV/1, January 2005) contains one error. Concerning the massacre of Polish prisoners by the Soviet forces, Professor Gawronski writes that “the Soviets had killed some twenty thousand Polish officers at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere.” This is incorrect. As Lavrentii Beria’s letter to Stalin (dated March 1940) reveals, the people to be shot included 15,000 Polish uniformed personnel and 11,000 civilians. The latter included some Catholic priests and also my father, who had never served in the army.

The above document is quoted in Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of An Unwanted Witness (1994), 476. It is also mentioned in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Out of Control (1993), 13. The prevailing tendency to claim that Soviet mass murders of Poles in Spring 1940 included only military officers distorts history and is disappointing to the families of the thousands of civilian prisoners who had been imprisoned and executed together with the military.

Anna Dadlez, Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan

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