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Pamela Moberg

Wislawa Szymborska 1923-2012

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Wislawa Szymborska, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, has passed away at her home in Poland. Her poetry was easy to understand and she was much loved by the public. I have taken the liberty to translate one of her poems, apologizing for the poor quality, there cannot be much of the original left, as it was by the route of Polish-Swedish-English.

"Photograph from 11 September.

They have jumped from burning windows -

one person, two, some more

higher up, lower down.

The photograph has captured them in the middle of life

and keeps them right now

above ground in the direction of the earth.

They are yet each one whole with personal faces and well hidden blood.

There is enough time for hair to flutter and for keys and small coins

to fall from the pockets.

They are still in the sphere of the air

within reach of everything

which suddenly opened up.

Only two things I can do for them -

describe their escape

and not utter the last sentence".

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I first came across Szymborska's poetry during a visit to Poland about 10 years ago and have enjoyed the way she looks at life from odd and often very moving angles. One of my favorites is a poem that relates to tragic theater, possibly Cariolanus or The Spanish Traagedy, or some over-the-top revenge play or opera, or a group of such works seen over an entire season.

I guess it could equally well describe the experience of watching some of the classic 19th century story ballets -- though ballet usually has slightly fewer corpses.

Anyway, this poem is for lovers of curtain calls and theatrical illusion.

The translation is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, from a selection of poems 1957-93, View With a Grain of Sand..

THEATRE IMPRESSIONS

For me the tragedy's most important act is the sixth:

the raising of the dead from the stage's battlegrounds,

the straightening of wigs and fancy gowns,

removing knives from stricken breasts,

taking nooses from lifeless necks,

lining up among the living

to face the audience.

The bows, both solo and ensemble --

the pale hand on the wounded heart,

the curtseys of the hapless suicidee,

the bobbing of the chopped-off head.

The bows in pairs --

rage extends its arm to meekness,

the victim's eyes smile at the torturer,

the rebel indulgently walks beside the tyrant.

Eternity trampled by the golden slipper's toe.

Redeeming values swept aside with the swish of a wide-brimmed hat.

The unrepentant urge to start all over tomorrow.

Now enter, single file, the hosts who died early on,

in Acts 3 and 4, or between scenes.

The miraculous return of all those lost without a trace,

The thought that they've been waiting patiently offstage

without taking off their makeup

or their costumes

moves me more than all the tragedy's tirades.

But the curtain's fall is the most upllifting part,

the things you see before it hits the floor:

here one hand quickly reaches for a flower,

there another hand picks up a fallen sword.

Only then one last, unseen, hand

does its duty

and grabs me by the throat.

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Wislawa Szymborska, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, has passed away at her home in Poland. Her poetry was easy to understand and she was much loved by the public. I have taken the liberty to translate one of her poems, apologizing for the poor quality, there cannot be much of the original left, as it was by the route of Polish-Swedish-English.

"Photograph from 11 September.

They have jumped from burning windows -

one person, two, some more

higher up, lower down.

The photograph has captured them in the middle of life

and keeps them right now

above ground in the direction of the earth.

They are yet each one whole with personal faces and well hidden blood.

There is enough time for hair to flutter and for keys and small coins

to fall from the pockets.

They are still in the sphere of the air

within reach of everything

which suddenly opened up.

Only two things I can do for them -

describe their escape

and not utter the last sentence".

That's lovely, Pamela. Thank you for taking the trouble to provide us with a translation. Sorry to hear this news.

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Many thanks, bart, for that lovely poem!

I gather that at least one of the translators, judging by his name, is a Pole and knows Polish. In my opinion it is just impossible to translate, what I call "by proxy". That is a sad fact when it comes to Swedish and literature in some not so common language, it is usually translated via French or English. It is actually getting better here now, but going back not so many years, that is just what happened. Of course, it is always preferable to read an author in the original language.

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Pamela, there are so many difficulties in translating any poetry, I should think.

Sometime, a translation creates a poetry of its own. Your lines,

They are still in the sphere of the air

within reach of everything

which suddenly opened up.

Only two things I can do for them -

describe their escape

and not utter the last sentence".

may not be what Szysmborska actually wrote, but they are are haunting nonetheless. They have a rightness of their own. The voice definitely fits what I find in the translations collected in Selected Poems.

P.S.: It's interesting to try to imagine two translations from any Polish- or Swedish-language poem -- one translated via French, the other via English. How very different these two versions would probably be.

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I always associated Szymborska with Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and somewhat with Adam Zagajewski. Milosz in a New York Review or Books article gives some context (using Szymborska's own theater metaphor):

Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive.

... Her dimension is personal, of one person who reflects on the human condition. It is true that her reflection goes together with a remarkable reticence, as if the poet found herself on a stage with the decor for a preceding play, a play which changed the individual into nothing, an anonymous cipher, and in such circumstances to talk about oneself is not indicated.

Milosz in a 1965 Penguin anthology of post-war Polish poems:

Today Polish poetry is the result of a distillation of theme and conducted by successive vanguards. Great conciseness is often achieved, and very short poems contain intricate meanings. I must admit I am partial to a poetry that sometimes attains the calligraphic quality of an ideogram ...

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I wish I knew more about the poets mentioned in the NYRB article. I guess all of us who are alive find ourselves in a play "with the decor for a preceding play." This made me think of another poem, one dealing with death and the way it does not quite triumph over life:

ON DEATH, WITHOUT EXAGGERATION

It can't take a joke,

find a star, make a bridge.

It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,

building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow

it has the final word,

which is always beside the point.

It can't even get the things done

that are part of its trade:

dig a grave,

make a coffin,

clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,

it does the job awkwardly,

without system or skill,

As thoug each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,

but look at its countless defeats,

missed blows, and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn't strong enough

to swat a fly from the air.

Many are the caterpillars

that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,

tentacles, fins trancheae,

nuptial plumage, and witner fur

show that it has fallen behind

with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won't help

and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat

is so far not enough.

Hears beat inside eggs.

Babies' skeletons grow.

Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves

and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it's omnipotent

is himself living proof

that it's not.

There's no life

that couldn't be immortal

if only for a moment.

Death always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob

of the invisible door.

As far as you've come

can't be undone."

"There's no life

that couldn't be immortal

if only for a moment."

I guess that's one of the things that art achieves and why the arts mean so much to us.

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Pamela, I thought about this thread when I read the lovely obituary in the Feb. 11 issue of The Economist. Here's the conclusion:

Her humour was mischievous: the lavatory seat in her Cracow flat was made of barbed wire encased in clear plastic. Asked why she had published so little -- her entire canon was only some 400 poems -- she replied gently that she had a waste-paper basket.

Success left no dent in her reclusive modesty, and she would never claim that her external life was interesting. Imagine trying to make a film of a poet's "hopelessly unphotogenic" life, she said: "Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who ... could stand to watch this kind of thing?"

Who, indeed? But plenty read and love the results of her self-imposed solitude.

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I have just seen a program on Szymborska on TV. She was being followed on her travels (well, after the great prize, she could afford it). The team had followed her to Amsterdam and Paris and Ireland. She made the impression of being very funny, witty and gay, and I just thought - that is someone I would like as a close friend. Sometimes when you watch these kind of portraits you sit there and wish that the particular person will never darken your doorstep, ever. Unfortunately, it was a program from the Polish TV, so I am afraid there is hardly any chance it being showed widely. In spite of Sweden being so close to Poland, we seldom get TV programs from there, barring the odd nature program. Finnish TV, another neighbour, is very good at cultural subjects and we get to see quite a lot of those, even ballet programs for which one is eternally grateful.

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