Fall 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. IV, No. 3


Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Essays   

Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka


A Note on Translating

When the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, my American friends started asking about the poet and her writings. As her books were not available, I set out to translate into English one of her poems for my friend Alice. I chose “The People on the Bridge.” I enjoyed sailing from one language to another, flowing through the seemingly peaceful poem, then almost shuddering at its ending. I had at least two ideas on how to translate the last sentence of the poem. So I gathered some friends who were native Polish speakers and asked for their takes on the ending; we ended up with four versions. Obviously, it was up to me to ponder all the possibilities and make a decision. I imagined being a director staging a play. I thought of all the different interpretations of Hamlet, of its different stagings that I have seen.
Soon, two different books of Szymborska translations were out, and Alice was excited to find “her” poem included in both. “Each translation is different from yours and from the other,” she mused. We set out to compare them. We looked for the best lines that according to us would create the best translation. (Years later I repeated this exercise with a class of high-school seniors who compared three different published translations of Szymborska’s "The Terrorist, He’s Watching." Also, the experience of comparing mine and others' English renditions of Szymborska's poem happened again, when a colleague needed that particular poem and found out it was not available in English. This time I obtained permission from Szymborska and sent my translation of "A Note” out into the world. In the meantime a translation by Barańczak and Cavanagh, who held exclusive translation rights to the poet's work, came out.) That is how I realized that, while there may never be a perfect translation, the translating process is exciting, demanding, and rewarding. I was hooked.
This adventure gave me the courage to translate poems written by the poet Lidia Kosk, who is also my mother. By then four books of hers had been published in Warsaw, Poland, where she resides. I started by choosing the poems that I thought would easily lend themselves to the English language. I have continued translating her poems; over the years, the English versions have appeared in various literary journals. Once we had made the decision to publish a bilingual book, the pace of translation accelerated. The book came out in 2003. The biggest challenge was its title; the Polish niedosyt is a word of multiple meanings, which after weeks of torture I decided to "change" to reshapings. The poet agreed to that change.
Translating the work of a poet who is available for consultation is a great advantage when questions arise, even small ones. For example, is it OK to change personal names so that they are easy to pronounce in the other language, or so that the sound fits the poem in a comparable way to the original? What if the name has a special meaning to the author? I posed such a question to Lucille Clifton while translating into Polish her poems "praise song" and "moonchild." I appreciated the opportunity to ask Linda Pastan whether the children in her poem "Ethics" were girls, as in the Polish the verb changes depending on the noun’s gender. I was also fortunate enough to be able to discuss with Josephine Jacobsen her poem "Last Will and Testament" for the Polish translation.
In the course of reading, thinking, and discussing the translations I have become more aware of linguistic and poetic traps, and the choices to be made, to be a literal or a liberal translator? I have discovered that some translators don’t know the language from which they translate. Apparently they get a rough translation from someone else or rely on a translation into another language they know; then, they exercise the poet’s magic to create a poem in English. Or they rely on some earlier translations into English to work out their own. The other extreme might be a word-for-word translation; what if a word has two or even more meanings? What if this creation in the new language has the same meaning but a different structure, rhythm, and sound? If it has lost its inherent magic?
Reading, thinking it over, sounding it out -- these are parts of the experience of transforming the poem from one language into another, be it from English to Polish, or from Polish to English, as has been my experience. Translating poetry is both a creative process and detective work of sorts. It’s listening with the mind, soul, and ears. It’s a learning experience. For example, a story comes to my mind that was told by poet Josephine Osherow in the anthology Planet On the Table. In Osherow’s freshman year in college, her Poetry professor told the students to read the assigned poems three times. “It was my homework, I guess, and I was doing it. The poem [as it happens, it was John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”] made no impression on me whatsoever. And then, suddenly, on the third reading, there it was…” When I translate a poem, I read it many times and always discover something new. There’s the structure, the rhythm, the key words, the special effects, the layers of meaning, the diction, and the mood created, and the words or phrases with double meanings that lack their counterparts in the other language. It struck a chord when I read that the Swedish translator of Szymborska’s work, Anders Bodegard, said that some of her poems he will not even attempt, as the play on words cannot be translated into his language. It happens that after I put the final touch on the translation I reread the poem and still ponder whether I got it, whether I got it in the other language.
I know of people who learn a language so that they can read their favorite poets in the original. The second-best option is to compare various renderings of the same poem by different translators to get a better feel for the possible nuances. The most famous poets have many translators and after a while it becomes possible to recognize the translator, just from a careful reading of the translation.
Following Szymborska's Nobel Prize, the fact that her poems were unavailable in translation in Baltimore bookstores -- and the insistence of my friend -- lured me into doing translations myself. I was hooked, hooked on the challenges and thrills of helping poems into life in another language. The greatest rewards for me personally were the bilingual readings where the poet read her original verses in Polish and I did their English counterparts. And to top it all, when the poet was my mother. And the audiences, many of them bilingual, were thrilled to discover that the same poem could be comparably poetic and powerful in another language. Translation is indispensable to putting different cultures and nations in conversation with one another, but at the same time it is its own artistic form.


© Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka



Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Essays   

Website Copyright © 2008 by Loch Raven Review.

Copyright Notice and Terms of Use: This website contains copyrighted materials, including, but not limited to, text, photographs, and graphics. You may not use, copy, publish, upload, download, post to a bulletin board. or otherwise transmit, distribute, or modify any contents of this website in any way, except that you may download one copy of such contents on any single computer for your own personal non-commercial use, provided you do not alter or remove any copyright, poet, author, or artist attribution, or any other proprietary notices.