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"Poetry is what gets lost in translation." Robert Frost

The new collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, Here (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), was translated by Claire Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak. More and more often, a poet is translated by another poet (some translators-poets were Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney, both translators of Polish poetry)  The poet in the Cavanagh-Barańczak duo is Professor Stanisław Barańczak, while Professor Claire Cavanagh is a specialist in modern Polish, Russian and Anglo-American poetry.

Wislawa Szymborska became a well known name in literary circles after she was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. The award was given "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."

She writes about humans’ place in time and history. She notices -- again and again -- the fragile and accidental nature of our lives. A slightly different course of events and a person might have never been born; somebody else would take his or her place in a school class picture. (Absence)

Wisława Szymborska is, first of all, an observer. With almost mathematical accuracy she points out the cruel arithmetic of divorce:

For the cat a new master

For the dog a new mistress


The subjects' new status as divorcees is reflected in punctuation rules regarding names:

are they still linked with the conjunction "and"

or does a period divide them.

This inquisitive, observant approach is evident in many poems from Here. Eventually, counting becomes almost an obsession:

I can’t speak for elsewhere

but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.

Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,

scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,

teacups, dams, and quips.


And, a few pages later in another poem, the repetitiveness returns:

Montezuma, Confucius, Nebuchadnezzar

their nannies, their laundresses, and Semiramida

who speaks only English.

(Thoughts that visit me on busy street)

Wisława Szymborska portrays a measured world, a place where the unknown is often attempted to be explained by quantity of things and feelings. She returns fondly to her youth and to the past; seeing herself in a young girl (Teenager) or toying with the idea of traveling by coach with a famous, classical Polish poet (In a Mail Coach.) Her poetic images are universal, and for that reason her poems might seem easy to translate. However, it appears the opposite is true; because their language is so simple, they are very difficult. Poetry needs to be effortlessly transformed in English, not by simple words but by something difficult to grasp, by the poem’s mood. Baranczak and Cavanagh have interpreted the poems more freely than has been done in the past by another translator of Szymborska, Joanna Trzeciak.

A good example of this is demonstrated in the translators’ choice of words in An Interview with Atropos. The poem ends with "Au revoir" while in the original, Polish version Atropos says, "Do widzenia" – "See you later". I think the original version’s end hints at the inevitable meeting with a thread of life cutting Moira. By choosing a French greeting the translators showed Atropos as being snooty and aloof – and it gave a poem a modern punch line.

The poetess’s voice in Here comes through in a tender, slightly melancholic and detached way. It is a very good collection, with a beautiful layout of Polish and English versions side by side, and with an interesting cover.

Hanna Gil