Hello Wislawa

Wislawa Szymborska is gone, she was gone before I even knew she was here. I only learned of her life and work through blog eulogies and obituaries, which says quite a bit about my literary awareness, as she was a Nobel  laureate and referred to by some as “the Mozart of Poetry”. She was Polish, and so for us non Polish speakers her works are only available in translation. I’ve wondered from time to time about how poetry translation “works”, and reading a couple of samples of Szymborska’s poetry has piqued my curiosity  again. Here is a very beautiful translation into English of a stanza from ” I’ve Been Working on the World” (Poems New and Collected; translated by S.Baranczak and C.Cavanagh):

“When it comes, you’ll be dreaming
that you don’t need to breathe;
that breathless silence is
the music of the dark
and it’s part of the rhythm
to vanish like a spark.”

I haven’t tried to find the text in the original Polish as I’m sure I wouldn’t know how to pronounce the words properly anyway, and this leads to the heart of my question. Much poetry, this translation certainly, relies on rhythm and sound for effect, and one wonders at the difficulty of matching both meaning and sound, concurrently, while translating poetry. For example, take the quoted verse and imagine translating it back into Polish.  It appears that we will immediately want to find a Polish word meaning “dream” that rhymes, at least in some way, with a Polish word meaning “breathe”. And next a Polish word meaning “dark” that rhymes with one meaning “spark”. If that doesn’t seem sufficiently difficult, consider that we might like to try to preserve the beautiful cadence of the English version. Certainly art is involved in the work of the translator, and it must be certain that a translator’s work is imbued with his or her own poetic inclinations. I have not researched whether Nobel prizes are awarded based strictly on native language readings, or whether there is a Nobel category for translators too. I did find this one quite cursory and fascinating page on poetry translation: http://www.bokorland.com/journal/30liter.htm

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