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Invoking Zbigniew Herbert: Translation & Literature in the Age of Post-Truth
Zbigniew Herbert, Creative Work House of Polish Writers' Union, 1972, photo: Erazm Ciołek / Forum
Zbigniew Herbert, Creative Work House of Polish Writers' Union, 1972, photo: Erazm Ciołek / Forum

In this overwhelming super-fast Age of Information, poetry can help us read between the lines of our overloaded lives. But how can we tell which poets to go for? Is the artist who wins the most awards always the best? Choosing what to read, especially in translation, has never been easier in terms of access and tougher in terms of selection – as we become less and less sure of what is good and true, in print and online, Marek Kazmierski helps us translate our way through the mystery.

Zbigniew Herbert needs little introduction. Along with Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, he is one third of the sacred trinity of 20th-century Polish verse. Although he never received the Nobel Prize, he continues to be cherished by the Polish literary community, which likes to argue he was actually the most deserving of such epic accolades. While Miłosz appears to be more respected for his legendary essays than his verse, and Szymborska loved for her approachable persona as much as her talent, Herbert seems the complete artist – his poems as potent as his plays, and his plays as relevant as his essays.

Breyten Breytenbach, 1985, photo: Forum
Breyten Breytenbach, 1985, photo: Forum

This March, Breyten Breytenbach (a South African poet, author and painter) was declared winner of the 2017 Herbert Prize. Such awards do much to celebrate the work of poets and promote their art, and yet – as we saw with this year's Oscars ceremony – the process of handing them out is never a straight-forward task. For every person or book or film which walks off with a statuette and (mostly in the case of literature) a handsome cheque, there are many more others who are left ‘smiling’ in the face of defeat. Plus, complaints are now emerging that the wrong winner being read out in LA this year was not accidental but a conspiracy designed to lessen the success of the winning movie. It seems that in our age of instant online reporting, news travels at the speed of light, while gossip even faster.

Unlike awards for sales or sporting performances, where who is biggest or best is an easily measurable matter, judging artistic merit is vastly more complex. Many in the community say it is not the winning but the taking part which actually counts, as simply being nominated for a major prize can transform the career of an artist. Still, it is often those who fail to win or even refuse their awards who end up benefiting the most in terms of lasting fame. In 1973, a First American actress and activist refused Marlon Brando's Oscar in front of millions of viewers, due to Brando's protests about the stereotyping of native people in arts and media. More recently, Kylie Minogue was chosen to read out Nick Cave's Infamous 1996 MTV Award rejection letter, which stated plainly ‘my muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race.’

Is all publicity still good publicity in the age of ‘post-truth’? 

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez during the civil rights 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom', 28th August 1963
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez during the civil rights 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom', 28th August 1963

There are other examples of writers refusing or giving back their awards (including Jean Paul Sartre rejecting the Nobel Prize for Literature), but, compared to music or film, the literary community is relatively covert and so such gestures tend to do more harm than good. There are many who bemoan Bob Dylan winning the Nobel last year, while others still claim Zbigniew Herbert should have won his long ago. Is the controversy which often surrounds literary prizes healthy for the ‘industry’, or do storms in tea cups always do more harm than good?

One thing seems clear – as we enter an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, the complex and often obtuse works of poets such as William Blake, Bob Dylan and of course Zbigniew Herbert are more essential to us than they have been for a long time. As we are flooded with tsunamis of information, with endless tweets, texts and notifications, with three-minute Youtube programmes and three-second GIF transmissions, the ability to listen long and hard, to tell fine from false, to read and read critically, has become essential to our sanity and survival.

The Herbert Prize shortlist remains a secret, and only one person is recognised, not for one poem or publication, but for a lifetime of achievement. Achievement which has not only artistic merit, but also helps the ‘development of world literature as manifested in the exchange of ideas, values, and contemporary experiences’. This seems like an intelligent way of approaching the problems inherent in most award ceremonials. Poetry is about the power of creative thinking. The ability to express the most complex ideas. Maybe even emotions too taxing for logic, but not beyond the reach of abstract thinking (and what is poetry if not commonplace language twisted and often torn into all sorts of staggering shapes?). There have been attempts to apply mathematical formula to poetry, in order to divine what makes certain verses ‘work’ (as in this fascinating essay by Cal Solulu in Shanghai). And yet as much as we want and need to know that things have value, plain and simple, to know which choice is better than any other, such categories may simply not be applicable to the realm of creative effort. Not even when we apply the might of Artificial Intelligence.

Can man or machine decide which poem or translation is ‘best’?

Let's take the example of translations of poetry. And especially the translations of Zbigniew Herbert. Poets and translators often complain not just about lack of places where they can publish their efforts, but also the lack of critical reviews of their collections and anthologies. This is mostly a fair complaint. The mainstream press is almost never interested in poems, and specialist publications such as the New Yorker or London Review of Books tend to publish short, descriptive reviews of new publications, rather than any sort of insightful commentary or criticism.

Yet, in his review of Zbigniew Herbert's The Collected Poems (Ecco, HarperCollins, 2007) for the American Poetry Magazine (Poetry Foundation), Stefan Hofmann goes to great lengths not only to explain why he cares profoundly about Herbert's work, but also why he loves some of his translations and hates others. I truly admire Hofmann and agree with him that often poets are at the mercy of their translators, and bad translations of great poems, or ineffective publishing of great translations, can often destroy the legacy of a genius pen-smith and rob us as a species of essential art. One such local example of this is the Polish Roma poet Papusza, who was discovered, translated and championed by Jerzy Ficowski – if it were not for him, public awareness of her work would likely be non-existent today.

'Papusza' (Bronisława Wajs) with her Tarzan, from the collection of Jerzy Ficowski, photo: Muzeum Okręgowego w Tarnowie
'Papusza' (Bronisława Wajs) with her Tarzan, from the collection of Jerzy Ficowski, photo: Muzeum Okręgowego w Tarnowie

Yet, Hofmann also makes a strong case for translations to be both rare as well as excellent. He does not see choice as a good thing – considering the huge amount of poetry in the world, we simply don't have time to plough through numerous versions of each and every poem:

Numbers, variants, alternatives, while seeming to appease Choice — the great false god of our consumer age — actually only produce clutter, distraction, waste. Are two Rilkes better than one? Are seven better than two? I don't think so, not least when 'choice' in this context is bound to be such an uninformed, haphazard operation.

I disagree. As a translator and publisher of poetry, I find I must plough through 99 verses which leave me cold in order to find that one precious poem which rings ‘true’. This seems like an unacceptable ratio of effort to effectiveness, and yet that one rare find is worth the wait. Always. There are millions of people in the world writing verses, but only a few of them have the spark of timeless genius. I believe we should devote far more of our time to comparing and contrasting translations than we do today. As Google Translate becomes ever more advanced and effective, who decides which translation is best? A professor? A minister? An algorithm?

If you can't read between the lines, all news is fake news  

Zbigniew Herbert, Creative Work House of Polish Writers' Union,1972, photo: Erazm Ciołek / Forum
Zbigniew Herbert, Creative Work House of Polish Writers' Union,1972, photo: Erazm Ciołek / Forum

As Google's ever more dominant search engines begin to attract serious criticisms for the spread of ‘fake news’, we must learn to think both freely and wisely. Re-reading the existing translations of Herbert's poetry, I found things I liked and did not like in all of them. I do hope in the future there will be more books of Zbigniew Herbert's poems, in many languages, from many new translators, which will encourage us actually to read and compare and decide for ourselves.

In the poem I have chosen to translate anew for this article, Pan Cogito Myśli o Krwi (Mr. Cogito Contemplating Blood), the author clearly warns us of what happens when we fail to think critically about the things we know about our world. And in the shocking, and shockingly calm, last line, he makes no bones about the consequences of ignorant living – and of ignorant reading between the lines of history:


Mr. Cogito Contemplating Blood

By Zbigniew Herbert


Mr Cogito
reading a book
about the limits of learning
eons of intellectual progress
from the depths of fideism
to enlightened knowledge
came upon an episode
a cloud
which eclipsed Mr Cogito's
personal horizons

a small addition
to the bloated history
of fatal human error
for a very long time
it was widely considered
that human beings contain
a sizeable reservoir of blood
a rotund barrel
twenty odd litres
- a trifle

thus we can now grasp
effusive descriptions of battles

coral red fields
swift streams of gore
heavens which repeat
ruthless hecatombs

and also widespread
medical practices

the arteries
of the sick would be sliced open
their precious contents
frivolously drained
into tin bowls

not everyone survived
Descartes whispered in agony
Messieurs épargnez –

Zbigniew Herbert in his apartment, photo: Opale / East News
Zbigniew Herbert in his apartment, photo: Opale / East News


we now know precisely
that every human body
condemned and executioner
holds a mere
four or five litres
of what was once called the body's soul

a few bottles of burgundy
a jug
a quarter of what
a bucket would hold


Mr Cogito
naively wonders
why this discovery
did not cause an upheaval
in the sphere of human habit

did not at least encourage
some sensible frugality

we mustn't continue
carelessly squandering
across fields of battle
and places of execution

there really isn't all that much
less in fact than water oil
energy resources

and yet something else happened
disgraceful conclusions arrived at

instead of thriftiness

the precise measurement
emboldened nihilists
gave tyrants great vigour
now they know exactly
how frail is man
and how easy to bleed dry

four or five litres
grandeur without meaning

and so the triumph of science
did not bring spiritual enlightenment
or new rules of conduct
no moral norms

this is scant consolation
Mr Cogito thinks
the efforts of learned men
do not change the course of events

weighing no more
than a poet's sigh

while blood
runs on

breaching the limits of flesh
the borders of fantasy

– there may be a flood

Article by Marek Kazmierski, March 2017. Zbigniew Herbert’s Pan Cogito Myśli o Krwi translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski, and published with permission from the Herbert estate.

Language & Literature