Translating from Leśmianesque into English: An Interview about Polish Literature’s Mission Impossible
Bolesław Leśmian’s remarkable poetry may be a Polish favourite, but it’s been infuriating English-language translators for decades. Translation expert Marta Kaźmierczak talks to Culture.pl about why it's so hard to translate Leśmian into English and what constitutes a good Leśmian translation.
Mikołaj Gliński: Many Poles consider Bolesław Leśmian the greatest poet to have ever written in Polish. Yet he remains virtually unknown outside of the Polish language. How would you describe Leśmian to someone who has never heard of him?
Marta Kaźmierczak: When referring to Bolesław Leśmian in front of an international audience, I always have to introduce him. In such a situation, you have to stress that he is a multifaceted poet, not reducible to a few easy formulas. He is remembered as the author of elegantly sensuous love poems and folk-inspired but philosophical ballads. A great wordsmith, he browsed language for all its resources, for forgotten and regional words, and added his own coinages.
His innovations in language encompass unusual collocations and stretching grammatical government, and in general he transgresses the semantic rules of the Polish language in various ways. But all this is not pure embellishment or pure quaintness, but rather serves his philosophical exploration: his own ontology, metaphysics, epistemology. Leśmian explores the human condition, the essence of being, and the (im)possibility of transcendence. His inventiveness in regard to language allowed him to condense meaning in a special way.
In short, Leśmian re-invented the Polish language in order to describe inexistent and impossible worlds and to ask metaphysical questions. What he has to say is encapsulated in stanzas of perfect metrical form and of captivating melodiousness.
Is there any poet in English literature with whom one could compare Leśmian?
Of course critics occasionally make such parallels, but I am afraid they will always be false parallels. I would say that Leśmian is unique and his poetics is simply… Leśmianesque.
Leśmian debuted in 1912 - so his poetry has been read for more than a hundred years, a sufficient time for satisfactory translations to arrive, one would assume. But while Leśmian was translated into Slavonic languages, his position in English literature seems much weaker.
Despite the fact that Leśmian’s maternal great grandparents came from England and that his descendants now live in England, the reception in Anglophone countries has not gathered such a momentum as in the Slavonic countries. Symptomatically, Leśmian has been translated into English mostly by persons of Polish descent, with a few – recent – exceptions.
The first renditions appeared around 1960 – a handful of poems by the duo Jerzy Peterkiewicz and Singer Burns. Then there came a mention in Czesław Miłosz’s The History of Polish Literature, with a literal translation of one poem. The next step is the first English monograph on Leśmian, written by Rochelle Stone in 1976, importantly containing large fragments of his poems, but in the form of philological glosses. Only in the 1980s Sandra Celt, another academic interested in Leśmian, published a volume of translated poetry, and later prepared another one of prose. The turn of the century brought translations by Jan Langer, and a few years later Leśmian was anthologised by the American-based Polish scholar Michał Jacek Mikoś. The last decade saw translations by Marcel Weyland in Australia, two volumes translated by Marian-Polak Chlabicz from New York, and finally poems rendered by native speakers of English, Cathal McCabe and David Malcolm – single specimens appearing in literary press.
What would you describe as the main areas of difficulty when it comes to translating Leśmianesque poetics into a language like English?
As can be guessed from my initial description of Leśmian's poetics – first, his use of language, also in connection with a very important feature: the absolute naturalness of his idiom, despite all innovations. Secondly, the musical qualities of verse which he perfected, the rhymes and rhythm. Then, the philosophical content or subtext of his poems, and intertextual references: e.g. links with Slavonic mythology which are very specific to our region and may not cross cultural barriers easily.
The utmost problem, however, at least with some translations of Leśmian, is the danger of sliding into mediocrity despite the fact of translating an eminent poet. A more specific hazard is that of sliding into kitsch when translating Leśmian's ‘macabre love affairs’ (he often portrays the erotic encounters of humans with the supernatural). Also problematic could be the unconvincing stylistic choices, like using sophisticated, learned vocabulary where it is not consistent with the setting and content of a given poem (in particular, Latinate English words used for the sake of rhyme and rhythm do not sit in well in folk-stylised ballads).
Which of these areas or qualities of the Polish original are the first to disappear in the English Leśmian?
I would say that, regretfully, it concerns the sense of naturalness, as well as the overall impression of masterly poetry. One might suppose that neologisms would be the first to go but, no: many translators do prioritise them and try to do them justice. But neologisms on their own will not make a great poem.
How difficult for an English translator is the fact that Leśmian relies so heavily on flexible Slavic morphology and inflection?
The crux is not that he uses affixes for certain effects but how he uses them. Namely, Leśmian's word-building is absolutely systematic. He constructs networks of words. For example, in his oeuvre there are at least 27 nouns with the suffix –ość. This affix creates nouns of quality, so Leśmian’s spojrzystość, wieczorność, jeziorność represent, respectively, the qualities of being (like) a look (spojrzenie), being an evening (wieczór), being a lake (jezioro). Zjesieniałość, in turn, with the additional prefix z-, is an achieved state: 'having-become-like-autumn' (from jesień). Incidentally, Leśmian also gives new meanings to existing words, for instance to śnieżność, to remain in the same paradigm. In standard Polish, it means the colour of snow; the poet redefines it as the sum of snow’s qualities, or the quintessence of snow.
What does it mean for translation? Well, in the target language you should also try to build similar networks. In the macro-texts of the English translations made by different translators, there occurs at least one such paradigm. It is formed by adverbs and adjectives beginning with the formant a-, both normative and inventive. For instance, aslant, aflow, alight, afar, aglitter, ablaze (examples from Peterkiewicz and Singer, Celt, Polak-Chlabicz). Recently Benjamin Paloff subscribed to this word-formative strategy, suggesting orally atremble for the participial phrase drżąc ustnie. Actually, this feature of Leśmian’s translated poetics is perhaps even becoming clichéd. Certainly, it should be balanced by other groups of systematic coinages. For example, if you think of the negative prefix nie- and the privative prefix bez-, which are so important for Leśmian, the abundance of English negative prefixes (un-, ir-, il-, im-, non-) might seem an asset.
Stanisław Barańczak argued that Leśmian had gone furthest in making the most idiosyncratic use of the qualities of Polish, such as word formation, which are located in those areas of the language where the possibilities for English are incomparably smaller. Is English in any way prepared to deal with this?
Each language has its own powers and own kind of flexibility. With languages not very closely related this is obviously differently distributed. English, however, also has a great literary tradition of nonce words, epitomised by writers such as Carrol or Joyce. It seems advisable to resort to techniques productive in the given target language. In the case of English that would mean creating portmanteau words and relying on grammatical conversion more than on affixation.
Actually, it is the ease with which English creates new words and forms that can prove a local disadvantage. Consider Leśmian’s nominal phrase niepoprawny śniarz – ‘incorrigible dreamer’. Śniarz, a personal noun derived from the verb śnić (to dream), is not a standard word in Polish; it sounds like a name of a profession – compare: żeglarz (sailor), drukarz (printer), stolarz (carpenter), etc. Thus, Leśmian creates a paradox of being ‘incorrigible’ not in something that you do out of a habit, but professionally. Besides, in the context, dreaming is also associated with snow (śnieg). In English the result of combining ‘dream’ and -er is a perfectly ordinary word. There are other morphological means to name a person who completes an action (-er, -or, -ant, -ar; with -arian and -ist in a somewhat different function), but no such coinage would sound convincing vis-à-vis the already existing noun ‘dreamer’.
This proves that when translating Leśmian one cannot translate neologism-for-neologism or archaism-for-archaism but should be building a network similar to the one existing in his original poetry. In Sandra Celt's translation, śniarz is rendered as 'silly dreamer'; but then in a different poem ten, co kona (the one who dies) becomes ‘a dier’, which is obviously an unusual, fresh word (recorded in dictionaries, yet this only proves that the translator is behaving exactly like Leśmian: bringing back from oblivion neglected, antique or rare words).
What else can one do to recompense the inevitable losses?
You can compensate neologisms that do not lend themselves to translation or become normalised in the target language with novel phraseology. In the phrase oddali ciała swe na strwon, there is the lexical neologism strwon, 'the action of wasting something, the situation of something being wasted'. Rochelle Stone’s translation reads ‘they squandered their bodies’ – here it is the collocation that is highly unusual.
Leśmian also uses tautological structures. Jacek Trznadel suggests that by means of this device Leśmian expresses his views on the limitations of cognition: only an intuitive penetration of the essence of things is possible, and a thing defines itself best by itself alone. This is conveyed in structures like ‘the spectres are engaged in spectring’, ‘What does a sail do? – It sails’; ‘the spring [the season]? - It 'springs'’. As the awkwardness of such glosses proves, many of the tautologies will not lend themselves to translation into English (notably ‘to spring’). Still, this opens another field for compensation. To return to an already quoted example, in Celt's translation of Dziewczyna, ‘the dier’ dies. Although such a tautology is not directly motivated by the source text locally, it is motivated by the author’s global poetics.
Besides, as basis for his word-formation, Leśmian uses certain roots that sound most native and natural in Polish, but whose equivalents are Latinate and sophisticated words in English. Take byt, a quintessentially Slavonic word for ‘being’ or ‘existence’. It becomes the base for niebyt, a regular noun for ‘nonexistence,’ a Leśmian keyword, and simultaneously for bezbyt, his coinage. In English, the starting point for possible coinages would have to be ‘existence’, ‘being’, or ‘entity’. None of them is particularly poetic or good substance for further creation. What would you call bezbyt?: ‘without-existence’? It is hardly acceptable as a noun, and disastrously unsuited for poetry, for metrical reasons alone.
Having heard this, one might imagine Leśmian as a poet devoted to concocting some strange words and worlds. But I feel that it’s very important to stress that Leśmian feels very natural in Polish, and is immediately understandable to even not very well-versed readers. One knows immediately and perfectly well what he is talking about. Would you agree and how does this surface in translation?
The formulation ‘One knows immediately and perfectly well what he is talking about’ needs some qualifying. There is often a degree of indefiniteness; and it is not so that each neologism can easily be ‘solved’ into ‘what is meant in regular words’. A few ‘estranged’ words may interact in context and lend each other some of their semantic aura, thus allowing an overall meaning of a passage to emerge.
That said, yes, there is a great naturalness to how Leśmian refreshes the language. His innovations seem to emerge quite naturally from the texture of Polish and simply belong in Polish. Usually they are strongly motivated by the semantic context, even when appearing in rhyme positions.
The same is desirable in translations. All innovations, whether in vocabulary, collocations or syntax, should sound novel and ‘native’ at the same time. Yet this is something most difficult to attain in translation and Leśmian very often comes across as quaint and queer.
What are the main reasons for this?
One of the sources of the problem is overusing one technique, especially if it is not a technique best suited for or anchored in the given target language. Take excessive compounding: if a translator uses several hyphenated novel expressions within a single poem (as is Sandra Celt’s wont), this inevitably influences naturalness.
Still, there are also many convincing and apt renditions of particular neologisms or, as I have suggested, not necessarily renditions of specific Leśmian neologisms but parallel creations. When Leśmian says księżyc to wioska ogromniasta (in Srebroń), Celt's translation reads ‘The moon is a largescent village’ (English title Silvron). ‘Largescent’ is a successful coinage that replaces a colloquial rather than novel adjective, ogromniasty. It conveys the notion of largeness and echoes luminescent and other adjectives connected with light, resulting in a semantic aura perfect for describing the moon.
Translators always have to negotiate acceptability in the target culture. The more innovative the original text or poetics, the more difficult it becomes, but I don’t believe that Leśmian is doomed to sound outlandish: it’s a question of coining in accordance with the rules of the target language and of respecting the syntax and the limits of its ‘stretchability’.
So far we have been talking about Leśmian’s peculiar language. However, there’s evidence that Leśmian himself considered the musicality of the poem (what he referred to as 'rhythm') as more important than what is actually said in the poem, that is, its semantic content. How does a translator deal with that?
What I will say is postulative rather than empirical: by giving priority to rhythm in their translation. Secondly, by paying attention to the choice of words: you cannot achieve melodiousness with long and metrically unwieldy words. The third point is compensating the sound organisation applied by Leśmian with means that are typical of the target language: in English, that would be, in particular, alliteration.
Another problem are Leśmian's rhymes. He consistently used perfect rhymes – which, I assume, was already a rare occurrence in Polish poetry back in his day. How do English translators approach this issue, considering that English readers are accustomed to much more different rhyme patterns?
If you set out to recreate this feature, you should remember about three qualities: the consistency, homogeneity and fullness of his rhyming.
As for consistency, let me refer to the translations by Jan Langer, who uses rhymes occasionally, when they, so to speak, offer themselves. Yet insufficient reproduction of the formal qualities of the poem may be worse than a programmatic rejection of them. A reader approaching such a translation may form the impression they’re dealing with a third-rate poetaster, not even able to rhyme properly – and not with the consummate artist that Leśmian is. This danger is posed by leaving ‘loose’ unrhymed endings, as well as by the use of poor half-rhymes.
More often than not, translators do strive to recreate rhymes. But this is in fact what it is – striving, strenuous attempts. The translators tend to wring syntax to place the rhyming words at the end of the line. The effect is usually one of unnaturalness and affectation.
Another result are wrenched rhymes, ones which rely on transferred stresses, like ‘Lass – sadness’ or ‘chest – forest’. Either you have to shift the stress and wrench the words or the rhyme remains an eye-rhyme, which in the case of Leśmian is of little consequence.
To remedy such problems, the first option is to ‘loosen’ the scheme: if Leśmian’s rhyme pattern is A-B-A-B, the translators can lighten their task by reducing it to A-B-C-B, as long as a consistent pattern is observed and convincing rhymes offered. Of course, such concessions are not possible in a sonnet, but in a ballad – yes.
My other piece of advice would be: If you don't have a rhyme, coin it! This would be exactly what Leśmian himself did. You would have to remember though, that his rhyming coinages were usually motivated ones. Take a notorious case: Leśmian was censured for inventing the noun chłopal only to rhyme it with opal. However, the meaning of chłopal is transparent for an unprejudiced Polish recipient: the base, chłop (fellow / peasant), is strengthened by the formant -al which evokes association with the noun drągal (a hulk of a man). So the non-standard use of augmentative suffix does have semantic value. However, the English translators care more for rhymes than metre, which proves not to be a good strategy.
In light of what Leśmian thought about the essence of poetry (equating poetry with musicality), does it make sense to translate his poetry without rhymes, which I can see is sometimes practiced?
Giving up on rhyming is not rare among translators who transpose Polish (or, broadly speaking, Slavonic) poetry into English. To cite an example, Adam Czerniawski not only regularly subjects rhymes to reductions, but also in his theoretical articles overtly disapproves of ‘those formal limitations’ – ostensibly impediments even to original creation – and favours unrhymed renditions of poetry. Czerniawski appeals to the easiness of rhyming in Polish as to a sufficient reason for refraining from it in languages which do not easily offer harmonious line-endings, English included.
An argument against such reasoning, however, would be the very existence in English of a several-centuries-old tradition of rhyming poetry, within which poets succeeded in producing eminent verse. Regardless of the achievements of blank verse and the current domination of free verse, rhyme even now remains for many readers the defining feature of poetry.
Another argument to make is that the work of a given author should be considered in diachrony – both within the source and the target language and culture. If this postulate is accepted as binding, even the deployment of half-rhymes in English renditions of Leśmian would be viewed as unacceptable, because the poet was, as you suggest, conservative in this respect.
And what is your opinion on this issue?
I have to admit that my views evolved considerably. I began as a stark opponent of unrhymed translations of Leśmian; in the case of a poet like him, so strict in his attitude towards formal demands of a regular metric, stychic and rhymed verse, I believed that retaining the original qualities should be treated as a translation invariant.
Yet after seeing many strenuously rhymed and syntactically wrenched English versions I have come to the conclusion that masterly blank verse would be better than faltering rhymed lines.
Leśmian hardly addressed the issue of translation. Yet, at least once, when speaking of the musicality of poetry, he makes a point towards a peculiar theory of translation, one that goes for sound over sense, to put it shortly. Can you imagine a successful Leśmian translation like this? Are there examples of such an approach?
This is deceptive because such a strategy is oriented on the source recipient, not on the target recipient. Meanwhile, prosody of one language may be strikingly different from that of another. Various cultures attribute different associations to different metres and there are versification forms that have difficulty travelling across borders (e.g. alcaics).
Even translators who are inclined to translate equimetrically, that is, recreating the form very strictly, do allow for slight modifications: without changing the metre as such you may add one syllable to create a feminine rhyme, if masculine ones of the source texts are rare in the target language (as is the case in Polish). Conversely, when translating into English, one may give up feminine endings as less frequent and shorten the line (English being a more compact language). Many Russian translations from Leśmian are indeed equimetric – this is easier to achieve between these two languages. But even with them it is not the rule, nor is it a requirement.
On the one hand, equimetricity is not always necessary – you have to create a rhythm rather than the rhythm. On the other hand, equimetricity is not enough. If Leśmian, or any great poet, is translated by, as Peterkiewicz puts it, a well-meaning versifier, then the result is not good poetry.
In English, translators often try to create a rhythm, even to emulate the rhythm of the source text, but not necessarily to exactly reproduce it. Unless texts have unique metres, like Dziewczyna – 17-syllabic metre with constant caesura (8+9), or actually eight-foot hypercatalectic iambic – most translators in various languages apply effort to recreate it.
Leśmian is notorious for his use of Slavonic mythology, though in ethnographic terms, Slavonic mythology was rather only a departure point for him.
Yes, this is right. On the one hand, Leśmian refers to the Slavonic beliefs of various regions: of Eastern, Western, and Southern Slavs. On the other, some figures can be shared by more than one local tradition, like rusałka, the Slavonic nymph. Still, for the poet those references are not exercises in folklorism, but a vehicle for philosophical investigations and his own myth-making. This should be taken into account when translating.
How does an English translator go about this issue? Considering that Slavic mythology and folklore is virtually unknown to English readers (Even Poles don’t know much about it)
I believe that translators can rely on certain mythological universalities, present in the folklore of various countries. Secondly, they could be drawing (cautiously) on the immense set of local beliefs, and in the case of translations into English, that would be British folklore with its rich demonology.
If the name of a particular creature is not known in the target culture, you can compensate by foregrounding the attributes significant for the poem. Take Południca, this is, a kind of ‘Lady Midday’, a Slavonic female demon appearing at noon. If rendering her name proves difficult, a translator should focus on her paleness, as well as on when and where she materialises.
Representing mythology is also connected with the question of text selection. If a translator decides that references to Slavonic mythology will be too hermetic or unattractive for the target audience, there are texts where Leśmian refers to Germanic myths (eg. Gad, translated as ‘The Reptile’ / ‘Snake’). Ultimately, it is important that in a given selection of Leśmian’s poems in a foreign language, the fantastic – along with the erotic encounters with the supernatural – should be featured rather than censored.
This brings me to the question of how far one can go in attempting to translate or transfer a poem and a poet from one language into another. One of the translators of Leśmian, Krzysztof Bartnicki – acting likely on the premise that the translated poem should function much the same in the target language as it would function in the culture of the original – decided to transport Leśmian’s Slavonic mythology into a whole other mythical realm, that of the British Isles (precisely Scotland). This included a language which seeks to represent Leśmian in some variant of a Scotts-inflected dialect of English. What do you think of such a radical approach?
It is not possible to justly assess a strategy a priori, without seeing the results it yields. As for the creative treatment of mythological figures, I have just approved such an approach. But as for the language, this seems a risky strategy. As has been noted by translation theorists, dialects of one language do not have matches in other languages’ dialects. Actually, Leśmian does not use any regional variety of Polish, so why do that? Moreover, Polish has no strong division into recognisable dialects and the dialecticisms used by Leśmian, if identified as such at all, just give his texts a certain ‘rural’ air. Within English, however, the use of a specific accent will label the poet, his lyrical subject and his characters with specific regional and social markers.
I think that a recommended strategy would rather be to draw on various stylistic resources, as Leśmian himself does, but in the target language, and without associating him linguistically with any specific locality or milieu.
Are there any existing Leśmian translations that you feel do justice to Leśmian’s work in the Polish language? I read that one Polish literary critic considered Karl Dedecius’ German translation of one Leśmian poem as actually superior to the original, at least in some parts...
Dedecius actually kept altering his renditions, always in search of improvements. You are probably referring to Das Mädchen, his translation of Dziewczyna. It is metrically impeccable – it sounds exactly like the source text – and was admired by Polish critics. And yet, Dedecius noticed that it did not work well enough with the German audiences, which made him reconsider several of his choices. This is the ultimate lesson: translations should delight the foreign recipients.
As for the first part of your question, in English so far we have had handfuls of apt neologisms, scattered lines conveying the poetic beauty, and passages giving justice to the keenness of his philosophical insight. We are still waiting for renditions that would unite all these qualities and sustain them within the space of whole texts and volumes.
Interview conducted by Mikołaj Gliński, March 2017
Marta Kaźmierczak, PhD, Polish translation scholar specializing in English and Russian, assistant professor at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw. Author of Przekład w kręgu intertekstualności. Na materiale tłumaczeń poezji Bolesława Leśmiana [Translation in the Domain of Intertextuality: A survey based on Bolesław Leśmian’s poetry and its translations] (Warsaw, 2012) and papers on Leśmian, some of them available in English.