In the past 300 years, Poland has produced some of the world's most fascinating works of children's literature. Here, using new translations of verses by Jan Brzechwa, Aleksander Fredro and Julian Tuwim, Marek Kazmierski shows how they can help us not just restore happy moments from our own childhoods, but teach a new generation of readers creative thinking, conflict resolution or even basic maths and physics skills.
Whenever I'm asked to give talks about literary translations at universities, schools or libraries, I always begin with a simple 'ice-breaker' question – if, on average, €10 today buys us a couple of drinks, a cinema ticket or a paperback, what is the wisest way of spending our disposable income?
The aim of the exercise is, of course, to make us contemplate just how amazing books are, both as objects and as products – we can spend hours in any bookshop, browsing and perusing their wares for free (try that in your local bar or multiplex)... we can enjoy reading books for days, even weeks on end... we can share them with others, passing them on as gifts, or giving them to charity, or reselling them... or else we can keep books forever, going back to our favourite volumes any time we like... we can join reading clubs, in real life or online, and use them to make new friends, discover new places... the list of benefits seemingly endless.
And yet, even in 'developed' countries, we keep spending more on fleeting follies than we do on literature. What impact does this have on our children, and their ability to choose? How can reading classic poems help a new generation of youngsters navigate a future characterised by an ever accelerating pace of change?
I believe there are two reasons why Poland has produced so much great literature, much of it for children. If a key purpose of poetry is to keep our spirits up during hard times, then Poland, with its uniquely troubled past, will have had much need for such uplifting entertainment. And if another purpose is to convey useful information, be it life lessons, historical content or even creative thinking skills, then again – after centuries of divisions, invasions and occupations – we can see how much the children of Poland have had to learn about coping under pressure. Keeping all that in mind, here are three of Poland's most beloved poems, not just in brand new translations, but with added comments which should help us both be amused and enlightened.
Wacky Ducky – a lesson in creative thinking
The first poem I would like us to look at, Kaczka Dziwaczka by Jan Brzechwa, is short, sweet and deceptively silly.
Near a river, if you're lucky,
You might meet Ms Wacky Ducky.
Being wacky was her passion,
in her life, her moods, her fashions.
At a barber's, she'd say:
'Please, can I have some bottled cheese?'
At a church another time
she tried to buy a book of limes.
At a local army camp
she asked them for a magic lamp.
Other ducks were going spare:
'Wacky Ducky, don't you dare!'
She would lay hardboiled eggs,
standing on her head, not legs.
And to spite the other ducks
she refused to ever quack.
Her use of toothpicks for combs
made the other duckies groan.
She ate some ribbon for tea
Claiming it's pasta, you see!
Swallowing coins wrapped in paper
She said she would cough them back later!
Still, our Wacky little Ducky
Always seemed to come out lucky.
One sad day, a nasty crook
said: 'Your goose is truly cooked!'
Having plucked our little duck,
he stuck her on an oven rack!
But dear Wacky wouldn't have it –
she just turned into a rabbit!
Served with beetroot, because
That's how wacky she was!
At first glance, the poem follows no logical pattern. It seems like just a random selection of rhyming words thrown together, topped with a truly absurdist ending. Yet, somehow the poem continues to be very popular with readers, even today. I don't think this is by accident – it seems the author actually asks us to question the idea of ‘herd mentality’: sure, our Wacky Ducky is being silly, but is she doing any harm? Perhaps less so than the other ducks, which seem so awfully keen on forcing her to behave like all everyone else.
Brzechwa's poem encourages us to question social norms and find our own path in life – as more and more career advice experts predict that creative skills will be more useful than practical qualifications in finding future jobs, is Wacky's example not more relevant than ever?
Paul and Gall – conflict resolution in an age of turmoil
One useful thing I learnt when translating Aleksander Fredro's Paweł i Gaweł is that the latter forename comes from 'Gaul' or 'someone of Gaelic origin', but is actually spelt 'Gall' in English. Which is fantastic, because when we say someone had the 'gall' to do something it means they were rude or crazy enough to act in a way unacceptable to others – conduct typical of the character in Fredro's timeless poem:
PAUL AND GALL
Paul and Gall shared a single home:
Paul lived upstairs and Gall down below;
Paul, a quiet fellow, never bothered a soul.
Gall, his sole neighbour, he was crazy though.
Just stayed in his room with a gun, for real,
running, trying to hunt for his next mad meal,
seeing foxes, rabbits, he would hunt to kill,
jumping up and down, never keeping still.
Paul had to say something, in spite of the riot,
They were neighbours, right? Gall could not deny it.
'Sir, your hunting ways, can they be more quiet,
else might I suggest a less ambitious diet?'
But Gall screamed: 'I will not be hassled!
I do as I please. My home is my castle!'
What was there to say? Paul went back upstairs,
going crazy now, pulling out his hair.
Gall is sound asleep, he just doesn't care,
yet, when he next wakes, trouble's in the air.
Not just trouble – rain! Dripping from the ceiling,
Gall races upstairs, by Paul's keyhole kneeling
sees a flooded flat, Paul perched on a shelf
with a fishing rod, smiling to himself.
So when Gall then cries: 'Are you mad, by god?!'
Paul replies: 'No sir, I'm fishing for cod.'
'Cod? Have you gone crazy? Stop this now, you rascal!'
To which Paul retorts: 'My home is my castle!'
And so we learn something oh-so true:
As you do by others, they will do by you!
On a micro level, this poem can be read as a lesson in neighbourly politics. If Gall is hyperactive and totally self-absorbed, is Paul's response not indicative of passive-aggressive personality type? Could we use this poem to help us teach kids the consequence of 'breakdowns of communication'? It might be a great idea for parents to sit with their little ones and maybe write another stanza to add to the poem – one in which we see the consequences of this conflict (ceiling collapses – no one has a 'castle' to live in – lose-lose situation) – or even rewriting the poem to show what could happen if Paul was a bit more assertive and actually talked to Gall before flooding their home.
In an age where we are doing more thinking about how local actions have global consequences – how we shop, if we recycle, where we invest our money or go on holiday – as individuals, as families, as communities – perhaps the story of these two unfortunate neighbours also works on a macro level, relevant to nations, as well as neighbours?
Locomotive – the ultimate adventure?
Last but far from least we come to Julian Tuwim's epic Lokomotywa – probably the best-known children's poem Poland has ever produced. It has been recorded endless times, converted into an app in both Polish and English, and even made into an illustrated book without any words at all by the London-based Centrala publishing house. But as you read this brand new translation and do what most Polish readers do – check to see if the train noises Tuwim captures so flawlessly in Polish also work in English – be mindful of other, less obvious things to be discovered while rereading it in a new language:
A locomotive stands at the station,
Huge, heavy, huffing with perspiration,
An oily sensation!
It stands there, puffing, roaring and glowing,
Heat from its fiery belly blowing:
Whoosh – how hot?!
Shush – a lot!
Gosh – how hot?!
Like a steaming pot!
Boiling and toiling, it's ready to roll,
yet the train driver keeps shovelling coal
adding more wagons on wheels of steel,
heavy and huge, the train still until
our first wagon is packed full of crowds,
the second horses and herds of cows.
In the third wagon some chubby boys
stuffing themselves full of saveloys.
The fourth wagon is filled with bananas,
while the fifth holds six grand pianos.
On the sixth wagon I see a huge cannon –
I hope it doesn't flatten our wagon!
The seventh lugging oak tables and chairs,
the eighth quite a zoo, with giraffes and a bear.
In the ninth wagon a pen full of pigs,
and in the tenth trunks, cases and things.
How many wagons? Forty in all,
I've no idea what they all hold!
And if a thousand strong men ate
a thousand steaks, clearing their plates,
and each one huffed and puffed as one,
they couldn't lift it – it's too many tons!
The whistle blows!
Ready to go?
The chimney smokes!
But why so slow?
like a snail
or a tortoise
It tugs at the wagons and pulls them, real slow,
The wheels barely turning, refusing to go,
but it keeps pulling and picking up speed
and knocking and rocking and rolling indeed.
But where to? Oh, where to? Where shall we go?
Up over bridges, rivers running below,
through towns and tunnels, forests and fields
straight down the rails, a racket until
we drum out a rhythm, a beat and a rhyme
and rushing and straining to get there on time.
Lightly and sprightly floating on wheels,
as if it's a ball, not tonnes of pure steel!
Instead of machine, tired from toil,
the tiniest of trifles, a toy of tin foil.
But where is it from, and where does it go?
What is it, how is it, what's pushing it so?
Making it hurry and chatter and flow?
Steam, under pressure, is making it blow
hot air from the boiler, to pistons then shove.
Those pistons then pushing the wheels from above
and chasing and racing and shoving the train,
the steam under pressure still cannot remain,
and so it keeps rocking all the night through:
choo choo... choo choo... choo choo... choo choo choo!!!
There are numerous problems inherent in translating this fabulous verse. First of all, Poles tend to know it off by heart and don't necessarily 'feel it' in another tongue. Polish is also more flexible in how one can modify words, and so lends itself better to all sorts of experiments and word/sound games. The times we live in are different too – should the title be Locomotive or perhaps The Tank Engine or maybe even Choo Choo Train? Maybe it is best for readers to decide what their kids prefer or identify with – using digital technologies, we can shape texts as we see fit, printing them at home or displaying them on mobile devices, modified according to personal taste.
What is singularly remarkable about the poem, in an objective sense, is how much it offers the reader. There is a basic lesson in counting ('In the first wagon...'). Then there are all the names of things the wagon contains, animals and objects which may be new to young children, along with lesser-known words such as 'lugs' and 'pen' (of the farming sort). And then there is the story of the journey itself, imbuing young audiences with a passion for travel and adventure. Finally, even a lesson in how steam engines work! I have chosen to soften the onomatopoeic ending, compared to the original (‘tak to to, tak to to, tak to to...'), seeing as kids are often ready for sleep at the end of such a lengthy poem. Still, even though no translation can ever be perfectly true to the original, we can see just how much learning and linguistic folly our genius Tuwim was able to cram into his masterpiece.
The last 20-odd years of Polish history have been blissfully, and uncharacteristically, mostly free of great turmoil. Still, it is wonderful to think that in the 21st century we can not only revisit the poems of our childhood but also sit still with our own siblings, children and grandchildren and discuss what they actually mean to us. It is healthy fun to read verses together, delighting in their sounds and strange characters, even more so when we can play with them in other languages, wondering from the earliest age: 'Is that what the author meant to say? Can I understand each tale in a range of ways? Can I try to translate them differently?' and then use them as a springboard for crafting new songs, illustrations or even happier poems.
Written and translated by Marek Kaźmierski, July 2017