On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Zuzanna Ginczanka, a remarkable poet who wrote in Polish, Marek Kazmierski produces the first-ever book of her work in English and attempts to decode one of her best-known poems.
Zuzanna Ginczanka, born 100 years ago, was many things to many people – an orphan, a teenage girl in search of identity, a female artist struggling for acceptance in a male-dominated literary world, a sudden celebrity in the ’belle époque‘ of pre-World War II Warsaw, a visionary in search of a true voice, a refugee without nationality, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage... and, last yet far from least, one of the final victims of the Holocaust.
On nicknames & noms de plume
We are certain Zuzanna Ginczanka was born in March of 1917, yet what we know about her life becomes more and more faint with every year after that... we know a great deal about her childhood, some things about her early adulthood and so very little about her death. She remains almost completely unknown outside of Poland's literary circles, even though she was one of the most renowned Polish poets of her time.
The woman born Zuzanna Polina Gincburg published her work under many names: Sonny Girl, Zuzka Ginczburżanka, Zuzanna Ginczanka. But the places where she lived kept on changing names too. Born in Russia the year the Bolshevik revolution began to rewrite global history, Ginczanka and her parents had to escape westwards as the land of her birth became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Poland did not exist 100 years ago, having been partitioned by several neighbouring superpowers in the 18th century, but by the time Ginczanka's family moved to Równe (today's Rivne in Ukraine), the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, Poland had reappeared on world maps and our young poet could choose to study and write in Polish.
Her charm and her wit earned her a number of nicknames: Sana, Gina, Star of Zion, Sulamite, Jewish Gazelle, Rose of Sharon... but many of these superficially complimentary labels hint at the tragic fate we now know awaits her.
On Sana & her dark stars
For 123 years, between the 18th and 20th centuries, Poland did not exist, having been partitioned and swamped by other empires. In this sense, Ginczanka and Poland were born at exactly the same time, but even though she changed her name and became one of its most renowned literary voices, Ginczanka was never assigned Polish citizenship. Her whole life was that of a stateless 'global exile' – the only travel document she ever had was a Nansen passport, issued to those without official nationality.
In 1939, after the Nazis invaded from the west and the Soviets from the east, Poland once again vanished from world maps, becoming German-occupied 'General Government'. Ginczanka escaped back east, to Rivne and then Lviv, where she was betrayed – an experience described in her most famous poem Non Omnis Moriar (Not All Of Me Will Die). The landlady of the house she was hiding in, Ms Chominowa, informed on her to the Gestapo and Ginczanka was captured. Somehow, she managed to get away and go into hiding again, this time in Krakow, where two years later her luck would run out. Ginczanka was once more arrested by the Gestapo and executed, not long before the Soviet armies swept in and drove the Nazi occupiers out of Poland.
On the relevance of old wars to today
A century on from her birth, 73 years from the date of her tragic death, she still has no grave, no public archive, while books of her poetry are next to impossible to find. They keep on being published, sell out, then vanish again, like comets which pass us by from time to time, trapped in invisible orbits.
So, why have so few of us heard about Ginczanka? Does she deserve a place among the greats of world literature? Or was she little more than a fleeting celebrity, one of the first to join Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse in the 'Forever 27 Club'?
As a translator, it is not up to me to pontificate on the merits of her talent, nor on why she has been denied a prominent place in the pantheon of 20th-century Polish poetry. My job is to share with the world, as best as I can, the immensely diverse range of verse she produced in a remarkably short period of time – as well as to explain some of the complex choices a translator is forced to make. In less than a decade, between the ages of 14 and 21, she wrote and published numerous poems, ranging from the romantic, humorous, seductive, religious and political, all the way through to visionary pieces that remind me of the best of William Blake and her namesake Allen Ginsberg. For this feature, I have chosen to present my translation of one of her last poems Maj 1939:
Love or War
At times, hope in me rises,
at others, I fear what's in store.
Life is too full of surprises –
what's coming: be it love or war?
Some signs proclaim it is war:
comets, oracles, talks.
Others claim it is love:
the heart and feverish thoughts.
A comet flashes above,
headlines also do roar:
This spring will spring forth love!
Not love. Instead, it springs war!
This spring will certainly call for
much effort from the dove.
Spring, oh it springs forth war!
Not war. Instead, it springs love!
I while away troubled hours
reading the news on the trot,
plucking the petals from flowers:
He loves me... He loves me not...
Portentous, pregnant spring,
so different to others I've known,
Whatever the future brings
I accept and do not bemoan.
Come summer, I will finally see
which way my future extends –
both love and war, for me,
lead to absolute ends.
Longing draws from on high,
the radio delivers dread:
When I go, will I fly high
or down the low road instead?
For anyone not familiar with the original, it is easy to find – as long as you google the original title Maj 1939. Why have I chosen to change it in the translation? The writers I work with are all human, and my task as a translator is not to treat them and their works like holy cows, but to be their best friend and most ruthless reader - and if it means pointing out where I think we could do better, that is part of my job. My main focus is always on the audience – and if something needs changing to elicit the right sort of emotional response, then that is what I feel I must do.
In the case of this poem, I think maybe it wasn't Ginczanka herself who chose the title prior to publishing, but clearly, the words May 1939 are both bland and blank. They do not draw us in, nor tell us anything about the poem's relevance to today. Hence, my decision to rewrite the title to make it more representative of the poem's universal themes and also to make more... well, poetic.
The opening stanza, like the first line of any novel or book, is essential for grabbing and holding the reader's attention: At times, hope in me rises,/ at others, I fear what's in store. / Life is too full of surprises – what's coming: be it love or war? I always slave over this bit the most... that is, until I get to the end. But before we skip that far, there is the question of sound. Most translations of rhymed Polish poems leave this feature out. Some critics say that it is because modern readers find rhymes childish, but I actually think it is out of laziness. Poems in translation often not only lose this dramatic device, but the rhythm of the lines are all over the place (just google the numerous translations of Non Omnis Moriar available online). I have translated over a hundred Polish poets, and while not all rhyme, ALL are very particular about the ‘music‘ of their craft. Hence, if you read the original Ginczanka and my translation, all the stresses and cadences of the poem are closely replicated.
In order to achieve this, however, I am often forced to change some words. The truth is, poets often 'cheat' in order to get lines of verse to rhyme. You can easily tell when semantically ill-fitting phrases are put together, just because they sound the same. This is important, but not as important as the essence of the poem, so sometimes I allow myself to focus on this instead of blindly translating 'word for word'.
A key aspect of this particular poem is how news reporting of the impending conflict clashes with the author's emotional desire for communion with others. I think this is something readers really connect with in the original, and so is a focus of my translation. Does news reporting today inform or cloud our judgement? Does it tell us what we need to hear, or does it try to make us more frightened, and therefore less loving, than we should be? Are refugees and fanatics the cause of terror around the world, or is it the corporations which produce an estimated 12,000,000,000 bullets every year – enough to kill all the human beings on our planet twice over?
And so, back to the end and that last line. We now know what World War II would do to Ginczanka – being dragged from her hiding place by her long, black hair by Gestapo torturers and shot following a horrific period of incarceration in KL Plaszow, after her husband and alleged lover were executed by hanging – is it possible to read this poem beyond the shadows of that knowledge?
Ginczanka's legacy: beat dreams & brand new translations
In an essay written for Tygodnik Powszechny, Polish poet and author Radosław Kobierski speculates on what might have happened if Ginczanka had managed to escape Poland before World War II started:
Let's imagine the following alternative history: it is the year 1936, Zuzanna Ginczanka is 19 year's old and has just published her debut volume of poetry in the elite Przeworski press. She leaves for her summer holidays in the family town of Rivne... There, she meets her mother Cecilia – now called Roth, rather than Gincburg, since she is now married to a Czech chemist and brewer... They depart, just as civil war breaks out in Spain... Cecilia takes her daughter to Biarritz, where Zuzanna boards a Danish ocean liner and sails to New York. She crosses the whole of the United States in order to meet up with her father in San Francisco. 10 years later, she meets Joan Vollmer, William S. Burroughs and other members of the local literary scene, becoming a member of the legendary Beat Generation...
Reviewing the wildly diverse range of poetry she wrote in so short a life, we can only speculate as to what Ginczanka might have written had she survived the war and met other great figures of the world's literary landscape, just like Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert and other great Polish poets of the post-WWII era. What we do know is that she leaves behind an immensely rich and diverse range of poems for one who died so young. Poems that still hold such heart-rending promise. You can find a book of her selected verse, in Polish and English, at www.ginczanka.org in a PDF file anyone can download and print, anytime and in any amounts they like, so the few poems that remain will not be lost again. Readers can also rewrite my translations, or omit them altogether by cutting and pasting, editing and deleting. Though the world, and books, have changed since Ginczanka's day, our love of writing and arguing about poems has not. For her, the world ended in war. For us, the future is yet unwritten.
Author: Marek Kaźmierski, Apr 2017