Culture.pl explains why the greatest Polish poet is one whose poems you’re least likely to read. Is there a solution out there for lovers of world literature?
Poland’s position as a country of poets is firmly established and secure. Its Nobel Prize winners, like Szymborska or Miłosz, and other 20th century giants, including Herbert, Różewicz and Zagajewski, are part of a tradition that goes back centuries.
But perhaps the greatest of them all is the poet you’re least likely to have even heard of. One whose greatness most readers will never be able to actually acknowledge. The reason for this lies in the very heart of his poetry and poetic idiom, and touches on the issues of the very possibility of rendering a perfectly idiomatic work of art into an altogether different language (or at least certain languages).
Bolesław Leśmian – the hero of our story – may just be the ultimate proof of the utmost untranslatability of some of the best poetry out there.
Who is Leśmian's equivalent in English?
To imagine Leśmian in English, one would have to fancy a poet combining the myth-creating capacities of William Butler Yeats (and like him, be concerned with God's existence), Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid metaphysical fascination with death and the afterlife, an interest in local folklore and mythology (like Seamus Heaney) with the ardour of a poet ecstatically in love with nature, as well as display a knack for voluptuous erotic poetry. Combine all that with the linguistic inventiveness of Lewis Carroll or James Joyce (the latter as the author of Finnegans Wake rather than Ulysses).
And yet, unlike some of the above-mentioned writers, the work of that poet would hardly be considered difficult. In fact, for Poles, Leśmian remains a poet whose idiom is immediately, almost intuitively accessible, one that does not need commentaries or footnotes, and whose poems are deeply and universally moving. A poet beloved by Polish readers, and – if this phrase doesn’t sound too oxymoronic – even a popular poet.
So why is Leśmian so little known outside of the Polish language? And outside of Poland to just a small circle of academics and translators? Why is his historical reputation limited to an even smaller circle of fellow poets from the past (like Boris Pasternak or Abraham Sutzkever), who sensed the scope and magnitude of his genius, but nonetheless were unable to facilitate his path to more international glory?
A notary who wrote verse
Bolesław Leśmian was born in Warsaw in 1877. He spent most of his youth in Ukraine, where his father worked as a director in a railway department. He went on to study law at the University of Kiev and wrote his first verse in Russian, a language which, according to some scholars, exerted a crucial influence on the future style of his Polish verse.
His debut book of poetry, Sad Rozstajny (Orchard at the Crossroads) was published in 1912 just before WWI and passed largely unnoticed. During his lifetime, Leśmian published only three volumes of poetry and – despite becoming a member of Polish Academy of Literature in 1933 – remained a marginal figure of interwar literary life.
During most of this time, he would function as a minor public official – specifically, a notary – in provincial Polish towns. Married to Zofia Chylińska, Leśmian had two daughters (one of them, Wanda, later became the mother of Gillian Hills, a British actress famous for her performance in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up). Leśmian died in 1937 at the age of 60.
Leśmian’s poetry found little recognition during his lifetime. Due to its peculiar style, it was at best seen as a strange and mannered emanation of the Young Poland movement of the early 20th century - epigonic and outdated.
It was actually only much later, in the 1950s and 1960s, that Leśmian began to find his rightful place in the Polish modernist canon. Deemed now a major metaphysical poet (‘the Dante of non-being’), a great innovator of the Polish language, and even ‘the only artist who presents a universe of infinite dimensions, the world as seen by the mathematics of today’. Recognised as a unique phenomenon of the 20th century, Leśmian was now granted his lot of post-mortem literary fame, and yet his road to wider international recognition remained barred.
Leśmian: the translator’s nightmare
The ‘untranslatability’ of Bolesław Leśmian is somewhat commonplace in the writings of critics, reviewers and academics specialising in Leśmian. Czesław Miłosz considered him ‘almost untranslatable’. For Stanisław Barańczak, also a poet and one of the most ingenious translators of literature into Polish, Leśmian constituted a ‘translator’s nightmare’. He wrote:
If anyone ever looked for the ultimate and overwhelming proof for the untranslatability of poetry – or at least, the untranslatability of certain poets into certain languages – I would suggest, contre coeur, the case of Leśmian, particularly the Leśmian translated into English.
Barańczak saw Leśmian as the poet who had gone furthest in making ‘the most idiosyncratic use of the particular systemic features characteristic of Polish language’. These he would identify with word-formation, and locate in ‘those regions of language where the possibilities of English are incomparably more limited’.
Leśmian was indeed very fond of creating his own words. These neologisms, which scholars have subsequently termed leśmianisms, constitute perhaps the most peculiar feature of Leśmian’s poetic language.
In creating these words, Leśmian was employing the natural capacity of Slavic morphology. His use of various suffixes, prefixes, and infixes – a group of words which are very productive in Slavic languages – attached onto existing words, has led Leśmian translator Sandra Celt to call him a ‘morpheme addict’.
This addiction, while not unnatural in the Polish language, proves a real nightmare when subjected to translation. The example given by Barańczak, the word niedowcielenie, starts with a sequence of two affixes (nie- and do-) attached onto a word meaning ‘incarnation’. A potential, literal translation given by Barańczak looks something like this: ‘a-not-fully-attained-incarnation’. This is obviously useless for any poetic purposes.
In fact, his use of some of these affixes like bez- or nie-, which both imply a lack of certain qualities, is instrumental in creating whole realms of the negative. Words like bezświat or bezrobota, which can hardly be imitated in the English language, have a very real, immediately graspable meaning in Polish.
Another, perhaps most typical, example of how Leśmian was stretching Polish Slavic morphology are verbal formations he created from nouns or adjectives. Leśmianic words like bławatkować (‘to exist in the mode of a cornflower’, from bławatek), wypurpurzyć (‘to exist in the mode of bursting into red colour’, from purpurowy), wnicestwić się (‘to turn into nothing in the manner of wild vegetation’, from nic) or rozbóstwić (‘to turn into a divine being’, from bóstwo), are not only a show of linguistic skill, but rather a reflection of Leśmian’s philosophical worldview. He saw everything as being in the process of constant becoming and transformation, and his verbs testify to this endless existential mutability and ontological multiplicity of forms.
Other formations of the sort, as in the phrase strumień strumieni się, which endows a stream with active ontological identity, could make for a fascinating case of philosophical affinity, where Leśmian can be seen as the poetic double of Martin Heidegger (compare his similar verbal coinages, as in Nicht nichtet).
Most such linguistic features must naturally disappear in the process of translation, or otherwise risk turning the translated piece into something artificial and pretentious. That would be contrary to what Leśmian sounds like in Polish, as even his most innovative coinages are rooted deeply in the language’s esprit, appearing if not natural, than at least possible and immediately graspable for a Polish reader.
Wordless melody, or the rhythm and rhyme of Leśmian
But Leśmianisms and the more general Leśmianique nature of his language may not even be the greatest problem when it comes down to translating Leśmian’s poetry.
The Polish poet used a variety of metres and rhythm patterns, some of which were inspired by traditional folk songs. In any case, his verse is regular syllabic poetry, which means every line has the same number of syllables. Add the regular presence of mostly perfect rhymes (which when used in English are rather easily exploited and banal), and we already have an almost insurmountable translation task.
As it turns out, these musical qualities, which Leśmian referred to as ‘rhythm’, played a key role in his concept of poetry. As Aleksandra Michalska, author of a study about Leśmian’s English translations, argues: ‘for Leśmian, musicality is a defense against everyday reality – the rhythmic reality encapsulated within rhymes is detached from the banal space of colloquial speech’.
He himself would state the following:
We recognise a poem not only through its words and content, but also through the wordless melody fixed in our memory, apart from words and content.
While never particularly outspoken on the issue of translation (or the possibility of translating his poems into other languages), Leśmian did at least once address the issue of translation, or what good translation is all about:
A translation of a poem is a perfect translation only inasmuch as the listener, not acquainted with the language of translation, recognises the original in its wordless melody, which involves: rhythm, metre, the phonetic sequence of words and their repetition, their being tied up into sentences, the cadences of these sentences, as well as the intonation, that is everything what constitutes verse except for what is the verse apparent and material.
Curious about Leśmian's Musicality? Watch Polish soccer fans sing a Leśmian poem...
If we were to take this as an instruction as to how one should translate Leśmian, one could infer that, for the poet himself, the musical qualities of the verse in a way took priority over its semantic content. (Actually, a path taken willingly by some translators when faced with the task of translating Leśmian).
Aleksandra Michalska concludes:
Leśmian translated into another language with the use of other means than verse, loses not only its distinctness, but – what’s worse – the very principle of its existence. It ceases to be Leśmian.
From Poland to Scotland
But while all of the above mentioned issues – namely those of the inimitable flexibility of Polish syntax, the great innovativeness of Leśmian’s word-formation (Leśmianisms) and the fundamental musicality of his poems – each alone present a translation mission impossible, in Leśmian they all come together.
This however has not deterred translators, like Sandra Celt, Maurycy Weyland or Marian Polak-Chlabicz, to attempt to find a place for Leśmian in the English language. For some of them, like Benjamin Paloff, the very notion of Leśmian's ‘untranslatabity’ is simply out of the question:
I do not subscribe even remotely to this idea of something being impossible to translate. Everything is possible to translate.
A similarly unflinching attitude can be found at the core of perhaps the most radical and fascinating attempt to translate Leśmian's poetry – and precisely where his poetry seems to display its greatest resistance.
As mentioned already, many of Leśmian's most memorable poems are deeply rooted in Slavic folklore and mythology, and at least partially rely on the reader’s knowledge of this tradition. This hugely important context is generally missing for non-Polish or non-Slavic readers of Leśmian translations. And yet, if a successful translation is an attempt at a complete transfer of one text into the culture of another language, what happens to its cultural elements must also become an object of translation.
And what could be the potential equivalent of Slavic folklore in the English language and culture? For Krzysztof Bartnicki, the author of several unpublished Leśmian translations, this role is played by Scottish folklore.
In Bartnicki’s translations, the fantastical creatures peopling Leśmian’s mythical catalogue turn into imagined mirror variants from the Scottish Highlands: Dziwożona turns into Woldenmaid (or Wilderfrow or Wolderwife), Gad is a Snaken, and Dusiołek becomes a Worror. Leśmian’s innovative Slavic word-formation and flexible syntax finds its expression in the language of an unidentified Scottish dialect.
Urszula Kochanowska becomes Benjamin Jonson
But with this practice of transcultural translation, Bartnicki goes even further. The same bold approach can be seen in his translation of another of Leśmian’s poems: Urszula Kochanowska.
In Polish, the title functions as an immediate and obvious reference to the name of the daughter of the Polish Renaissance poet, Jan Kochanowski, who wrote a series of moving threnodies following the death of his three-year-old child. They stand today as some of the most beautiful pieces of Polish poetry.
But what is an English reader to make of Urszula Kochanowska, or Jan Kochanowski? Who are they to them? According to the logic of Bartnicki’s project, if the poem is supposed to function similarly in the language of translation, one would need to find equivalents of its heroes in the culture of the target language.
And who could be a personal equivalent of Jan and Urszula Kochanowska in the English literary tradition? Finding that person in the history of English literature was not easy. Bartnicki's first choice was Macduffling, the son of Macduff from Shakespeare's Macbeth, one of the most easily-recognised literary works in the English-speaking world.
Eventually, the translator turned to the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson and his son Benjamin. Benjamin died at the age of seven in 1603, and his father wrote a poem dedicated to his memory. (The playwright also had a daughter who died prematurely, but since Mary was only six months old, she was too young to become a convincing equivalent of the resolute four-year old daughter of Kochanowski. A similar biographical detail thwarted the Macduffling version – Macduff's son was killed together with his mother).
Hence in Bartnicki’s transcultural version of Leśmian’s Urszula Kochanowska, we read about an English boy who sits in Heaven conversing with God, looking forward to the celestial materialisation of their manor home in Minster (instead of the one in Kochanowski’s Czarnolas) and awaiting the coming of his parents.
The case of Bartnicki may be an instructive one. It implies that while some of us will never read Leśmian specifically, there are also many potential Leśmians around the world which still await shrewd translators – and game readers.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, January 2017