Some Problems with Modern Polish Poetry in Translation

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, chair of the Swedish Academy that awards the Noble Prize Committee in Literature, made a fair point when he said that Americans “don’t translate enough,” as one of the reasons why few Americans are on the short list for the prize. Alas, that’s true in regard to literature in many languages. But Polish presents some unique problems, some of them perhaps obvious, which helps explain why you are just now hearing of Eugeniusz Tkaczszyn-Dycki.

1) We have loved Polish poets for their moral glamour more than we have appreciated the poetry itself. It is indisputable that Poland has one of the richest poetic traditions in Europe. And it’s not as though Poland produced great poetry only under the yoke of Communism. So why don’t we know more about it? Why do we know the few Polish poets we are aware of—Herbert, the Nobel Laureates Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, and perhaps Adam Zagajewski? Alas, the moral glamour of the anti-Communist public poet, along with time spent outside Poland, more or less accounts for the popularity of Miłosz and Herbert, rather than the fact that they were, indeed, great poets. (See Charles Altieri’s essay, “Polish Envy: American Poetry’s Polonizing in the 1970’s and ‘80s,” published in Metre in 2004.) It is fair to say that the laurels of Miłosz and Herbert have been passed on to Szymborska and Zagajewski, which is not to deny that Szymborska is a great poet or that Zagajewski has written some great poetry.

We still call on Polish poets to play their prescribed role in U.S. culture: recall that it was Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” rather than a poem by an American poet, that was published shortly after 9/11 in The New Yorker as the magazine’s initial poetic response it. However, a common view for many years now among the literati in Poland is that Zagajewski, like Miłosz in his later years, has lost the feel of his native tongue, now sounds better in English than in Polish, and has fallen into a rather inert, traditional style and subject matter derivative of Miłosz. Piotr Sommer, a great poet and translator who is editor of Literatura na Świecie, and who spent the fall of 2009 as the Frank Visiting Fellow in creative writing at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center, is one of the few compelling voices in contemporary Polish poetry who has begun to acquire an audience in the U.S. (See a selection of his poems, Continued [Wesleyan UP, 2005], in which he collaborated on translations with many poets and scholars under the pseudonym of Halina Janod; the book includes an especially fluent, beautiful version of Sommer’s poem “Fragile” translated with John Ashbery.)

2) Great poets need great translators to gain an audience abroad. More about this below.

3) The difficulty and obscurity of the Polish language in the U.S. means there are few great translators of it. This difficulty, which persists as a tiresome obstacle to the reception of modern and contemporary Polish literature in the U.S., is legendary among linguists and translators. Not—as if this weren’t enough—because it looks unpronounceable to the native English speaker. The phonetics of Polish are remarkably consistent and intuitive and sound much softer than they look, once you accept the usage of the Roman alphabet against the grain of most other Romance and Anglo-Saxon languages. The real difficulty is Polish grammar, which includes seven cases and a bewildering incidence of irregularity. (One Polish friend with whom I work on translations has a charming habit of turning to me, in the midst of an intricate grammatical difficulty and sighing, “I’m sorrrrry,” in heartfelt apology for her native language.)

For native speakers of English, translating Polish presents some distinct challenges in terms of syntax, vocabulary, rhythm, and punctuation. Polish syntax is, generally speaking, more Latinate than English, since the case endings, rather than word order, indicate a word’s grammatical role. Another issue is the wealth of synonyms in English, drawn from both Anglo-Saxon and Latinate languages—e.g. “show” versus “demonstrate,” “turn to stone” versus “petrify,” “breathe” versus “inhale,” “think” versus “cogitate,” “branch out” vs. “ramify” etc.—with the roots of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary generally being much more accessible and concrete for the average English speaker than the Latinate etymology, rendering the Latinate abstract. There are semantic reasons to prefer the Anglo-Saxon as well, since its etymology is more accessible to us than Latin; for instance, the word for both “language” and “tongue” in Polish is “język”, and poets play with this double sense. To translate it as “language” in English would bury the root of “tongue” a bit too deep. Polish, while not as paltry in synonyms as, say, French, has no such range in the choice of vocabulary and, if anything, has closer affinities to the Latinate. Yet in Polish, a highly polysyllabic language, polysyllabic words are not as a rule associated with a higher register of (Latinate) diction as they are in English, and indeed the rhythms of Polish poetry, whether formal or free verse, are much closer to the accentual-syllabic rhythms of French than to the roughly iambic, more heavily stressed rhythms of English. Yet translating Polish into Latinate English, then, would go against the grain of the Anglo-American poetic tradition, which is heavily Anglo-Saxon and monosyllabic. Even in a sensuous poet of ideas like Wallace Stevens, Latinate, polysyllabic words are used infrequently in proportion to Anglo-Saxon, monosyllabic vocabulary. Finally, it is conventional in Polish to separate most clauses with commas, and the semicolon is not used, so that, if the original punctuation is preserved, a long Polish sentence can read like a series of rather awkwardly separated segments or even like a run-on, a relentless series of comma splices. (This tendency is somewhat apparent in the otherwise pleasing translation of Piotr Sommer’s poem “Full Harvest” by Christian Hawkey and W. Martin, published in The Nation on November 24, 2009.)

Given the immense challenges of translating Polish poetry into English, we should be especially grateful that the task of translating Dycki fell to Johnston, certainly one of the most astute translators of Polish literature working today. Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, the British native has translated more than twenty works of Polish poetry and prose (including two books by the brilliant and difficult Witold Gombrowicz), and, with his Polish wife, visits Poland at least once every year. Zephyr Press, which published Peregrinary in its New Polish Writing Series, is to be commended for its efforts in translation generally (it also does Russian, other Eastern European, and Asian). Unfortunately, however, some of the translations of Polish poetry that it has published illustrate the following problem.

4) Ideally, Polish literature should not be translated into English by Poles working independently. Because there are so few good literary translators working in the U.S. who know Polish, Polish academics and poets have, understandably, taken matters into their own hands, and translated various contemporary Polish poets into English. As we all know, however, very, very few people are talented enough to write or translate literature into a second language they do not speak as natives. It is almost impossible to develop a keen enough sense of the second language’s idioms and literary tradition, which are absolutely necessary for successful translations that will gain the ear of native speakers of that language.

If you’ve never heard of two recent anthologies of Polish poetry—Carnivorous Boy Carnivorous Bird. Poetry from Poland, published by Zephyr in 2004, or Altered State. The New Polish Poetry, published by ARC in 2003—it is not only because you are too busy to keep track of translations published by smaller presses. These books, I am afraid, merit their obscurity to some degree. Too many of the translations were done or chosen by Polish scholars and poets—brilliant people, extremely fluent in English, such as the poet and translator Tadeusz Pióro and the scholar and translator Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese—who produce poems that often do not come across very well in English, which has not helped to gain much of a readership, in these books or in various journals, for deserving poets like Dycki himself, and Miron Białoszewksi, Bohdan Zadura, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Wojciech Bonowicz, Jerzy Jarniewicz, Edward Pasewicz, Andrzej Sosnowski, Adam Wiedemann, and among others.

I don’t relish criticizing the work of such translators, as their efforts have been crucial to bringing some attention abroad to contemporary Polish poetry. To some extent, Polish poets and scholars who translate Polish poetry into profoundly awkward English can find justification for their work in recent translation theory that, reasonably enough, takes translators to task for effectively colonizing a work of literature in the process of rendering the source language into the target language, erasing most traces of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, and so turning, for instance, a Polish poem into one that could have been written in the U.S. by an American poet. There is an admirable ethical impulse in efforts “to restore or preserve the foreignness of the foreign text,” as Lawrence Venuti puts it, in “Translation, Community, Utopia.”

Yet it is an obvious and accepted truth among most translators that one should only translate into one’s native tongue. And the fundamental problem of literary translation has not changed: how do you bring a poem, say, from one language into another, striking the perfect balance between fidelity and fluency, preserving its distinct voice, syntax, sound, cultural specificity, etc., without creating an unidiomatic monster? A strong argument for more faithful and culturally sensitive translations, which can mean many different things, does not excuse unreadability, or a uniform voice for wildly different poets, which betray the artistry and of the originals. The task is not as hopeless as Frost’s adage suggests–that poetry is what gets lost in translation–but the truth is that very few of us move between languages with the brilliant ease of Joseph Conrad and Samuel Beckett. (Even Nabokov, who wrote brilliantly in English, had a falling out with Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s awkward translations of Pushkin into English.) What to do?

The best practical solution is collaborative translation, ideally with two poets or literary scholars representing each language and poetic tradition, such as Miłosz (whose last name, incidentally, means “love”), and Robert Hass, or Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, or Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, who have, in my view, produced remarkable translations of Szymborska. There are also some examples of effective collaborative translation in Sommer’s Continued, mentioned above. John and Bogdana Carpenter, translators of Zbigniew Herbert also come to mind, though they also present another problem.

5) Without more native-speakers of English who are also great literary scholars or poets translating Polish poetry, English-language readers fall prey to the idea of the definitive translation, whatever its quality. The situation is analogous to one Gayatri Spivak describes in “The Politics of Translation”:

When I translated Jacque Derrida’s De la grammatologie, I was reviewed in a major journal for the first and last time. In the case of my translations of [Mahasweta] Devi [from the Bengali], I have almost no fear of being accurately judged by my readership here. It makes the task more dangerous and more risky. And that for me is the real difference between translating Derrida and translating Devi, not merely the rather more artificial difference between deconstructive philosophy and political fiction.

When we have no alternative translations and no knowledge of Polish, we have little choice but to accept the translations that are offered, frequently misjudging them—or dismiss them, and thus miss out on some very interesting literature.

Thus, for instance, the Carpenters’ flawed translations of Herbert were taken by Michael Hofmann, writing for Poetry, as the only authentic and acceptable versions of his poems (see my favorable review, in Poetry International 2009, of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert translated by Alissa Valles, which takes issue with Hofmann’s fierce critique by comparing the Carpenters’ and Valles’s versions to the original Polish.) The situation could not be more different from, say, French translation, for which many educated American readers are equipped to compare different versions to the original. Or we rely too much on the reputation of the publisher; for instance, the recent translations by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough of Janusz Szuber, They Carry a Promise. Selected Poems (2009), published by Knopf, will get more attention than Johnston’s translations of Dycki, despite the fact that Dycki is the more interesting poet and Johnston’s the better translations.

All is not lost, however, and all of this, I hope, does make us grateful that it is Johnston, an accomplished linguist and literary translator with a thorough command of Polish, who has given us the first extensive translations of Dycki. Another promising translator and student of Johnston, Mira Rosenthal, edited an important issue of lyric devoted to new Polish poetry in 2005, following on a rich 2000 issue of Chicago Review devoted to new Polish writing under guest editor William Martin. Especially interesting in lyric was Bartczak’s essay, “The Hazards and Hopes of the New Polish Poetry”. While the quality of the translations, by a number of hands, was uneven in the Chicago Review and lyric issues, Rosenthal herself has produced some fine translations in The Forgotten Keys by Tomasz Różycki (Zephyr, 2007). And there are others, Clare Cavanagh, Valles and Martin among them.


Altieri, Charles. “Polish Envy: American Poetry’s Polonizing in the 1970’and 1980’s.” Metre (Spring 2004): 80-96.

Baranczak, Stanislaw, and Cavanagh, Clare. Polish Poets of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1991.

Bartczak, Kacper. “The Hazards and Hopes of New Polish Poetry.” lyric 8 (2005). Special Issue: New Polish Poetry in Translation: 82-95.

Chicago Review. New Polish Writing. 46:3/4 (Fall 2000).

Holton, Milne and Vangelisti, Paul, Eds. New Polish Poetry. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1978.

Herbert, Zbigniew. Mr. Cogito. Trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1993.

—. Selected Poems. Trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1986 / 1968.

—. Selected Poems. Trans. John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

—. The Collected Poems, 1956-1998. Trans. Alissa Valles, Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 2007.

Kielar, Marzanna. Salt Monody. Trans. Wojcik-Leese, Elzbieta. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2006.

Kott, Jan, Ed. Four Decades of Polish Essays. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Lipska, Ewa. Pet Shops and Other Poems. Trans. Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard. Eastbourne, East Sussex, U.K.: Arc Publications, 2002.

lyric 8 (2005). Special Issue: New Polish Poetry in Translation.

Mengham, Rod, Pióro, Tadeusz and Szymor, Piotr, Eds. Altered State – The New Polish Poetry. Eastbourne, East Sussex, U.K.: Arc Publications, 2003.

Milosz, Czeslaw, Ed. Postwar Polish Poetry. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Milosz, Czeslaw. New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 2003.

—. Second Space: New Poems. Trans. Milosz and Robert Hass. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 2004.

Pirie, Donald, trans. Young Poets of a New Poland: An Anthology. Lincoln Centre, Mass.: Forest Books / UNESCO, 1993.

Rozewicz, Tadeusz. Recycling. Trans. Tony Howard and Barbara Plebanek. Eastbourne, East Sussex, U.K.: Arc Publications, 2001.

Rozycki, Tomasz. Forgotten Keys: Selected Poetry of Tomasz Rozycki. Trans. Mira Rosenthal. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2007.

Skucinska, Anna, and Wojcik-Leese, Elzbieta, Eds. Carnivorous Bird Carnivorous Boy Carnivorous Bird: Poetry from Poland. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2002.

Sommer, Piotr. Continued. Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2005.

—. Things to Translate and Other Poems. Trans. John Ashbery. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1992.

Szuber, Janusz. They Carry a Promise. Trans. Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Szymborska, Wislawa. Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. Trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. New York: Harcourt, 1998.

—. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska. Trans. Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Weinberger, Eliot, Ed. World Beat: International Poetry Now from New Directions. New York: New Directions, 2006.

Zagajewski, Adam, Ed. Polish Writers on Writing. San Antonio: Trinity UP, 2007.

—. Without End: New and Selected Poems. Trans. Clare Cavanagh. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003.

About Marit MacArthur

Marit MacArthur is Assistant Professor of English at CSU Bakersfield. In 2008, she was a Fulbright research fellow at the University of Lodz in Poland. Her book, The American Landscape in the Poetry of Frost, Bishop and Ashbery: The House Abandoned, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.
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  1. The 9th issue of Past Simple, edited by Marcus Slease and Grzegorz Wroblewski, has some poems translated from Polish. Might be of interest to your readers.

  2. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

    Thank you for your useful article which I greatly appreciate. Please don’t forget those of us who are working away in the UK, Canada and possibly elsewhere to improve the situation for Polish poetry in English translation too. In the limited world of translation, it would be helpful to think of the English-language zone as a single area.

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