rainbow-colored sparrows

Found a new (to me) poet today.  Thankfully didn’t notice it was a translation till I’d already bought it.

Interview with a Child

The master hasn’t been among us long.
That’s why he lurks in every corner.
he covers his face with his hands and peers through the gap.
Standing, forehead to the wall, he suddenly turns.

The master rejects with distaste the absurd thought
that a table lost from view must remain a table,
that the chair behind his back stays within the boundaries of a chair
without even trying to take advantage of the situation.

True, it’s hard to catch the world in its otherness.
The apple tree returns to the window before you can bat an eye.
The rainbow-colored sparrows always darken just in time.
The handle, the pitcher’s ear, will catch any murmur.
The nighttime closet feigns the passivity of the daytime closet.
The drawer tries to convince the master
that all that’s in there is what was put in earlier.
Even when a book of fairy tales is suddenly opened,
the princess always gets to her seat in the picture.

They sense a newcomer in me — the master sighs —
they don’t want to let a stranger play with thtem.
But how come everything that exists
is forced to exist in only one way
in a miserable state, with no escape from itself,
without pause or change of pace? In the humble here-to-there?
A fly trapped in a fly? A mouse trapped in a mouse?
A dog never turned loose from its hidden chain?
A fire, without the nerve to do anything
but burn the master’s trusting finger a second time?
Is this the true ultimate world:
scattered wealth impossible to gather,
useless splendor, forbidden possibility?

No! — the master shouts and stomps all the feet
he can muster — in such enormous despair,
that even the six legs of a cricket would not suffice.

Wislawa Szymoborska,  Miracle Fair
trans. Joanna Trzeciak
(you might think I should have noticed it was a translation,
but it was a rapid hunt before boarding a train.)

8 thoughts on “rainbow-colored sparrows”

  1. I normally avoid everything in translation. Language matters too much.

    I worried greatly about how I was ever to write a dissertation on Schleiermacher when I was dependant on a translation by a man whose interpretation of Schleiermacher I thought was wrong — and never did reconcile how I came to think it was wrong given that I was working from that translation.

  2. I do agree that language matters, (and it’s a source of ongoing woe that I don’t have more languages – may rectify that one of these days). But there’s so much amazingly wonderful stuff in zillions of different languages!

  3. I am sure there is. I just don’t expect to be able to enjoy much of it when I don’t speak the relevant languages.

    I can read for ideas in translation. But even in this fairly simple poem, I know from the notes that in Polish the handle of a jug is called an ear — and here, the translator uses both ear and handle. Was that to explain it for us, or did the poet use both? Is the extension of the line accidental, deliberate, annoying, apt?

    For me, reading poetry in translation is like dancing with someone who is wearing hiking boots: possible, but usually not all that much fun.

  4. I don’t see how a poem in translation can be the same poem. It’s really a sort of improvisation on a theme – the work of the translator? Similarly, I find a considerable challenge in reading poetry in a foreign language, though French now conveys more to me than it did. But without access to the layers of meaning (like your Polish example), how does the reader experience the thrill of recognition?

    Come to think of it, I don’t even usually enjoy novels in translation, though how much of that is to do with the foreignness of the assumptions I don’t know.


  5. I took a translation class once, and the professor gave us half a dozen wildly different translations into English of a Baudelaire poem. It was fascinating and fun. Of course, none of the translations quite captured the poem, but reading all of them together with the original was a real experience. I had a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal with French on one side and English on the other to add to the mix. The professor, by the way, told us on day one that his goal was to convince us that translation was impossible. He succeeded. (-:

  6. ‘Translation loss’ is well known in the trade, especially with poetry. One possible approach was that advocated by one of my principal academic mentors years ago. Essentially, the idea was to attempt to create something that could stand on its own as a worthwhile poem. In other words, start the task by asking, ‘If this poem in Language A existed in Language B, what would it be like?’

  7. This is so interesting. I have never considered not reading poetry in translation perhaps because two of the first poets I came to when I discovered poetry as a teenager I could only access in translation (Neruda and Rilke).

    I take the point about Polish ear/handle, but the poem is lovely and I’m glad to have read it.

    I would agree that the translated poem isn’t the *same*, but it’s still a poem (depending on the translation). I think the relationship between poet and translator is fascinating. Is it like that between playwright and director, choreographer and dancer, or something different? Do we conceive of writing as an art form that is more solitary than others?

    What are the languages (aside from one’s first language) that folk find most essential/desireable for their literary pursuits? For me, it would be French for academic work, Spanish so I could read Latin American poetry in the original, Italian (Dante!) and Japenese for the Haiku. Alas . . . I have none of these! Maybe someday . . . if I had world enough and time.

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