Monday, 17 November 2014


"I do like my own wildly inaccurate translations" wrote John Ashbery of mid twentieth century French poetry, but went on to add "but not the originals".

I am not in a position to judge the original poems by Maciej Woźniak but they sounded wonderful in the original Polish.  Last week I wrote about the excellent Scottish Poetry Library translation workshop.  This week I thought I would post my English versions - I hesitate to use the word translations (it sounds too dependable!) - but I hope I have kept the spirit and some of the form and content of the originals. 

Some background

Maciej said he wanted to describe in the first poem a little epiphany which came to him on a dreary wet day while chopping wood to feed the large tiled wood-burning stove which heats the house he shares with his partner. 

The second poem was a list of startling metaphors to describe the paradoxical nature of the poet's heart.  It was a real challenge to find English words for the taut contradictory tensions.  There was a great subtlety in the Polish words used.  For example, the adjective describing the midwife in the first line was literally translated as "hazy" or "muddled", but Maciej said it was like Shakespeare's use of "rosy-fingered" to describe dawn.  That made me think of those straight rays from the sun which are called the fingers of God.  So I translated the word as "divine-fingered" - something you wouldn't expect a midwife to be.  "Lord of the Flies seaside rock" was my version of Maciej's "Wuthering Heights candy" - the latter sounding too much like the souvenir shops of Haworth to be sharp enough.

English versions of two poems by Maciej Woźniak

Mandala z kropli i szczap

Creating a mandala from drops and scraps

Damp down the nape of my neck.  Splitting wood.  A log crushes my foot
and pain runs back up my spine.  That’s the moment
I pick up the signal from home.  Drizzle all morning, but now by the shed roof
a message in a shoal of raindrops.  Love doesn’t do anything.  It just is.

Piosenka do serca

Song: for my heart

Pert waitress with your new moon tray, divine-fingered midwife,
wet-nurse madam with no make-up, my return key, my control + x,
my clutching at razor-edged straws, Fonteyn in a boxing ring,
Rita Heyworth in Bergman films, Baader Meinhof aspirin,
Lord of the Flies seaside rock, ping-pong on a pool table,
a Castrol tear for a star’s dynamo, all muck and no roses,
a funeral cheerleader, Thumbelina lured to the mole’s bed,

my Hildegarde from nowhere, in the rear-view mirror my Euridice.

Sunday, 9 November 2014


On Saturday I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a translation workshop with Polish poet, Maciej Woźniak, facilitated by the library’s director, Robyn Marsack.  We were issued with three poems in Polish, together with two literal translations of each poem by Agata Maslowska and Kasia Kokowska, who joined us for the workshop.  They acted as interpreters for Maciej who spoke in Polish to explain the background to the poems – so that was an extra layer of translation!

We were a mixed bunch of participants – some (like me) with no Polish at all, some bilingual Polish/English speakers.  Some people discretely produced Polish-English dictionaries.   I couldn’t help thinking of the apocryphal story of the person who typed an English colloquialism into a computer, translated the phrase into Russian and then re-translated it back into English.  “Out of sight, out of mind” came back as “invisible insanity”.

I looked at the poems.  I could pick out rhymes, repetitions, alliteration, line length.  When Maciej read the poems aloud in Polish, the rhythm and the mood of the poems emerged.  The condensed diction of the original poems meant that the literal English translations were enigmatic, sometimes scarcely comprehensible.  Maciej gave us a lot of background to each poem which was enormously helpful.  He also told us what he thought was most important in each poem.  In “Piosenka do serca” it was the tension between the contradictory elements in each line.  In “Mandala z kropli i szcsap” it was the run-on lines.  In “Pocztówka od Sylvii Kristel” it was the relationship between culture and sexuality.

We spent an hour and a half on the first poem – which was not enough time.  There were so many decisions to make – how far to keep the structure of the original poem, how to echo the linguistic effects of the poem, how far to change the poem so that English readers could connect with the meaning of the words, how to find the equivalent in English of a Polish idiom.  Choosing the exact word to convey sense, sound and mood – how hard it was.  The “Mandela” poem was set on a cold drizzly day.  “Dricht”, said Robyn, and we all murmured appreciatively – and wished we had thought of it ourselves.

Maciej generously gave us permission not to stick too rigidly to the original poems.  As the workshop went on I felt able to be more free – I was producing versions, not translations.  I didn’t feel guilty.  Robyn told us about Alastair Reid translating Pablo Neruda.  Neruda said to him “Make a better poem for me, Alistair.”  What a wonderful tribute from poet to translator.  It would be presumptuous to think that we made better poems for Maciej, but we had great fun playing with them.

Sunday, 2 November 2014


"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" - discuss.  I once struggled to write an undergraduate essay on this quotation from Shelley.  I found the claim extraordinary, even arrogant, and I doubt if I understood what Shelley meant.

In the latest PN Review I read of the death of the Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, who died this year at the age of 87.  When I looked her up on the internet I felt awed by the descriptions of this wonderful writer and ashamed that I had never heard of her before.

Born into a  family of Iranian intellectuals in 1927 Simin Behbahani wrote her first poetry at the age of twelve.  She took the Persian ghazal and transformed it by writing from a woman's viewpoint.  She was known for her adaptations of traditional Persian poetic forms for contemporary subjects.

Simin Behbahani lived through the British deposition of Mohammad Mossadegh, the rule of the Shah, the 1979 Islamic revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomenei to power, the Iran-Iraq war, and the protests after Ahmadinajad's disputed election victory in 2009.

Her poetry tackled women's issues and social and political injustice and, not surprisingly, she tangled with the police.  Her work was banned for 10 years in the 1980s, she was the subject of harassment, and, even in her 80s, she was roughly treated by security officers at Tehran airport.

Although she travelled abroad several times to read her poetry she was not one of the Iranian intellectuals who live in self-imposed exile - though she must surely have had the opportunity to do so.  She loved Iran:
   "My country, I will build you again,
     if need be, with bricks made from my life.
     I will build columns to support your roof,
     if need be, with my bones."

Her words are translated into English by Farzaneh Milani, an eminent professor and scholar, who teaches Persian literature and women's studies at the University of Virginia.  Farzaneh Milani herself was born in Tehran.

Simin Behbahani was known as the "Lioness of Iran" and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her face has appeared on placards and T shirts - in the Middle East poetry is not a minority interest.

After I had read about her, Shelley's quotation came into my head, with a little more insight.  "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".  Simin Behbahani was one such poet - the world has lost a great writer.