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.