Translation is an action similar to portrait painting – one needs to maintain similarity, but adds one’s own touch to the final work. This is what makes translating so exhilarating, and bad translations so hard to take. The ability to understand poetry in a new language is like acquiring a sense of smell. This is why a bad rendition of a beloved poem is so jarring.
Like many emigrants, I have spent a lot of time translating. I started with my own words, which I had to laboriously render in the new language in which I was living. Once more secure, I translated and translated the words of my friends and acquaintances, many of whom had something important to say. All of this work was satisfying or frustrating, depending on circumstances. There were political declarations, personal letters, articles, papers. With time, I felt comfortable enough in the new language to read poetry and then, much, much later, to translate some of my favored poems into Polish. That I did, but translating from Polish into English would be much harder. Perhaps even impossible.
It happened, however, many times, that I encountered translations of Polish poems into English that were not to my liking. They don’t necessarily have to be bad, they simply do not sound well in my ear. It is a common practice in the United States that rhymed and rhythmic poems written in Slavic languages are translated without rhymes, and without emphatic beat, especially if the poet wrote in the 20th century. It is rather tragic as far as Russian poets are concerned, as they rhymed ceaselessly. There is even an entire theory around it, privileging content over form, as if form were not leaking into content. Rhymes, strong melody, that theory goes, make 20th century poetry in English sound childish or banal. Hence, for example, translations of Mandelstam into English-language white verse.
That problem is slightly less urgent with Polish poets who, in mid-century, frequently adopted white verse. But not all of them and not always. A white verse translation of Zuzanna Ginczanka’s Non omnis moriar would always be a problem. Ginczanka was a Polish-Jewish poet who did not survive World War II. Her poem was realistic enough to serve after the war as documentary evidence at a trial of a couple of her tormentors – quite an unusual role for a piece of literature. She included in it the last name of a blackmailer who exposed her to the Nazis, which, for a Jew, meant death. A strikingly beautiful woman with very Semitic-looking features – she had black hair, dark eyes, olive skin, thin face – Ginczanka had to stay in hiding and was hunted by blackmailers (who in World War II slang were called “szmalcownicy”). She managed to save herself from the episode she wrote that poem about. The next time she was not so lucky.
The poem is very difficult to translate. Not only does the reader have to understand the war context which forms the base of its biting irony, but that irony is caused also by the contrast with another poem on which Non omnis moriar is modeled. That model poem was very well known to Ginczanka’s generation: it was My Testament by one of the Romantic Polish bards, Juliusz Słowacki. In My Testament the lofty, lonely Romantic poet bids farewell to his followers asking them to take care of the only heritage he is leaving them – his posthumous fame. Ginczanka’s farewell ironically bestows on her tormentors the legacy of her earthly possessions that they want to appropriate after her death. The transformation performed on the classical Słowacki text could not be more bitter.
Ginczanka wrote her poem in the same meter Słowacki chose: Polish alexandrine, rhymed. That makes the translation even more difficult. So, after having found an unrhymed, non-rhytmical version of that poem in English, and moreover a version that did not acknowledge the verbatim quotations from Słowacki, I turned to my students for help. They worked on translating Non omnis moriar very hard, trying various forms of verse, finding the proper rhythm, though almost without rhyme. The final result is imperfect, and we are presenting it here only as an approximation of the original text, not a finished product. But we felt that, by writing that poem, Ginczanka really wanted to make us, not “szmalcownicy”, her inheritors. Here is the text:
Non omnis moriar — my proud estate,
of table linen fields and wardrobes staunch
like fortresses, with precious bedclothes, sheets,
bright dresses — all remain behind me now.
And as I did not leave here any heir
You, Chomin’s wife, the snitch’s daring wife,
Volksdeutcher’s mother, swift informant, please
Allow your hand to dig up Jewish things.
May they serve you and yours, and not some strangers.
“My dear ones” — it’s no song, nor empty name.
I do remember you, and when the Schupo came,
You did remember me. Reminded them of me.
So let my friends all sit with goblets raised
To toast my memory and their own wealth,
their drapes and kilims, candlesticks and bowls.
And may they drink all night, till break of dawn,
And then begin to search for jewels and gold
In mattresses and sofas, quilts and rugs.
Oh, and what quick work they’ll make of it
Thick clumps of horsehair, sea grass stuffing, clouds
of cushions torn and puffs of eiderdown
Will coat their hands and turn their arms to wings
My blood will bind these fibers with fresh down,
And thus transform these wingèd ones to angels.
Poem translated by Aniela Pramik and Geoffrey Cebula.