Fictions of otherness


 (An essay on poetry translation, from the Dublin Review of Books, December, 2016

We carry poems around with us in our heads, part of the internal tradition we create for ourselves. Often these are translations, although that fact may not necessarily register. When something causes us to dwell on the poem as translation, the result can be troubling. To give just one example, Czesław Miłosz’s “Encounter” has been part of my own personal anthology for many years. Recently I had cause to dig it out again. Here, first of all, is the poem in the English version I remembered:

    Encounter

    We drove before dawn through frozen fields,
    The red wing was rising, yet still the night.

    And suddenly a hare shot across our path.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago and both are dead:
    The hare and the man who stretched his arm.

    O my love, where are they, where do they lead,
    The flash of a hand, the line of movement, the swishing icy ground?

    I ask not in sorrow, but in contemplation.

    Wilno, 1936

The translation is by Adam Czerniawski, and I liked the poem primarily for its central image of the hare shooting across the path of the travellers and the pointing hand, and the quiet registration of the disappearance of both, a moment in a rich tradition of such registrations of mortality. I also liked the opening line – “We drove before dawn through frozen fields” – maybe because of its simple directness, its alliterative forcefulness, and the sense that anything could follow. The early hour, the frozen fields, the purposeful journey – it seemed like the opening to a thousand evocative stories and poems. I was less happy with the phrase “yet still the night”, which seemed to have been lifted from an anthology of nineteenth century poetry, and the final line seemed a little weak: “contemplation” didn’t really do it, didn’t seem like a strong enough alternative to sorrow. However, Czerniawski’s is not the version sanctioned by the poet, as I discovered when I pulled down my copy of the Collected Poems. Here is the poem as translated by the poet himself and Lillian Vallee:

    Encounter

    We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
    A red wing rose in the darkness.

    And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
    Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

    O my love, where are they, where are they going
    The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles?

    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

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