Translating the Invasion: A Peek Behind the Curtains of an Attempt to Translate a Poem Almost Impossible to Translate—Bronisław Maj’s “Maybe it will happen in the span of a sentence. . .”]
One of the most interesting poets to emerge in Poland during the final decades of the 20th century was Bronisław Maj. Born in Łódź in 1953, Maj came to live and make his home in Kraków, where he taught contemporary literature at Jagiellonian University. Widely considered the most significant poet of his generation, in 1983 he received the Sęp-Szarpiński Prize for younger Polish poets, in 1984 he was awarded the Koscielski Literary Prize, given each year by the Geneva-based Kościelski Foundation in recognition of outstanding younger Polish writers, and in 1995 he was given the PEN Club Award for poetic achievement. Over the years he has published numerous collections of poetry, perhaps the most significant of which were Wspólne powietrze (The Air We Share Between Us, 1981) and Album rodzinny (Family Album, 1986), the former published officially in Poland’s culturally and politically torn 1980s (ripped apart between the last throes of Communist control and the growing power of the Solidarity-connected independence movement), while the latter appeared in the country’s underground press. And, indicative of the growing publication complexity—and international reach—of Polish poetry in the 1980s, both books were also published in 1986 in a single edition in London by the Polish emigré press, Puls, under the title Zagłada świętego miasta (Extinction of the Holy City).
During the mid-to-late 1980s, Maj was also the editor/director of Na Glos (Out Loud), a Kraków reading series which served as one of the few “legal” literary forums available to the many Polish writers who chose not to belong to the government-controlled Polish Writers Union, including such figures as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, and Marek Nowakowski. But, while Maj was keeping the cultural and literature aloft during the tail end of Soviet era, he was also in despair at the very dire landscape of Poland in general and Kraków in particular—politically, culturally, and even physically—given the effects of pollution pouring down from the surrounding ring of factories and mills on the centuries-old bricks of the Holy City of Kraków, located as it was in a bowl surrounded by those industrialized hills.
It was during the 80s that I came to know Bronisław Maj and to translate his work. I was very happy to get his input in my shepherding of his poetry into English, and over the years these translations have appeared in Mid-American Review’s translation chapbook series as well as in Field, Boulevard, Salmagundi, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, Sonora Review, Manhattan Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, and elsewhere. What makes his poetry so striking is that although not “political” in any topical or obvious sense of the word, his poems contain a scrupulousness and second-guessing of seeing, coupled with an acute awareness of the fragility of memory and, above all, of the vulnerability of people trying to cope with both the everyday and the eternal.
But there has also been one poem of Maj’s that I very much wished to translate, but kept thinking it impossible. Basically, the untitled poem [“Maybe it will happen in the span of a sentence”] is about the witness of poetry to our day-to-day lives, and the necessary freedom of the poet to notice this transpiring world. In fact, it starts off like several other Maj poems; but then, several lines later, a word creeps in—in Russian rather than Polish—and as the poem progresses other Russian words replace Polish words here and there until the very last lines of the poems are all in Russian. At the time of composition, this “invasion” of Russian into Polish in this poem was a very pointed expression of Maj’s fear of Russian Sovietism overwhelming the Polish language, overwhelming Polish life. In Maj’s own subtle, organic way, however, rather than decrying this “language-snatching” he instead captures it in the very act.
To me, it’s always seemed a very powerful poem, but how to translate it? Having Russian invade non-Slavic English would just look incomprehensible (despite the precedent of the narrative language of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwatch Orange with its horrowshows, droogs, devotchkas and viddy this and viddy that, suggesting that England was once again invaded and its language once again altered—this time by a Cold War foe.) Using German wouldn’t work either because German is hardly “dangerous” in any way (nor is it as close to English as Polish is to Russian), while using Spanish would send a completely wrong message politically, since I am hardly worried about Spanish swamping English. And, finally, regardless of the complexity of rendering duo-linguistic interplay in yet a third language, the Cold War ended long ago, and now Kraków is relatively environmentally protected, brightly painted, and open to the world.
But, with Russia now threatening Ukraine, including a decided attempt to subsume if not obliterate its language and literature, I turned once again to this poem. It indeed speaks not just to one time and one place, but to a wider, and unfortunate, dynamic of the world. Thus, in the end, I did try to translate it, deciding to put the “invading” words in italics, and to rely on a lengthy translator’s note like this to provide context.
Also, here, many years later, a collection of my translations of Maj, under the title Extinction of the Holy City, will soon be published by Free Verse Editions. I am so pleased that this final poem in the collection will first appear in Plume.
Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio, October 5, 2023
Maybe it will happen in the span of a sentence, between
the first and last word of the poem. A poem
about freedom—for no matter who might be speaking, a poet
always speaks of their freedom. They speak of the women
and the men of their time, of the light in the mountains,
of the breath of the nighttime sky, of white and pink apple trees, going
through a village, of the children by the well, the impatience of the heart,
the clamor of cities, the pure sound of the trumpet in the tower, about God and the delight
of the body. They speak of solitude and become no longer alone, they speak
about their times and shall always take from it: the people
of one’s city, the longings of children, trees bearing forth, voices,
the lights and the hills, and they take also from death: the entire cosmos
in a drop of rain glistening outside the window, colors, the slang
of a Sunday street, the quiet falling snow. All of them exists. Their speech
is their blood, their body, their soul. Freedom. And the named world
from this point will hold only one time: It is. It is
right there between the first and last word of this poem—
this one you are reading. Yes, maybe it will happen
between the first and last word of this very poem,
between the first and last word