Star Vehicle: On Translating Poetry

By Tomasz Różycki, Mira RosenthalFebruary 22, 2021

Star Vehicle: On Translating Poetry


OUT OF SEVERAL more or less successful attempts at defining poetry we have Robert Frost’s proposition: “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” I read it for the first time years ago, in Polish translation, and immediately thought that it was one of those miraculous and at the same time appalling sentences, in which it’s impossible to replace a single word, let alone change the order. It’s like a mathematical equation to solve for an unknown, like the structural components of a bike. It happens to be one of those definitions that, instead of clarifying things, raises further questions, and instead of reassuring us, leaves us in a slight daze, adrift. If we’ve been told anything, it’s what poetry is not — but still we have no idea what it is. A definition that defines nothing, meaning that it fails to lead to a limit or border or end, as it should, considering the Latin root of the word. Yet another negative definition. It has no bounds. There is no end. And such definitions please me the most, perhaps because of my age, or perhaps because of my profession.


Speaking of limits and bounds, everything we’re talking about today — about poetry, writing, and translation — is all about borders, or rather the lack of them. It’s all about transcending borders, whether seen in space as a wall, a razor wire fence, a minefield — or as a straightforward prohibition or a limiting form. And I’m not saying this simply because I’m talking about translation and because what I do for a living in particular pushes me to look at what is on the other side, including on the side of the translator. I’m also not saying this because the activity of translation today is being appreciated, probably like never before in history, and a lot is being translated of increasingly higher quality. Thanks to this fact, human beings have a chance to get to know each other better, gaining awareness of further acute subtleties of their existence. There are those who say that translators will save the world, that one of the central forms of suffering is the anguish of not understanding. After all, globalization and the great Tower of Babel of Western civilization are, in the end, largely to the credit of translators. Translation studies, thanks to the human drive to systematize and delineate borders, has become a discipline that is practiced and taught at almost all universities, and to study it means to pass exams and to strive for the highest limit of points. More and more is being translated, less and less is being read, and maybe for both of these reasons the level of bitterness and despair in the world continues to rise, along with the surge in the number of its inhabitants and the increasingly widespread possibilities of giving voice and having freedom of speech, so a growing awareness of the end of humanity is beginning to speak in each and every language. Let’s go back, then, to the end, to the notion of a border, to the movement of transfer and the immigration of words.


To begin with, the poet goes beyond their own borders — doing so by writing down words, assembling letters into words. The poet’s psychological substance, or maybe one should say their spiritual substance, finds its expression. Then, the reader goes beyond the self, reading. The reader’s psychological substance, let’s say, their spiritual content finds its place on pages of poetry at first foreign to them, and sometimes a miracle happens: the reader treats the words of the poem as their own. Then, poetry crosses the borders of language as the translator translating crosses another barrier. After all, the translator is simultaneously a reader and a poet in their own language, if you trust the origin of the word translation — to carry across, to bring across. So, the most important thing happening is in the movement and in the crossing, in the transcendence, and the translator is someone who carries goods across the border, someone who, despite even their greatest moral fairness, will, in the process, smuggle more than what is written on the page, who will participate — whether they mean to or not — in contraband activities.


Of course, Frost is right — the translator loses some of this contraband, some gets confiscated at the border, some goes missing on its own. After all, one must pay customs. Sometimes the distance that must be traversed is too great, and I don’t just mean those languages that separate the seas, mountains, and oceans from each other, but also time, particularly on those days that the translator, for some inexplicable and suspicious reason, decides to translate a poem written in the 16th century. Luckily — for the translator most of all — they often have no clue that they’re missing something. And there’s also the reason that our entire life, from the moment of birth, is an effect of subtraction, and loss is a constant part of that, not to say something normal. Frost is right also because these kinds of words of wisdom possess intrinsically something that we associate precisely with poetry — they are as universal as they are ambiguous, formulated so as to seduce us. Their meaning is forever elusive, as if it were transmitted somewhere beyond the poem. But such sentences still enchant us with their allure. They’re intriguing and want to be revealed, want to be followed, always beside us, always a step ahead. Frost’s proposition is exactly like the poetry that he’s talking about. It’s that which surrenders to being lost, which goes missing, which escapes us, which is continuously in motion. And we’re in constant pursuit. But just think — if poetry is something that is lost in translation, then to find it, a calculation of subtraction would have to be carried out, that is, the original and the translation would have to be compared. In other words — what an absurd calculation — to subtract the translation from the original, and there you have it, what’s left, poetry. Only, what is it? Sound? Music? Voice? Context? History? Experience? The author’s life? The history of the language in which they wrote the poem? All of their reading and delight and moments of boredom when reading or listening to others? All of their nights? All their enemies and loved ones? That they were blind? That they had a limp? That, according neighbors, they were deranged? That they were an Italian girl writing in French in 16th-century Lyon? That they were a Russian-speaking son of a Jewish leather merchant from Warsaw? Grandson of Black slaves sold in the Antilles? A lady of the court in 11th-century Japan? Yes, no doubt all this and more. In a word, everything that does not yield to translation. But let’s suppose that the author’s life is not so relevant, or that the author is simply dead and gone — only their poems, written in the original language, are alive. Isn’t that how it should be? So, what then will die out during the process of translation? Sound? Context? Voice? History? The history of the language that produces a sound and the specificity of words uttered in it, their hidden meanings, the emotional charge they contain, how many times and by whom they have been used, in what other poems and in which songs, sung at night from a balcony? Or maybe the fact that they’ve never been used in this context before? The author is no longer important, but the reader of these poems: their life, their mornings and nights, their reading and loving and sickness and moments of madness … That they were born to immigrants from a poor war-ravaged country. That they must wear glasses with very thick lenses. That they prefer dogs to cats. Each time, the poetry will speak to them in a different way, because each time they will voice the poetry differently. Every one-time act of reading will be different, each will be unique, and its uniqueness has very little to do with the dictionary, taking place as it does somewhere else, alongside words, maybe slightly above them. We can put it simply by saying: in the reader’s psyche. And if this psyche is the soul in Greek, then we can even use the word: in spiritual space. As we know, it’s difficult to stuff such a thing into a suitcase and carry it across the border, hoping that nothing will go missing along the way.


Thanks to this metaphor, the essence of poetry may take on an inflated volatility. But, after all, the word translation is never just about the transfer of words across a border. It’s also about the movement of yourself across a border, by no means physically but rather psychologically, or, as has been said, spiritually. Since the translator is, first and foremost, a reader — something like an ideal reader — in order to get through to poetry, they must put their whole psyche into the search. They must go where the reader normally goes, and even further, because in order to gain the necessary interpretation for their decisions, they must perform work similar to the work of the poet. Follow in the poet’s footsteps, even if they lead into the air, into ephemeral and spiritual spaces. The translator is on the move, searching for poetry in the footsteps that were left — or not left — for them by the poet. In such a search, to achieve a satisfactory result, they should invest at least as much of themself as went into the writing of the original. Sometimes even more. Returning to our translatio: the translator must look to the side of the poet, searching somewhere beyond the poet’s own borders. Investing themself in a different spiritual space. And then returning with goods, even if those goods are an interpretation, not the thing itself that has escaped in the meantime.


That’s right — interpretation. Every act of reading is already an interpretation. Reading is, after all, giving the text — in this case poems — a voice. One’s own voice, which, even when in silence rather than out loud, resonates. You hear it when reading any text. You hear it even when writing, maybe without even realizing it. It’s as if we have our own voice-over playing in our heads, translating the letters’ symbols into a voice that’s deaf and inaudible everywhere else and for everyone else. Where does this voice issue from and can it be called a voice, since the voice, as Wikipedia says, is vibrations produced by human vocal cords (sounds of a specific frequency) or other components of the articulatory apparatus. I don’t know if, when I read in silence, my vocal cords are working. Probably not. Probably not a single component of the articulatory apparatus is working either. And yet I hear this voice distinctly, very distinctly. We hear it in our thoughts (Where exactly — in the skull? In psychological space, in spiritual space?), but no one else can hear it except us. This voice — like the voice of an actor on the stage — interprets its role, its text. When we read, all of the characters of the drama are speaking, the narrator is speaking, every subject from a poem that’s being read is speaking. Everyone speaking the same speechless, silent language.


Which is exactly why reading (even in silence) is giving voice. The voice interprets the text. Without interpretation — as anyone who has ever tried to translate anything more than a list of ingredients on a package of vegetable salad knows — there is no translation. So many decisions entered into during the act of translation mean that, from among many variants, from which one should now and then choose a right one, rejecting the remaining possibilities, finally emerges a certain consequence of thought. The translator decides on the language’s register, style, form, rhythm, idioms, and the hue of each individual word. The best ones must be chosen and then placed in the best possible order. Every word means a decision that leaves behind all the rejected alternatives. And subsequent translations of the same text increase our notion of the unknown that we are getting closer to. A multiplicity of angles allows for a stereoscopic image. Perhaps we still don’t know what the truth might look like (in this case, meaning poetry), but if we have a photo album of the sought-after person, we may already have a reliable depiction regarding the type of looks and attitude, more particulars. Even if the truth were bitter and the search were to end in disappointment, it’s still worth trying. Reading multiple translations of the same book gives us the luxury of choice and comparison, a greater impression of what a text truly is — or what it’s not. It would seem, then, that the more interpretations, the better — but often the image, caught on multiple prints, reveals more and more new faces of the missing person, and what seemed clear to us a minute ago is overcome again by opacity. When interpretations are too extreme, we feel lost, poetry once again slips our grasp. If the text can be both one thing and another thing at the same time, it’s neither one nor the other but something between or even outside both things.


Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his Zibaldone that, as long as man lives in delusion about the truth, he is happy — whereas learning the truth almost always makes him unhappy. Have you ever read poetry in a foreign language and admired a poem, imagining what it was talking about rather than really identifying the meaning of individual words? One word unchecked in the dictionary — one word that, in all probability in the Spanish, denotes “a pose” — causes the poem to come alive in you, almost despite yourself, activating the whole machinery of imagination that has already done its work, providing for words missing from the dictionary your own absolutely essential and necessary meaning? The poem seems splendid, you memorize it, maybe even copy the original out in your notebook. You remember the name of the author and look for more of their poems, look for a whole volume. But, after a few months or a few years, you discover that the word that you didn’t know actually doesn’t mean “a pose” in the original language but rather “a well” or — with a good faith effort — “a cesspit.” And the entire sense of your interpretation, which caused you to regard the author as a genius, falls apart. Not because the word “well,” and especially the word “cesspit,” are unpoetic, but because it’s just not the poem anymore. It’s not your poem anymore. Learning this truth is deeply disappointing. Your poem was so much better. Meanwhile, on account of the author’s pretentious, phony well or cesspit, they cease to be — as you previously thought — such an intriguing rebel who demands authenticity. Without delusions, as Leopardi says, life would be unbearable.


From here, then, it’s not far to the statement that everything is an interpretation, since there are only translations of varying degrees of intensity. There is no original — and if there is, it more closely resembles Plato’s theory of the idea as born somewhere in the mind of the author, or as arriving from far away — and never fully realized — since, after all, isn’t the poem simply a translation of the author’s mental state into human speech? And, in the course of this translation, taking into account all of the limitations of language to meet the feeling or spiritual wave of emotion — isn’t poetry lost somewhere? In the end we don’t communicate so much as try to render something using a system we’ve created called speech, try to use it to arrange our thoughts and emotions into something that more closely resembles a cloud, or the sea, or wind, a storm, a downpour on a warm summer evening. Our thoughts and states of awareness very rarely arrange themselves into words from the start — rather, they resemble the sky lighting the room through a window. We try to render all of this in speech, in a complicated system of sounds coming out of our mouths, produced using exhaled air with the help of a few instruments: larynx, tongue, teeth, palate. We write these sounds down using signs, combined into structures, sequences, and grammatical combinations necessary to carry the richness of human awareness. Let’s think about how much we like, for example, Bach’s music, interpreted perhaps by Glenn Gould — maybe more than any other interpretation. But have you ever heard the original? Gould plays Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on the grand piano, an instrument that in Bach’s time was unknown. It’s a translation. Bach wrote his pieces for the clavichord, or the harpsichord, or the organ. He never heard how his music sounded transcribed (translated) for the upright or grand piano. Let’s take this further: isn’t musical notation a translation? Bach’s music — all that harmony, resounding in his head — he tried to write it down in the only manner available to him at the time by using symbols on paper — we don’t have access to his head, can’t hear the sounds emerging there, don’t know the original and most likely will never come to know it. We have no idea if he was humming and no one recorded that hum, except — perhaps — the distant, cold ear of the stars. The only thing that remains is the translation. The original, unavailable to us, casts only its shadow on more walls, while we look on, fascinated, or try to preserve its outline using carbon, lime, ocher, vegetable dyes.


We experience so much translation at each stage that it would be quite strange if we didn’t lose something each time. Realizing this probability in relation to poetry is like the moment when we gaze at the stars above and register the sky’s endlessness and the insignificance of our existence. And yet we continue on. Gazing at the stars is a good example here. Once, someone left the cave and looked up at the stars. And this was probably the moment when poetry began.


Speaking of the stars … don’t they look upon us as well? And where would they be if we didn’t gaze at them? Would they exist? Maybe they need someone to see them, or else they wouldn’t reflect and send their signals. Some astronomers and astronauts have had the opportunity to validate the claims of the Gnostics, who said that we live in a prison, and the world is a kingdom of darkness where we’re locked up by some malicious demiurge, and stars are the only cracks, holes in the prison wall through which the light of the real world comes to us. We’re striving for that light. And because many who look at the stars do not write poems, the stars, with their pulsating eyes, must gaze down on us so that our lines of sight meet. It’s not actually about the exact moment, bearing in mind that their light reaches us after traveling many many years and is sent well in advance, so what we’re looking at probably has already lost its original form, has undergone a metamorphosis. One should, therefore, give some thought to the rhythm of time in this context, whether it should be counted a bit differently, whether, in fact, there was a call first. Not a response but a call from the stars. Well, I want to say that the translator is someone who gazes at the stars and feels the call, just as the poet felt it earlier. They hear the voice, that is, a pulsating music, a rhythm of lights, a design.


“Piteux regards des célestes lumières” (Pitiful stares, stars that tear you apart), wrote Louise Labé, also known as “The Beautiful Ropemaker” of Lyon. “Kiss me rekiss me and kiss me again,” she wrote in poems to her lover, poems that are translated today (here by Richard Sieburth), after 400 years, into barbaric languages. She wrote about love — 24 sonnets (a form newly arrived at that time from Italy), three elegies, and prose in the dramatic dialogue of a Debate of Folly and Love (bat de folie et d’amour) — and very quickly she gained a real reputation among poets in France, especially among La Pléiade group. Just imagine: she’s a woman in 16th-century Europe, so right away she also gains a bad reputation: her poems are, to her contemporaries, evidence of marital infidelity and immoral conduct — and she defends herself against these judgments in a completely honest way, directly addressing the gossiping ladies in poems that describe her passion, those flashes of happiness and flashes of despair that add up to love. The voice of these sonnets reaches us even now, though it left her body long ago and rushed toward the stars. Her voice reaches us, thanks to the bizarre opportunity that poetry provides: being outside the body, but also being outside the limits of time as we try to recreate her love (here translated by Louisa Stuart Costello):

Mais j’aperçois, ayant erré maint tour,
Que si je veux de toi ëtre délivre,
Il me convient hors de moi-mëme vivre;
Ou fais encor que loin sois en séjour.

Deep in the woods I found a lonely trail,
and after wandering in a maze I sought
to put you wholly out of mind. I fail.
Only outside my body can I live
or else in exile like a fugitive.


Indeed, poetry is something that is subject to loss. But, at each stage of loss, it’s possible to create something new. What was once dictated to the stars, what was once submitted to the ether, will return. The stars will call to someone else, on another planet, in another time, maybe even of another gender and another dress. There will be a supposed loss, just like the ostensible loss of energy. Particles, once set in motion, keep stirring things up for a very long time. So, we can’t escape losing, it’s inscribed in our chirograph, included with time. We’re still losing, it’s true, but we’re also still creating. Perhaps the secret of our existence lies in this. This constant compensation for diminishment by providing new content. This constant twining of torn strands, this constant transfer through an opening — a border — of a sack emptied of sand. This twining, weaving, mending what’s torn. This joining that which has been divided. When the Tower of Babel collapsed, people dispersed across the earth. But translators kept right on building into the sky, in the direction of the stars, an invisible, intangible tower that has such an advantage over the original that it cannot collapse.


Instead of Frost’s definition of poetry, I prefer the one given by Coleridge, who said that poetry is “the best words in the best order” (“Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order”). The best words that the author arranges into the best order. None of them can be swapped for others, none changed in position. Poetry has a perfect integrity, just like a mathematical equation that has only one result. All of the elements lead to this result, and the inevitability of the equation — as if a human fate written in the stars — is clear. The design, arranged in words, in a rhythm and in a formation similar to marks arranged into constellations on the blue firmament and pulsating like them, like them issuing a seemingly elusive sound, a sound that no one else can hear. But this equation is also like the plans for a machine — and if I may attempt another definition of poetry — a complex machine with symbols surrounded by empty spaces, with moving parts of ideal sounds, rhythms, and rhymes, assonance, stresses, with metaphors and comparisons, using reticence and a huge emotional charge, concealed behind the right order of words, constructed in the likeness of Leonardo’s cameras. It will be a journey beyond the body. Perhaps flying up toward the stars, perhaps going deep into a dark forest. Perhaps a journey in time. Such a vehicle, constructed, intricate with words, will set in motion what is invisible, not the body, but the author’s psyche. From the Greek — soul. Just as the notes of a score are symbols that can be translated into sound and movement, into vibrations and frequencies that move our being and the ether around us, so, too, a poem is metaphysical, meaning that it permits the soul to go beyond the borders of the body for a moment, Aristotle’s unmoved mover. And just as this vehicle works on the reader, so, too, the translation should work. If “the best words in the best order” is an equation, then I think that the translator should know the result of that equation. They should generate the same equation in their own language, choose the best words, arrange them in the best possible order — one that imbues them with the inevitability of human fate. They should generate the same mathematically ideal plan for building a machine that moves across time and space. The translator, as reader of the original, should then create their translation in the likeness of the original vehicle. That is, translate using other parts, already in another linguistic territory, in another workshop. Piece together the camera anew so that readers of another language can set out on a journey. This is how poetry should work — a vehicle that sets our souls in motion.

Translated by Mira Rosenthal


Tomasz Różycki is an award-winning Polish poet and translator. He has published several collections of poetry in Polish, two of which have been translated into English: Twelve Stations (2004; translated by Bill Johnston, 2015) and Colonies (2006; translated by Mira Rosenthal, 2013). A volume of selected poems translated by Rosenthal, The Forgotten Keys, appeared in 2007.

Mira Rosenthal’s first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her translation of Różycki’s Colonies won the Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize.

LARB Contributors

Tomasz Różycki is an award-winning Polish poet and translator. He has published several collections of poetry in Polish, two of which have been translated into English: Twelve Stations (2004; translated by Bill Johnston, 2015) and Colonies (2006; translated by Mira Rosenthal, 2013). A volume of selected poems translated by Rosenthal, The Forgotten Keys, appeared in 2007.
Mira Rosenthal’s first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her second book of translations, Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s Colonies, won the Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize. A past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Stegner Program, Rosenthal publishes regularly in such journals as Ploughshares, Poetry, Harvard Review, PN Review, A Public Space, and Oxford American. Her honors include the PEN Translation Fund Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Residency, and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies.


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