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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: Polish Signs

Image: Gosia Korszla
Image: Gosia Korszla

Late last year, we were honoured to hold a Polish translation workshop, led by the poet Wojciech Bonowicz and his translator Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese. In this blog, Wójcik-Leese remembers the workshop and shows how versions of one poem reveal their authors’ varied interpretations recorded in the act of translation.

On an October afternoon, 2016, the Scottish Poetry Library’s meeting room, the Space, filled with people ready to rewrite Wojciech Bonowicz’s poems. Some attended our reading two days before, when we also shared Polish poems from Centres of Cataclysm (the anthology edited by Sasha Dugdale with Helen and David Constantine to celebrate fifty years of Modern Poetry in Translation). Others were newcomers – a reassuring sign of eagerness for poetry in unknown languages, for poetry in translation.

We started with freewriting around short passages chosen from Bonowicz’s six collections. In pairs, we drew cards with quotes in Polish and their English versions: for example, ‘We were already perfect and again we are not’, ‘Once they’re gone, the ripped / skin of the clearing heals’ or ‘We wait for a sky smeared with a more legible pattern’.

Attentive to phrasing, we concentrated on Bonowicz’s ‘Night’ (featured in Centres of Cataclysm). We checked the Polish and another English version to see how differences recorded in a translation series point to the places in the original that encourage our strongest cooperation as readers and writers. Compare, for instance, ‘You sit in the corner of a stone,/ rolled up/ like a piece of paper’ with ‘You sit cornered in the stone, / a scrunched / sheet of paper.’

Talking about choices we make as readers led us to thinking about our choices as writers: in drafting, rewriting, polishing our final versions. To experiment with such decision-making, we focused on a word-for-word translation of a Bonowicz poem from his forthcoming collection. This literal version reproduces features of the Polish language: no articles, no distinction between simple and continuous tenses, omitted pronouns (as grammatical endings of verbs disambiguate their agents). In short, as few signs of the interpreter’s presence as possible, even in the word choices.

[They] bathed in sea (literal translation)

At night [they] bathed in sea
black and I was waiting on shore.
[I] heard behind back breaths
of dogs collecting [themselves]on dunes.
[I] heard in darkness squeals of those bathing [themselves].
Fear spread wings. [I] squeezed in palms
their clothes and called: ‘Quick more quickly
come out.’ Nobody answered.
In water up to knees chattering with teeth
[I] called, ‘Come out already.’ But nobody came out.

Here is the Polish original:

Kąpali się w morzu

W nocy kąpali się w morzu
czarnym a ja czekałem na brzegu.
Słyszałem za plecami oddechy
psów zbierających się na wydmach.
Słyszałem w ciemności piski kąpiących się.
Strach rozkładał skrzydła. Ściskałem w dłoniach
ich ubrania i wołałem: „Szybko szybciej
wychodźcie”. Nikt nie odpowiadał.
W wodzie po kolana szczękając zębami
wołałem: „Wychodźcie już”. Lecz nikt nie wyszedł.

Together, we created another translation series, which shows intriguing details of the original and the inventiveness of all the authors. You can read five versions below. Moreover, ‘Night’ was translated into Doric by Mary Johnston. Enjoy and draft your own.

Night bathers
by Tim Gutteridge

They were bathing in the night black
sea while I waited on the shore.
Behind me I heard the panting
of dogs scavenging among the dunes.
In the darkness I heard the cries of the bathers.
Fear unfurled its wings. I clutched
their clothes and called. ‘Quick. Quick.
Come out.’ Nobody answered.
Up to my knees in water, through chattering teeth
I called, ‘Come out now!’ But nobody came.

They’re Bathing – in the Sea
by Krystyna Campbell

During the night they went to bathe in the sea.
Black.  And I waited on the edge.
I could hear behind me the panting,
the dogs gathering together on the sand dunes.
In the dark, I could hear the shrieking, those bathing.
Unfolding wings of fear. Grasping their clothes into my palms
I called out ‘Quick, get out quick’. No one answered.
With water up to my knees, teeth shivering,
I shouted ‘Come out. Now’. But no one emerged.

Night-time bathers
by Roger West

Night-time bathers in the day’s dying glow.
Unheeding eddies of sea’s undertow.
Dogs gather together on slavering dunes.
The cries of the swimmers fade into gloom.
Fear breaking over me, washed in with the tide.
Pressing their clothes to my breast then I cried:
It’s time to come out now, it’s time to come out.
Nobody answered or heeded my shouts.
In voiding darkness, knee-deep in the foam:
Please come out now, don’t leave me alone.

Bathed in a Sea
by Gareth Davies

They bathed in a sea. Black night.
And I was waiting on a shore.
Enclosed by the breathing of dogs packed on dunes,
The squeals of bathers were heard in darkness.
Fear took wing.
Palms wrung clothing.
I called quickly ‘'Be out now!’
Nobody answered.
Wading into blackness I called through chattering teeth
‘Come out now!’
But nobody came.

Sea Bathers
by J.L. Williams

At night they bathed in the black
sea while I waited on shore.

Behind my back
the breath of dogs
searching the dunes.

I heard bather’s shrieks.
Fear opened its wings.

I grabbed their clothes and called
‘Quick, come out, please come.’

Nobody answered.

In water up to my knees,
with chattering teeth, I called
‘Come out.’

Nobody came out.

by Mary Johnston

Fen ye first come on a poem
ye’re sneckit wi’t,
inside a steen kist,
it disna wint ye tae look aroon,
tae rake aboot for ither werds
ye ken frae ither poems.

Ye sit in e neuk o the steen kist,
a runklie bit o paper,
keepit in aboot,
mauchless, ringt in,
ye canna breathe.
The poem winna lat ye.

Inside iss steen kist
ere’s nae ficherin or makin eese o
scratcher, k-nock, caird,
or onythin yer feemin mind haives up.

The poem has its ain jalousins,
biggit up inside yer ain,
syne keppit inside,
so it kin lowse itsel.

Ye hiv ti bide
in the neuk o the kist,
faar fyles, gowden stoor’ll
lichten on houp.

Hinner en, the poem
opens up itsel,
lowsed frae e steen kist,
a bit o paper,
an breathes for ye.

We would like to thank all the participants as well as the co-organizers: Jennifer Williams (formerly of the SPL), Kasia Kokowska (from Interaktywny Salon Piszących w Szkocji) and Magda Raczyńska (from the Polish Cultural Institute in London) for their enthusiastic support.

Category: Scottish Poetry Library