This essay is one of a series inspired by the Little Patuxent Review Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first one was posted September 2011, and all feature people who have helped make marginalized segments of our world visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.
When Swedish writer, poet and translator Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature, few in America were familiar with his work. And he was one of the fortunate ones, having had someone of the stature of poet Robert Bly to turn his words into English. Tranströmer’s poetry, all told, has been translated into some 60 languages.
Unfortunately, the United States–along with Britain–offers few foreign works in translation. While 70 percent of the books in Slovenia are translations and France and Spain come in at 27 and 28, respectively, we bring up the rear with a paltry two percent. This is a loss for us because it narrows our world view; it is also a loss for readers in other nations, since English is a global language.
Still, some here do participate in what Horace Engdahl, then Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, called “the big dialogue of literature” when he made his controversial 2008 remarks criticizing Americans for not translating enough. One of those is Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, who shares the story of how she became a translator and, in turn, a poet:
I arrived in the United States on June 30, 1980, right after receiving my PhD in biochemistry from the Polish Academy of Sciences. A couple of months later, the Polish trade union Solidarity (Solidarność) was born. As a result, the Polish government allowed my husband to join me in the States in December.
My first trip to a Safeway in San Francisco was a shock: overstuffed shelves in long aisles, so many kinds of everything. Countless varieties of cooking oil and salad dressing from which to choose or five-pound sugar bags at a time when, in Poland, stores were empty and food was rationed. Excess, waste, I thought. Then and there, I decided that I didn’t need sugar in my tea.
At that time, I was a rare species from behind the Iron Curtain: a scientist with a postdoctoral fellowship. People seemed really interested in life in that communist country, even if they were not sure where Poland was. They asked me questions, they talked to me. There was so much to learn about our different worlds. They were learning from me, I was learning about them and the United States.
When my fellowship finished two years later, Solidarity was in prison and martial law was imposed in Poland. Flights were cancelled, mail and phone conversations censored. My husband and I stayed here. I was awarded my own research grants. Our son was born. I had a busy and successful career as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland in Baltimore until I couldn’t work anymore due to fibromyalgia.
Why did I turn to poetry?
In 1980, Czesław Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was right next door, a professor at Berkeley. My fellow researchers were amazed: Miłosz, a poet, from Poland. In 1996, Wisława Szymborska was awarded the same prize. My American friends started asking about the poet and her writings. Since her books were not available in English, I translated one of her poems, “The People on the Bridge,” for my friend Alice, whose grandparents had emigrated from Poland in the 19th Century. I enjoyed journeying from one language to another.
This adventure gave me the courage to translate poems written by Lidia Kosk, the author of ten books who is also my mother. Her poems reflect on Polish history, a passion that extended to a collaboration with her late husband, Henryk P. Kosk, on the two-volume Poland’s Generals: A Popular Biographical Lexicon.
As was typical for those of my parents’ generation, she grew up during World War II and survived first the Nazi occupation of Poland, then the Stalinist regime imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. As a young girl, she was twice captured by Nazis in random round-ups of Polish citizens (she escaped both times), yet she still believes that human beings are inherently good, even though there is a part of us that is evil and can be activated by ideology. All these experiences have surfaced in her writing.
Once we had decided to publish a bilingual book, the pace of translation accelerated. I am now the translator of the two bilingual books of poems by Lidia Kosk, niedosyt/reshapings and Słodka woda, słona woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water. I also edited the latter, which has been nominated for two translation awards.
I have translated other poets, including Ernest Bryll. He is the author of some 50 volumes of poetry, plays and prose and a co-translator of seven books on Irish literature. Some of his plays, such as Painted on Glass, have attained record popularity in Central Europe, and some of his poems have been turned into lyrics for hit songs sung by some of the best Polish singers. My various translations have appeared in over 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies in the States.
I was also writing my own poems. Sometimes, when a poem couldn’t decide in which language it wanted to be written, I painted it.
I have given countless readings of my poems. Usually, I include my translations, accompanied by the originals that I read in Polish. I also provide information on Polish history, literature and the poet in question. While presenting Lidia Kosk’s war poems, I have noticed that people appreciate hearing that World War II started in Europe on September 1, 1939, with the invasion of Poland. Afterward, somebody usually comes to confess that he or she is of Polish descent but does not speak the language. Or, like Alice, just a few words learned from her grandmother, Babcia, who did not speak much English. At that time, it was believed that speaking another language at home hampered one’s education and chances of success in America.
In January 2011, I joined Loch Raven Review, which has published my poems, translations and an essay on the translation process. As Poetry Translations Editor, I have focused on bilingual publications from upcoming or recently published books. My goal is to familiarize readers with lesser-known poets from all over the world. And with their translators, who work mostly for the love of poetry, poets and languages, all the while helping to spread the word about the less-noticed parts of the world. The spring issue presents a Venezuelan poet, the summer issue two Polish poets. The fall issue will bring together two Czech poets.
It is telling that Danuta elected to have a photo (see above) taken of her standing beside a plaque depicting both American abolitionist John Brown and Polish poet Kamil Cyprian Norwid. Norwid had composed the poem “To Citizen John Brown” after hearing about Brown’s 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid, an attempt to start an armed slave revolt. Excerpts in both Polish and English are included, the latter courtesy of translator Walter Whipple.
The plaque is located at the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Danuta believes that an identical one at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park was probably the original. According to Park historians, no other non-American literary person is known to have responded to Brown’s monumental act.
To Citizen John Brown
Cyprian Kamil Norwid, trans. Walter Whipple
Across the Ocean’s rolling expanse
I send you a song, as it were a seagull, oh John!…
Its flight will be long to the Land
Of the Free–for it’s now doubtful whether it will arrive…
–Or whether, as a ray from your noble grey hair,
White–on an empty scaffold alights:
That your hangman’s son with child’s hand
May cast stones at the guest seagull.
Then the ropes will tell whether
Your bare neck is unyielding;
Then you will try the ground under your heels,
That you may kick away this debased planet–
And the dirt from beneath your feet, as a frightened reptile
Then will they utter: “Hanged…”–
They will speak and wonder among themselves, could this be a lie?
Then, before they place the hat on your face,
That America, having recognized her son,
Will not shout at her twelve stars:
“Extinguish the feigned fires of my crown,
Night falls–a black night with the face of a Negro!”
Then, before Kosciuszko’s phantom and Washington’s
Quake–accept the beginning of the song, oh John…
For while the song matures, sometimes a man will die,
But before the song dies, a nation will first arise.