The Music of Other Tongues: On Translating Rhyme and Rhythm in Poetry
Mira Rosenthal and Tomasz Różycki Reflect on Two Decades of Literary Collaboration
Dictums about the impossibility of translating poetry abound, from Frost’s oft-misquoted aphorism that poetry is what’s lost in translation to John Ciardi’s oft-misattributed statement that translation is the art of failure. But perhaps the two of us met young enough and with sufficient naïve optimism—spurred on by our mutual mentor Adam Zagajewski who introduced us in 2004—to take on the impossible. Soon I started translating Tomasz’s poetry.
Tomasz’s book-length epic poem Twelve Stations had just come out to wide critical acclaim, followed quickly by his translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice and then his sixth book of poetry, Colonies, establishing him as a preeminent Polish poet attuned to the difficulty of finding an authentic self in a region marked by the dislocations of war. Still, it took a number of years to secure an American press willing to gamble on an unknown poet from what’s referred to as a minor language.
In 2007, Zephyr Press published Tomasz’s English-language debut, The Forgotten Keys, a selection of his poems from across his five collections to date in my translation. Meanwhile, after a fair bit of handwringing about what it might mean to be publishing a translation before my own book of poetry, my first collection, The Local World, won the Wick Poetry Prize and appeared in 2011.
As is inevitable with poetic debuts—whether in the original or in translation—these books brought a sense of accomplishment but also raised questions about what we would do differently and where we were each headed as poets. We debriefed. We discussed the importance of travel as a theme in both of our work. We pondered the difficulty of rendering meter and rhyme in translation.
And eventually I decided to work on Colonies in its entirety, fueled in part by a desire to find a more accurate equivalent to the music of Tomasz’s style and represent the interlinked quality of his concatenated, book-length series. That this quality corresponded to an innate sharpening of sonic texture in my own writing, born out in my next collection, Territorial, only added to the appeal of continuing to collaborate.
Embedded in this process of moving between writing and translating is also a process of finding influence outside our own literary traditions. Both of us have come to appreciate it as one of the best ways to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our specific languages, i.e., what artistic tools we have at our disposal, and to push the boundaries of our specific cultures, i.e., what literary conventions define and confine us.
If there’s one thing this process has taught us, it’s that poetry in general is an art of the impossible, of distilling an experience down to a few words on a page that mean multiple things at once. As Charles Simic put it, little is said but much is meant in a lyric poem. Or, to give Frost’s aphorism correctly: “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” In his essay “Star Vehicle: On Translating Poetry” in the LA Review of Books, Tomasz points out that if we’ve been told anything by this definition, it’s what poetry is not—but still we have no idea what it is.
Yet we both recognize when it shows up, in an experience perhaps the flip side of Frost’s idea, as the inscrutable feeling: how would I even begin to say that in my language? And then, despite ourselves, we find we are translating.
That was the case with Tomasz’s eighth volume, To the Letter, just out in my translation from Archipelago Books. And that goes for the writing of it in English as well as in the original Polish, as we explain in the following reflections. It’s a book that echoes other writers, layers quotation, and translates in all sorts of ways to affirm connection in the face of twenty-first-century isolation. Bringing it into English during the literal isolation of the pandemic was an important affirmation at the time, just as our friendship/collaboration over the past two decades has been an important reminder of the centrality of translation in our own creative lives.
One of the most common questions Mira fields at events is: “How does the poetry you translate influence your own writing?” And people often ask Tomasz about whether the process of being translated changes the way he writes. We remain very different poets stylistically and thematically. We also remain inevitably changed by the experience of our collaboration. Working together over these last two decades has brought into focus distinguishing features of our predilections as writers—the personality quirks that good friends recognize—while also highlighting the line between writing and translating.
Mira Rosenthal: I never quite know how to answer the question of the influence between what I translate and my own writing. Is it different from the influence of other things I read? After all, translation is an act of reading, very close reading, the closest reading you can ever do. Above all, it teaches you about language, the building blocks of the whole endeavor, but in a more acute way, from the outside.
Only by seeing what’s possible in Polish do I realize what is and isn’t possible in English, how language determines our categories of emotion and our patterns of thought. Translating has made me more sensitive to those categories and patterns in English, and more and more as a poet I find myself interested in playing around with them, in using writing as a way to expose them.
I think that’s one thing Tomasz and I have in common: an interest in patterns and dynamics—whether linguistic or cultural—that keep repeating and morphing across generations. And the use of rhythm and rhyme is an important stylistic expression of that for both of us.
Tomasz Różycki: A major problem in the translation of contemporary poetry, to my mind, is that very few translators want (and are able) to translate metrically and musically organized poetry. If you look at which Polish poetry has been most successful in English (or whatever other translation) it’s usually an unrhymed, intellectual game or reflection.A major problem in the translation of contemporary poetry, to my mind, is that very few translators want (and are able) to translate metrically and musically organized poetry.
But in the Polish tradition, we have a ton of great rhymed poems by beloved Polish poets who are completely unknown in English. In that whole circle of translators, Mira is a wonderful and precious treasure: she keeps the rhythm and the rhyme. And I’m so grateful!
If I wanted to write poetry especially to be translated, especially easy for foreign readers, the first thing I would do is to kick out all the rhyme and meter. That would help a lot. But instead, over time, I’ve observed an opposite trend in my writing: the metrical challenges have grown exponentially, accumulating even more difficulties for my translators.
MR: Sometimes editors have balked a bit at the rhyme in my translations. My sense is that some readers experience rhyme as an impediment to lyricism that makes it sound unnatural. The challenge is to make it sound fluid instead of forced. But I’m also aware of the fact that I’m “allowed” to do things in my own poems that I can’t do in a translation. Maybe I want a moment in one of my poems to sound clunky or prosaic. Or I might have a flourish of rhymes only at certain moments or choose purposefully strange diction that’s halting and uneasy.
If I do these same things in a translation, it’s often considered a bad rendering that isn’t “fluent,” even if the same qualities are there in the original. When translating, strangeness and experimentation get supplanted to a degree by one of two concerns: the necessity of constructing an interpretation of the poem, and the prevalent though erroneous expectation of fluency.
TR: I’m not as experienced a translator as Mira, and it’s not my main commitment. But it seems to me that each endeavor has a discrete mission: a translator is a kind of teacher, and a poet is much more private. A translator might use language that is simpler (in the sense of being the pedagogue), while a poet’s language embraces sophistication.
For example, when I translated “Un coup de dés” by Mallarmé, every now and then I had to make very specific linguistic and grammatical decisions where the text did not give me any hint of how to interpret it; on the contrary, it was maximally open and demonstrated its ambiguity. Meanwhile, every choice of the translator means interpretation, so it closes the “openness” of the poem.
I’ve also been translating more and more Ukrainian poetry lately in connection to the war with Russia. This seems to me a more authentic way to convey what’s happening, to give voice to the Ukrainian experience. I also treat it as a kind of mission – this is what I can do for them in this difficult time, this is how I can support their heroic struggle—by showing what great poetry they have, how rich and beautiful Ukrainian culture is. In this sense, I think of translation as pedagogical work, teaching about another culture.
What the World Needs Now
As we approach the publication of Tomasz’s collection To the Letter in Mira’s English translation, we’ve been struck by how the book feels urgent in new and unexpected ways. First published in 2016 against the backdrop of authoritarianism rising across eastern Europe and a struggle between liberal and conservative paradigms in Poland, the collection’s plea for an absent hero who might be able to rescue twenty-first-century human beings feels even more pressing and global now.
TR: It’s always interesting to see how a book resonates and how it’s received in a foreign country when the translation replants it in different soil. The Polish context of those years when I wrote To the Letter has dissipated a bit, but at that moment it was a crucial thing for me. I saw it as the beginning of a decline of a happy period in our personal lives and, possibly, in the life of the nation as well, like the end of a great epoch.
It was a very depressing feeling, a very depressing winter, especially since it had been almost six years since I’d written any poetry. I was searching for a way to speak about all the things I’d experience over those six years, which for me is always a process of searching for a meter and a line of verse that can serve as a model.
That winter, I finally found one….
MR: Let’s mention it’s the line, or some variation of the line, “How I wish you were here.”
TR: Yes, and that phrase, “I wish you were here,” came to me from Pink Floyd’s refrain, but also from the same phrase used later by Barańczak and Brodsky in their poems. This is another example of how poetry in translation can inspire. And I started to write like mad: over the next ninety days I wrote nighty-nine poems. It was like a constant artistic delirium. Six years of silence, and then three months of madness.
I remember mumbling to myself in the store, on the train, everywhere I went—that’s how I compose, by memorizing my lines (which is why I need a meter), and when I have a stanza or a few stanzas, I write them down. That’s what I did, walking around for ninety days: to classes at the university, to the grocery store, walking my dog. All my anxieties about the future in Poland and the entire world pouring out.
And, indeed, it turned out to be the start of a very unpleasant time: political madness, conflicts around the world, climate changes, pandemics, and now the war in Ukraine, just next door to us. I hope it won’t continue like this.
MR: While To the Letter has all those anxieties in it, I think it also maintains hope, maybe because Tomasz wrote it at the beginning of the political changes in which we now seem mired. The fears it expresses have come to pass, or have intensified, or are still weighing us down around the world today.
Which is precisely why we need these poems and their insistence on love. Throughout the collection, the abstract noun “love” takes on the form of a fantastical creature, half-immortal and capable of metamorphosis, half-animal like a dog or some more feral beast, elusive and dangerous. The book seems to ask: what is the role of love, of human intimacy and individual connection, especially in relation to the political history that informs our present and already has designs on our future.
At the same time, there are things that strike me as utterly Polish and very local, which is one of the charms of the book. It’s rooted in the Silesian region, with all its attendant history and layering of identity. For those unfamiliar, the town where Tomasz grew up was once part of Germany until the borders shifted west after WWII, causing a forcible relocation of Poles from the east to these new western territories. A sense of absence, of a previous homeland lost, haunts so much of Tomasz’s writing.Sometimes the poet is a receiver that can tune in to a certain emotional frequency and catch those sounds from the ether, just like a radio catches radio waves.
And then there’s the additional absence of the Jewish population no longer there. The poems bring to light these repeating patterns of absence and ask how we can remain present, despite successive catastrophes that continue to repeat themselves today.
TR: I’d also add that it’s in the nature of poetry to reproduce sounds and voices coming to us from outside, like radio waves. Sometimes the poet is a receiver that can tune in to a certain emotional frequency and catch those sounds from the ether, just like a radio catches radio waves. We repeat them without even knowing much about where they came from or how long they traveled through space to reach us, how many stars they bounced off along the way. We are a resonance box for voices from the past, present, and future. We keep all the dead inside us.
Freedom in Translation
There was a learning curve when we first started working together. Things didn’t always go as planned, or they took longer, or they met with criticism. The translation of poetry faces particular challenges of perception and a dearth of publication options. But we’ve maintained a commitment to our collaboration as a space of discovery and joy—look what language can do! Amid small picture frustrations over nuances lost and big picture barriers to publication, we’ve gained a lot and found a steadfast trust in the process and each other.
MR: There was a watershed moment for me when translating Colonies. I was struggling over an interpretation of the poem “Sanctuary in the Mountains” and wrote to Tomasz about it: is this some sort of retelling of a fairytale? The poem seemed that strange and magical (it has a wizard in it).
And here’s the thing. When you’re reading a poem, you can allow it to be strange and mysterious, to draw from an alternate logic akin to a fairytale without fully understanding it. After all, we go to poetry for this kind of dream logic. But when translating, you have to make choices of interpretation as you bring it over into English, all the while trying to recreate its layering of metaphoric resonance that imbues it with poetic mystery.
“This is a very particular poem, encrypted,” Tomasz wrote back to me. “I’ve never spoken to anyone about it. It’s not based on a fairy tale but rather on Polish literature and its history—its form is a kind of cipher, as poets have been apt to use for centuries (a kind of game, like a secret Masonic Lodge). I cannot say anything more about it.” Well, then, I didn’t have to be able to explain it fully either! I felt much more permission and freedom after that.
TR: Ha ha! That’s really funny! Maybe next time I should be more open to explaining….I guess the translator has to be a bit of a private psychoanalyst or confessor of sorts (a Jesuit priest). I’m joking of course. But I’m well aware how inexplicable my own poems are even in Polish, for Polish readers and critics, how deeply personal and how deeply rooted in the Polish tradition they are, how the language is specific, how idiomatic it is, how the meter builds, how the rhymes are delicate—in short, how impossible it is to translate.
Then Mira sends the first draft of a translation, and step by step we write back and forth about it. It’s wonderful to see the whole process! Some translators don’t want to collaborate too much with the author. But Mira asks questions and discusses options sometimes, and I feel honored by this intimacy: I can observe the creation of a new poem in English and play a part in the translation process.
Then there’s the fact of the dominant role of English in the world. I know other translators sometimes check the English translations of my poems and compare them to their work. That dominant role is a privilege but, I can imagine, a pressure as well. I’m truly amazed by the choices Mira makes and the inventions she comes up with and how the translation is dealing with all the “impossibilities”—how ingenious it is. In this way, over the years of our collaboration, I’ve grown to trust and believe in her choices, experience, literary taste, and intuition.
MR: And I’ve come to really cherish getting to know things about the poems that no other reader or critic could ever guess—things Tomasz was thinking about or personal experiences behind the writing that are not revealed explicitly. For example, learning that the poem “To Give Water to the Thirsty” was about the death of Tomasz’s father. The biblical reference to Jesus’ last words on the cross—sure, some astute reader can pick up on that. But the “secret Masonic Lodge” of one’s personal allusions? What a joy to get a glimpse behind the door!
It’s a bit like spending time in a writer’s archive and seeing all the drafts, the revisions, the snippets of personal correspondence that show up in the poems. And that greater context allows me to enter the rewriting of the poem in a more intuitive way—to interiorize it, as Tomasz said earlier, and become its speaker—informed by what is not stated explicitly but charges the poem with depth.
I’m also very aware of the power structure that circumscribes us. On the one hand, we’re simply two poets working together and taking pleasure in the collaborative process. On the other hand, English means a global access point for so many more readers—even readers in other languages when, as Tomasz mentioned, the English is used as a relay translation. There are always going to be nuances that I’ll miss. But because of this positioning, I’d like to be as accurate as possible—which, by the way, doesn’t mean privileging sense but, rather, coming to my choices from as informed a position as possible.
TR: I would add to this Mira’s idea from her Kenyon Review essay “Voicing a Voice: Forty-nine questions about power, originality, performance, and what we mean when we talk about the translator’s voice in the translated text.” I think we have to interiorize the translation and give our voice to a text to let it speak.I love when the English does its own thing, i.e., when it discovers a resonance of metaphoric meaning or builds a sonic quality not necessarily there in the same way in the original. I’ve come to understand these moments as what’s gained in translation.
When I read Mira’s English translations of my poems out loud in public, I can still recognize them as my poems. I can feel them, feel how they are still mine, though slightly different, just as we are always a slightly different person when speaking a foreign language. My English “I” is a bit strange to my Polish “I” and vice-versa, so the poems are perhaps a bit strange but in a good way, a way that is unexpected, new, exciting.
Yet they are still mine. You know, my favorite moment when writing is when my poem surprises me. In a good way, when I’m amazed by what just happened in the Polish. So, when it surprises me in English as well, I’m delighted.
MR: I wait for that moment of surprise, too, when the translation does something completely unexpected. It might sound counter-intuitive when it comes to translation. After all, isn’t everything already there in the original? What surprises could there be?
But I love when the English does its own thing, i.e., when it discovers a resonance of metaphoric meaning or builds a sonic quality not necessarily there in the same way in the original. I’ve come to understand these moments as what’s gained in translation.
Tomasz Różycki is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and prose, most recently the volume The Beekeeper’s Hand and the novel The Lightbulb Thieves. He has garnered almost every prize Poland has to offer as well as widespread critical acclaim, with work translated into numerous languages and frequent appearances at international festivals. In the U.S., he has been featured at the 92nd St. Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, the Princeton Poetry Festival, and the Brooklyn Book Festival. His awards include the Kościelski Prize, the Wisława Szymborska Prize, and a DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship. He teaches French language, culture and literature at the University of Opole.
Mira Rosenthal is the author of Territorial, a Pitt Poetry Series selection and finalist for the INDIES Book of the Year award, and The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two Fulbright Fellowships, and residencies at Hedgebrook, The Jan Michalski Foundation, and MacDowell, she is an associate professor of creative writing at Cal Poly. Her translations of Polish poetry include Krystyna Dąbrowska’s Tideline and Tomasz Różycki’s Colonies, which won the Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize.
To the Letter by Tomasz Różycki and translated by Mira Rosenthal is available via Archipelago Books.