A Polish-ish poet on translating a Polish poet

Painting by Grzegorz Wróblewski. Image courtesy of the artist.

Author note: Jacket2 has our permission to publish these poems. The original publisher has gone out of business so the rights have reverted back to the author. In turn he has granted me full permission to translate and publish the prose poems of his book Android i anegdota, which translates to An Android and an Anecdote. The working English title is Mr. Z— Peter Burzyński

I was interested in Grzegorz Wróblewski’s work from the very first pages. I devoured the English translation of the book Copenhagen. It was incredible. After rereading it I could also then appreciate the neobaroque and grotesque gestures of mixing the sacred and the profane. My decision to translate his work was different than my other translations of Polish poets, because I wanted to bring rarely translated poets to the US: Martyna Buliżańska, Karola Żielińska, and the enigmatic publisher-poet Anna Matysiak. They are all living, young, women poets who do not seem to get as much exposure in the Anglophone market as their male contemporaries and of course, the dead guys. However, the reluctant star of Grzegorz Wróblewski was too much to resist. There was one problem — he already had a translator for his poetry — the very same translator who exposed me to the dark magic of this work in the first place: Piotr Gwiazda. What could I do? He was clearly the more Polish of the two Peters and he already had a relationship with Grzegorz. I do not give up easily. As with many things in the world of publishing I had an “in” three degrees separated. David Bowen, the publisher of my translation of Buliżańska’s first book This is My Earth, knew Marcus Slease who knew Grzegorz. I hate Facebook, but it is a good way to reach poets from all over; that, and I don’t see many poets polishing their profiles on LinkedIn. The rest is history, but I will not dismiss this relationship of arguing and translating so soon as it is an ongoing history that has become one of the best, yet strangest, friendships I have ever had.

After our connection on Facebook Messenger, Grzegorz promptly confessed he did not like communicating via Messenger, and we exchanged emails and dropped the formality of calling each other Pan, or “gentle sir” as is custom when speaking to someone with whom you are not familiar. The disdain for the dainty formality of Polish customs long abandoned by other Slavic languages was a good sign that we would become fast friends.

Grzegorz showered me with prose books — so many books. More than I could have read at the time, especially since I slowly chew prose, though I gulp poetry. His generosity astonished me. After all, I am the rich American living my decadent Western lifestyle and he is the Polish ex-pat scraping together a beautiful, yet modest living on visual art and poems in Copenhagen. Should not I have been the generous one here? No matter, I skimmed all the books hungrily, thought I lost some to a small fire, but joyously uncovered them in my car and promptly picked the least fiction-like book of his own — An Android and an Anecdote — which I have simply renamed after its bumbling antihero Mr. Z. It is a hybrid of prose and poetry and concise dramatic scenes. This indiscriminate mix of genres makes this book alienating and inviting all at once. It is because of its uniqueness and difficulty that I love it as only a parent or author could love their own child or book. It is absurd and real; distant and warm; snide and charming — it is a smart kind of literature I relish as a reader.

Grzegorz is a complicated human, poet, artist, and author. I had some difficulties with neologisms and the different ways of showing dialogue in Polish with hyphens and in English with quotation marks. I was unsure how to approach this odd duck of dialogue-heavy prosetry. I had to make the tension real, but also keep the nonchalant way Polish handles dialogue against the loud way of showing dialogue in English. An example of how this dialogue appears in the original shows the ease with which the back and forth of prose dialogue lends itself more to poetry in Polish:

„Pan Zy był zawsze otwarty na głosy i opinie z wewnątrz:
- No i co? – zapytał go Pan Zy.
- A co? – odpowiedział bojowo Pan Zy.
- Coś tam na pewno – kontynuował niewzruszony Pan Zy.”

(“Mr. Z was always open to hearing different voices and opinions from the inside:
“Okay, now what?’ Mr. Z asked him.
“About what?” the voice answered Mr. Z militantly.
“There is certainly something —” the unmoved Mr. Z continued.”)

The short and long dashes introduce and parse the dialogue throughout. The dialogues become more complex in longer passages.

What is most difficult for me is approaching his brief dramatic dialogues. These microplays resemble the formatting of an Anglophone screenplay and leave as much imaginative space to the reader as a screenplay would to a director. Grzegorz is never heavy-handed; he trusts the intelligence and relishes the sly cynicism of his reader. These are poems/flash pieces for a punk rocker who has a pair of reading glasses that fit secretly in the back pocket of their tattered jeans.

Many conversations with Grzegorz helped move this process along. We spoke very little about the actual material and got to know each other as humans and as poets. We had and continue to have conversations in madness and drunkenness. We bridged the time gap with him being an early bird and me an obstinate night owl. Learning who he was helped me find the correct ways to approach his work.

I wish I could say I was organized in my approach to translating these dry, salty spitballs of sardonic cleverness, but I am not. I translate much like I write — sporadically and hungover in the short sepia grey of morning somewhere between sleep and dream and only when the mood and muses feel right. I wish I could write and translate like a professional proser — have a schedule with a minimum page turnout per day during a set amount of hours, but I can’t punch the clock on creative energy — it will not come and if I force it, it is shit. I wrote in a poem long ago as a twenty-year-old idiot who got rejected from Iowa, “and I wanted to / let you know that you can’t feed me alphabet soup and expect / me to shit poetry.” I have since hung up that rejection letter from Iowa next to my MFA from The New School, my MA in Slavic Literature from Columbia, and PhD from UW–Milwaukee. Despite all these degrees, I am more stubborn than I am smart. If I was smart I would be rich, right? Doing this feels better, even though it stretches me thin. I find time to write and translate somewhere between my full-time job as the book center manager at the legendary literary nonprofit Woodland Pattern, a side hustle teaching mostly composition at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and helping manage and create social media for my parents’ Polish restaurant of thirty-eight years. I am tired, but this work along with my full-time job keeps me going because it is a beautiful, hectic way to pursue passion. Hobbies are for wealthy people; I do not have time for hobbies.

Translating feels much like writing — it needs to be ostentatious, otherwise it feels like stuffing glass into a meat grinder. You can try to reshape someone else’s poems, but if you use the wrong tools or are on a different plane of understanding nothing good comes out — maybe some dusty shards about as useful as they are artful. I guess it takes a certain mood. It is difficult to explain — especially as a poet. That being said, I suppose there was indeed consistency to how I worked, in that my approach and experience translating always took place under the circumstances of the “right mood.”

Perhaps the right mood can explain my translation philosophy. This is the big question: am I a translator who wants to stick to the text word-for-word or go more for meaning and sound? Sometimes I am stricter with exact meaning with Grzegorz’s work than I normally am when I translate because I know it is important to this work even if the initial translation sounded clunky. I also feel that because this work is more prosey than most poetry, it lends itself to word-for-word translation. Most times I was not looking to echo sounds, but rather tone, voice, and above all, meaning. There are certainly academic and poet translators who take much greater liberties than I did, but I think of translation as a collaboration and not a separate project produced by a person completely apart from the original author. It is very helpful to be able to ask questions regularly and I am grateful for how often Grzegorz and I talk, even if he is on my ass for not working fast enough.

This negotiation of meaning, sound, and feeling is why I created the neologism translitigation. There is a balance of give and take and at the end of all of this, the poem has to feel right and sound right while maintaining the original meanings. This process makes translation feel like a legal battle. However, in the courtroom language is rather serious. A misused preposition can result in a large settlement and cruel verbs can mean the difference between freedom and incarceration, between life and death. I do not take translating as seriously as this, but the arbitration of translation styles is a real and constant counselor.

Grzegorz’s microprose is an odd, wonderfully dark and deep poetry; he is slightly less attached to the original language, though he is very mindful of tone. Tone, voice, and emotion are what truly matters. My subjectivity as a poet essentially repoeming these poems needs to be in line with the author’s. If we are feeling and saying two different things, I am not doing the work justice.

In regards to the difficulty translation poses, my main issue is time, and not comprehension. I have too many jobs and translation can be hard to do after a full day of running a restaurant and also a bookstore while teaching on “off” days. Not to make myself out to be a saint or a martyr, like the Polish poetic messianic tradition would suggest,[1] but keeping two forty-year-old small businesses alive during a pandemic is tough, right? Poets have to wear many hats to survive. Luckily, the quality of the text motivates me.

I will admit there are some small difficulties along the way. I had some vocabulary issues, but they did not alter the message. Some of these arose because I am not always apprised of the latest slang, as I do not live in Poland and Polish in America or Haiti or England or wherever that is not Poland evolves and corrupts itself beautifully in unique ways depending on its home country. This happens in Poland itself with at least two strong, mostly understandable regional dialects and a unique kind of Polish that has become its own language.[2]

I only have “lived” in Poland as a visitor and student: a visitor for five weeks in 1997, a student for four weeks in 2006 and in 2016, and again as a visitor for two-and-a-half weeks in 2017. I am a heritage speaker at a C1 level. I am often embarrassed at how poor my grammar is when writing and speaking. I confuse cases and tenses and genders after all these years. Native speakers understand me without issue, but I still have those affectations when I speak Polish.

Despite this, as a heritage speaker (someone whose first language is foreign to the land of their birth or someone who grew up speaking a language not commonly spoken in their country of residence), I do have a distinct advantage over non-native or non-heritage speakers. My Polish origins helped me understand idioms, cultural references, and locations. Some poet translators collaborate with native speakers and this is evident when a book has two translators — a native speaker and a poet. Having another translator as a collaborator may have killed me — two poets poeming in one space is already more than I can bear, at least while writing. Most important was the inherited history of us Slavic poets –– this kind of joyful sadness or sad joy that all Slavic poets possess from Brodsky to Simic to Šalamun to Ahkmatova to Tsvetaeva to Pushkin to Mickiewicz to Słowacki to Wyśpiański to Szymborska to Różewicz to Miłosz to Herbert to Leszek Szaruga to Ana Božičević to Eugene Ostashevsky to Matvei Yankelevich to Natlie Lyalin to Marina Temkina to Ilya Kaminsky to Valzhyna Mort to Martyna Buliżańska to Grzegorz Wróblewski. It’s in our DNA. We are the children of genocide and if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.

Translation is also bitter and sweet simultaneously –– another paradox like the many that populate Slavic cultures. I am learning how to approach a text for artistic translation and not for purely academic/analytic purposes. It is a lot of work and time, but it is enjoyable. I also now have wonderful and important translation credits added to my poet’s report card or academic CV. It also helped me to better arrange the structure of my doctoral thesis, which was a new book of poetry with a critical introduction. And now I am a doctor! And I can now quote O’Hara’s Autobiographia Literaria,“And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!”

Here is a sample of originals and translations from this project:


     Pan Zy był zawsze otwarty na głosy i opinie z wewnątrz:
     - No i co? – zapytał go Pan Zy.
     - A co? – odpowiedział bojowo Pan Zy.
     - Coś tam na pewno – kontynuował niewzruszony Pan Zy.
     - Niekoniecznie …
     - W takim razie, co?
     - Co tu dużo mówić … – westchnął Pan Zy.
     - Nie ma o czym? – domyślił się Pan Zy.
- Taka prawda, Panie Zy – przyznał mu rację Pan Zy.


     Mr. Z was always open to hearing different voices and opinions from the inside:
     “Okay, now what?” Mr. Z asked him.
     “About what?” the voice answered Mr. Z militantly.
     “There is certainly something —” the unmoved Mr. Z continued.
     “Not necessarily …”
     “In that case, what?”
     “What can I say? ...” signed Mr. Z,
     “There is nothing to talk about?” Mr. Z guessed.
 “That’s the truth, Mr. Z,” the voice confessed and conceded to Mr. Z.



     Pan Zy nie dostrzegł w tunelu światła. Nie przywitał go wąż dusiciel. Nie czekała
na niego prababcia i nie było tam żadnych skrzydlastych postaci. Tak naprawdę, to niczego
nie zaobserwował. Piekło zaczęło się dopiero, gdy ponownie przebudził się podłączony
do maszynki wytwarzającej tlen. Wielka, złota mucha kręciła się przy jego stopach,
a obrażona salowa rzekła z miejsca do pielęgniarki:
     - Znowu trzeba mu będzie myć dupę.


     Mr. Z did not see light at the end of the tunnel. He was not greeted by a Boa Constrictor. His greatgrandmother was not waiting for him nor were there any winged beings to be found. In truth, he really didn’t observe anything. Hell only began when he woke up once again connected to an oxygen tank. A giant golden housefly meandered around his feet and the embarassed maid said to the nurse:
     “I’ll have to wash his ass again.”


Dezodorant odświeżający do stóp

     Pan Zy myślał, że poznał w końcu pewną panią, ale ta pani wcale tak nie myślała, więc do ich spotkania nigdy nie doszło. Lakierki powędrowały do schowka. Pan Zy przerzucił się z powrotem na gołe stopy.

Foot powder

     Mr. Z thought he finally recognized a certain woman, but it was an entirely different woman all together so she did not approach him. He put the patent leather shoes wandered into the glove compartment. He walked back in bare feet.


Król przelotów

     Pan Zy przycupnął obok króla przelotów uzbrojonego w powiększające szkiełko.
     - Bo jak raz przelecieli, to jeszcze kiedyś przelecą – stwierdził król przelotów.
     Po godzinie dodał:
     - Niedawno machałem …
     - Może jeszcze przelecą – pocieszył go Pan Zy.
     - Tylko raz przelecieli – odparł załzawiony król przelotów.
     Ożywił się ponownie o zmroku:
     - Ale i tak warto zaczekać. Czy pan rozumie?
     - Nie ruszę się z miejsca – przyrzekł mu Pan Zy.
     - Bo jak raz przelecieli, to jeszcze kiedyś przelecą. A wtedy im znowu pomacham – powiedział
król przelotów i przybliżył szkiełko do swojej owłosionej nogi.

The king of flight

     Mr. Z crouched next to the king of flight armed with a magnifying glass
     “If they flew in once, then they will eventually to fly in again,” the king of flight stated.
     After an hour he added:
      “Not long ago I waved …”
      “Maybe they’ll still fly in,” Mr. Z comforted him.
      “They only flew in once,” the tearful king of flight replied.
      He shook off the darkness:
      “But it’s still worth waiting. You feel me?”
      “I won’t move an inch,” Mr. Z promised him.
      “Because if they flew in once, then they will eventually fly in again. And then I will wave
      to them again,” the king of flight said
as he brought the magnifying glass closer to his own hairy leg.


Plejstocen dolny

     Pan Zy bezgranicznie ufał swojemu dentyście. Nie miał zresztą innego wyjścia. Dentysta Pana Zy był praktykiem i teoretykiem. W dodatku zwolennikiem metody bezznieczuleniowej:
      - Powinniśmy być z siebie dumni. Wszystko zaczęło się bowiem dawno, dawno temu.
Za górami i lasami. Proszę się, do cholery, nie wiercić, bo wyrwę nie tego, co trzeba …
Więc na czym to ja skończyłem? Acha, dawno, dawno temu … Mieliśmy wtedy masywne
szczęki oraz zęby przedtrzonowe. Żuchwa była bez bródki, proszę to sobie wyobrazić i wypłukać natychmiast krew, bo poplami mi spodnie, które upolowałem na przecenie. Więc żuchwa
bez bródki, silny prognatyzm … No a potem, niespodzianie, na żuchwie zaczątkowa bródka! Rewelacyjne … Chyba jednak wyrwałem nie tego, co planowałem. Trudno, takie przecież ryzyko, żyjemy w dość dramatycznych czasach. Muszę za coś żyć, czy się przypadkiem mylę?
Nie, nie mylę się … I takie to nasze życie … Nastąpiło zmniejszenie zębów, wydelikacenie szczęk. No dobrze, następnym razem zainteresujemy się pozostałościami … I jeszcze wypada dodać,
że mózgoczaszka kulista, ale to nie leży już w moim zakresie. Nie można być fachowcem we wszystkich możliwych dziedzinach. Powiem jedynie, że u pana nie nastąpił jeszcze zanik wałów nadczołowych. Mam jednak znajomego, który chętnie by się panu przyjrzał. Chirurgia plastyczna
to przyszłość. Oto jego adres …
     Pan Zy wyczytał potem w fachowej książce, że istotną rolę w procesie rozwoju miała praca
i że dzięki niej człowiek nauczył się nie tylko wykorzystywać przyrodę, lecz także przekształcać ją stosownie do potrzeb. A w miarę doskonalenia się narzędzi praca stawała się coraz bardziej wydajna … Właśnie! Wydajna, a zarazem skomplikowana i zróżnicowana … Również praca
dentysty czy specjalistów od wysysania tłuszczu.
     - Kły mamuta na nic się mamutowi nie zdały – doznał olśnienia Pan Zy.

The Gelasian Pleistocene

     Mr. Z had infinite faith in his dentist. He also had no other option. Mr. Z’s dentist was a practitioner and a theorist. In addition to that, he was a proponent of anesthesiology:
     “We should be proud of ourselves. Everything began long, long ago beyond the mountains and forests. I beg you, god damnit, don’t squirm because I’ll pull out the wrong one … So where did I leave off? Oh yeah, a long, long time ago … Back then we had massive jaws with large bicuspids. The mandible was without a chin. Try to imagine that! And please rinse out that blood right away or it will stain my pants. They were hard to find on sale! So anyway, a jaw without a chin and a strong protrusion … and then unexpectedly the beginnings of a tiny chin! A revelatation! … Oh, I think I did indeed pull out the wrong one. Too bad. I guess that’s the risk. We live in such a dramatic time. I have to live for something, right? Unless by accident I am wrong? No, no I’m not wrong … and that’s just life … Then there was a reduction in the amount of teeth and the jaw became more delicate. Okay great! Next time we’ll talk about the rest … Though I ought to mention the spherical skull, but that’s not really my specialty. You can’t be a specialist in every field after all. I will say that your supraorbital nerve has not yet disappeared. By chance I have a colleague who would gladly see you. Plastic surgery is the future. Here is his address …”
     After that, Mr. Z read a specialist’s book which had a significant impact on that field and because of it we learned not only to utilize nature, but also how to alter it as needed. And as the tools improved the work became more efficient … Of course! Efficient, yet at the same more complicated and diverse. Likewise, the work of a dentist or a bariatric surgeon became more efficient.
     “Yet the mammoth’s fangs did nothing to help the mammoth,” Mr. Z added glaring at the book.

1. Messianism was the belief that Poland was the messiah of nations that must suffer for the sins of Europe. This belief was propagated during the first period of Polish Romanticism. It became a trope in some poems of the time because of Poland’s tragic geography and history of being partitioned and nationless for 123 years from 1795–1918.

2. The two most unique of these dialects are Silesian and the unofficial dialect Góralski (Mountain Polish). Kashubian is the language.