Dear beloved humans

A still from "Grzegorz Wróblewski do ludzkości." (c) Krzysztof Jaworski.

For eight years now I have been translating the poetry of Grzegorz Wróblewski, a Polish writer and visual artist based in Copenhagen. So far we have published two volumes: Kopenhaga (Zephyr Press, 2013) and Zero Visibility (Phoneme Media, 2017). We are now working on our third project, Dear Beloved Humans: New and Selected Poems. The title poem offers a good example of transposition.

This poem poses a special challenge for the translator because it has never appeared in print. Rather, it was recorded with a video camera by Wróblewski’s friend and fellow writer Krzysztof Jaworski at his apartment in Kielce, Poland on July 12, 1997. Sixteen years later Jaworski uploaded the video to YouTube as “Grzegorz Wróblewski do ludzkości” (“Grzegorz Wróblewski to Humanity”). Here it is, accompanied by my transcription and word-for-word translation:

Kochana droga ludzkości [beloved] [dear] [humanity]

Mam wam dużo do powiedzenia [I have] [to you (plural)] [much, plenty] [to tell]

Nazywam się Grzegorz Wróblewski [I call] [myself] [Grzegorz] [Wróblewski]

Mój ojciec nazywał się Roman [my] [father] [called] [himself] [Roman]

A mój dziadek nazywał się Józef [and, while] [my] [grandfather] [called][himself] [Józef]

I tyle mam do powiedzenia ludzkości [and] [this much] [I have] [to tell] [humanity]


And here is the poem again, now translated into English:


Dear beloved humanity

I have much to tell you

My name is Grzegorz Wróblewski

My father’s name was Roman

And my grandfather’s name was Józef


And this is what I have to tell humanity


I lineated the poem based on the way I heard it, accounting for the pause near the end with an extra space. I did not use punctuation marks, though I followed the convention of capitalizing the first letter of each line, as well as the proper names. In 2015 a version of this translation appeared in the journal Inventory. But soon after it was published, I started having second thoughts about it, finding it too literal, even potentially confusing. After more deliberation, I settled on this version:

Dear beloved humans

I have a message for you

My name is Grzegorz Wróblewski

My father’s name was Roman

And my grandfather’s name was Józef


This is my message for humans


So far what I am describing is a typical experience for translators, especially poetry translators. In order to maintain fidelity to word and sense, translators often tinker with even previously published versions of their work. Many also strive to make the translation read, as much as possible, like a poem in its own right. For this reason, and in adherence to the modernist principles of directness and economy, I replaced “humanity” with “humans” and “much”/“what I have” with “message.” My translation now slightly departs from the original, but appears to be (at least to me) a better poem.

However, such practical dilemmas pale in comparison with the theoretical implications of translating Wróblewski’s poem. To start with the obvious, is it even a poem? It certainly includes verbal and structural features — pleonasm, repetition, rhythm — that provide evidence of artful “making.” I tried to preserve those in “Dear Beloved Humans.” At the same time, for all its deliberate patterns it is also a kind of anti-poem. The source of surprise lies in its ironic reversal of a cliché: a poet speaking from the position of authority to all humans,” presumably to communicate some superior insight. This insight amounts to a declaration of the poet’s paternal lineage — a deflection on Wróblewski’s part we are free to interpret as serious or playful. Here I am helped by the backstory: Jaworski reports that on that July day in 1997 he simply asked his friend if he has anything to say to humanity — at which point Wróblewski spontaneously delivered his statement. I hesitate to say whether it’s an overstatement or understatement, an affirmative or nihilistic gesture, a deeply personal or deeply political text. But knowing about Wróblewski’s dislike of the idea of poet-as-prophet or poet-as-witness, central to at least two prior generations of Polish poets, I don’t hesitate to say that it mocks such high-flung cultural ambitions.

The task of translating Wróblewski’s poem also has implications to translation theory. Since the Polish version has never appeared in print, we are witnessing an untypical relation between the translation and the original. In fact, it is not even clear from the recording whether Wróblewski is reading his poem from a page, which might have contained the “original”; in any case, both he and Jaworski recall that the performance was entirely improvised. Thus, “Dear Beloved Humans” is not just a translation but a transcription. Some argue that poems don’t really have the “original” version, as they move through different stages of composition and circulation. As Pierre Joris has noted on many occasions, a poem is not limited to one version printed in a book or magazine, but is the totality of its publications, performances, translations, adaptations (both actual and potential). While I generally share this view, I believe that making a poem public for the first time, regardless of format or platform, marks an important step in the process; it signifies the poem’s entry into the world. In this scenario, it is justifiable to say that the Polish original of “Dear Beloved Humans” does exist — but only as an audio text.

Still, more questions arise from the fact that “Do ludzkości” was initially an oral performance. This means that, in contrast to its transcribed English version, it requires a specific method of interpretation. As Charles Bernstein notes in his introduction to Close Listening, in an oral performance, especially at a poetry reading, “intonations, pitch, tempos, accents (in the other sense of pronunciation), grain or timbre of voice, nonverbal face and body expressions or movements … take on a significant role.” How compromised is “close listening,” as Bernstein defines it, when the listener doesn’t understand the language of the poem? Seriously, but not completely; in fact, it can be argued that the listener’s ignorance of the language can sharpen their response to the poems various sonic patterns. A non-Polish speaker approaching Wróblewski’s poem as an oral performance, or even a twenty-six-second poetry reading, is likely to make out certain words, certainly the proper names; likely to notice typical Polish phonemes like the nasal vowel in “się” or the consonant clusters in “ści” and “ski”; likely, in short, to expect a semi-meaningful encounter with the poem’s language even despite the semantic loss. To invoke William Carlos Williams (Wróblewski’s literary grandfather), a non-Polish speaker is likely to treat the poem as a machine made of ... sounds. All kinds of sounds. As we listen closely to the recording, we can hear some coughing, some adult voices overlapping with children’s voices in the background — all the ambient noise of humanity in the next room, in the next apartment, on the street below. This reveals the poem’s additional irony: no one is listening to the poet at the moment, save for his friend and fellow writer behind the camera.

Yet even calling the poem an oral performance is not completely accurate. After all, the poem can’t be separated from its context; if it is a “made” object, it exists solely for the purpose of being recorded and therefore potentially reproduced, circulated, modified. “The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, whereas the cinematographer penetrates deeply into its tissue,” said Walter Benjamin in his classic 1936 essay. Unless we close our eyes, it’s impossible to experience Wróblewski’s poem outside of its penetrable, semantically rich reality: the green plant in the corner, the white wall, the sofa with its striking orange-and-red pattern, the thirty-five-year-old author himself and his affect, posture, clothing, head movements, facial expressions, eye contact. It’s also impossible to experience Wróblewski’s poem without noticing the work of the camera (framing, angle, movement). Based on all these elements, it is justifiable to call “Do ludzkości” an audiovisual text.

Where does this leave “Dear Beloved Humans”? It certainly diminishes the final irony: the fact that a speech addressed to all of humanity (whether in earnest or not) is fully comprehensible only to those who know Polish. Thrice removed from the “original” (in terms of language, medium, and technology) it is a version, a variant, a written/printed manifestation of Wróblewski’s deceptively simple poem. It is a translation that, in addition to doing its job, makes us appreciate the essential role of movement and change in literary production. It is a translation with a difference. In other words, a transposition.