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The Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, second prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2020 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Marta Ciechanowicz

The Joy of Writing


The written doe. Where is she running through the written wood?
To dip her written muzzle in the inky pool
to take a drink?
Why does she lift her head? What does she hear?
She listens, balanced,
on limbs borrowed from the truth emerging from beneath my fingers.
Silence – that word also scuttles across the page
parting
the branches of the wood sprung up from words.

On the white page, letters
lie in wait to leap
into a tangled undergrowth of sentences
from which there is no escape.

In a drop of ink, there are more than enough
hunters, squinting,
ready to run down the steep slope of the pen,
to hem in, to take aim at the doe.

They forget that this is not life, here.
Other laws govern in black and white.
The blink of an eye lasts as long as I command,
will split into future fragments
full of bullets stopped mid-flight.
Unless I say so, nothing here will change.
Unless I will it, not even a leaf will fall,
nor will the doe break the sedge beneath her hoof.

So is there such a world
on which I rest my fate?
In which I bind time in symbolic chains?
World without end at my command?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Taking revenge against the hand of death.

Translated from Polish by Marta Ciechanowicz



Radość pisania


Dokąd biegnie ta napisana sarna przez napisany las?
Czy z napisanej wody pić,
która jej pyszczek odbije jak kalka?
Dlaczego łeb podnosi, czy coś słyszy?
Na pożyczonych z prawdy czterech nóżkach wsparta
spod moich palców uchem strzyże.
Cisza – ten wyraz też szeleści po papierze
i rozgarnia
spowodowane słowem "las" gałęzie.

Nad białą kartką czają się do skoku
litery, które mogą ułożyć się źle,
zdania osaczające;
przed którymi nie będzie ratunku.

Jest w kropli atramentu spory zapas
myśliwych z przymrużonym okiem,
gotowych zbiec po stromym piórze w dół,
otoczyć sarnę, złożyć się do strzału.

Zapominają, że tu nie jest życie.
Inne, czarno na białym, panują tu prawa.
Oka mgnienie trwać będzie tak długo, jak zechcę,
pozwoli się podzielić na małe wieczności
pełne wstrzymanych w locie kul.
Na zawsze, jeśli każę, nic się tu nie stanie.
Bez mojej woli nawet liść nie spadnie
ani źdźbło się nie ugnie pod kropką kopytka.

Jest więc taki świat,
nad którym los sprawuję niezależny?
Czas, który wiążę łańcuchami znaków?
Istnienie na mój rozkaz nieustanne?

Radość pisania.
Możność utrwalania.
Zemsta ręki śmiertelnej.

Wisława Szymborska

Reproduced by kind permission of Fundacja Wisławy Szymborskiej
(the Wisława Szymborska Foundation)


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Translation commentary

The main challenges in translating Polish to English are that Polish, being inflected, lacking articles and often subject pronouns, is highly economical, something that is challenging to replicate in English. It also allows the Polish poet extraordinary flexibility of word order. Furthermore, the Polish sound palette, quite unlike English, tends to sibilance, and as there are so few cognates between Polish and English, the translator has to create wholly new networks of sound associations. A strictly faithful translation was not possible without losing lyricism.

Szymborska's poem is a variation on a well-worn theme – the potency of poetry to create, destroy and preserve – but delivered with a freshness, directness and lyricism that I found captivating. However, that very imagery, with its complex dual narrative of hunting and writing sustained throughout the poem, was precisely where the challenge lay in the translation. The content of the poem gave license for liberty.

I chose to build a soundworld by alliterating predominantly on 'l', punctuated with onomatopoeic words like 'scuttles', which echoes the onomatopoeic Polish word 'szeleści'. I highlighted the halt of the bullets with the percussive 'bullets stopped mid-flight'. The free verse form gave me scope to place emphasis on certain words, for example by giving 'parting' its own line. I also exploited rhythm, slowing and gathering the pace of the line, for example the tense, slow monosyllables of 'lie in wait to leap'.

By far the most challenging image to render was that of the doe bending to drink, her face reflected in the pool, as dark as carbon paper. I replaced this image with one of the deer, dipping her muzzle to suggest a pen in an inkpot or ink bleeding into water, which extends Szymborska's original complex metaphors of the implements of writing.

Marta Ciechanowicz