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Clare Cavanagh Translates Nobel Laureate's Final Poems

"Map: Collected and Last Poems" traces Wislawa Szymborska's work until her death

  • Final translation of acclaimed poet’s collection includes 250 poems over seven decades
  • Award-winning translator Clare Cavanagh: ‘It’s a lot more fun than crossword puzzles’
  • 'It’s like Chinese acrobats with saucers on sticks, all spinning at once’
  • 'Translators must be as adept as poets at working with words’

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Clare Cavanagh, the longtime translator for poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, was sailing through the poem “Map” when a Polish idiom for “quiet” stopped her dead.

In English, the phrase translated to “as if he had sown poppy seeds.” After letting the line rattle around her head for six months, Cavanagh finally came up with a near-perfect translation: “quiet like pins dropping.”

The award-winning Cavanagh, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern, has been carefully solving such confounding language problems since she began translating Szymborska’s work in 1985.

“It’s a lot more fun than crossword puzzles,” she said. “It’s problem-solving -- is this line working? You keep playing with things and figure out where all the pieces fit best.”

“Map” is the powerful last piece in “Map: Collected and Last Poems,” the final poetry collection from the acclaimed Polish poet, who died in 2012 at the age of 88. 

The posthumously published volume compiles Szymborska’s work over seven decades, with more than 30 poems newly translated into English, including the 13 from the final Polish collection. Cavanagh worked on her final translations with her longtime editor Drenka Willen and her co-translator, the late Stanislaw Baranczak, who died in December.

If there was a Nobel-like prize for translators, Baranczak and Cavanagh “would have been awarded it at once,” wrote Richard Lourie in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. “Cast your eye back up on any line quoted (in the article.) Every one seems to have been born in English.”

Cavanagh received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her most recent book, “Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland and the West (Yale University Press, 2010.)” She is currently working on an authorized biography of another Nobel Prize winner, the poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004).

“Listening to Clare Cavanagh speak of translation as an art is a reminder that translators must be as adept as poets at working with words,” Jacob Victorine wrote in Publishers Weekly. “’Map’ is not only impressive because of Szymborska’s precise, intimate and observationally funny poems...but because of Cavanagh and Baranczak’s tireless dedication in bringing them to English without sacrificing their forms."

Cavanagh, a professor in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, didn’t actually meet the acclaimed poet in person until 1996, when Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the following interview, she talks about her relationship with Szymborska, her favorite poem in the book and the precision as well as whimsy that guides her virtuosity in translating.

Q:  What was Szymborska like?

A: She was the most modest, self-effacing person you could meet. I was so scared because my Polish grammar is not perfect. But she suffered if she saw anyone else ill at ease. In Stockholm she asked me about my son, and I misunderstood. I thought she was talking about the ham at breakfast. ‘Szynka’ is ham and ‘synka’ is son in the accusative case, but that’s what she was like. She was asking about my kid.

Q: What’s the typical relationship between poets and translators?

A: I don’t think there is a pattern. I’ve worked closely with three poets, and with every single one it was completely different. Szymborska didn’t know English and didn’t like talking about her poetry. She trusted Stanislaw Baranczak, my co-translator, implicitly. There were things you knew were off limits with her; you could tell instantly if you’d stepped over a boundary and something was too private. There were things you just didn’t bring up with her. She had a running joke with one old friend; they’d get together and say, “OK, so now let’s really bare our souls.” Then they’d laugh, have a drink, and talk about something more interesting.

Q: What made Szymborska stand out?

A: One time she wrote a poem about how Charles Darwin loved nineteenth-century British fiction because, unlike natural selection, all the stories had happy endings. In the poem, she had the dog, Fido, returning home. I said, ‘How in God’s name did you know the dog’s name should be Fido?’ She sent her specialist to research the kinds of names a Victorian dog would have.

Q: How do you translate poetry without losing the original meaning?

A: It’s always give and take; you win some and lose some. Baranczak was a poetic virtuoso. He could translate anything into Polish. I’m not like that; very few people are. He trained me to try to preserve the form. So that means you move away from literal meaning a bit if you have to. You’re looking for a rhyme or something that has to fit metrically, as close as you can to the literal meaning, while at the same time, preserving the form.

Q: That sounds impossible.

A: It’s like Chinese acrobats with saucers on sticks, all spinning at once and hopping around. Szymborska also loved puns and plays on words. She’d take an idiom in Polish and twist a little bit, in a way you’d never expect it. That’s a killer. If as if the Polish equivalent for it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’  were  ‘showers and buckets.’ But you can’t use ‘cats and dogs’ if you need a bucket.

Q: How did you know whether you were meeting her standards?

A: You couldn’t know absolutely. But I used to get emails from people who loved the poems, people who had nothing to do with poetry. They’d say, ‘I never read poetry but would you please tell her how much this book meant to me?’ I think she felt she was reaching people so something must be working.

Q: Why do you like translating poetry?

A: I like having short things I can work on obsessively over and over again. Prose seems so daunting; you have to chug along page after page after page. It doesn’t suit me somehow.

Q: How long does it take to translate a poem?

A: It’s different for each poem. Sometimes you catch the poem; it feels like a wave if you’re surfing. You’ve got it, you’re on it and you ride it to the end. Every so often  you can finish a whole draft in one sitting. And sometimes it just takes forever; there’s tons of back and forth. But it’s going back and back that’s fun. I like obsessively working on something until I don’t feel like it can get any better.

Q: Were you ever tempted to rewrite anything?

A: You have to change things, otherwise you can’t make it work in English. But the thing I’ve learned is you have to be careful of your own cleverness. Years ago when we first started translating, I used the word ‘penchant,’ the great poetry critic Helen Vendler crossed it out and put ‘liking.’ That’s it in a nutshell.

Q: Do you have a favorite poem?

A: It’s hard to pick. It’s like saying, which is your ultimate best friend? I lived with them, and when I go back to the Polish it’s like discovering them all over again. I think right now  --and it changes – ‘Map’ is my favorite.

Q: Why?

A: Because they are the last words I have of hers, and it contains everything that I think is astonishing about her. It’s very typical for her to see something absolutely ordinary -- a map stretched out on a table -- and suddenly see everything the map omits. It’s profoundly realist in the sense that she wants to see things as they ultimately are and knows that we can’t. The poem itself leads you off to a world you can’t access. It’s a great poem, but it’s also so much her. She sees things that it takes great courage to see and puts them in a way that makes them accessible, like the map.

Q: How do you cope with her death?

A: I miss her really, a lot. It’s hard to accept there won’t be any more poems coming via email from her assistant because she never learned to use a computer. It took me about a year to sit down and start translating the last poems as a collection. It feels so sad to know -- even more than I can’t do the poems anymore -- that I can’t go back to Krakow and have a drink with her. Krakow isn’t the same city without Szymborska in it.

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