By Cecily Cai
For the first two years of my life as an undergraduate at Cal, it rarely occurred to me that I could do something with my own language. Not until this year while I have been studying abroad in Italy did I realize the possibility of putting all the languages I know in a broader scope. Long story short, I am taking a Polish literature class at the University of Bologna, in which I explore the world of Wisława Szymborska along with my Italian and Polish classmates.
I have not studied Polish before, but coincidentally, the only Polish (besides “hello” and “thank you”) I know is a poem written by Szymborska called “Love at First Sight.” So when I discovered this Polish Literature class on Wisława Szymborska, I immediately contacted the professor, asking for permission to take it. However, it has not been easy for me. To be honest, I get lost quite easily in class discussions not only because of the profundity of Szymborska’s poems but also because of my language incapacity in understanding Italian translation—not to mention analyzing it word by word. Nevertheless, I enjoy listening to the professor talking about all the nuances among Polish and Italian words, and my favorite part of this class is when the poem is read out loud in these two languages, equally beautiful and fascinating but very different from each other.
When I return home, I always go over the poems we read in class, looking up all the words I don’t know. However, no matter how hard I try to understand Italian, it is still a foreign language to me, and I can never understand poetry well enough in any language other than Chinese, the mother tongue I grew up with that has already been part of me. Szymborska’s poetry is well received in China but is not well translated in Chinese. Her poems require a more thorough examination and deserve a much deeper reading, starting from the translator. To my disappointment, some of the more popular poems of Szymborska (those that have been translated into Chinese, some even in several versions) hardly meet these criteria, and it seems to me that they have not even been translated directly from Polish but from English instead, which are not even “better” translations themselves. I can hardly imagine how much has been lost in this process of retranslation!
Moreover, for those “less well-known” poems of Szymborska, they are simply left aside, without being translated, or at least without having an easily accessible Chinese translation outside of the literature circle. Only last weekend, it crossed my mind—why don’t I translate them myself? I was surprised that I had never thought about this before. It was in fact my first time translating poems, and I have not learned how to do it either. To me, it would simply be a practice of “converting” from one language to another. So I started with a poem we read recently in class called “Una vita all’istante” (Polish title “Życie na poczekaniu”). It is from Szymborska’s 1976 poetry collection Wielka Liczba (“A Large Number”), in which she described the immediacy of life wrapped in the metaphor of the theatrical world. In my attempt to render this quite philosophical poem in Chinese, I also made several adjustments to some language “inaccuracies” in Pietro Marchesani’s Italian translation, as we discussed in class. For example, at the end of the sixth line, the Polish word “niewymienna” is translated into “non mutabile,” and according to my professor, the real meaning in Polish is closer to “non-interchangeable” than “immutable.” Here I decided to put a Chinese word in between to achieve a sense of consistency and balance of language.
While translating this poem from Italian, I discovered that the space for creation was immense in Chinese given how “flexible” and different the language is. I could easily maintain the rhythm of the poem by slightly modifying the ending of each line—if I manage to understand the Italian translation well enough. During this process, I also retrieved my “mother tongue instincts,” because some words just came into my mind so easily without even thinking about how to make it “sound right.” This helped me bring this retranslated poem home, so it would not seem too foreign.
After I finished translating, I read it again and again, and eventually a feeling of familiarity came back to me, because it does sound like a poem, not just a collage of Chinese words. Best of all, it still preserves the personality of Szymborska’s language: simple and sharp. I could not possibly believe how much Chinese could do to restore a literary creation from a language and culture so distant. Even the title carries the meaning of the phrase “all’istante” through the word “即刻”— “instantly” in the sense of time “poczekaniu” (right away) and action “poczekać” (wait). It is about a life lived instantly, a life lived without waiting. Szymborska depicted from a theatrical perspective, living the life in a hurry, without knowing one’s role. After all the doubts, frustration, and realization of the protagonist “I,” Szymborska brought the poem to an end with her trademark “pointe,” a surprise. I kept coming back to the last two lines of the poem, which read something like this in English, “Everything I do / will always turn in to what I have done.” It bears the heaviness of fate, the recurring theme in Szymborska’s works, and “宿命” is the word in Chinese. I probably would have never realized it by reading the poem only in Italian, but through my retranslation, I have gained a deep understanding of the poem itself and a broader identification with the poet’s view of life. Most importantly, I am able to create something out of my own language, not just trying to read the poem through a glass darkly.
I have found home in retranslation.
For more on translation, click here.