“It’s translating, not sex,” he said. “You can do it with more than one person.”

Understatement as talisman

When Clare Cavanagh was first invited by a mutual friend to translate the poems of Adam Zagajewski, who died two years ago this month, how did she respond? “I froze, answered ‘No,’ and hung up the phone.” She was known for her translations of Stanisław Barańczyk, and so the suggestion seemed somehow disloyal. “How could I work without Stanislaw? How could I translate the great Zagajewski on my own? I told my husband, who said I was an idiot. ‘It’s translating, not sex,’ he said. ‘You can do it with more than one person.’ Adam loved that line.”

Cavanagh signing books in Kraków

You can read Clare’s article, “Working with the poet who told us to ‘Praise the Mutilated World,'” over at the Washington Post here. I love Clare Cavanagh’s writing – frank, unpretentious, and yet unpretentiously insightful. The occasion for the article: the great Polish poet’s latest collection, his final volume, True Life, is out in English this month.

Why did Adam approach her through an intermediary? “I discovered the reason for Adam’s shyness only long after. I’d published a scholarly book on the poet Osip Mandelstam that year, and Adam had actually read it. I’m still a bit shocked by that decades later,” she writes.

“He’d thought I would be some remote, imposing professor and was afraid to call me himself. This too continues to shock me. He was a great Polish poet after all, and I was just some Slavist in Wisconsin. But he knew I loved Mandelstam. And he knew I’d been translating Wisława Szymborska with his longtime friend, the great poet and translator Stanislaw Barańczak. So he thought it was worth a try.”

Again, read it all here. It’s worth it. I don’t want to spoil the stories for you, and I’d be tempted to tell them all.

I love Robert Pinsky’s writing, too, and his tribute to Adam, “A Poet Whose Tone Was Personal and Whose Vision Was Vast in The New York Times is here. It’s a retrospective as well as a review of True Life. An excerpt:

Poet, friend, and translator

“Proper names occur in many of the poems, sometimes the innocent-looking place name (Drohobycz, Belzec) of an extermination ghetto, sometimes the name of a crucial, renowned or emblematic victim, such as the artist and writer Schulz, or Jean Améry, repeatedly tortured, known for his writing about sadism as the defining, essential nature of fascism, not incidental to it.

“The poems of True Life do not denounce these horrors explicitly, but seemingly allude to them almost as if in passing. The surface calm avoids the customary postures of condemnation; this poetry has a blade of penetration that is less forgiving and more demanding than ordinary, rhetorical righteousness. To put that point another way, Zagajewski by implication doubts the reassurance of “never again” or “never forget.” Slogans cannot correct the absence of moral imagination.

“An extreme of truth-telling.”

“The poems are at an extreme of truth-telling. They deploy understatement like a talisman as they enter the grandly menacing yet oblivious borderland of our worst human doings. Where does this manner, with its indictment by reason, come from? Zagajewski invokes and declines a particular intellectual-historical source in a poem of 11 short lines, entitled “Enlightenment.”

Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his introduction to Zagajewski’s 1985 selected poems in English, “Tremor” (translated by Renata Gorczynski), that Zagajewski, “taking the lead in the poetry of my language,” gives “living proof that Polish literature is energy incessantly renewed against all probabilities.”

Robert Pinsky extends a line of thought I advance in my own book, Czesław Miłosz: An American Life: “The poetry of Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska in English translation has been a powerful strand in American poetry. In a tradition Zagajewski inherited, those three senior poets, in their different ways, by necessity engage historical realities. That mission has mattered to American writers.”

Read the whole thing at The New York Times here.

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