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, which, for all their imperfections, are the tools of their craft. A professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, Cavanagh has won a PEN Translation Award and an NBCC award for criticism, but someone of her stature doesn’t get there without being able to improvise. Like improvisation, translation is a skill that can only be honed through constant practice, and it often requires knowledgeable collaborators.
Cavanagh’s latest work is her final translation of Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923–2012), Map: Collected and Last Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It was translating Szymborska that figuratively put Cavanagh on the map, though she is quick to credit the collaborators who helped her—her longtime editor, Drenka Willen, and her cotranslator, the late Stanislaw Baranczak, who died late last December. Cavanagh met Baranczak while she was a graduate student at Harvard, and it was he who convinced her to focus on Polish poetry over Russian; Map is their fifth and final collaboration.
A near-complete rendering of Szymborska’s oeuvre (excluding her socialist realist poems, which were written early in her career and which she later disavowed), Map is not only impressive because of Szymborska’s precise, intimate, and observationally funny poems—“Four billion people on this earth,/ but my imagination is still the same,” she writes in “A Large Number”—but because of Cavanagh and Baranczak’s tireless dedication in bringing them to English without sacrificing their forms: “One thing Stanislaw was really insistent on—and he drummed it into my head and in some ways I’ll never forgive him for it—is that you had to retain rhyme and meter or find an equivalent, and he happened to be an absolute genius at that,” Cavanagh recalls.
Cavanagh had worked with Baranczak on Szymborska’s 1995 book, View with a Grain of Sand, but didn’t meet her in person until after she’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. “I just thought I was going to mess up my Polish, which I did, and destroy my reputation and undermine our translations, but a great thing about her is she felt embarrassed that she didn’t know English, so she was so touched by somebody just trying,” Cavanagh says of Szymborska.
Cavanagh also developed a close relationship with Baranczak, her mentor and partner in translation, partially as a result of his longtime friendship with Szymborska. “Without Baranczak I never would have done it. He and his wife just became my really dear friends. He was such an infectious personality, in a way, that you just got sucked in,” she says. “Stanislaw had already been friends with [Szymborska] for years and years, and once the Iron Curtain fell and there were regular communications back and forth. He couldn’t go back to Poland for a couple of reasons, one of which was he was already ill then. He had Parkinson’s, which was diagnosed when he was in his thirties.”
An accomplished poet himself, Baranczak not only shared poems, but also a sense of humor with Szymborska. “Depending on what media was happening then—she was never very technologically advanced—she would fax him the beginning of a limerick that she couldn’t figure out the last line to, and he would fax her back the ending of the limerick.” Cavanagh says, “In a way, since I was working with somebody who knew her so well—and who knew she was funny and was friends with her—it made a difference already, and he kind of knew how far we could go on jokes, and puns and things like that.”
Cavanagh’s stories also connect Szymborska the person with the stoic yet incisive speaker in many of her poems. “She loved the idea that you don’t impose on people. You have good manners. You keep your suffering and your depression and your anything else to yourself. It’s bad manners to impose that. And your work—you don’t let the sweat show.” This philosophy is apparent throughout her oeuvre. Although it is rare to spot a loved one’s name in Szymborska’s poems, her precise diction and gift for showing the human body and mind’s experience in space creates poems that feel lived in. In “The Suicide’s Room,” she writes:
I’ll bet you think the room was empty.
Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs.
A lamp, good for fighting the dark.
A desk, and on the desk a wallet, some newspapers.
A carefree Buddha and a worried Christ.
Seven lucky elephants, a notebook in a drawer.
You think our addresses weren’t in it?
For Cavanagh and the rest of Szymborska’s international cadre of translators, translating her poetry is a constant challenge. Discussing Map’s title poem, Cavanagh relates how she and other translators struggled with Szymborska’s technique of twisting Polish idioms: “It’s ‘Quiet as if someone’—or he, it’s not clear—‘had sewn poppy seeds.’ Now, what the hell is that? You can think of quiet idioms, but then in the next line the poppy seeds fall down on the map and become population centers. It’s the little black dots,” Cavanagh says. The poem stumped her so completely that she “just went around asking people” what they thought might be an equivalent expression. After six months of letting the poem breathe with the idiom trapped in her head, Cavanagh finally got it. The translation reads, “quiet like pins dropping,/ and in every black pinprick/ people keep on living.” It was a moment of inspired improvisation.
The process of translating “Map” owed heavily to advice given by Baranczak. “One of the things Stanislaw said years and years ago that I’ve used as a measure is, ‘It rattles when you shake it.’ And you have to have it so it doesn’t rattle. That every word sounds as necessary in English, and that means making changes.”
Cavanagh’s relationship with Baranczak and Szymborska went far beyond words on a page; even with Szymborska gone, Cavanagh refuses to let her sweat show. Despite her love for Szymborska (or because of it), Cavanagh has decided to forego translating the poet’s first manuscript. “And there are some lovely poems in there,” Cavanagh says, “but she’s not herself yet as a poet. Things that she would never do afterward she did in those poems about personal experience and the war.” Once, Cavanagh was instructed by Szymborska to destroy a typewritten copy of the poem “Mirror,” after the poet had revised it.
As much as Cavanagh loved translating Szymborska’s work, she feels protecting the poet’s legacy—in particular, the standards Szymborska set for her published writings—is more important. “These drafts came out after she died, and I looked at them considered translating them. But in a way, somebody who destroyed 90% of what she wrote—if you don’t know the poet it seems like a literary decision,” Cavanagh says. “I knew her too long. I just couldn’t do the translation.”
For Cavanagh and Szymborska’s many English-speaking fans, Map may represent the end of the road. And although Cavanagh will continue to publish criticism and translate the poetry of Adam Zagajewski, among others, she can’t help but feel loss. “I’m glad to have the book out, and I’m sad to have it over.”
Jacob Victorine lives in Chicago. His first collection of poetry, Flammable Matter, is forthcoming from Elixir Press in 2016.