Found in Translation

A poet learns how to feel and see and think and sound in the language of his adopted home

Léa Jones/Stocksy
Léa Jones/Stocksy


To have been born in another country and immigrated to the United States is both a blessing and a curse. For those who see America as the proverbial Promised Land, the move brings new opportunities, but it also triggers insecurities, a fractured identity, and an uncertain sense of self-worth. The newcomer not from an anglophone country has no choice but to enter into the strange process of acquiring English by translating himself for others while simultaneously translating his new home and friends into his native tongue. This process is full of static, of confusing innuendoes, of grating, accented sounds that heighten one’s sense of otherness. I don’t know any immigrant, including myself, who hasn’t experienced this type of cultural hazing. For those of us who feel less than secure in their adopted homeland, the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land has only made the task of self-definition more fraught.

It has taken me a long time to accept my accent—however much it has diminished over the years—and turn it into a badge of exceptionalism and a pathway to finding my own place, both physically and metaphorically. Nonetheless, it bothers me that the purity of diction to which every immigrant aspires will always remain out of reach for me, my speech stubbornly distorted despite my best efforts. Teachers of English as a second language know that their students can probably communicate just fine in their native languages. The trick is to convince them that although their metamorphosing identity may now come across as a little schizophrenic or syncopated, it is replete with opportunities waiting to be seized.

Some of the assimilation happens through writing and involves negotiation between your native language and your new surroundings. For instance, immigrant children tend to keep diaries in their new language, often to protect their private feelings and thoughts from the eyes of overbearing parents. If parents typically insist on speaking their native language at home, perhaps to soothe the pain of dislocation, children usually aim for the opposite. After all, you cannot fit in at school without speaking English. The native language of the home and the increasingly familiar American English of the world outside are the parallel roads on which one’s identity blunders and staggers forward. It’s only with time that a child, now grown and more secure in his identity, will begin to accept and cherish his multilingual and multicultural identity.

But what happens when the child wants to write seriously, to become a writer? Does he choose to work in his native language or in English? The answer isn’t obvious. The decision to go with English may result from a person’s using it every day, perhaps having grown even more comfortable with it than with his native language, particularly if the latter has been relegated to weekend visits with relatives or other people of shared ethnicity. The choice often comes during these get-togethers, especially if the writer feels out of place when relatives point out how his accent has changed or how the frequency of his grammatical errors seems to have increased since they saw each other last. Indeed, to rebel against your native culture is one thing; to realize that you have outgrown it is quite another, and something that carries with it even more consequences.

Having attended just a few of these types of gatherings, in part because I moved to the United States without any relatives, I’ve witnessed what that kind of linguistic cross-pollination leads to. Many of the Polish Americans I know, most of whom came to the United States as adults, sprinkle their Polish with English words. I concede that translating idioms back and forth can quickly become tiresome, but I used to—and still do—cringe when I hear a Polish speaker use English words when Polish ones would have worked just fine, such as “highway” for szosa or “tomorrow” for jutro. To be fair, certain words fall out of fashion because they’re too difficult to pronounce, are no longer part of your daily vocabulary, or have an English equivalent that can get the job done quicker. But this mixing of languages also seems a matter of convenience—or laziness—authorized rather than frowned on by your peers. These matters are the province of experts, folks who study second-language acquisition, and I’m not one of them. Still, I’m reminded of the common observation, made by Poles living in Poland, that it takes a year or less for a Pole living in America to forget how to speak Polish.

When I first started writing, after I’d lived in the United States for some time, I wrote only in Polish, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to face some of these predicaments. Like many poets before me, I shared the sentiment that poetry can be written only in one’s native language. So I wrote poems in Polish. I had never been an émigré—nobody forced me to leave Poland, and my entire family still lives there—but I was attracted to the romantic idea of the banished poet, someone cut off from his native language yet refusing to abandon it. Writing in Polish became my badge of honor—I called myself a “Polish poet,” hoping that this identity would elicit envious stares from my peers, many of whom had, or so they told me, revered the great Polish poets of the 20th century, including Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. It didn’t matter that I was setting myself up for obscurity, as some warned, for the risk didn’t really exist. I knew that my work would find appreciative readers, if not here then in Poland. Surely the editors in Poland would be impressed with my work and take great interest in it if it came with the tagline, “The poet has lived in the United States since 1994.”

But I wrote in Polish for another reason, something to do with wanting to assuage the pangs of homesickness I still feel from time to time. I saw my poetry as the best way to preserve my Polish, to stave off the inevitable. I was spending only a few weeks in Poland each year, and my Polish was growing staler and staler, increasingly blemished by errors. With poetry, I had no choice but to be precise. In my case, the drive toward an economy of language, the desire to lend each word its maximum effect, played a therapeutic role. I despaired when other Poles pointed out my mistakes, and I tried hard to stop making them. Looking back on the experience, which lasted all the way through graduate school, I see now that I had been fighting a losing battle all along. My Polish was getting insipid and ingenuous—it was becoming a vessel for passing on information rather than something rich and variegated. With time, it grew more and more torturous to write anything resembling a poem, and the editors and poets in Poland agreed.

My farewell to Polish as a language of creative expression was unceremonious—one day I simply stopped using it. Did I feel any guilt? Yes, but at this point I’d become much less self-absorbed about my poetry and writing in general, and most of the guilt I felt had to do with my parents’ not being able to read anything of mine ever again. Yet I also felt liberated and quickly went from writing quiet, meditative lyrics to long, narrative poems. I also discovered what fun it is to write discursively. Like the speaker of Whitman’s poems, I sang at the top of my lungs, writing poems that were just as heartfelt as they were rambunctious and whimsical.

Now I see that the initial conversion was no different from the honeymoon stage in any relationship. Because I was testing the limits of my expression, the rules of language did not seem to apply to me. I tweaked the syntax, did away with punctuation, relishing run-on and comma-spliced sentences, and saw nothing wrong with it. Doubtless, some of this creative careening took place in all innocence, but the high I was experiencing came about because you always feel another language slightly differently, no matter your level of proficiency. That explains why people who live abroad often curse in their native language—anger always touches the core of your being. But the freedom to wear different hats, as a poet and a writer, has also deepened my affinity for English as the language of my poems as well as of my home. Taking full advantage of its massive vocabulary, I’ve learned how to feel and see and think and sound in many different ways.

I’ve also learned to follow the language’s rules and, more important, I’ve chosen my path as a poet. I’m still looking for new ways to learn how to write, but I realized that a small yet essential correction had to take place. Many of the words, styles, and dictions I was trying out—including some burlesque, cheeky poems and a few that employed too much urban slang—simply didn’t reflect who I was, and it’s ultimately fruitless to write against your personality and temperament. When my apprenticeship came to an end, I wasn’t done pushing the boundaries of what I could do through poems, but I had to settle down a bit. Eventually, feeling more secure in English, I decided to start translating Polish poetry into English.

Those of us who can read more than one language are lucky, but it takes time and the proper circumstances for that gift to make itself useful. Although I’d stopped writing in my native language, I had continued to read Polish poetry, including much contemporary verse. To set myself up as a translator, I’d spent a lot of money on dictionaries, believing that these heavy tomes were prerequisites to being taken seriously. Admittedly, I was operating in complete anonymity, knowing only that I needed to find a poet to translate whose work I enjoyed but who was unknown in English. Julian Kornhauser, the first poet I translated, writes poems that are powerful and mesmerizing in their economy of expression. Working on what eventually became my first volume of translations, I sometimes felt embarrassed for not knowing a certain word or for having misread the poet’s intentions. But churning the stones of Polish in my mouth, listening to its grumbling and screeching sounds, gave me a lot of satisfaction—like cursing, it seemed to touch my very core.

People translate poetry for many reasons, but money is not one of them. I’ve always told my students that it’s much easier to break into print as a translator than as a poet. But I also stressed a more important reason for translating: it would provide them with another way to look at English. In a way, translating is an ideal form of learning through imitation; translators don’t so much steal as remake the original in a new language and, along the way, enrich their own poetic vocabulary and increase their versatility as poets.

To translate, even if for your own desk drawer rather than for publication, is to step outside your comfort zone and see language from a less certain vantage point. The conversation between author and translator can be frustrating, even maddening, but it is rarely a waste of time. Close scrutiny, holding up each word, line, and stanza and rotating them against the light of your best judgment, makes the process intensely rewarding. Consulting dictionaries has never been my favorite thing, but translating has enhanced my command of the English language and its poetic representatives tremendously.

I’ve embraced the role of helping my American friends appreciate what I see as the best of contemporary Polish poetry—the works of Kornhauser, Jacek Gutorow, and Dariusz Sośnicki, among others—but I’ve also seen the whole enterprise as a labor of love, a way for me to fill some kind of void or gap in my poetic practice. Very often, this labor of love grows out of a sense of wonder I’ve experienced reading a particular poem, such as Kornhauser’s “Fieldfare,” or Gutorow’s “Hebrew,” with its stunning opening couplet, “I too have only two tenses: / the memory tense and the longing tense.” Just as often, though, it has been fueled not by love at first sight but by questions about the poet’s craft and aesthetics. Where poems come from may always remain a mystery, but how they’re written should not. By studying a poet’s work closely, I get to appreciate the intricacies of the creative process and all the labor it entails. Consequently, I’ve come to realize that some of the difficulties I encounter while first reading and translating a poem should be left untouched in the translation, which should be ruled by some of the same laws that apply to revision—mainly, that too much revising may produce a patchwork of smooth but spiritless parts, rather than the real thing.

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Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books are East & West, a volume of poems, and two volumes of translations, My People & Other Poems by Wojciech Bonowicz and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, which was long-listed for the 2017 PEN America Award for Poetry in Translation.


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