In his exhilarating translation of Pan Tadeusz, Bill Johnston captures Adam Mickiewicz’s wild fluctuations of register and brilliant associative riffs. The volume recently won the 2019 National Translation Award in Poetry.
Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania, by Adam Mickiewicz. Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Archipelago Books, 496 pages, $18.
By Eric Fishman
Periodically, one hears reports of a letter than has finally arrived at its destination after a decades-long delay in the labyrinth of the postal service. The sender’s inside joke, emotional confidences, or request for money reaches either the original recipient, now grown old—or their grandchild, or a stranger who has since moved into the house. Confusion, tears, or wonder follow. We can be moved by both the immediacy and distance of these echoed voices.
Reading a newly released translation of a classic work can offer a similar experience. All old books are letters from the past. Fresh translation, though, offers readers new glasses through which to look at these “letters.” At its best, a new translation offers us a coherent vision of the text: shimmering slightly in its otherness, a bit windswept from its journey, yet able to stand on its own.
Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania was originally published in 1834, when the author was a thirty-five-year-old exile living in Paris. The poem is a tangle of interweaving threads. In brief: a student returns from studying in the city to his family’s gentry manor in rural Lithuania, at a time when that country was under the control of Tsarist Russia. Romantic, political, familial, and military conflicts ensue. The poem is considered perhaps the most influential work of literature in Polish, and many Anglophones have grappled with it over the years. Bill Johnston, however, is the first to bring it into “modern” English. It recently won the 2019 National Translation Award in Poetry.
Reviews of translations often attempt to assess whether the translation is “accurate” to the original. To me, this is an absurd perspective from which to review a literary translation. What is usually meant by “accurate” is: “are all the words correctly translated from the other language?” The reality in much more complex. Words are symbols – they represent phenomena in the world. Words are polyvalent – they have many meanings, and exist in a dense web of relationships to other words, texts, and people’s experiences of the world. Words are also sonic objects that refract, reflect, and jingle in response to other sounds. Impossible to capture all of this in translation. And so the choice is left up to the translator: what are the most salient features of the original text, and how can these features be constructed in English? In other words – particularly for someone who doesn’t speak the original language – it makes the most sense to evaluate a translation on the clarity and success of the translator’s own goals.
Johnston, in an 2014 interview in Words without Borders, describes his understanding of the translation process:
The [metaphor] I feel best captures my own aims in translating is that of performance. I find that I’m looking for the “voice” of the author or narrator much as an actor searches for a character within him- or herself …
What voice did Johnston find for Pan Tadeusz, and how does this voice compare to the previously published translations of the poem? One of the defining features of this poem is its multiplicity of voices: dialogue makes up a substantial portion of the text, and even the narrative voice seems to swing dramatically between nostalgia, comedy, and melodrama. As Johnston notes in his introduction, in a discussion of his overarching goals for the translation: “A major part of the pleasure of reading Pan Tadeusz is Mickiewicz’s endless linguistic inventiveness … and sheer range of his capacity for emotional expression.”
In one scene, Mickiewicz presents a council of the Dobrynskis, an impoverished clan of Polish gentry. They engage in a chaotic debate over whether to arm themselves and venture out to inflict violence on the Russians – or their neighbors. This scene is a particularly concentrated example of the demands on the translator to capture the variety of characters present in the text.
One of the more bloody-minded men, named Sprinkler (after his sword), stands to speak on behalf of warfare. As he nears the end of his speech, he refutes the suggestion that they wait for further reconnaissance about the Russians from a local monk. In Johnston’s translation, we get the following (parentheses are mine, and indicate the conclusion of the previous phrase or the beginning of the next one):
In body and soul.) Hounds are for hunting does,
Monks are for begging. My job’s sprinkling blows,
Whacking and thwacking!” (He stroked the club he held
Compare this to Watson Kirkonnell’s 1962 translation, in which the character is named Christener:
A Bernardine gets pickings without fail;
But, brothers, it’s my task, beyond recall,
To christen, christen, christen, and that’s all!”
Even though I speak no Polish, I can tell that this scene must have been particularly challenging to translate. Two facets of the original text are in conflict. On the one hand, we have the structure of the poem: the traditional Polish 13-syllable line, in rhyming couplets. In other words, a regular, orderly structure. On the other hand, we have a character who is anything but orderly: a man who is violent and disorganized to the point of absurdity. How does each translator choose to “perform” this character?
Kirkonnell’s couplets are clean, with exact rhymes and no enjambment (phrases that carry over from one line to the next). Sometimes this requires him to “force” a rhyme where none is forthcoming: “beyond recall … that’s all!” He also uses strict iambic pentameter, whose regularity feels out of step with the verbal flailing of the character. Overall, Kirkonnell’s translation of this scene feels strangled by the exactness of his form. The chaotic nature of the character is lost in the precision of the rhyme and rhythm.
Johnston, while he also utilizes couplets, mixes exact and near rhymes — although this is not as evident in the small excerpt above. Johnston uses iambic pentameter as his foundation, but varies the rhythm frequently. He notes in his introduction that the traditional 13-syllable Polish line does not have a regular pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables. His flexible cadence reflects this, and feels much more natural for a character such as Sprinkler. Johnston also enjambs many lines. This allows him not only to mirror the original text line-for-line (Kirkonnell’s translation contains many more lines than the original), but also to give more breathing space to the phrases. Overall, Johnston’s structural choices leave room for the character to emerge.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between these two translations is in the kind of language they use. Kirkonnell, although translating in the mid-twentieth century, uses English appropriate to the nineteenth: “Bernadine,” “setter,” “pickings.” To return to the question of performance, Kirkonnell is effectively performing for a nineteenth-century Anglophone public. While this may be more “accurate” to the letter of the original work—in that Mickiewicz was writing in nineteenth century Polish—it betrays the spirit of Mickiewicz’s language, which Johnston describes as “direct, straightforward … [yet] play[ful].”
Both translators engage with the puns in this scene, particularly around Sprinkler/Christener’s name (and the name of his sword). Yet Johnston goes further. His crass onomatopoeic language gives us a clear sense of the character: “Whacking and thwacking!” And in an deft pun earlier in this passage, Johnston’s Sprinkler asserts:
And priests … We should be friars—
We’ll fry the Russians! …”
I was amused and astonished by Johnston’s ability to channel the playfulness of Mickiewicz’s language throughout the text. In what is perhaps my favorite line of the entire poem, the Count looks out on an orchard:
Shade a broad field, with vegetables below
In beds. Here, cabbages with bald gray pate
Sit pondering their vegetative fate.
A brilliantly constructed personification – of cabbage. The strangeness of this literary joke turns again towards the idea of performance. For whom was Mickiewicz writing? Who is his audience? The poem skates uneasily between lines of genre. Pan Tadeusz’s complexity and grand ambitions speak to the tradition of epic poetry, and indeed it is often referred to as the “national epic of Poland.”
The language of the poem itself, though, tells a different story. At many moments, however, the poet seems to mock the conventions of epic poetry with a mischievous sense of ironic humor. The Count, for example, happens upon:
As if they danced …
The Count was minded of Elysian shades
Who, pain and worry left behind, now stray
Peaceful and quiet …
He soon realizes, though, that this is just a group of people picking mushrooms. An extensive and lyrical reference to Homer is subsumed by fungi. This turn towards “mock-epic” recalls the burlesque of, for example, Alexander Pope in “The Rape of the Lock.” Having pivoted in tone once, Mickiewicz shifts again: he launches into a nostalgic description of the varieties of mushrooms found in Lithuania, including their cultural significance. (Did you know that chanterelles were considered a symbol of virginity, since worms don’t eat them? Now you do.) These digressions conjure, for the English language reader, the informational asides of another canonical work of literature: Moby Dick. Is Pan Tadeusz attempting to expand the traditional conceptions of the epic in a similarly omnivorous fashion as Melville did with the novel?
Mickiewicz himself, in the epilogue, informs us that he has much humbler aspirations:
Should find its way to a cottage nook
Where peasant girls at spinning wheels
Swap favorite songs …
While this aspiration to “folk fame” might be dismissed as the ex-patriot’s nostalgia or a meaningless gesture towards a kind of inverse literary pretension — “oh my! I set out to write a simple tale and it became an epic”— the language of the book says otherwise. It’s not surprising that the Polish director Andrzej Wajda created an acclaimed film adaptation of Pan Tadeusz in the late 1990s. Much of the book already reads like cinema.
At some moments, Mickiewicz gives us slapstick. Tadeusz leans in for a kiss from his new love interest, only to be thwarted by another character who swats so hard at a fly between the lovers’ heads that they reel backwards, “each left with a visible contusion.” Elsewhere, Mickiewicz gives us page upon page of battles that tend towards the comedic: characters duel with daggers, swords—and a guitar. Russians are thwarted by a cheese shed that crashes down on them. At times, these scenes feel overwrought. I found myself skipping stanzas after five or six pages of blow-by-blow battle descriptions. And the romantic comedy sometimes teetered towards the unconvincing melodrama of a soap opera. However, one can imagine the inhabitants of the “cottage nook” reading these scenes to each other with great pleasure.
The cinematic tendencies of the poem are not limited to cheap action flicks, though. The poem is deeply visual in other ways. Book One opens – after an invocation of the author’s Christian “muses”—with a pastoral scene, viewed from afar. Fields of wheat and rye … a birch-lined stream … a wooden manor. The camera slowly zooms in: the barn, the stacks of grain and hay. And suddenly, our narrator drives into view in a “two-horse britzka.” This constant play with distance and scale feels intensely rural: there are immense distances to traverse. The poet frequently uses this sense of “zooming in” to humorous effect, as with the Count and the “Elysian shades.” A character views a scene from afar, and then is disillusioned as he or she approaches.
Mickiewicz’s tendency towards “pastoral cinema” serves purposes other than comedy, however. The characters’ emotions are often channeled through the landscapes that populate the poem. Before or after moments of confrontation, Mickiewicz frequently steps back to examine the natural world. Before a tense conference in the manor, we get a description of an approaching storm:
That earlier had, like graveside mourners, bowed
And tossed their long, long arms, their silvered hair
Untied and blowing loosely in the air—
Stood lifeless now, their grief shown silently
Like statues of Sipylean Niobe.
Perhaps it is the poet’s own sadness that is collected in these landscapes. From Paris, he sets down scenes of a country he will never see again. His nostalgia, like Niobe, is transformed into a statue.
Pan Tadeusz does resonate, at times, with our contemporary dramas: there are moving dialogues about refugees, as well as disturbing scenes of leaders inciting mob violence. In these moments, the gap of time between us and this “letter from the past” closes. Yet in the end, it’s Mickiewicz’s brilliant play with language that makes this poem an engrossing experience. And this is where Johnston’s “performance” succeeds most definitively: in capturing the author’s wild fluctuations of register and brilliant associative riffs. After all – where else will you get to hear about the existential ruminations of balding vegetables from a poet longing for a lost Lithuania?
Eric Fishman is an elementary school teacher, translator, writer, and cellist. He is the co-translator, with Hoyt Rogers, of Water Slower than Stones: Selected Poems of André du Bouchet, forthcoming from Bitter Oleander Press.