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Working with the poet who told us to ‘Praise the Mutilated World’

Clare Cavanagh spent more than 20 years translating the late Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. With his final volume now available in English, she reflects on their collaboration.

The poet Adam Zagajewski, who died in 2021. “True Life,” his final volume of poetry, is being published in English translation this month. (Daniel Malak)
6 min

Adam Zagajewski, the late Polish poet whose work I’ve been translating for more than 20 years, belonged to what he called “the Eastern European school of discretion”: “We don’t discuss divorces, we don’t acknowledge depressions.” He received award after award from country after country: the Neustadt International Prize, the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, the French Order of the Legion of Honor, the German Heinrich Mann Prize, the Spanish Princess of Asturias Award, the Chinese Zhongkun International Poetry Prize. But it never went to his head. Just the opposite. Modesty, wit, self-effacement: They shape every line of his work. They shaped the person too.

He first approached me about working with him indirectly, by way of a mutual acquaintance who called to ask if I would consider translating Adam Zagajewski. This was back in 1995. 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.

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 Wislawa Szymborska with his longtime friend, the great poet and translator Stanislaw Barańczak. So he thought it was worth a try.

He didn’t know that I was already a die-hard fan. He’d done one of his first readings in English at Harvard when I was in graduate school, and his poem “To Go to Lvov” — he read it in Polish and English — bowled me over. I knew I’d just heard greatness. I went to the library afterward and read every poem I could find. So when the mutual friend called, I froze, answered “No” and hung up the phone. 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.

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From a translator’s viewpoint, Adam was the anti-Joseph Brodsky. The Russian Nobel laureate was renowned both for his formal virtuosity and for the standards to which he held his hapless translators. But Adam didn’t do rhyme and meter, for one thing — too much like mandatory genuflection in church, he once remarked. And unlike his dear friend, whom he never ceased to mourn, he didn’t terrify his collaborators. Just the opposite. We talked about all sorts of things, and he loved it when I enthused about a simile or some syntactic tour de force. He never forgot how I called once long-distance, Wisconsin to Paris, in a burst of enthusiasm to tell him I’d just translated a masterpiece, his poem “Opus Posthumous.”

But he was pretty much hands-off when it came to the actual translations. He would gently correct — but not always! — the occasional error. “Maybe strawberries come out earlier in the States?” he asked when I mixed up one of Polish’s resolutely un-Latinate months. He had hated having to provide English versions for earlier translators who didn’t know Polish. “Like sending off dead kittens and puppies,” he complained. Even my translations were yesterday’s papers: He’d already gone on to the next poem.

So he failed to fix my most glaring error. He emailed me a blurry typewritten fax of what would become his most famous poem sometime in 1999, I think. And I mistook a perfectly good English word, “rosé,” for the Polish prepositional phrase “o rosie,” which means “about the dew.” Hence the New Yorker version of “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” that contains both “drops of wine” and “dew.” Adam caught the mistake, he told me later, and first thought, “What is this, a picnic at dawn?” Then he decided he liked it. “You can’t just like my mistakes!” I protested. What he wanted to change was the main verb, “opiewać” in Polish. I’d written “praise,” while he preferred “extol.” Alice Quinn, then the magazine’s poetry editor, sided with me. After that Adam claimed he was afraid to correct me.

He self-corrected, though. His poems were works in progress until the book came out in Polish. And this posed another problem. The version I received over email wasn’t always what I found later in the book. Or failed to find. And the changes always mattered. They also meant that I spent the occasional minute inside the poet’s workshop.

Here’s one example from what was not so long ago his latest and is now his last volume, “True Life,” which is out in English this month. Adam gave me the first version of “The Calling of Saint Matthew” in Krakow in 2017. Back then it was dedicated to the memory of the very poet I’d been translating when we met, his friend Wislawa Szymborska. She appears more obliquely in the final version, in an epigraph taken from her poem “Funeral” that pays tribute both to the poet and to a genre she called “podsluchańce,” or “eavesdroppings.”

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Szymborska’s “Funeral” consists of seemingly random fragments apparently overheard in a churchyard or cemetery. Adam likewise builds his poem from snippets of seemingly unrelated conversations. But its setting is pure Zagajewski. It evokes the many poems he dedicates to what art historians call “close looking,” the careful scrutiny of artworks in a museum, a gallery or, as here, a church, as the first version tells us: “The Calling of Saint Matthew (the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi).”

Visitors, connoisseurs and tour guides chat while catching glimpses of Caravaggio’s great painting when a coin dropped in a slot provides momentary illumination: “What next, paying in a church,” one tourist complains. Scraps of dialogue overlap to reveal both banalities and fleeting epiphanies:

— How much are these paintings insured for
— Jesus is in shadow but his face is light

So the dedication became an epigraph. The only other change I spotted was in the poem’s ending. The first version concludes with a line set apart from the rest, a directive seemingly from the poet himself:

— They live in semi-darkness and suddenly there’s light.

It’s closing any moment, look closely.

This line vanishes from the final version, to be replaced by yet another bit of unidentified dialogue:

— They live in semi-darkness and suddenly there’s light.
— It’s going out

That’s the problem with poetic endings. They read completely differently when the person who wrote them is gone. Adam was hard at work on a new volume when he suddenly fell ill in the spring of 2021. His friend and publisher Krystyna Krynicka had asked him earlier if it was ready for print, and he replied, “Not yet, just give me another year.” But no one did.

Clare Cavanagh is the Frances Hooper professor in the arts and humanities at Northwestern University. She is a translator of numerous works of poetry, including “True Life” by Adam Zagajewski.

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