Translating Różewicz

A gripping, important exhibit is on display at Warsaw’s Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, and I’m proud to report that I got to play my small part in making it happen. But first—who was Andrzej Wróblewski? One of Poland’s major figures in the visual arts, Wróblewski had a brief and prolific career in the tumultuous time following the Second World War. His paintings and drawings (and specifically the double-sidedness of many of them) merge abstraction and figuration to challenge both political assumptions and formal constraints. The artist’s use of bright colors and his childlike visual style contrast strikingly with the bleak themes he confronts through his subjects. In other words—were you to glimpse these paintings from afar, you might think they are lighthearted, cheery ones, but you would be wrong.

One of the pieces on display is a looped archival film by Konrad Nałęcki featuring paintings by Wróblewski edited together with lines from poems by pre-eminent Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014). Subtitled in English using my translation, Nałęcki’s video is a haunting homage to both Wróblewski and Różewicz—and a testament to the quiet horror of post-war trauma that compelled both artist and poet to create. See excerpts from the Różewicz originals and my work below—and expect to feel discomfort or despair if you decide to see Nałęcki’s film for yourself.

Ciasno w piersiach własnych
Otworzę się 
Jak równina
Przychylna ruchowi i zmienności
Niech mnie napełni ocean życie

Tightly in my own chest
I will open
Like a plain
Favorable to movement and change
May I fill with the ocean of life

Matka przyciska do serca potwora
Twarz obraną z ludzkiej twarzy
Spalone mięso
Oczy bez powiek
Chciałaby go wepchnąć w siebie
Aby nie chodził pod słońcem i gwiazdami
Potwór polizany jęzorem napalmu

The mother presses a monster to her heart
A face without a human face
Burnt flesh
Eyes with no lids
She wishes she could shove it inside her
Keep it from walking under the sun and stars
This monster licked by a napalm tongue

Nad moim stołem uciszonym
Nie schylam już głowy pełnej pomysłów
Na przeciwko nie wiszą na ścianie
Barwne rebusy poetyckich skojarzeń
Nie gra radio
Nie słyszę skrzypienia krzesła
Nie szeleści pędzel po szorstkim papierze
Nie pracuję

Over my desk, now quiet
I no longer bend my head of ideas
On the wall opposite there hang
No vibrant puzzles of poetic thinking
The radio is not on
I don’t hear the chair creaking
The brush is not rustling over rough paper
I am not working

Translation by Natalia Osiatynska, 2015, for the Andrzej Wróblewski: Recto / Verso, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw from February 12 to May 17, 2015.