As I was looking at three translations of Norwid’s Fortepian Szopena I noticed that everybody had translated one of the phrases, “co chwila, co chwila,” with a different set of words. One of them liked “moment, by moment,” another one “each moment, each moment,” and the last one, “from beat to beat.’ That was Teresa Bałuk, later criticised for being too nice and smooth by Agata Brajerska-Mazur, who said that in order to translate Norwid well you need “extensive knowledge -- not only of the translated text but also of the but also the whole of the author’s works and ideas.” (I don’t have any of that and I’m still disturbed by the infidelity to Norwid’s comma.) Arie Gallas, who co-translated the “each moment, each moment” version with Jerome Rothenberg, lists Polish among the Foreign Language Skills on his C.V., but their poem still comes with an afterword that claims he is “hard to conceive for those of us cut off from him by language.” Rothenberg, Gallas, and a third writer who has just entered their article, Jeffrey C. Robinson, prove their point by quoting Polish writers who agree on “the impenetrable obscurity of [Norwid’s] style and his jarring syntax” (Czesław Miłosz). Their list ends with Bogday Czaykowski, who believes the dead poet “thought of himself as a reader of signs, of traces left by God for human beings to recognize and decipher.”
All of the Polish-English dictionaries I could find told me that “chwila” meant either “moment” or “instant”, with the Cambridge Polish-English Dictionary adding another suggestion, “while.” If, for some magical reason (say aliens cast spells on you), you needed to translate Norwid’s “chwila” as “while,” would the phrase have to become “in a while, in a while”? But then we’re always looking forward to a piece of future scenery without inhabiting our own moment and that seems to be the antithesis of those three real translations by Bałuk, Rothenberg, Gallas, and “moment, by moment”’s Danuta Borchardt.
Translation was on my mind. When I walked upstairs from the Norton Simon’s Ellsworth Kelly exhibition to the Henri Rousseau painting of monkeys in the galleries above I imagined the pointed leaves in Kelly’s Suite of Plants Lithographs were being echoed in Rousseau’s jungle. I remembered how happy André Gide sounds in his journals when he notices that his dislike of Alexandre Dumas is shared by an author he admires, Colette. It’s good for him to see his sensations removed from obscurity in another person.* On Monday, after I had stepped away from Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, 1950, to watch Agnes Varda’s 1968 film, Lions Love (… and Lies), I had to put the book down for the rest of the day because Viva, one of the Lions characters, was reciting Blanchot’s lines in my head every time I came back to them. I had been reading a chapter that describes the condition of Anne, who is, argues Kevin S. Fitzgerald, a kind of Euridice removing herself from Thomas, who is an Orpheus. “[F]or Thomas's limit-experiences resemble the near death experience of Orpheus in Hades.”
“Then, suddenly,” writes Blanchot, in this translation by Robert Lamberton, “with the noise of a tempest she entered into a solitude made out of the suppression of all space, and, torn violently by the call of the hours, she unveiled herself. It was as if she was in a green valley where, invited to be the personal rhythm, the impersonal cadence of all things, she was becoming with her age and her youth, the age and youth of others.” Although I wouldn’t normally have seen a connection between Thomas and Viva, I realised that if the Warhol star really had begun saying those lines it would not have sounded wrong. The movie, in which people often borrow phrases from Shakespeare, or from Michael McLure’s 1965 play The Beard, or, in one scene, from St. Augustine, would have made sense of the words as they came out of her Buster Keaton stoneface, and the translation from one place to another would have felt legitimate.** Varda’s works are arguments for the carrying capacity of movies, all except Vagabond, 1985. (People who like Vagabond will talk about the personality of the protagonist rather than the filmness of the film.)
Instead of reading Thomas I wached the Melbourne Cup and fooled about, trying to fit the word “translation” around the death of Cliffsofmoher – translated from one of the three hopes of Ireland into nothing or something stupid like that. In light of the dead horse it seems strange to see all these live people running around.
* Originally I wrote “his hatred of Alexandre Dumas” which was nice but I was working off my memory of the passage and “hatred” felt like too much when I looked it up.
After Bella-Vista, which is quite recent, I take up La Maison de Claudine, which I did not yet know. I enjoy reading in it: “Neither my brothers’ enthusiasm nor my parents’ disapproving amazement got me to take an interest in The Three Musketeers.” Yes, I am glad not to be the only one who failed to lose his heart to Dumas père when his companion in boredom is Colette.” (11th of February, 1941. Translated by Justin O’Brian.)
Hatred was not really honest. “I can’t say hatred,” I thought.
** If I were Varda I would be making a joke about Viva’s stoneface being a stoned face, but it needs a French cadence and I’m not French. It would suit her general way of using words, Mur Murs, Faces Places, and so on.