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How I Translated It: ‘It makes two signs…’ by Krystyna Miłobędzka

Translating is attending to what might happen in language and what might occur between languages. As readers and writers we know this space intimately – the in-betweenness where we can experiment, hesitate, discover, doubt, try again.

‘“Try” – there’s so much faith in it, and so much resignation. But we keep trying. … Only such attempts – to make from language something stronger than language – have a little permanence,’ says Krystyna Miłobędzka, the Polish author (b.1932) whose poems and approach to writing are so essential to me that I have to read her with utmost attention: I have to translate her work.

When I concentrate, I think with a pencil in my hand. I’ve covered Miłobędzka’s volumes with scribbles: comments surround the poems, circles single out individual words, question marks signal my queries, English words accompany the Polish in disorderly formations which rehearse alternatives and admit to blanks.




The twenty-third prose poem of Miłobędzka’s Anaglify (Anaglyphs; 1960) immediately invited my pencilled experimentation. As the title suggests, the collection offers cameo performances of  familiar, and not so familiar, ‘protagonists.’ What or who appears in this text? The Polish language lets Miłobędzka delete sentence subjects, as the grammatical endings guide the reading. Yet she takes even more liberties with Polish grammar: her pronouns, verb forms, derivatives usher in new presences. ‘Who?’ I circle the opening verb and jot my question. Above I write ‘It,’ circle my guess in the moment of clarity, which soon gives way to another question mark. Below the poem I try to both avoid this initial trap and recreate this momentary ignorance – what if I moved ‘dwa znaki’ (two signs) to the subject position?

As a translator I can ask the poet for assistance, on condition s/he is around and happy to respond. That’s another reason why translating is a language craft: this attentive reading inevitably leads to a conversation about word choices and compositional decisions. Luckily for me, Miłobędzka is generous in her answers.



She places my draft between ‘yes’ and ‘no!’, then explains underneath: ‘this needs to be written starting from the English “feather,” because it’s the Polish “pióro”      letter after letter.’ She spells out the word, doubling the middle letters to show me that her text tries to render their shapes as well. To enact in English the act of writing ‘pióro’ (which, to make the task more tricky, denotes not only a bird’s feature, but also a writing device) Miłobędzka suggests: ‘this could work if we wrote the Polish “pióro” and added the English “feather” in brackets. I think it could be fun!’ She also numbers the sequence of two actions: hearing and looking. Indeed, unfamiliar with its sound, in English readers would first and foremost see ‘pióro.’

Miłobędzka’s invitation to this writing game reassures me that we share a view of translation as transreading, which allows creative transgressions (no talk about faithfulness or loss, which often mars discussions of the craft). I note down: ‘odwrócić’ (reverse) and ‘riddle poem?’ – my own instructions for the game.




The next printed draft records the reversed sequence, where ‘see’ replaces ‘look’ and ‘pióro’ features twice. Now I need to decide what to do with the disappeared ‘feather’ and how to convey the fragmented phrasing (I cross out one attempt, as it ‘jars’), which defines this poetry. I re-read the poems; I read around: poets whose approach reminds me of certain Miłobędzka strategies, reviews, Miłobędzka’s own (infrequent) commentaries. In i vanish i am, which collects her carefully written introductions to four poetry readings, the poet explains:

The momentariness, the changeability, not only of clouds. Of me, too, and of this writing – of everything. This determines how to treat language. The speed of happening, which is experienced almost physically, which I can’t keep up with – it dictates words that are torn out, cut short. Broken-off words, broken-off sentences, fragments of images, scraps of thoughts. In this very moment. Eternal unreadiness. Attempts, constant attempts, always unsuccessful.

But there occur writings which fit life almost perfectly. Their language falters, queries, doesn’t know, falls silent, breaks up, skips over the process of searching-finding-losing (2010: 34).

Even this elaboration sounds fragmentary; it breaks off, less in hesitation, more in the attempt at  approximating. How can I keep up with this changeability: of my reading, of the act of writing, of someone writing the word ‘pióro/feather,’ of a feather itself?



Pencil in hand, I reshuffle words, lose words (articles! which Polish doesn’t have), find quicker words (their sound and length). I rethink (insert some articles back), list synonyms (dictionaries; browsing and getting lost in the OED is a must), return. In the margin of this draft I comment: ‘opening of the collection?’ Can this poem live up to such an expectation?



I remind myself of the sound and appearance of the Polish words. Of course, they differ from English – that’s the point: to invent my own language in-between English and Polish. I pencil ‘wzniesione do pędu’ above the first line (it needs more thinking), decide on the ‘uprush’ (even though ‘rush’ is shorter) and in yet another draft introduce ‘pen’ (the other sense of ‘feather’). So far it has remained outside the English text, but it’s been with me all this time.

The published (is it final?) version replaces ‘pen’ with ‘quill.’ Now the sentence that started the game contains three occurrences of ‘feather,’ not two. The fourth, changed to the adjective ‘feathery,’ allows me to delete ‘fluffily,’ which seemed wrong, but I had no better alternative. Changing parts of speech helps me also to refine the initial ‘I say the constricted’ to ‘I utter this constriction.’ The fun Miłobędzka envisaged at the beginning of this language exchange has relied on constriction, on the resistance of materials: ‘To talk about oneself and one’s own writing is to talk about imperfection. (…) If a record, a text, wants to be as close to life as possible, it has to be imperfect, it has to be a rough draft.’

Translating, to me, is a form of such deliberate rough-drafting.




In case you’re wondering, this poem does open the bilingual selection of Krystyna Miłobędzka’s poetry, Nothing More/więcej nic, introduced by Robert Minhinnick, published by Arc Publications (2013). On the publisher’s website you can find links to three essays I’ve written about Miłobędzka’s poems and my translations:

At the Poetry School we play with translation in a series of online courses entitled ‘Transreading.’ In autumn 2014 one of our writing games in ‘Transreading Central Europe’ was inspired by Krystyna Miłobędzka’s poem, which transformed into a conceptual pamphlet: ‘try to build a house of words’

Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese writes between English, Polish and Danish. Nothing More, her translations of Krystyna Miłobędzka’s poetry, has been shortlisted for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize.


  • LydiaHarris

    Thank you for this wonderful account. I love

    There’s so much faith and so much resignation. But we keep trying.

  • Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

    Thank you, Lydia, for your comment. I guess that’s why Miłobędzka’s emphasis on unreadiness, imperfection, drafting – qualities we all know so well.

  • David Tanguay

    The joy of playing with words. here’ a coincidence, I bought some calligraphy pens, then I read your script once, twice, several times and practised writing, piioorro, it was fun writing the letters doubled up, best with a broad nib, I am now looking for a swans wing quill, seriously I really enjoyed your article.

  • Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

    David, what an imaginative response! I’m glad my text and my attempts have inspired your own – calligraphic – rendition. I could add that Miłobędzka has a sequance of poems which play with an idea of the poem itself, its visual form, in a very minimalist sense. Your ‘piioorro’ version seems to do the same: your capturing of the gist of this poem. Thank you for your experiment and your kind words!

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