Getting Drunk in the Toolshed, or What I Do When I Translate

Mira Rosenthal

Recently, I sat down to translate after many months — actually, almost half a year — away from my current project, Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s The Book of Rotations. After translating a whole book of his sonnets, I was ready for the challenge of the collection’s formal constraints: eight-line stanzas of mostly end-rhymed, eleven-syllable lines. Yet I felt rusty, as we say, like a metal gear left to the elements through the wet winter and into the spring. Such is the pattern for many an academic. We keep putting off and putting off till summer those endeavors that need space around them and the luxury of wasting a whole morning on choosing a few words. The slowness of the torque as the cogs began to turn actually made me more aware of what I was doing, and I found myself surprised, overwhelmed, and deeply appreciative of the experience. I had missed this very particular type of activity.

Not that translation is some kind of automated process or machine. Far from it. The gear metaphor seems apt more for that feeling of teeth clicking into place like words fitting together in the exact right space that a language makes for them, creating the tight tension of sound and sense we call poetry. On a fundamental level, I’m describing the act of writing in general; but the difference when translating is that the sense toward which the sound of the words drives is predetermined. This is both a great liberation (I don’t have to figure out what I’m trying to say) and a great anxiety (what if I can’t get the sound in English to point the right way?).

This time around, I was overcome at first by the split nature of the act. How infuriating it is to hear the music of the Polish yet find that it has completely drained away in a first pass at putting the sense into English. This is impossible, I think repeatedly. This sounds absolutely horrible. And I grow painfully aware of how the sound and syntax of each language forms the way that thoughts move within it, forms the very thoughts we can have when in it. The use of passive voice, for example, which is much more prevalent in Polish, or the way that Polish uses a double negative construction. Or, on a deeper level, a turn of phrase like “to catch someone’s eye,” which in Polish is, rather, falling into the eye. All of these things give a tinge to the very ideas. Such inherent aspects of grammar loom large in poetry, where meaning functions on multiple levels at once, often built on these kinds of metaphors that are embedded in the language itself. Thus a perfectly clear sentence in Polish seems, in a certain way, nearly unintelligible when I first try to think it in English. I understand it; I just can’t think it in another language.

Or, to be more prosaic about the experience, even translators have to contend with the blank page.

Until, that is, I find a first line that sets into motion a transmission or gear train of sound as the English progresses. I go from “Night is already gone” to “Night has already elapsed,” and suddenly rhythm settles in and internal rhyme pops up with “elapsed” when “happened” indeed happens in the second line of the poem. Or, “Trees and grass, in which rot apples” turns into “Trees and grass, where apples lie decomposing,” and I’m off with the long “e” sounds in the first and last words that frame the open “a” sounds of the middle. And, not to get too dorky on you, but of course there’s the nice rhythmic balance (which mimics the sounds) of two trochaic feet on either side of a dactylic foot.

Truth be told, when I go back to reconstruct what I’ve done, the changes seem paltry and obvious: a few minor adjustments to the gear’s teeth to make it slip in without friction. But in the moment, when I find myself making lists like the following:

          Words for alcohol:








          Hard stuff






… well, I kind of feel brilliant for figuring out a choice from among so many choices that makes the whole poem flow with a sound that not only gets the meaning more or less right but also opens a few undercurrents. Sometimes, I even discover two really good choices! There’s this:


          by this spell, already lost, again he mistakes

          one alcohol for another: the one in a decanter

          and the one outside that so quickly enters

          the bloodstream.

And then there’s this:


          by this spell, already lost, he mixes up

          his spirits: the one in a decanter

          and the one outside that so quickly enters

          the bloodstream.

How tempting it is to go with “spirits” for “alcohol” here, since later in the poem this is exactly what happens when love gets poured into despair. But “spirit” might obscure the idea too much, make it a little too poetic. By the way, I’m feeling pretty good about myself for changing “glass” to “decanter” to achieve the rhyme.

And, oh, now I really get it about the outside world. Just read it, read the whole poem again, “The Guadalquivir,” how the speaker is getting drunk on what he sees and hears and smells. And, oh, how am I going to end the poem on the right word, when English is making me put the subject, that metaphor-pregnant nightingale, earlier in the sentence. Damn this free word order in Polish. I certainly can’t say: “a nightingale, caretaker of the garden, will rock him.” The ending is too soft; the surprise of the nightingale popping up unexpectedly is lost. How about: “he’ll find himself rocked by the nightingale, caretaker of the garden.” But, oh, now I’m so far over my syllable count, with two three-syllable words in the line. There’s no way I can change “nightingale” to some other bird. So …

          Words for one who takes care:










          keeper …

I’d forgotten how engrossing and infuriating and joyous translation is, spending a morning making minute adjustments, tinkering and oiling and getting the whole thing up and running in another language. It would be easy to go on like this forever, trying out alternate ways of constructing the idea in English, seeing what sounds each particular machine makes, which ones purr, which ones chug along with a clear beat or a funny chirp every now and then. And though the whole endeavor always appears impossible at first — I’m never going to be able to translate this poem — I’ve yet to find one that fails to start up in the end. But, then, I’ve been known to throw out extra parts if they don’t seem to fit. I know: what sacrilege! Maybe that’s the moonshine talking, or was it hooch?

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