Translator’s Notes: Miron Białoszewski’s “Mironagony”

The following poem cost me perhaps more thought-time per word than any of my translations. Reading Białoszewski, in whose work every word (along with every one of its dozen meanings) counts, is a form of meditation; translating him is a form of prayer… sometimes of the God-have-mercy variety.

Mironagony

a man a Miron agonizes agonizes
again he’s a talossfor
an utter can’t utter
er

For comparison, here’s a more-or-less literal translation by Ewa Gładka.

Mironment

human Miron torments himself torments
once again he’s from him words unabl
uncertain whattodoo
du

And here’s Miron Białoszewski’s original.

Mironczarnia

męczy się człowiek Miron męczy
znów jest zeń słów niepotraf
niepewny cozrobień
yeń

*

The Polish “męczy się,” which I rendered as “agonizes,” means, roughly, both “struggles” and “suffers” (or “tires”). There’s a suggestion that our poet’s pain is caused by external as well as internal pressure. He both torments and is tormented, something that Gładka’s “literal” translation doesn’t quite captue. He agonizes: he brings about agony and he is brought agony.

Such semantic subtleties are relatively easy to handle; the real headache with the first line is its grammar. The line is a blend of “A man agonizes” (in the impersonal sense) or perhaps “man agonizes,” and “Miron agonizes,” which sounds strikingly third-personal and is ambiguous between, roughly, “a man called Miron agonizes” and “Miron-man agonizes.” (“Miron” is, of course, Białoszewski’s first name.) I tried multiple orderings of “Miron” and “man,” with and without articles (and, in the version I posted earlier, the artificial “a man of Miron”), and decided “a man a Miron” was the lesser of all possible evils. I think the indefinite article before “Miron” achieves the right sort of impersonal effect, even if it sounds a little strange.

English doesn’t use emphatic repetition as much as Polish, so “agonizes agonizes” might sound strange too. In Polish, it’s just a way of saying “does agonize” or “agonizes so,” or “keeps agonizing.” “Agonizes and agonizes” or “agonizes yes agonizes,” which I wrote in the earlier version, might have gotten the sense across more naturally — but in the end I decided that economy of expression mattered more than naturalness here.

Then there’s the untranslatable title. “Mironczarnia” is a perfect portmanteau of “Miron” and “męczarnia” (“torment” or “agony”), which also carries shades of something like “typical Miron-nonsense.” The translator’s situation is pretty hopeless here — how do you make a half-decent portmanteau with a foreign name? Having already chosen “agony” for “męczarnia” constrained me even further. For a long time, I had “Mironizer” (“Mirony” sounded too much like “irony”), which had the added bonus of ending with “er,” the final line of the poem. But I was still unsatisfied by the fact that you wouldn’t be able to unpack the portmanteau without the aid of the first line. I toyed with “Mironutter,” which could conceivably be read as “Miron, utter!” as well as “Miron-nutter,” but “nutter” seemed excessive. Finally, I settled on the most straightforward portmanteau, which simply glues together “Miron” and “agony.” It sounds pretty good, and could potentially be read as “Mirona-gony,” along the lines of “cosmogony.” The shades of creation-through-agony seemed appropriate enough to the poem that I gave up (for now) trying to find a portmanteau built up seamlessly from daintier word-fragments.

We’re only getting to the hardest part now: the second line. You’ll notice that my version looks almost nothing like the “literal” translation. That’s because — I’d argue — the latter rests on a misunderstanding. The (somewhat rare) Polish “zeń,” here rendered as “from him,” in some sense of “literal,” literally means just that. But it’s the grammatical use to which this phrase is put when combined with the verb “to be” that’s relevant here. And that use is (here comes some grammatical jargon) to allow nouns in the nominative case to function like nouns in the instrumental case. An example should explain this much better: “Jest kot” (“is cat”) means “there is a cat” or “the cat is (here);” “jest zeń kot” (“is from him a cat”) is a fancy way of saying “he’s a cat.”

Okay, so it would be more literal, in some sense, to say something like “Once again, he’s a words unabl.” But that won’t do. Not with that “a,” and not without it. Why? Well, there’s something to be retained from that “from him words unabl.” The original does, I think, at first read like something nearer to Gładka’s translation — maybe like “again, he’s from within words canno.” It’s initially hard to figure out the part of speech of this “canno” — it looks like a verb stopped mid-utterance (an important feature of the stammering quality of the poem, of course), but in the Polish it also looks like a neologism meaning “someone who can’t:” “unabler.” Thus the original has the feel of two superimposed near-sentences: “Again, he cannot words from within” and “Again, he’s a words-unabler.” Whattodoo?

Well, here’s what we can’t lose in the translation. We want something that reads like an English sentence until it grinds to a halt mid-phrase and the reader is forced to reassess her parsing. It would be nice to find something that can be both a neologism for a type of person and a phrase to do with not finding the right words. But what do we do with that pesky English “a”? Well, let’s not worry about it yet; let’s just see what phrases we have to choose from. The first one that comes to mind? “At a loss for words.” That’s interesting: the “-or” in “for” just might do as a suffix to a person-type neologism (think about “professor”). “Atalossfor”? Perfect — cutting out the “words” should leave us with something which, while it remains almost immediately recognizable, has the right confusing stopped-mid-sentence quality. “He’s atalossfor,” then? Or “He’s an atalossfor”? That’s the problem — to get the right sort of ambiguity, we’d like both at once. Wait a minute — “a talossfor”?!

That was my thought-process when I came up with this line, and I was quite pleased with myself. But while I managed to get around the existence of indefinite articles, I couldn’t escape the quirks of English pronunciation. Because, of course, “a talossfor” doesn’t sound like “at a loss for” — the “a” in “at” is not the “a” of the indefinite article. And here I just have to shrug my shoulders; a spoken pun in addition to a written one is more than this mortal can procure.

The next line in the original plays the same “type of person/ incomplete sentence” game with inability to do in the place of inability to write/speak. Other things equal, it would have been nice for the translation to also move from language to life. But look at the advantages of “an utter can’t utter.” “Utter” comes with the “-er” that makes it into such a natural person-type word. There’s perfect ambiguity: “An-utter cannot utter” (and if the reader plays the game from the previous line and parses it as “A nutter cannot utter,” that’s even better) or “(He’s) an utter can’t-utter.” Then there’s the wordplay coming from the double meaning of “utter.” Finally, when read with the right mindset, the phrase has the capacity to dissolve into pure nonsense: “anuttercantutter.” (And Białoszewski loved such semantic satiation.) Is all this worth the cost of remaining within the narrow confines of language-related themes? I think so. I’d wager the reader is likely to make the step from “can’t express myself in words” to “can’t express myself in life” anyway.

Finally, that last monosyllabic line. The original “yeń” is, in part, an arbitrary sound made to rhyme with the previous line’s “cozrobień.” (Which, of course, sends — and simultaneously undermines — the message: “I really didn’t know how to finish this.”) It also sounds like a yelp of pain and, perhaps, like the Polish word “leń” (lazy person). Except… it doesn’t sound like anything. Polish words don’t start with “y,” so who knows how this is supposed to be read! (It’s natural, especially given what it’s supposed to rhyme with, to read it like the English “y,” but the contemporary Polish way to write that would have been “jeń.”) In this final brilliant stroke, Białoszewski leaves the reader in confusion — and with the perfect expression of the inability to express himself.

It’s clear that my translation does away with some of this subtlety. I toyed with starting with the not-clearly-pronouncable “x,” but this looked ad hoc and didn’t have the original’s tie to the sounds of the previous line or to expressions of anguish. I flirted with finishing the poem with “st,” hoping the reader would put this together with the “utter” of the previous line into “stutter.” I liked the connection between stuttering and inarticulateness, and the onomatopeic tripping-over-sounds flavor of this vocalization. But I wasn’t convinced that putting the last line before the last word of the previous line is the sort of thing a reader can just be expected to do. In the end, finishing a poem on inarticulateness with “er” was too good to resist. We get the sense — very Białoszewski in spirit — that we’re just mindlessly rhyming, and lo and behold, language gives us a gift of meaning. Just like in the original — I hope — we are yelping and stammering and doing it oh-so-well.

Written by

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store