Published Works


About this Document

Title: Polish Translations of "Poets to Come"

Author(s): Marta Skwara

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2012.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.02028

Polish Translations of "Poets to Come"

Whitman's "Poets to Come" was translated into Polish eight times between 1922 and 2003. No other poem by Whitman was translated into Polish so many times over such a long time span. Some of his poems were not translated until the twenty-first century, and others still remain unknown to Polish speakers. Most of the translators of "Poets to Come" are poets and/or literary critics or academics. Though none of the poets can be considered "canonical," their literary achievements are quite important. Even though the world-famous Polish poet and translator (and admirer) of Whitman, Czesław Miłosz, did not translate this particular poem, its message seems to echo in his book of essays and translations entitled Unattainable Earth:

What will the poetry of the future be, which I think of but will never know? I know it is attainable because I experienced brief moments when it almost created itself under my pen, only to disappear immediately. The rhythm of the body will be in it, heartbeat, pulse, sweating, menstrual flow, the glueiness of sperm, the squatting position at urinating, the movements of the intestines, together with the sublime needs of the spirit, and our duality will find its form in it, without renouncing one zone or the other. (Unattainable Earth, 33)

This passage introduces us to the main issues of Whitman's poem: can any poet imagine the poetry of the future? What are the tasks of the poetry of the future which can be glimpsed, but not really experienced by poets in the present moment? What are the poets of the future supposed to create? Miłosz's answers are surprisingly close to those given by the poet who kept "as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart," yet for Whitman the most important answer was that of his own place and role in poetry. The "poets to come" are supposed to answer, to "justify and define" the poet, and to continue his poetic mission. The many translations that have appeared in Polish may be considered answers to Whitman's call, particularly because each of the translators gives an answer in his own way. If the original poem seems quite simple at first glance, the singularity of each translation of "Poets to Come" reveals the poem's latent complexity.

Eight Polish Translations: An Overview

The eight extant Polish translations have certain features in common. They all lose the erotic undertone of Whitman's call to poets of the future, which I explain in detail below. All the translators choose to interpret the somewhat problematic fifth line ("I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future") the same way—all of them render the opening of that line in a similar syntactic structure, which could be translated back into English as "I myself throw (say/give/write) one word or two words only." But the second part of the line—"indicative words for the future"—has led to multiple variations, demonstrating how each of the translators attempted to clarify this enigmatic phrase. Also, all of the Polish translators avoid using a literal translation of "the main things" in the last line of the poem ("Expecting the main things from you") because of the problematic (and unpoetical) status of the word "thing" (rzecz) in Polish. Most of them avoid using the word at all. One, Bogdan Żyranik, finds a congenial way of using it as a synonym for "work." Żyranik's Whitman expects "great things" (rzeczy wielkich), which, in the context of the line and the whole poem, means "poetical works." Another translator, Mikołaj Bieszczadowski, simply replaces "things" with "works" (dzieła). Yet the differences between the translations and the original go much deeper than that.

Before I compare crucial passages in all eight translations, I want to provide an overview of the translators who will be discussed in this introduction. I should also note that almost all of the translations reveal something surprising, often hidden in the precious details of the translator's work. The first translator of "Poets to Come," Stefan Stasiak, complemented the dynamism of Whitman's lines by adding exclamation marks and adverbs to the poem and even creating a new line (the seventh), which vividly suggests that the persona of the poem and the "poets to come" are in eye-to-eye contact. Both devices seem to be in tune with this expressionist's hopes for new poetry. We should also remember that Stasiak's translation appeared in a leading literary magazine of Polish expressionism, Zdrój, together with translations of the whole "Inscriptions" cycle.

The Translators

Stefan Napierski was a literary critic and poet active in the 1920s-1930s. The first substantial collection of Whitman's poetry by a single Polish translator, his 75 poematów was published in 1934 and reprinted in 1996. Instead of the English original, Napierski often translated Whitman from French and German translations, since he knew those languages much better than English. Even if some misunderstandings arose from his use of other translations, his version of "Poets to Come" nonetheless conveys some of the poem's stylistic affects. Napierski achieves a dynamic inner rhythm in the first line by repeating "[poets] who will come" twice: Poeci, którzy nadejdziecie! Którzy nadejdziecie muzycy.

Mikołaj Bieszczadowski gives expressive emphasis to the call to action in the fourth line—"Arouse! Arouse"—by adding "oh": Powstańcie, ach powstańcie ("Arise, oh arise"). This addition is in accord with his article on Whitman, published in the Catholic literary magazine Tygodnik Powszechny in 1955, in which he portrays Whitman as both a prophet and a poet, deeply and emotionally connected with God as well as with other human beings. An effusive "Oh" is inserted at the very beginning of the poem by another translator, Włodzimierz Lewik, who adds an exclamation mark at the end of his version, demonstrating to what extent Polish interpreters were sensitive to the emotional undertones of the poem. Lewik's translation appeared in the first post-war volume of collected translations of Whitman's poetry and was not published in People's Poland until 1966. Bogdan Żyranik's translation appeared in the second post-war edition of collected translations, published in 1971. In addition to Żyranik's inventive translation of "things," his version should be appreciated for trying to render the swift movement suggested by the verb "to wheel" with the Polish verb obrócić ("rotate, turn, turn around, pivot").

Artur Międzyrzecki, a modern poet, scholar, and translator, famous for some excellent translations of Whitman, including "This Compost," surprises us with the naturalness of his Polish phrases and the inventiveness of his word selection. With his first line, the Polish reader is invited into the near as well as the distant future, one for the "poets coming" and the other for "Orators of the future": Nadchodzący poeci! Mówcy przyszłości. Międzyrzecki's translation of "Poets to Come" appeared in a collection of American poetry meaningfully titled . . . opiewam nowoczesnego człowieka (". . . a modern man I sing") in 1992.

Complete poetic cycles by a single translator did not appear in Polish until the 1990s, when Andrzej Szuba, a leading modern Polish translator of Whitman, published his edition of Whitman's poetry. Szuba, who has published five book-length collections of Whitman translations so far, attempted to translate "justify" in line two quite differently than his predecessors. In his version "justify" is rendered as wytłumaczyć, or "explain," which is close to the Polish word for "translate" (przetłumaczyć), thereby opening a new possibility for interpretation and suggesting that Whitman was calling for translators who could explain him to new readerships.

Intentionally or not, the last of the translators, Krzysztof Boczkowski, seems to sum up all of the Polish versions that preceded him. He begins the first line of the poem by following Napierski's version, and copies Szuba's rendering of the second half of the line. His second line is also almost identical to Szuba's, including his translation of "justify," though Boczkowski refers to older versions by translating "Arouse!" in line four as powstań! ("stand up!"). In the next two lines he stays very close to Szuba's version, though in the fifth line he produces his own version of "indicative for the future." Most of the following lines seem so much indebted to Szuba's version—sometimes changing just a word, or slightly altering the syntax—that the whole translation almost gives one the impression that Boczkowski sees himself in dialogue with a fellow translator. Both translators were active in the first decade of the new millennium—Boczkowski published his first book-length translations of Whitman's poetry in 2003. Still there are no meta-textual signals that the translator consciously aimed to produce a response to Szuba.

General Questions about the Translations
How is the title translated into Polish?

The title "Poets to Come" is particularly difficult to render in Polish, since something has to be added to the phrase in order to make it understandable. In some of the translations, the phrase is turned into a variation of "poets of the future [days]": Poeci przyszłych dni, poeci przyszłości, do poetów przyszłości, and poetom przyszłości. The last solution, Lewik's, adds a unique dedicative ring to the phrase ("to poets of the future"). Such translations make the phrase perfectly understandable in Polish, but they also lose the feeling of movement, indicated by the original "to come," that is so important to the whole poem. The sense of movement is retained in Międzyrzecki's and Boczkowski's versions: nadchodzący poeci ("coming poets") and poeci, którzy nadejdziecie ("[you] poets who will come"). Boczkowski, however, creates a longer time span between the presence of Whitman's persona and the poets "who will come" in the future. Some of the translators render the "orators, singers, musicians" as krasomówcy ("beautifully speaking orators") and pieśniarze ("chanters"), suggesting that they are synonymous with the "poets" instead of forming separate and distinctive categories of artists/addressees.

Who is "to justify" the poet?

The beginning of the second line, "Not to-day is to justify me," offers some challenges in Polish for two reasons: "not to-day" is difficult to put into Polish and "justify" can be interpreted in a number of ways. The solutions chosen for "Not to-day" are: nie dzień dzisiejszy ("not a today's day"), which sounds a bit strange to Polish ears; nie teraźniejszość ("not the present"), nie dziś to pora ("not the right time today"), and jeszcze nie nadszedł czas (a common phrase, which can be back-translated as "the time has not come yet"). The solutions for "justify" are also varied. The verb usprawiedliwi, for "justify," can simply be understood as a direct translation, but even in such a case we have two versions: either "[not to-day] will justify me," usprawiedliwi mnie, or the poet is "not to justify himself," abym się usprawiedliwiał, as in Napierski's version. However, the verb for "to prove right" (odda słuszność) or even "to protect" (stanie w mojej obronie; obroni) could be considered closer in meaning to "justify." Bieszczadowski's translation is particularly idiosyncratic here. It is the "poets of the future" who are supposed to "judge" Whitman. This interpretation can be connected with Bieszczadowski's reading of Whitman.1 Against the doctrinal trends of the epoch (the mid-1950s in People's Poland), Bieszczadowski hints at Whitman's (homo)erotic undertones, for which, he suggests, the poet should be "judged" (and exonerated) by the poets of the future. Bieszczadowski's rendition of the second part of the line, "to answer what I am for," as abyście powiedzieli, kim właściwie byłem, ("to say what I was after all") seems to allude by the very word choice to Whitman's poem entitled "What Am I, After All." In this way, the translator intensifies the impression that the persona of the poem is searching for his identity and not only in an artistic sense. This search, again, should be understood by the poets of the future, one of whom is Bieszczadowski himself. Other translators use simpler versions: ktom zacz, kto jestem ("what I am"), kim jestem ("who I am"), or somewhat broadened and changed versions: po co tu przyszedłem; po co tu jestem ("why I came here"; "why I am here"); and czego pragnę ("what I want").

What is a "brood"?

It seems that none of the Polish poets finds a close Polish equivalent to the problematic English word "brood." Perhaps potomstwo ("offspring") would be the closest, although unusual, Polish equivalent, portraying the poet as a mother of some sort. Thus, in the Polish versions we have: nowe plemię ("new tribe"), nowe pokolenie ("new generation"), szczep najmłodszy ("youngest branch"), nowa raso ("new race"), or, even, nowy gatunek ("new kind"). The qualifiers of "brood" offer different challenges to the Polish translator: "native" is rendered as rodzime ("native") by only one translator. Others attempt to find something more closely connected with the land and its traditions: ojczyste ("ancestral," "native"), tubylcza ("autochthonous," which is rather clumsy in Polish), ziemskie ("earthly," a very strange word), and zrodzony na tym kontynencie ("born on this continent"). The last solution seems to solve two problems: Międzyrzecki makes "native" understandable in its cultural and historical context, and at the same time he avoids "continental," a problematic qualifier in this context. In Polish, "continental" (kontynentalny) usually refers only to climate, though the adjective can appear in some other contexts too. In the context of the line in question, however, it sounds strange in Polish. For this reason, perhaps, Bieszczadowski simply leaves it out. The word "athletic" is not an easy one either. The adjective atletyczne pertains to the physical strength of sportsmen more than anything else, so instead of this literal translation we encounter potęŻne ("mighty") and krzepko zbudowane ("well-built," "robust") in the Polish versions.

Are the poets to come "aroused" in the Polish versions?

The answer is quite simple: the erotic undertone of "arouse" in English is not typical to Polish verbs denoting a call to action. Thus, we have powstawaj, powstańcie, powstań ("[you] stand up"], przybywaj ("arrive," with a slightly archaic ring), and zbudź się ("wake up") in the translations. Polish verbs which might lend themselves to double entendre would be pobudzić or rozbudzić, both of which could mean "to awaken" as well as "to excite," though it would be awkward to use them in the context of the poem, especially with an exclamation point.

What does it mean for the poet to write "indicative words for the future"?

It seems that each of the Polish translators wanted to outdo his predecessors in defying the usage of this vague expression. Thus in Polish translations we encounter the words potrącające przyszłość ("touching/jostling the future"), pokazujące przyszłość, wskazują przyszłość ("showing/indicating the future"), and wskazujące drogę przyszłości ("pointing out the way of the future"). Other versions translate back as godne przyszłości ("worthy of the future") and even sygnały przyszłości ("signals of the future") in Szuba's version. In Międzyrzecki's translation they are dla przyszłych lat ("the meaningful words for coming [future] years"), a phrase which sounds natural in Polish and subtly harmonizes with the title.

What happens with the variety of ways that motion is depicted in the translations?

Two verbs denote a specific dynamic motion in Whitman's poem: "to wheel" (to turn around, or as if around, a central axis) and "hurry back." While there were no real problems with translating the dynamics of the latter—rendered as pędzę nazad ("[I] rush back"), wstecz rzucić się ("[to] throw myself back"), uchodzić ("to escape"), śpiesznie pogrąŻać się (w mrok) ("to plunge hurriedly [into darkness]"), and as zaszyć się (w ciemność) ("to curl up / cocoon [in the darkness]", which is a more static choice)—the former is rendered simply as zawrócić ("to turn back") by almost all of the translators. In fact it would be difficult to evoke all of the meanings implied by the English expression "to wheel," even by users of English (perhaps obrócić ["to turn / to turn around / to rotate / to pivot"], the verb used by Żyranik, would come closest). The specific, swift, and supple gesture, which allows Whitman's persona to be momentarily present in two realities at the same time—Whitman's time and the future of "poets to come"—is somehow lost. However, Stasiak's attentiveness to the dynamics of the poem motivated him to add a prepositional phrase na miejscu ("on the spot") to the participle phrase zawracając ("turning back"), thus allowing him to produce something closer to "wheel."

Apart from verbs marking the dynamic movements of the lyrical persona, who seems to position himself between epochs (his own as well as the readers'), we encounter a participle indicating his slow and thoughtful action, "sauntering," accompanied by a surprising expression: "never fully stopping." "Sauntering" was translated mostly as włócząc się, wałęsając, or wlokąc ("wandering/roaming"), and "never fully stopping" as "without stopping/never really stopping/not stopping even for a short while" (ani się zatrzymując nawet na krótką chwilę). In Stefan Napierski's translation, a Polish reader finds the surprising phrase, ledwo się wstrzymuję ("hardly withholding myself"), which may result from the third language mediation in the translation. In Lewik's translation, "sauntering" was changed into krąŻąc ("circling, going about"), which, in the Polish line, represents the lyrical persona "going about and not stopping during a march"—a "march" being a surprising addition, as if he were performing the same dutiful activity over and over again.

Stasiak decided to introduce implied addressees to the poem after "sauntering" and produced a phrase: mijając was noga za nogą ("passing you very slowly"). Moreover, the presence of the "poets to come" is not passive, as it is in the original, since the sauntering "I" of the poem, who originally "turns a casual look upon" them, "crosses his look with theirs" (krzyŻuję się z wami spojrzeniem) instead. With this phrasing, the translator intensifies the impression that the poets of the future—and the young expressionist Stefan Stasiak may have felt like one of them—can, for a moment, "see" Whitman just as "he" could see them.

Międzyrzecki replaces the participle phrase "sauntering along" with a noun. In his version, the sauntering "I" becomes a "tramp," or to be more precise, jestem niepoprawnym włóczęgą (an "incorrigible tramp"), who "never really stops," making for a quite original and inventive solution that lends an informal tone to the poem. Yet it is Andrzej Szuba who produces the shortest and at the same time the most natural and simple Polish phrase for the original "sauntering along, without fully stopping": idąc nieśpiesznie, nie przystaję ("[who] going unhurriedly, [is] not stopping"). The very same choice was repeated some years later by Krzysztof Boczkowski. As noted above, Boczkowski used a number of Szuba's lines (look at lines two, three, four, six, seven, and eight of their translations). The similarities between their translations can hardly be a coincidence, given the variety of alternatives employed by their predecessors.

To whom does the poet address his call for action in the Polish versions?

In Polish the second person pronoun can only be singular or plural, not both. Since the English pronoun "you" can address a group of people ("poets to come") as well as one person (a "poet to come"), one might expect the Polish translators to solve this linguistic problem with some interpretive intervention or creative version of the original. In the first instance, a pronoun wy (and its declensional forms: wam, was, wami) should be used; in the second, a different pronoun ty (and its declensional forms: tobie, ciebie, tobą) should be applied together with appropriate forms of the verbs. All of the translators choose the first option in the last two lines of the poem. However, five translators find a way to leave some of the intimacy of the poem's "you" intact.

Beginning with Stasiak, the addressee of the third line (a "new tribe/race)" is rendered as a singular "you" (ty), which allows for the singular second person address in the next line. Stasiak also preserved the strong effect of a direct call to one person in the fourth line: Powstawaj! bo ty musisz wykazać mą słuszność! ("Rise up! since you have to prove me right"). Later translators followed Stasiak's example by making the addressee of line four singular. Lewik renders the line as Powstań—bo tobie trzeba stanąć w mojej obronie; Żyranik offers Przybywaj! ty bowiem musisz mnie usprawiedliwić; Szuba has Zbudź się! bo ty musisz mnie wytłumaczyć; and Boczkowski follows Szuba with Powstań! bo ty musisz mnie wytłumaczyć. Yet in every version the call to "arousal" loses its erotic undertone for reasons explained above. To do justice to the translators, however, much of the eroticism of Whitman's poetry was removed by the poet himself with each subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass. Only by reading the 1860 edition, which has never been translated into Polish, could a Polish reader appreciate the obvious eroticism that ultimately disappeared from "Poets to Come."

Other Polish responses to Whitman's "Poets to Come" besides translations

In my research into Polish readings of Whitman, I have not yet encountered any direct intertextual allusion to this poem. Still, there are some Polish poems written as if in response to Whitman's call to future poets. For instance, Ludmiła Marjańska, a translator and a "poet of the future," active from mid-1950s until the beginning of the new millennium, "justified" Whitman in her own way in a long poem characteristically entitled Pojmując wreszcie rozlewność, bujność i konieczność powtórzeń starego Walta Whitmana ("Comprehending at last the prolixity, lushness and necessity of repetitions of old Walt Whitman") (1978). In his poem "Od Whitmana do Dylana" ("From Whitman to Dylan") (2000), Julian Kornhauser, a distinctive representative of poets, translators, and academics of the next generation, ironically suggests that contemporary poets abuse Whitman's innovative free verse by "changing beauty into concrete"—that is to say, making innovative form meaningless or banal. The émigré poet of the younger generation, Artur Lizakowski, wrote a poetical "letter" to Whitman, published in Poland as List do Whitmana (2001), which expressed enthusiastic appreciation of his poetry.

However, an older poem could be seen as one of the more striking responses to "Poets to Come." It is an avant-garde piece by Jalu Kurek entitled "Whitman," which appeared in his volume of poetry, Upały, published by Almanach Nowej Sztuki ("Almanac of New Art") in 1925. In this poem Whitman "talks" to the "winners of tomorrow" (zwycięscy dnia jutrzejszego) (it was, after all, "not to-day to justify" the poet) and expresses, with irony, his regret for having furnished them with crude poetic materials rather than a more comforting and refined poetic language. The persona of Kurek's poem evokes a poet who relies too much on reality, a characteristic symbolically represented by a vivid metaphoric image: (ja) ukrzyŻowany w wielką realność ("(I) crucified into great reality"). For this reason, the poetic persona is ashamed of giving so little to the "winners of tomorrow," even if he has elevated them to the metaphoric cross on which one suffers for art, for poetry, by his "one prayer only." Thus, the poet who is equated with the "America of a hammer and wheat," asks the "winners of tomorrow" to liberate him (WyzwólcieŻ mnie . . . / Zwycięscy dnia jutrzejszego, mnie = Amerykę młota i kłosów). The poem, with all its linguistic and rhythmic inventiveness, the self-confidence characteristic of a "new art," and its address to future poets might be read as a response to "Poets to Come," which had first appeared in Polish only three years earlier.


1. See Marta Skwara, "Polski Whitman" O funkcjonowaniu poety obcego w kulturze narodowej ["The Polish Whitman": On the Functioning of the Poet in a National Culture] (Kraków: Universitas, 2010), 118–130. [back]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.