Word Cloud Resized


The Nobel award committee’s citation called her the “Mozart of poetry,” a woman who mixed the elegance of language with “the fury of Beethoven.”

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.  The Nobel prize has frequently brought a lot of attention to writers who were little-known outside the group of readers who understand the language in which they write. There are over 38.5 million people in Poland who speak Polish as their first language, and it’s a second language for speakers in western parts of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, and northern parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

That sounds like a lot of people, until you consider that there are 339 million native English speakers, and an estimated 603 million people who speak it as a second language.

So how do you get a poem written in Polish into English so more people can read it? First, of course, you have to find someone who knows both languages really well. But just as important, you need someone who understands poetry. A literal translation of Polish into English won’t give you the feel of the original, and sometimes doesn’t even make much sense. Take a look at the opening stanza of Szymborska’s poem Some People:

Jacyś ludzie w ucieczce przed jakimiś ludźmi.
W jakimś kraju pod słońcem
i niektórymi chmurami.

which becomes

Some people to escape some people .
In a country under the sun
and some clouds .

when you go to Google and ask for a Polish-to-English translation, which sounds more like an especially cryptic Japanese haiku.

Here are two different translations of Some People:

Translation by
Joanna Trzeciak:
by Stanislaw Baranczak
and Clare Cavanagh:

Some People


Some People

Some people fleeing some other people. 
In some country under the sun 
and some clouds. 
Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds. 
They leave behind some of their everything, 
sown fields, some chickens, dogs, 
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.
They abandon something like all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.
On their backs are pitchers and bundles, 
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next. 
Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.
Taking place stealthily is somebody’s stopping, 
and in the commotion, somebody’s bread somebody’s snatching 
and a dead child somebody’s shaking. 
What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.
In front of them some still not the right way, 
nor the bridge that should be 
over a river strangely rosy. 
Around them, some gunfire, at times closer, at times farther off, 
and, above, a plane circling somewhat. 
Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across another oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane sort of circles.
Some invisibility would come in handy, 
some grayish stoniness, 
or even better, non-being 
for a little or a long while.
Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.
Something else is yet to happen, only where and what? 
Someone will head toward them, only when and who, 
in how many shapes and with what intentions? 
Given a choice, 
maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and 
leave them with some kind of life.
Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

As you can see, the first stanza translations are very close, and also similar to the literal translation, but “flee” and “fleeing” have much more meaning than “escape.”

In the second stanza, I like “They leave behind some of their everything” better, but for the last line, “mirrors in which fire now preens” is a much more vivid picture.

The third stanza is a toss-up for me – both images are strong. Do you like “backs” or “shoulders” better?

By the fourth stanza, the translations are wider apart. Trzeciak’s bread someone’s ‘snatching’ is clearer to me than bread is ‘ripped away’ but I had a much better understanding of what the whole stanza was saying after I read both versions – neither one was as clear without the other. This is why I like to find more than one translation of a poem for comparison.

In stanza five, I like the Baranczak/Cavanagh version better. The repetition always another gives it a a plodding rhythm that the other version doesn’t convey, while reddish instead of rosy makes me see reflected fires and blood in the water.

But for stanza six, non-being is more visceral than nonexistence, and for a little or a long while more like an exhausted person would think.

In the final stanza, I like Trzeciak’s question marks  – they emphasize the uncertainty. But both last lines are strong, and make subtly different points – Trzeciak reminds us that even when someone has a choice, they don’t always choose to be compassionate, but her leave them some kind of life is not as strong for me as let them live some sort of life.

Syrian-refugees reflected

For those of you who do read Polish, here’s the poem as it was written by Wislawa  Szymborska:

Jacyś ludzie

Jacyś ludzie w ucieczce przed jakimiś ludźmi.
W jakimś kraju pod słońcem
i niektórymi chmurami.

Zostawiają za sobą jakieś swoje wszystko,
obsiane pola, jakieś kury, psy,
lusterka, w których właśnie przegląda się ogień.

Mają na plecach dzbanki i tobołki,
im bardziej puste, tym z dnia na dzień cięższe.

Odbywa się po cichu czyjeś ustawanie,
a w zgiełku czyjeś komuś chleba wydzieranie
i czyjeś martwym dzieckiem potrząsanie.

Przed nimi jakaś wciąż nie tędy droga,
nie ten, co trzeba most
nad rzeką dziwnie różową.
Dokoła jakieś strzały, raz bliżej, raz dalej,
w górze samolot trochę kołujący.

Przydałaby się jakaś niewidzialność,
jakaś bura kamienność,
a jeszcze lepiej niebyłość
na pewien krótki czas albo i długi.

Coś jeszcze się wydarzy, tylko gdzie i co.
Ktoś wyjdzie im naprzeciw, tylko kiedy, kto,
w ilu postaciach i w jakich zamiarach.
Jeśli będzie miał wybór,
może nie zechce być wrogiem
i pozostawi ich przy jakimś życiu.


Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska wrote a poetry advice column in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. She answered questions sent in by would-be poets about their work, or poetry in general. (Her replies have been translated by Clare Cavanagh.)

You’d need to “screw your courage to the sticking place” to send your scribblings to one of your country’s most famous poets, especially when she didn’t pull any punches:

 “In school no time is spent, alas, on the aesthetic analysis of literary works. Central themes are stressed along with their historical context. Such knowledge is of course crucial, but it will not suffice for anyone wishing to become a good, independent reader, let alone for someone with creative ambitions. Our young correspondents are often shocked that their poem about rebuilding postwar Warsaw or the tragedy of Vietnam might not be good. They’re convinced that honorable intentions preempt form. But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.” 

“We require more from a poet who compares himself to Icarus than the lengthy poem enclosed reveals…you fail to reckon with the fact that today’s Icarus rises above a different landscape than that of ancient times. He sees highways covered in cars and trucks, airports, runways, large cities, expansive modern ports, and other such realia. Might not a jet rush past his ear at times?” 

“Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?” 

“You need a new pen. The one you’re using makes a lot of mistakes. It must be foreign.” 

“You ask in rhyme if life makes cents [sic]. My dictionary answers in the negative.” 

“Even boredom should be described with gusto. How many things are happening on a day when nothing happens?” 

Her advice to a poet who was trying a hand at translation:

“The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text. He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.”


The Poem

Books of Poetry

  • Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems (1981) 
  • People on a Bridge: Poems (1990) 
  • View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (1995) 
  • Nothing Twice: Selected Poems (1997) 
  • Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (1998) 
  • Nic darowane = Nothing’s a Gift (1999)
  • Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska (2001) 
  • Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (2002) 
  • Chwila = Moment (2003) 
  • Monologue of a Dog: New Poems (2005)
  • Here (2012)
  • Map: Collected and Last Poems (2015)


  • Syrian refugees reflected in puddle by the road
  • Wislawa Szymborska


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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