On Translation: John and Bogdana Carpenter Translate Julia Hartwig

Thanks to great translators, AGNI readers get to know the writing of people working in a wide range of languages. We want you to hear from those translators. Today, the thoughts of John Carpenter on his and his wife Bogdana’s experience of translating the poet Julia Hartwig for AGNI Issue 82.

Years ago I was chatting with a fellow translator who had chosen to work with a Ukrainian poet. He confided to me—out of earshot of the poet—that the next time he translated any poet, it would be a dead one. The headstrong Ukrainian poet (no names here) had wanted complete control over the English translation, a language she knew imperfectly. The final, resulting “authorized” versions were awkward, definitely not good, sometimes embarrassing.

My wife Bogdana and I are a translation team, and usually we translate Polish poets. How lucky we were with the Polish poet Julia Hartwig! We approached her after a reading she gave in the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. We expressed our enthusiasm for her poems, asking if we could translate some of those she had just read aloud. She gave us a green light.

Afterwards we became friends. She is a generous woman, hospitable, always considerate and thoughtful. Later we visited her in her Warsaw apartment, and we asked questions about our translations still in the works. It helped that she knew English well, and that my wife Bogdana is a native Polish speaker. Julia gave us great latitude in our versions and interpretations, as well as technical suggestions. For example, the English title of our first collection of translations “In Praise of the Unfinished” was our idea. Its basis was her short poem titled, literally, “Feeling the Way” (Po omacku) that we quote below in our English translation. The City of Cracow put our translation on a plaque attached to a bench in the “Planty,” a city park encircling Cracow’s main square. This was in keeping with the “Krakow Miasto Literatury UNESCO” project, and the Festival Office of Cracow.


The most beautiful is what is still unfinished
a sky filled with stars uncharted by astronomers
a sketch by Leonardo a song broken off from emotion
A pencil a brush suspended in the air

Our collaboration was unusually creative and close. We had many talks in Julia’s Warsaw apartment about our translations, and these profited from the extended conversations. All three of us were translators; Julia had published a volume of her translations of contemporary American female poets into Polish, along with translations of French poets and monographs (on Apollinaire, others). The three of us took an active part. Before each visit we prepared a list of questions, sometimes quite long.

We were lucky in our choice of poet to translate. Probably much more common are the relations of translator and poet that are far less close, far less supportive—like that of my friend translating a Ukrainian poet. Here we should mention another example from our own experience: Bogdana and I translated many volumes of the work by Zbigniew Herbert, both poetry and prose. The relationship began with Oxford University Press, that initiated a project to publish a volume of translations of Herbert’s work. In an open competition to select a translator—many translators submitted samples—Oxford chose ours. At the time we were given the legal status of “Author,” a very important consideration. Earlier, we had met Herbert in Czeslaw Milosz’s house in Berkeley, California; as translators our relations with Herbert were excellent at first. We interviewed him, and had discussions about poems we were considering for translation. Herbert was an extremely lively, iconoclastic, charming conversationalist.

Later however, in the 1980s he became increasingly sick. His illness—bipolar disorder—became more prominent. His behavior was far more aggressive. We visited him rarely and he was hospitalized. (Herbert later said “At this time I didn’t even know my own name.”) It was in this period that an American publisher managed to sign an exclusive contract with the sick poet that granted exclusive rights for all Herbert’s work to the American publisher. It even denied to us the English language rights for our own translations. We were compelled to leave unpublished the translations we had worked on for several years.

The excellent critic and poet Michael Hofmann has given a detailed analysis and appreciation of our translations of Herbert, comparing them with the later English translations. The essay shows clearly that in English there were two extremely different Herberts. (At least two, as there were also the fine early translations by Milosz and Peter Dale Scott.) Hofmann’s extended essay can be found in Poetry magazine (Chicago), “A Dead Necktie,” May 1 2007. The differences between the translations were not just technical but went to the heart of the thought process of the poet, of the texture and structure of his poetry. The essay should be read by any English-speaking critic who wants to write about Herbert or quote his poems in English.

Of course this was not the first time that legalities have worked against translators. In the 1950s and 60s translators were often given the status of “Author,” but with the passage of time the status of translators was increasingly demoted to “work for hire” or another comparable euphemism. Reviewers, critics and readers were rarely aware of these problems faced by translators.

Translation is not a mechanical procedure—no matter what claims might be made for computer software programs. It is an art, and most readers are aware that there are huge differences in the quality of translations. The final product depends greatly on the relationship, and collaboration, of the translator with the writer.

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John and Bogdana jpgJohn R. Carpenter and his wife Bogdana are a translation team, and have brought to American readers some of the most extraordinary twentieth-century Polish writers. They live in Ann Arbor Michigan, part of the year in Warsaw; John Carpenter’s most recent book is Wall, Watchtower, and Pencil Stub, a study of writings by close participants in the Second World War before the outcome was known, and when most of the war was hidden by an opaque curtain of disguise dating from the secret Hitler-Stalin Pact with its infamous secret Protocols.

Bogdana Carpenter is Professor Emerita of Polish and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and a native of Poland. With John Carpenter she is translator into English of Zbigniew Herbert, Julia Hartwig, and other contemporary Polish poets. She is author of The Poetic Avant-garde in Poland, 1918-1939, and Monumenta Polonica: The First Four Centuries of Polish Poetry; she has written extensively on the work of Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Witold Gombrowicz and others, and with Madeline Levine is co-editor of a collection of essays by Czeslaw Milosz called  To Begin Where I Am.


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