Choosing Not Choosing

Mira Rosenthal


Mira Rosenthal

Full disclosure: I’m using this essay to make a choice. I’ve written two different translations of the same poem, and I can’t decide which I love more. It feels like being asked to choose between children. One has a whip smart wit and is a bit standoffish, awkward in social situations but voracious in her desire to understand detail. The other loves to cuddle, rides her bike fast down hills; yet, ask her to explain herself, she just grunts and runs outside.

Let me rephrase: I’m approaching this essay as an act of decision-making. In classical Latin, the etymon of decision means curtailment, diminishing, settlement. Whichever translation I go with means not choosing the other option—or, if truth be told, multiple other options available in English. It leads to settling on only one and calling it the poem “Dog” by Tomasz Różycki. Take, for example, this perfectly fine beginning:

A stretch of day. Some rain. A leaf.
The dog’s fur coat. Its mane. Its gleam.
The dog can see. Behind the door.
There is somebody. On the floor.

Somebody’s there who can make sense.
The doggie’s hair stands up on end.
A step. A sound. A rustling mouse:
dog dreams of leaping round the house.

Time keeps on looping. Rain keeps raining.
Without you, what do I contain?
Time keeps on duping us at cards.
Dark sniffs. It roots around the yard.

You probably notice the rhyme scheme (aabb), maybe the rhythm (iambic tetrameter) and the short sentences and fragments. The speaker seems stuck in this rainy-day moment, longing for someone who is not there. But the tone is also ruminative (“Without you, what do I contain?”) and the language figurative (darkness becomes a dog, rooting around the yard).

We all know that birth order matters. Whichever child comes after lives her life forever in the shadow, in comparison. In some sense, this is true for any author, if you believe such Bloomian anxiety. But comparison gets compounded with translation, always in relation to “the original.” I’ve found this to be the case also in teaching two different translations of the same poem. Whichever version I show to students first becomes authority, becomes attachment, a bond they fight to maintain. Here’s the beginning in the second version:

Some rain. A leaf.
Dog’s coat. Its gleam.
Dog sees the door.
It comes, a form.

A form that can
make lots of sense.
Step, rush, mouse, peep:
he dreams a leap.

Time plays. Drip, drop.
You’re gone. I’m naught?
Time cheats at cards.
Dark sniffs the yard.

We’ve still got the rhyme scheme and even some of the same rhyming pairs of words. But this version is much terser (dimeter instead of tetrameter) and less ruminative (“You’re gone. I’m naught?” instead of, “Without you, what do I contain”). Some details are even missing entirely, such as the dog’s hair standing up on end. The question, then, inevitably arises: which version is more faithful to the original?

All writing—whether in translation or otherwise—is an act of choosing between different qualities of individual words and how they work in relation to one another. Making such choices can be divine or excruciating. Words might arrive out of the blue or through weighing every possible option. But they are never arbitrary. (C. D. Wright talks about this beautifully in her book of essays The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All—with that title, you really feel the weight of choosing, or not choosing, as the case may be!) Bringing translation into the creative writing classroom helps students to see the effects of choices between words. For example, the second translation of Różycki’s poem is a study in the effects of limiting my choices to only monosyllabic words—a constraint that exists in the original poem as well—which ends up creating a stark tonal difference between the two versions. Though it causes the English to feel a bit awkward or ambiguous, it does a better job of eschewing human perspective to produce the more dog-like perception that Różycki’s poem seeks to inhabit.

Choosing between words demands attention, an entire morning—much to a writer’s chagrin—on a few lines. But, as Brenda Hillman says, “Loving words is a way of staying interested… Poetry allows the mind to come into contact with the impossible oddness of everything.” In translating this poem, the first two lines of the third quatrain gave me that feeling:

Czas gra. Deszcz mży.
Cóż ja bez ty?

On the one hand, these lines seem simple and direct, reinforced by a playful rhyme scheme that occurs not only at the end of the lines but also at the caesura (gra/ja). A sense-oriented translation could be:

Time plays. Rain drizzles.
What exactly am I without you?

But what does it mean for time to play? And how can the question of the second line feel sonically predetermined in English, as in the Polish, instead of clunky and vague? A poem like this that relies on rhyme and rhythm requires the translator to reinvent it even more in the new language. Trying to balance interpretation and sound led me to these lines in the first translation:

Time keeps on looping. Rain keeps raining.
Without you, what do I contain?

While it somewhat captures the double rhyme scheme (looping/you, raining/contain) and enacts the meaning through repetitions of syntax (keep/keep, rain/raining), the tetrameter lines lack the quick directness of the original. The question also feels weightier, more convoluted in the idea of containing someone else. In the second translation, the choice to use only monosyllabic words forced a simpler quality that was lost in the first translation. But there was one dilemma—I couldn’t use the polysyllabic word “without” as in “without you”:

Time plays. Drip, drop.
You’re gone. I’m naught?

I’ll admit that “naught” is a bit awkward, though I like the wordplay that suggests the you is gone but the speaker is not gone. Or what about: “Rain drips… I’m blip?” Or: “Time plays. Rain gleams. / No you, no me?”

I have a sneaky suspicion that most students never take me up on the suggestion to write out at least ten different versions of a line or sentence in order to hit on the exact phrasing just right for their poem—at an epiphany, say, or a first line or an ending. Translation goads them into doing so. As we discuss how to weigh decisions between words, we get more specific about what influences our choices, not just sense but also sound, rhythm, wordplay, tone, syntax, etc. Ultimately, seeing the effects of choices between words through the lens of translation liberates the young writer from the weight/false notion of “self-expression,” just as seeing two different translations of the same original liberates us from ideas of fidelity to what we call meaning.

Instead, we become aware of our own movement of mind over the dilemma of the original—which is the dilemma of language, of writing in general. I find Kiki Petrosino’s definition of poetry to be particularly helpful here: “a poem is the artifact or the trace that is left behind and created through the poet’s movement of mind over a problem or situation.” In this, then, all writing is a kind of translation, a trace, a curtailment based on certain choices. Chances are, by now you have decided which of my two translations you prefer based on the priorities it upholds and what kind of trace it leaves. I’m leaning toward one, myself, though you’ll have to wait for the book—and how the poem sings in the context of other poems—to find out which one it is.


Writing Prompt

 Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you but for which you can find at least two different translations. This can be a great opportunity to expand awareness of languages and cultures by choosing an author who is not well known. For the first step, do one of the following:

  • Phonetically translate the poem by sounding out the original language and writing down English words that resemble those sounds, such as “modu dallo gaya handa” (see below) as “moon dollop in Gaia’s hand.” Don’t worry about meaning; follow sound and rhythm instead. What combinations of sounds does English allow and not allow? Are there any combinations that are particularly intriguing?
  • Translate the poem based on a trot (otherwise known as a literal translation) of the original. One of my favorite books that provides such trots is Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu (Oxford), which then compares translations done by such poets as W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Strand. Other great resource for finding translation multiples include Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (Graywolf), Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (New Directions), One Poem in Search of a Translator (Peter Lang), and One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English (Weatherhill).

For the second step, read all of the translations out loud and discuss their similarities and differences. Here are four of the ten translations of Jin Eun-Young’ poem 달팽이 provided in the e-zine Chogwa (it provides very interesting commentary along with the multiple translations). To get you started, you might consider some of the following:

  • Punctuation: What effect does capitalization of lines have? What about dashes and question marks? How does the lack of punctuation create indeterminacy in English? Is this appropriate for the subject matter?
  • Diction: What is the difference between using the indefinite “A Snail” vs. the definite “The Snail” or no article at all? Why do you think one translator chose “Moon Whorl” instead of “Snail”? Do you prefer the direct address to the father/mother or the indirect statement about them?
  • Lineation: How does the shortest line in this poem of varied line length draw attention to different aspects of the poem in each translation? How important is the last word of the poem (abandon, rippling, peace, rise)? What about the difference between peace and abandon, or rippling and rising?
  • Sound: What sonic devices (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, etc. do you notice in the English? What tonal effects do these sounds have? Is one translation more lyrical than another?



            Tomasz Różycki

Skłon dnia. Deszcz. Liść.
Psia sierść. Jej błysk.
Psi wzrok. Na drzwi.
Jest ktoś. Ma przyjść.

Jest ktoś, kto wie,
czy to ma sens.
Krok, dźwięk, szmer, mysz:
pies śni skok wzwyż.

Czas gra. Deszcz mży.
Cóż ja bez ty?
Czas gra w złe gry.
Mrok pcha swój pysk.

Pies drga, lśnią kły.
Już dwa, trzy dni.
Twój brak mnie ssie.
On mnie chce zjeść.

Cień kpi na szkle.
To maj, krew wrze.
Zmierzch lgnie do szyb.
Przyjdź, daj mi być.

Daj być, żyć daj.
Nie wyć do gwiazd.
Wyć, gryźć, łkać, kląć,
wróć, weź mnie stąd.

Tu brud i strach,
żal, wstyd i płacz.
Noc, gaz, rur szloch.
Spraw dzień, zmień ton.

Bies dźga mnie w bok,
noc tka ten koc,
szal, kłąb, nić, krąg,
wciąż wiąż jak wąż.

Pleć, wij, kręć sznur
i wiś jak wór.
Patrz w kąt, tam szczur,
ów król tych dziur.

On wie, jak ból
tkwi w łbie, prze w dół.
Goń go, w dłoń bierz
nóż czy też wiersz.

Wiersz czy też nóż,
nie ma cię już.
Bicz czy też bat,
padł gruz stu miast.

Śmierć to jest żart,
śmiech, bies, drwi z kart.
Głos grzmi, idź precz!
Nie ty, lecz rzecz.

Nie ja, lecz błąd,
mgła już gdzie dłoń,
dym tam gdzie twarz,
gdzie pierś – ruch traw.

Ten sen mnie śni,
pękł dzban od krwi.
W głąb żył wszedł cierń.
W kąt ust kurz wszedł.

Mózg żre rój widm.
Rycz, płacz, wyj, krzycz!
Zgiń, puść mnie, wyjdź.
Nie tak ma być.

Zgub klucz, zniszcz list.
Chrzęst, jęk. Już świt.
Wtem syk, wrzask zgasł.
Pies wstał, coś chciał.

Miał kość pod łbem
Grzbiet zgiął, strząsł sen.
Dał głos, dał dwa.
Świat trwał i trwa.



            Translated from Polish by Mira Rosenthal

A stretch of day. Some rain. A leaf.
The dog’s fur coat. Its mane. Its gleam.
The dog can see. Behind the door.
There is somebody. On the floor.

Somebody’s there who can make sense.
The doggie’s hair stands up on end.
A step. A sound. A rustling mouse:
dog dreams of leaping round the house.

Time keeps on looping. Rain keeps raining.
Without you, what do I contain?
Time keeps on duping us at cards.
Dark sniffs. It roots around the yard.

The dog is trembling, fangs uncovered.
The days resemble one another.
This lack of you, it sucks my blood,
devours me as if I’m grub.

A shadow mocks me on the glass
and dusk keeps flocking to the contrast
on windowpane. It’s May. Blood seethes.
Please, won’t you come. Please, let me be.

Please, don’t delay. Let live what lives.
Stop wailing at the stars’ abyss.
Don’t howl or gnaw or sob or swear.
Come back, take me away from here.

From dirt and blame and grief and dread,
from all this shame, from this lament.
From night and gas and sobbing pipes.
Bring light, a different tone or type.

A demon jabs me in the side,
night weaves a blanket that it ties
around me like a serpent, binds
me up in circles, keeps on winding.

Keep writhing, weaving, twist the twine
and hang me like a sack on the line.
Look in the corner, there’s a rat,
that king of holes and tiny cracks.

He knows how pain keeps pressing in,
gets stuck deep down inside the brain.
Just try to catch him. It might work.
Take up a knife, or try a verse.

Take up a verse, or try a knife,
you’re gone, no longer of this life.
Take up a whip, or try a lash,
a hundred cities have collapsed.

It turns out death is but a joke,
a demon chuckling at his stroke
of luck. A voice then booms, get lost!
Not you, but this here thing, this object.

Not me, but this mistake you’ve made,
in place of face, now smoke in glade,
in place of hand, now fog and ash,
where once was breast, now shifting grass.

This dream is dreaming who I am,
a jug of blood filled past the brim.
A thorn gone deep into the vein.
Dust stuck inside the mouth’s terrain.

The mind keeps eating swarming ghosts.
Give wail or scream or roar or moan!
Just die, release me, take your leave.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

Misplace the key, destroy the letter.
A groan. A creak. Dawn’s drawing nearer.
And then a hiss, a scream that fades.
The dog wakes up. What is he craving?

He’s stashed a bone below the mat.
He gives a stretch, shakes off his nap,
then gives a bark, another one.
The world goes on and on and on.



            Translated from Polish by Mira Rosenthal

Some rain. A Leaf.
Dog’s coat. Its gleam.
Dog sees the door.
It comes, a form.

A form that can
make lots of sense.
Step, rush, mouse, peep:
he dreams a leap.

Time plays. Drip drop.
You’re gone. I’m naught?
Time plays at cards.
Dark sniffs the yard.

Dog stirs, fangs flash.
Two, three days pass.
Your lack sucks at me,
wants to eat.

On glass shade stains.
Dusk mocks the pane.
It’s May. Blood seethes.
Please come, soothe me.

Let live, near, far.
Don’t howl at stars.
Howl, gnaw, sob, swear.
Take me from here.

This filth and fear,
this grief, shame, tears.
Night’s moan of pipes.
Shift tone, bring light.

A fiend pokes me,
night weaves its cloak,
shawl, heap, yarn, cape.
Bind like a snake.

Pleat, weave, twist twine,
hang from the line.
Look, there’s a rat,
that king of cracks.

He knows how pain
bores through the brain.
So, catch him, lurk
with knife or verse.

A verse or knife,
you’re gone from life.
A whip or lash,
shard, wreck, town, ash.

Death is a joke,
fiend, stroke of luck.
A voice yells: scram!
You thing, you sham.

Not me but flaw.
Not hand but fog.
The face and breast—
now smoke through grass.

This dream dreams me,
blood bursts the seams.
Thorn deep in vein.
On lips, dust grains.

The mind eats ghosts
that swarm, scream, moan.
Just die, take leave.
Just let me be.

Lost key, torn note.
Dawn breaks. Scrape, groan.
A hiss, screams fade.
Dog wakes and craves

the bone he’s stashed.
Shakes off his nap,
Once, twice he whines.
The world goes on.


Mira Rosenthal

Mira Rosenthal is a past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship program, and her work appears regularly in such journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Guernica, Harvard Review, New England Review, and A Public Space. Her first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her translation of Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s Colonies won the Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her honors include a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award, an American Council of Learned Societies grant, and residencies at Hedgebrook and The MacDowell Colony. Website: Twitter: @mira_rosenthal