The Matter of Translation: Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Conversation with a Rock
1. RED AND BLUE BOXES
When I was a child, I had a beautiful book that fit perfectly in my hands. Its covers were squarish and addictively smooth, its binding a wide ribbon of coarse blue fabric, its pages thick and waxy. In simplified prose this book told child—length versions of various biblical tales. Our family was not religious, and by the time I was six or seven, I had already adopted my father’s more or less aggressive atheism. Still this book fascinated me with its bisque–colored pages and tiny illustrations populated by chunky, impressionistic figures mournfully enacting terrible scenes. But mostly what drew me to the book were its tidy, hand–lettered blocks of prose, printed, for some reason, in an alternating, every–other–page pattern of blue and red ink.
Some children—my daughter, for instance, who, ever since looking at a book of religious paintings from the Louvre, has been obsessed with the story of Jesus— might have found endless fascination in the tales themselves or in the beautiful pictures: Mary, Joseph, and their sweet–faced donkey plodding through an apricot–colored desert; Moses holding up two chalky—looking tablets, the same size and thickness as Necco wafers. But I dwelt on the words—I mean the actual slightly shaky, hand–drawn letters with their mysterious red and blue moods— which seemed to be another story, beyond the stories they told. At one point I remember outlining certain words with matching red and blue pencil. Although I did not know it at the time, the words I isolated all fell into the categories of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, and adverbs–words like its, have, will, but, or though. I could not say exactly how these words differed from the nouns and verbs I could identify, only that, while they seemed substantially less informative than those more obvious kinds of words, the words in my boxes were, I was convinced, somehow more potent. They seemed, in their airy nothingness, to speak to something very important. Without a clear understanding of my own impulse, I think I was trying to trace the invisible path that meaning took through those curiously colored sentences–trying, perhaps, to separate what you might call the motion of the sentences from the more readily apparent muscle and bone of them. I thought then, as I suppose I still do, that there was something hidden, something pulsing dimly underneath, or in between, or just beyond the actual words on the page.
2. A PERFECT KOAN
Thirty years later I do not use colored pencils, but the act is the same. The book is a slim olive green volume of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems as translated by Joanna Trzeciak. In this book is a poem called “Conversation with a Rock,” which consists of twelve stanzas—a steady pattern of question—and—response dialogue between an ever-hopeful “I” and a sardonic, almost comically world-weary rock. Six times, the eager “I” knocks at the “door of the rock.” Six times, she (although never specified, I cannot help but read the poem’s speaker as a “she”—a version of Szymborska herself) is turned away.
If you were to pick up my copy of this book and hold it loosely in one hand, it would open automatically to page sixty–two, because I have read and reread this “conversation” so many times. Like a dog with a favorite itch, I go back to it again and again, but like the relentless scratching of a chronic itch, the satisfaction this rereading provides is at best ambiguous, a thing half pain, half pleasure.
Despite its friendly tone and the quirky personalities of its two participants, “Conversation with a Rock” is as resistant to interpretation as the object of its inquiry. Yet interpret it is what I want to do. Or (I don’t think this is putting it too strongly) what I need to do. With the same determination I remember feeling when I boxed off those words in that collection of children’s biblical tales, I parse and reparse the lines of Szymborska’s poem. With the same frustrating sense that a mystery is hiding just out of my reach, I stare at the words on the page.
3. THE PLURALITY OF PEBBLES
The poem begins like this:
I knock at the door of the rock.
‘‘It’s me, let me in.
I want to enter your interior,
have a look around,
take you in like breath.”
“Go away,” says the rock,
“I am shut tight.
Even broken to bits
we would be shut tight.
Even ground into sand
we would not let anyone in.”
Note the curious grammar in that second stanza, the rock’s awkward yet somehow sensible transition from “I” to “we.” Is this a kind of syntactic onomatopoeia? A linguistic illustration of the rock’s disintegration into the plurality of pebbles, of stone dust, of atoms, even as it retains some order of first-person unity? Hard to say, but then I have come to feel that it is hard to say anything very specific about this poem, so closed to deeper penetration, like rock itself, is its surface meaning.
The poem’s “I” pleads her case a little more in each stanza, telling the rock that she comes “out of sheer curiosity” and plans, after wandering through it, to tour “the leaf and the water droplet.” “I don’t have too much time for all this,” she tells the rock. “My mortality ought to move you.” But the rock, claiming it would laugh if only it did not “lack the muscles for laughing,” sends her away.
4. “I DON’T KNOW”
An earnest poet, as plain spoken as she is profound, Szymborska never tries to be fancy or tricky or even particularly subtle, only honest, demonstrating over and over in her work that “again, and as ever . . . the most pressing questions / are naüïve ones.” But naive, of course, is not the same thing as simplistic, and nearly every one of Szymborska’s inquiries points to some kind of unknowable mystery —to the chimera of time, for instance, or the pointless cruelty of war, or the never ending puzzle of the human soul. And always they are questions, not answers, that concern the poet. In her acceptance speech for the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska said she values the little phrase “I don’t know” because it “expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”
Those outer expanses are invoked frequently in Szymborska’s work. Her view of the universe often snaps into focus, briefly but with chilling clarity, not only in those poems that concern the natural world, but in her most intimate love poems and her most broadly political ones. Without pomp or circumstance, in the least likely settings, Szymborska invokes that most terrifying idea: that our “odd” and “parochial” planet is only a speck in the spreading infinity of the universe. Here, for example, in the midst of “A Dream,” a poem about a long–dead lover, we find ourselves transported in just two brief stanzas to what seems the hem of the milky way:
we can see so far, so far,
that day and night become simultaneous
and all the seasons are experienced at once.
The moon opens up its four–phased fan,
snowflakes swirl along with butterflies
and fruit falls from a blossoming tree.
With such long views it is not only time that Szymborska—a “post–Copernican, post–Newtonian, post–Darwinian” poet, as Czeslaw Milosz calls her in his introduction to Trzeciak’s translations–collapses, but matter as well. In “Sky,” for example, all of the known universe is reduced to one endlessly variable element, one “wholeness,” in which the mole underground and the “dark beneath your skin” are as much sky as the farthest reaches of the starry night.
Dividing earth and sky
is not the right way
to think about this wholeness.
It only allows one to live
at a more precise address—
By broadening the definition of sky to encompass infinity itself, Szymborska renders the word incapable of holding any real or absolute meaning. Or, rather, such broadening illuminates, in an unsettlingly neutral light, the fact that meaning is a purely human construct. This skepticism regarding the ultimate value of meaning and language hovers in the margins of many a Szymborska poem. Like the political boundaries she describes in “Psalm,” words, Szymborska constantly hints, are hopelessly hopeful man-made things through which reality floats, paying as little heed to our carefully honed definitions as crawling ants and leafing privets pay to our countries’ map-drawn borders.
5. IN MY LIVING ROOM
Being a friendly poet, a charming and endearing poet, Szymborska is often playful. She likes, for instance, to finish some of her more lighthearted poems with whimsical couplets. She pokes fun at herself and the people around her—strangers, lovers, friends—in sketches so trenchant, they are nearly caricatures. Even in her most profound work, she can be irrepressibly mischievous, and the last three lines of “Conversation with a Rock” could be viewed (and I have seen them, on many a subsequent reading, in this light) as just such an instance of sly playfulness:
I knock at the door of the rock.
“It’s me, let me in.”
“I don’t have a door,” says the rock.
But the first time I read these lines, standing in the middle of my living room, I actually reached for the back of a nearby chair to steady myself. Playful was not a word that came to mind. No—the rock’s final statement, its strangely sad, matter–of–fact, hadn’t–you–noticed? refusal of its stubborn supplicant simply–or maybe not so simply–knocked the air out of me.
Had I never considered the impenetrability of rocks before? Probably not–not really; I have, at least until recently, given very little thought to rocks. I don’t really care about rocks. What I do care about is the idea that language, conversation, ideas themselves (with which this poem is so jam-packed), not to mention poetry, could fail to subdue a rock. But beyond this there was the fact that I had gamely allowed myself to be carried along by Szymborska’s deceptively simple metaphor: this door, this curmudgeonly rock, this not quite naive “I.” So eager had I been to get somewhere in the poem, to arrive, like the poem’s persistent protagonist, at some hard-earned revelation, I had not bothered to notice that the terms of the metaphor were false, a blatant case of make–believe. For eleven engrossing stanzas, I had so completely given myself over to the poem, so thoroughly allowed myself to forget that rocks don’t actually have doors (nor the organs for speech with which to explain such a lack), that coming upon this fact again, coming back to it, as it were, brand new to it, I dipped for an instant into a kind of void—a blank, uninterpretable space.
6. THE SEED OF PARTAKING
The existential conundrum at the core of “Conversation with a Rock” is most succinctly articulated in its eighth stanza:
“You will not be coming in,”says the rock.
“You lack a sense of partaking.
None of your senses can make up for the sense of partaking.
Even sight, sharpened to omnividence,
will get you nowhere without a sense of partaking.
You will not be coming in. You have but a scent of this sense,
merely its seed, imagination.
One of the wonderful things about Szymborska’s work, for the English–speaking reader, is how readily it appears to lend itself to translation. So generally simple is her diction, so straightforward are the forms of her poems, so essentially conversational is their tone, that even despite an occasionally clipped or boxy quality (which seems the likely by–product of translation), her poems are always lean and graceful, especially beautiful when spoken aloud. Still there are occasions for stumbling, and here, in the poem’s eighth stanza, are two such instances. There is, for one, this uncharacteristically awkward noun that snags so aggressively (and perhaps purposefully), “omnividence,” or, as it is rendered by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, “all seeing.” But the sense of this, in any case, is clear enough. Much more troubling is the phrase “a sense of partaking” (or “taking part” in Baranczak and Cavanagh).
This surely must be, I thought when I first saw it, a translation issue—some kind of necessary but unfortunate compromise. But no–not, at least, according to a clerk in a foreign language bookshop who looked up the Polish word udzial in a Polish–English dictionary for me while I waited on the phone. The entry under udzial, he reported after much flipping of pages and mumbled scanning of lines, is pretty much equivalent to the meaning of our English verb partake, “to share a part of.” But what, coming from a rock, might sharing a part of actually mean? Does the slightly communist flavor of this idea, I wondered, somehow echo back to the rock’s strange grammar in the second stanza? Is there lurking in these lines some kind of atomistic philosophy? Or a Zenlike sentiment of ultimate equivalences? Is this what partaking refers to?
Perhaps, but neither of these possibilities would account for the relationship the rock delineates between this mysterious sense of “partaking” and the human imagination. Because, of course, a seed is never just a mere thing, but always a potentiality. And so I think it is reasonable to ask if, by “seed,” Szymborska means to imply that imagination is not just a diminutive version of partaking, but also its germ, its concentrated essence or secretly coded genesis.
“You may get to know me, but you will never know me,” the rock tells its supplicant in the poem’s sixth stanza. “I turn my whole surface to you, / and turn my entire interior away.”
In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin says something strikingly similar about the operation of fixing, in a foreign language, the meaning of a piece of writing: “Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive.” Benjamin’s view of translation, which he calls a “mode,” is an extension of his view of language itself, and this view is one of deep religiosity (Benjamin believes quite literally that meaning’s final “stop” is “vouchsafed to Holy Writ alone”). For this German thinker “God’s word” is one and the same as God’s will; that is, God’s mere intention becomes. No sooner does God think than God’s thought unfolds as reality. Human words, in Benjamin’s view, are the names we give to God’s thought, and as such, they are destined to remain forever distant from that which they indicate.
One thinks, when reading Benjamin, of language as kind of hovering—forever incapable of touching (which would constitute its actually being or melding with) the reality it attempts to communicate. Yet the shape of that ultimate reality is perhaps best known by means of the negative space described by that which language does not touch.
This gap between language and its intention is something we tend to see fairly easily in translations, where the “primary” but “elusive” nature of the original is sometimes called “untranslatable.” But the problem of untranslatability exists, in Benjamin’s view (a view Szymborska echoes in much of her work and one for which “Conversation with a Rock” can be seen as the starkest of parables), in the mechanics of language itself. For Benjamin all of human language is a deeply compromised translation of “God’s word,” or to put it in less overtly religious terms, a problematic mediation of pure (i.e., unmediated) reality. And as translators of this reality, or ultimate “word,” we humans are destined to remain forever hobbled by the limitations of our tongues.
8. AT THE POND
I sit at a picnic table in my favorite park. This place is nearly a half–hour drive from my home—a completely fatuous use of gas, but I need this park and come here once or twice a week to walk my dogs. Despite the constant traffic noise (the park is bordered by two busy roads), I feel, for some reason, more in tune with nature here than anywhere else. I don’t know what it is about this place. It is nothing that special: a small, roughly circular pond crowded with ducks and geese who stay plump all year thanks to a few retirees who make it their job to feed them, a couple of paths wandering through some thin woods, a rambling stream that swells and shrinks according to rainfall and snowmelt. I am not a big nature buff—I don’t know the names of the many different kinds of trees in these woods, only that they are about to enter their most beautiful period. The tree that turns first every year, a tall, slender, full–headed one right at the edge of the pond, is just beginning to show some orange at its top. There are the usual birds–sparrows, crows, hawks, the occasional cardinal or wren. Once I saw a bluebird. Poison ivy is rampant, as are, at this time of year, stands of that plant whose popping seed pods give it the nickname “touch–me–not.” In July and August there are blackberries and, more delicious but less profuse, black raspberries. I know, although I don’t often think of him, that this place reminds me of my grand–father, because he and I used to walk through woods very similar to these when I was very young, and the skunk cabbages, in high summer, were as tall as I was.
I came here today with my computer because I have lost the thread to this essay. The first time I read Szymborska’s poem was several weeks ago now. As I have tried since then to figure out what it is about those twelve stanzas that so confounds me, I realize that I have come to think of “Conversation with a Rock” as a poem about language, when in fact it is a poem about a rock and about the great divide between us humans and our surroundings. I hoped that, sitting here with the still, brown, down–stippled pond right in front of me, with the trees and the tumbled chunks of granite and the falling acorns and the ducks and geese and occasional rabbit, I might overhear something.
A man, perhaps seventy years old, dressed entirely in white except for dark sunglasses, sits on a bench near the pond to feed the ducks. They crowd around him: a trembling, pecking, shimmering mass of brown, white, black, and green. Shuffling orange feet. Dipping beaks. The man stands to pitch a handful of breadcrumbs into the pond, in the direction of those ducks too shy or retiring to come close to him. The bag empties out, and shrugging his shoulders, the man makes a show of this to the birds, turning the bag inside out and giving it a flap. “Go to the leaf,” the rock tells its supplicant, “you’ll hear the same thing. / Or to the water droplet; it’ll say the same.” I listen to the ducks, whose talk is at least audible to my poorly tuned ear. I watch them fluv themselves in the pond water, dip and bob, dip and bob. What are they saying? Quack wack wack wack. It is easier for children, I think. At three and four and five, I walked by my grandfather’s side through woods so similar to these. What I remember from those walks are not specific images or sounds, just a feeling. This feeling revisits me only occasionally, and always fleetingly—always by surprise and with the visceral pain and purity of a scent memory. The feeling is roughly this: the world is one big weave—the mud, the snapping turtles, the bullfrogs, the skunk cabbages, the cardinals, the birch trees, the tissues of ice stretched over the path, the black beetles tunneling through the pulp of old logs, the lightening bugs floating like embers. As a child I did not feel myself to be separate from this weave. My grandfather was very tall. He pointed here and there, sometimes crouching at my side, sometimes picking me up to tell me what things were called.
9. GARDEN OF EDEN
Consider for a moment another parable, one to which “Conversation with a Rock” might be seen as a direct—although “post–Copernican, post–Newtonian, post–Darwinian”—descendent: Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge. In that story, of course, Adam and Eve are banished from Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. What a mysterious thing this fruit is–edible knowledge! In that little book I so loved as a child (an object, incidentally, whose creamy pages and cracker–thick covers always seemed to me a tempting nibble), Adam and Eve were a stocky pair, all blonde and pink, nearly faceless. The snake—a cheerful green twist—was coiled in the branches of a red–polka–dotted tree, and Eve (she must still have been chewing) was handing Adam the already bitten apple.
Sex and death are the sharp, irresistible flavors of that fruit, or, rather, an awareness of sex and death. The couple’s new awareness leads to all kinds of trouble. But the overarching problem is the loss of what I think of when Szymborska uses that strange little phrase of hers, “a sense of partaking.”
10. ON BORROWED LEGS
In his essay “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Walter Benjamin writes that language is essentially an imitative process. We seek through our words to reproduce the world around us, and to the extent that we succeed in this endeavor, reflections of the world “flash,” says Benjamin, like an unsteady “flame” in our words. This flickering, faltering fire is what Benjamin calls mimesis, and like real fire, mimesis needs a “bearer.” This bearer, says Benjamin, is the semiotic element. Meaning, in other words, is only the fuel, not the flame. The flame of mimesis—those unsteady reflections—is the magic born on or by our words.
Another poem of Szymborska:’s, “The Joy of Writing,” beautifully illustrates this idea by pointing to and playing with the unstable and indistinct line between the “semiotic element” and the magic that is mimicry. This is its first stanza:
Where is the written doe headed, through these written woods?
To drink from the written spring
that copies her muzzle like carbon paper?
Why is she raising her head, does she hear something?
Perched on four legs borrowed from the truth
she pricks up her ears from under my fingertips.
Silence—even this word rustles across the page
and parts the branches
stemming from the word “woods.”
At the end of his essay, Benjamin speculates about the most “ancient” kind of reading, which he describes as reading “what was never written. . . . reading . . . from the entrails, the stars, or dances.” And in this phrase, at least to my mind’s eye, there flickers the image of four or five thin figures crouched over a small bloody mess. The stars stretch out above them in an infinite sky, and by the light of these, the crouching figures poke at the mess with sticks. The sticks move the mess around, tracing lines of blood through the dusty earth. Does one of these lines look like a bison? Another like an arrow? Does one look like war tomorrow or a new camp tonight?
Benjamin concludes his essay by describing the path he imagines human language took as it evolved from things themselves—from entrails and stars—to “runes and hieroglyphs,” to what we speak and write today, which he calls “the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity.” What was once sticky or shimmery with meaning, in other words, is by this point in human history so abstracted as to have “liquidated” the powers of magic that were clearly evident in the earliest stages of language—in those stars and entrails (and, no doubt, rocks) that once spoke to us with such openness. It is as if we now find ourselves so tangled in the maze of our own semiotic wanderings that we can barely begin to guess at the mysteries we have shrouded in our very attempts to illuminate them. Yet the deer is still visible in the woods, and the twigs still crack under her delicate feet. . . .
11. THE IMPOSSIBLE MOUTH
Children like this game and play it easily: dissolve the distance between a thing and the idea of that thing, burn off the difference through an act of distilled concentration or antic repetition. You know this game: say a word over and over and over, or stare at a thing—your toes for instance . . . how ludicrous toes are!— until whatever familiarity that normally buffers you from the object of your study simply melts away. It is more difficult—or perhaps simply more painful, as we are so much more aware of our own mortality and death so strongly invoked by this state—for adults to play this game. Instead, when we experience the point of collapse between a thing and our idea of that thing, when we allow or are somehow compelled to allow our conscious understanding to dissipate, to escape our private grasp and meld in the way it seems an animal’s ever–present–tense consciousness must meld with its surroundings, the experience tends to overtake us with something like violence.
This is what happened to me–something like this–the first time I read “Conversation with a Rock.” Some distance was closed or greatly shortened between reality and my mediation, interpretation, or translation of that reality. However fleetingly, I stepped back into the garden. But in a way my experience of reading Szymborska’s poem was stranger than that. Because for that brief span of five or ten seconds, the distance that collapsed, the reality with which I was so suddenly confronted, was not something I would normally consider some kind of “other—ness.” It was not, for instance, the endless weave of an autumn woods. It was the restless workings of my own imagination. When Szymborska evaporates the terms of her own metaphor—when the rock points out that it does not have a door—the poem’s progress, its whole premise, is instantly, retroactively reconfigured. And yet there was for me a funny lag between the collapse of this metaphor and the reconfiguration of the imaginary landscape in which I had located Szymborska’s poem. When my rock (I mean the rock in my mind, the rock I lent the poem as I read its twelve stanzas) uttered these words with its impossible mouth—“I don’t have a door”—that mouth, like the door it spoke of, was supposed to disappear. But it did not–not entirely. Something remained, and it is this something that I have been trying to pin down, to grasp, ever since the day I first read the poem.
12. THE GYMNASTICS OF GRAMMAR
There is a special realm, says Benjamin, a kind of “nucleus” where meaning nearly stills in some final form, where the different languages find “reconciliation and fulfillment.” Translations point the way to this realm not through their “transmittal of subject matter,” but by grappling with that “element . . . that does not lend itself to translation.” What exactly is it that language jumps and dances at but never touches? Szymborska, I think, illuminates some portion of this realm in “Conversation with a Rock” when she dismantles the poem’s operative metaphor (one of our most essential kinds of translations), even as she forces her readers to prolong belief in this suddenly pointless operation. Like cartoon characters who keep running straight off the edge of a cliff, we pause in midair, still madly scrambling—but what ether suspends us?
There is a kind of gymnastics to grammar, to syntax. It is this quality, I think, that I was trying to understand when as a child I drew boxes around certain especially flexible–seeming words in that little book of Bible stories. Language still seemed to me then to belong to the world of adults, and I remember the sense I had that I was about to pry my way into certain deep and important secrets, life secrets, if only I could figure out how the words on the page actually worked. I know now that such deep secrets cannot possibly reside in words themselves, but must live in places like those Benjamin so relentlessly indicates, like those Szymborska’s rock lists: the leaf, the water droplet, the hair from our own heads. Language doesn’t map reality; it merely mimics it with the roughest of gestures. Still, there is this flexibility in our words, this ability to sprout in an instant four dainty hooves and go prancing across a forest floor littered with twigs spelled t–w–i–g–s. I just called this flexibility “syntax,” but this is wrong. “Imagination” is not right either. Nor is Benjamin’s mysterious “nucleus.” It has no name, but Szymborska, with a cumbersome ambiguity that seems its respectful due, comes as close as anybody might with “a sense of partaking.”
Kim Adrian is the author of Sock, a Bloomsbury "Object Lessons" book. Her memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her award winning essays and short stories have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Raritan Review, Ninth Letter, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, and a Visiting Lecturer in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University.
The Matter of Translation: Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Conversation with a Rock appears in our Summer 2005 issue.