Poem by Wislawa Szymborska

One of my favorite courses in my Antioch MFA program was “Translation Workshop.” Over ten weeks, we translated poetry and prose from Zapotec, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, and Polish. Of the nine students in my cohort, some read or spoke one of these other languages. But none of us felt like experts. We relied on a glossary to translate each line word by word.

We nine students encountered the same words in the original language and used the same glossary to translate. Yet each poem or prose piece was uniquely ours. By the end of ten weeks, I could almost predict the tone a classmate’s translation would take, or how he or she would choose to structure a sentence.

This poem by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) is titled “Photograph from September 11″ (“Fotografia z 11 września”). It was published in 2002 in the volume Monologue of a Dog. During her lifetime, Szymborska published 15 volumes of poetry and was well-known in her native Poland. She received international recognition when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.

The images from September 11 are seared into our collective memory. In simple language, Szymborska describes a photograph that captured a specific, devastating moment. I offer my translation to remember.

 

Photograph from September 11

By Wisława Szymborska

 

They jumped down from burning levels

One, two, many more

Higher, lower.

 

The photograph stopped them, alive

And now keeps them

Above ground, hurtling toward earth.

 

Each one with a particular face

Still whole

And blood well-hidden.

 

There is enough time

For hair to unloose itself

For keys and small change

To drop from pockets.

 

They are continuously within reach, held in space

Precisely where

They have opened themselves mid-air.

 

In their memory, I can do only two things—

Describe this flight

And not add a final sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

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