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A Small but Maximalist Translatological Manifesto by Stanisław Barańczak: An untranslatable text on translation

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When we were very young, in 1990, a brilliant Polish translator named Stanislaw Barańczak wrote this brilliant essay about translation. Paradoxically, the text itself resists translation, that is, unless one is prepared to follow a rather twisted scenario worthy of a Borgesian imagination. Untranslated, the essay remains largely unknown abroad and even in Poland it is a niche work mainly of interest to literature scholars and translators. This piece here is intended as an introduction of sorts, especially for those who cannot read it due to their unfamiliarity with the Polish language. The essay is titled ‘Mały, lecz maksymalistyczny Manifest translatologiczny’ (A Small but Maximalist Translatological Manifesto) and it opens Barańczak’s collection of critical texts entitled Ocalone w Tłumaczeniu (Saved in Translation).

Manifesto exposes Barańczak’s views on the practice of the lyrical and poetic translation—his primary field of expertise. It is thanks to Barańczak that the Polish literary world can read Shakespeare, Auden, Dickinson, Hardy or Frost. Manifesto is an attempt to articulate the principles Barańczak adheres to as a poetry translator and that he believes every translator should. Although earnestly programmatic in nature, it is a text saturated by wit and humour. Already the essay’s subtitle—“Tłumaczenie się z tego, że tłumaczy się wiersze również w celu wytłumaczenia innym tłumaczom, iż dla większości tłumaczeń wierszy nie ma wytłumaczenia”—is an elaborate pun. “[A] provocative and witty subtitle playing on double meaning of the Polish verb tłumaczyć (translate, explain)” (p. 451)—as one commentator, Kasia Szymańska, explains—“Explaining yourself that you translate poems also in order to explain to other translators that for the majority of translations there is no explanation.”


For my part, I hasten to explain that, in the most general terms, the essay is an answer to the conundrums inherent in the very practice of translation itself, namely to the fact that the correspondence between any two given languages will never be perfect. That each translation is a compromise rather than an ideal rendition. Much of what Barańczak has to say can be also read as a polemical-dialogical response to the famous dictum of Frost—who is a daimonion of the entire text—that ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation.’ The key concern expressed in Manifesto is the inevitable trade-off—the awareness of the inexorable loss counterbalanced by the hope to save. At one point in the text Barańczak points our attention to “a classic translator dilemma: no matter how much he tried, no matter how much he equivalised [(sic!)] and substituted, he will not save everything—something will have to be given up.” (p. 20-21) The question is what to let go of and how to decide this question? Manifesto can be read as a guide on how to navigate the often stormy waters of this inevitable compromise.

A Small but Maximalist Translatological Manifesto can be perhaps best understood along the axis delineated already by its title, that moves along a small-maximalist trajectory. It is small, because it consists of two prohibitions only: “Do not translate a poem into prose” (p. 32) and “Do not translate good poetry into bad poetry.” (p. 33) It is maximalist, because the two points—when elaborated upon by Barańczak—cover enough ground to make maximal demands on the translator. Given the impossibility to attain perfection, the aim when translating a poem has to be to get as close as possible, says Barańczak. To be able to do so, one needs criteria to inform the decisions required of a translator. Not only because otherwise the decision making process can become uncannily prone to whim, but also—Barańczak’s other main concern that he addresses in the text—it does not seem possible to offer a constructive and meaningful critique of the choices made or the end result itself.

All that Barańczak has to say is richly illustrated by examples of the actual translatological work and critique. The logic that largely organises the essay is as follows: we read an English original poem and its already existing Polish rendition by another author. The latter is then analysed, often line by line, phrase by phrase—as such it becomes tightly interwoven into the very tissue of the prose of the essay itself. The inaccuracies are pointed out and an alternative translation composed by the author is proposed instead as a superior, though not the ultimate, one. The postulates Barańczak makes are therefore deduced from and illustrated by nothing else but his poetic return to the things themselves: to the poems, to translations and to the very mechanisms of the process of translation itself.


The first of the prohibitions—never to render poetry in prose—must be read primarily in the context of Barańczak’s deep skepticism towards the practice of choosing a ‘faithfulness’ of the translation over a text’s ‘beauty’, which is exemplified precisely in the sacrifice of a poems character in a prose rendition. This disputable tactic rests on a well established—though for Barańczak ultimately mistaken—distinction between the form and content. Paraphrasing Frost, he observes that ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation into prose’ and adds: “If the author of a poem indeed wanted to say the same as his prosaic translator, he would have written his text in prose in the first place.”1 (p. 32) In the light of this rather reasonable dictum the notion of the sacrifice of the form for the content does indeed seem to do more harm than good to a poem. It is discarded by Barańczak in favour of another formal rule assisting the choices as to what to save in translation.

The strategy proposed by Barańczak is in the rejection of the form and content dichotomy, and hinges instead on a concept of semantic dominant, which Barańczak proposes as a guiding formal principle informing the process of translating poetry. Barańczak never denies that a translator has to make choices—that is the whole point here—it is just that the rationale for those choices has to be rethought. Semantic dominant is this ‘formal’ element of the poem that constitutes its innermost, inalienable and indispensable core, “a key to the poem’s ‘content’.” (p. 17) That Barańczak relegates those concepts to quotation marks emphasises his conviction that they are tools inaccurate to capture what really is the decision here. The semantic dominant does not fit in the boxes form and content delineate but rather, for each poem, is always different, inherently flexible and malleable, depending each time on the very specific being of the poem in question. Before one can translate, one has to undertake a hermeneutical effort of understanding which elements stand out as the defining traits of a text—not applying a beforehand constructed theory to a poem but instead letting it speak for itself.

Underneath this lighthearted tone, however, something more serious and significant is at stake throughout the whole text: It is a conviction secreted into passion that the art of translation should be taken very seriously, and that the more we put in as translators, the more will we get out of the text.

The second prohibition is to never translate good poetry into bad poetry. Because, as Barańczak put is with a simplicity that is difficult to argue with, “Nobody needs bad poetry.” (p. 33) Or, again in Frost’s terms, “Poetry is what gets lost in mediocre poetic translation.” (p. 33) The point here seems that, as Barańczak sees it, too often concessions are made when it comes to translation, not in the least by the translators themselves, who find it only too tempting to excuse themselves from requiring the maximum of effort, with the conviction that no translation—a priori—can ever be as good as the original anyway. This point is of great relevance especially for what Barańczak considers to be a good and valid poetic translation critique practice, in that it privileges an approach which opens with a very specific, simple question—“is such a poem worth anything at all as a poetic piece[?]” (p. 34) If the answer is negative, this is where the critique of translation ends. Only if positive, one can proceed to a further, holistic technical and formal analysis.

It is this preliminary acid test that, for Barańczak, should be run before any other considerations can take place and which stands in a radical opposition to what he argues a typical critique of a translation consists of: comparing the original and the translation through the prism of the accuracy with the view to point out any formal errors or lapses. Such an approach is mistaken, argues Barańczak, because only in the overarching context of a translated text seen as a whole can any particular translatory choices be assessed, argued with or defended. Otherwise the discussion hangs in vacuum. Therefore, Barańczak postulates,  a meaningful critique of a translation should pay a primary attention to the “autonomous value of the translation as a poetic piece in itself.” (p. 34)


And this is, indeed, what Barańczak does in the essay. He talks the talk, but he also walks the walk. Barańczak scrutinises a number of existing translations to Polish from English done by others, applying and testing his principles, illustrating and supporting his critique on the scaffolding of those analyses. Examples come from poems by Blake, Herbert, Donne, Marvell and Bishop, rendered into Polish by a number of other fellow translators. To crown each case study, Barańczak proposes his own—superior in his opinion—alternative, rooted in and faithful to the translatological credo exposed in his manifesto. This is the most tantalising part of the text, a true delight of literary critique. We are offered a rare glimpse at the usually invisible element of translation, namely the very process of translating itself, the one that, could be noted in Frostian terms, truly ‘gets lost in translation.’

Following this process feels like going on an intricate linguistic adventure that never chooses an easy passage but deliberately steps, time and again, off the beaten track. Towards its destination, towards a gesture towards no-one else but Frost. Barańczak’s final translatory work done in the text—his rendition of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening—concludes the entire essay and reads like a lap of honour after a demanding cross-country race, a translation radiating with a joyous relaxation and peculiar kind of pleasure after all the effort put in earlier. The poem chosen supplies a subtle but pointed closure to the entire text:  And miles to go before I sleep—I wiele mil od snu mnie dzieli.

And miles to go…  Translating poetry has to be an occupation of maximal expectations towards oneself, of maximal effort, with no room for half-measures. This is the only approach that makes sense, because, as Barańczak puts it: “Poetry, which leaves a real, unforgeable and unfalsifiable impression on us—precisely this poetry that sends primal shivers down our spine—does so, because it is in itself a maximalistic exploitation of the possibilities of language and imagination. Confronting such poetry, only an equally absolute translator’s maximalism makes sense. If it seems like a waste of time or energy to someone, if he assumes in advance that he won’t manage anyway—he should instead devote his free evenings to the game of bingo or to cacti growing[…]” (p. 25)


Accidentally, Barańczak’s analyses of the existing poetic translations—of which the majority of the text in fact consists—are precisely the element that makes Translatological Manifesto untranslatable, at least into English. Because if the text was to be translated, one would have to compose an inferior version of the original to stand in for the first translation, which would then serve as a subject of the critique. This inferior version would have to provide examples of all the shortcomings the subsequent analysis points out, so it would have to be a very specifically crafted and deliberately mediocre ersatz of the original poem, an inferior Frost or Blake. Additionally, Barańczak’s proposed final translation of the poem not only would have to fit the responses to all the critical points and observations made in the text, but also correspond, verbatim, to the original poem, i.e. be the original poem it attempts to translate. Pierre Menard drawing the map of the territory. Scale: 1:1.

The text has not been published in English and the above paradox seems a good reason to explain why. The text cannot be rendered into this language—what could be done, would be to preserve its ‘content’ ripping the ‘form’ apart. To write a text reflecting the same logic in a symmetrical inversion. This would require a different choice of original example poems in Polish. A mediocre existing English translations of them serving as analysis samples. The analysis that points to the same structural problems and obstacles. Finally, improved English translatory solutions. All this in reverse… Either way, the text of Manifesto must be lost in translation.


This is then some approximation of what the Translatological Manifesto is. As for a manifesto, the text is unusually ironic, ostensibly comical in its tone. There is undeniably a certain well intended irony in the very act of calling it a manifesto at all—the actual idea declared being no longer than two simple, commonsensical prescripts. Underneath this lighthearted tone, however, something more serious and significant is at stake throughout the whole text: It is a conviction secreted into passion that the art of translation should be taken very seriously, and that the more we put in as translators, the more will we get out of the text. That we have promises to keep. And miles to go before we sleep.


Works cited

‘Mały, lecz maksymalistyczny Manifest translatologiczny’ (A Small but Maximalist Translatological Manifesto) by Stanisław Barańczak

Ocalone w tłumaczeniu by Stanisław Barańczak

‘Stanisław Barańczak: Between Autonomy and Support’ by Kasia Szyńaska

One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse

  1. This is not an unusual position to take, a similar view can be found e.g. in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: “The poet might answer that indeed he wants his poetry to be understandable and understood (that is why he writes it), but if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” (p. 196-197)

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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