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Translating Leśmianesque. On some difficulties of translating poetry

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Translating Leśmianesque. On some difficulties of translating poetry

Francesca Fratangelo

University of Ca’ Foscari, Venezia

Abstract: The aim of this work is to show some difficulties in the translation of poetry, focusing on metaphors and tautologies. By reflecting on the semantics of certain lexical items and comparing some verses in different languages (English, Polish, Italian, French), we analyze translation strategies avoiding the apparent complexity that works present.

Key words: translation, poetry, tautology, metaphor, Bolesław Leśmian

This short work is concerned with the unusual poetry of Bolesław Leśmian, or more specifically with the difficulty of translating his language. Several works have been dedicated to analysing Leśmian’s poetics but to date his poetry has been translated into but a few languages, such as English, Russian, Czech, Italian and Bulgarian. Maybe because he was discovered and appreciated so late even in his home country or perhaps because his language is so hard to translate (he is judged by the majority of critics as “untranslatable”), Leśmian is still unknown to the wider readership. Thanks to the growing number of studies and a renewed interest in his oeuvre, in recent years the poet has finally begun to receive the credit he deserves.

Speaking on difficulties of translating the so called “Leśmianesque”, I wish to start with some considerations made by Professor Marta Kaźmierczak, who is the author of Przekład w kręgu intertekstualności. Na materiale tłumaczeń poezji Bolesława Leśmiana (“Translation in the Domain of Intertextuality: a survey based on Bolesław Leśmian’s poetry and its translations”), a great analysis of the poet’s works as translated into English and Russian language. In a recent interview, when asked “What would you describe as the main areas of difficulty when it comes to translating Leśmianesque poetics into a language like English?”, she answered:

As can be guessed from my initial description of Leśmian’s poetics – first, his use of language, also in connection to a very important feature: the absolute naturalness of his idiom, despite all innovations. Secondly, the musical qualities of verse which he perfected, the rhymes and rhythm. Then, the philosophical content or subtext of his poems, and intertextual references: e.g. links with Slavonic mythology which are very specific to our region and may not cross cultural barriers easily. The utmost problem, however, at least with some translations of Leśmian, is the danger of sliding into mediocrity despite the fact of translating an eminent poet (Gliński, Kaźmierczak 2017).

Based on these words, Leśmian poetry is supposed to be so hard to translate because of his language, because of the complexity of his poetry’s content and because of the attention the author paid to rhythm: it seems that obstacles are present at every level of translation. I cannot analyze each of these “critical points” here, so I decided to focus just on two of them: the translation of tautologies and the translation of metaphors. I will just comment on the possible different approaches to this kind of work by looking into the analysis of certain examples.

I chose tautology and metaphors to discuss because these are, in my opinion, the real critical point of Leśmian’s translation, since they assume an important specific and often philosophical meaning in his poetics.

The Oxford Dictionary defines tautology as: “The saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style” (OUP 2020). For the Polish poet, tautology constitutes an instrument used to express his specific vision of the world. As Janusz Sławiński points out in his study on Leśmian’s semantics, one of the poet’s characteristic tools is to use terms that reflect themselves and find a definition in the terms standing adjacent to these (Sławiński 1971: 108-109). The process of meaning-making is a kind of collaboration of all the terms of a given locution, where all of them work together to define their respective meanings of and those of other words present in the relevant locution. By saying the same thing twice but using different expressions – tautology – Leśmian multiplies the options of signs to express the same meaning. In this way, the author wants to underline the fact that each natural object can be represented in many different ways, depending on the point of view.

We have to remember that Leśmian belongs to a generation of artists that stand against “realism” and its objective way of conceiving artistic expressions. This kind of unusual use of language suggests that the poet’s aim is to allow the non-living essences to act. In fact, usually tautology is composed by a noun and a predicate that invest the subject with volition:

Mrok na schodach

Mrok na schodach. Pustka w domu.
Nie pomoże nikt nikomu.
Ślady twoje śnieg zaprószył,
Żal się w śniegu zawieruszył.

Trzeba teraz w śnieg uwierzyć
I tym śniegiem się ośnieżyć —
I ocienić się tym cieniem
I pomilczeć tem milczeniem.

            (Leśmian 2010)

We can easily note the tautology present at the end of the poem, that is “śniegiem się ośnieżyć”, “ocienić się tym cieniem” and “I pomilczeć tem milczeniem”. Let us now observe the English translation by Marian Polak-Chlabicz:

The stairway – in darkness

The stairway – in darkness. Home’s unoccupied,

And no one will help, no one will stand by.

Your footsteps entirely are covered with snow,

In which – trough and trough – regret does ungo.


So I need believe in this snowy spell,

And with all this snow, to besnow myself,

And to shade myself with this sycamore

And, thanks to this silence, I needn’t speak more.

(Leśmian 2017)

We immediately note that the translator has opted for a remarkable choice: he has decided to sacrifice the tautology to preserve the rhyme: that is why instead of neologisms that correspond to the predicates needed to structure the tautology in the original, we find a new term, “sycamore”: that tree does not appear in Polish version but Polak-Chlabicz needs it to allow for a rhyme with the following verse. The only neologism[1] predicate we can find in the English version is the verb “besnow”. In all other cases there is no tautology. Why has the translator made this choice? We can suppose that, in his opinion, the preservation of the rhyme was more important than rendering the tautology. We always have to note that each language has a proper way of functioning and English language does not offer the possibility to create neologisms as easily as Polish does thanks to its flexibility that is due to its plethora of prefixes and suffixes. That is where the difficulty of translating Slavic poetry into a non-Slavic language arises.

In Italian, we have this kind of difficulty, too, but with a bit of imagination one can try to create new words and new metaphors that follow Leśmian’s style. I present here my personal version of the poem above:

     Buio sulle scale

Buio sulle scale. Vuoto in casa.

Nessuno aiuterà nessuno.

La neve le orme ha coperto,

Nella neve il dolore si è smarrito.


Adesso bisogna credere nella neve

 E innevarsi di questa neve,

E adombrarsi di quest’ombra

E tacitarsi di questo silenzio.

For English and Italian speakers, it is evident that I made a different translation choice: where M. Polak-Chlabicz preferred to preserve the rhyme, losing the effect of tautologies in the process, I decided to sacrifice the rhyme to remain faithful to the meaning and the philosophic implication of these verses. The predicates “adombrarsi”, “innevarsi” and “tacitarsi” currently exist in Italian but they are not commonly used in reflexive form, which mirrors situation that the Polish poet exploited in his poem. This way, I have translated the original text and preserved its characteristics, except for the rhyme.

The other point that I want to analyze here is, as I proposed at the beginning, the translation of metaphors. This is a very difficult process because we do not work with words but with mental associations. As Umberto Eco says:

 Le analisi più sviluppate del meccanismo metaforico sembrano essere quelle capaci di descrivere il contenuto in termini di componenti semantiche. Il cammino della vita è una metafora perché contiene una marca di temporalità mentre cammino contiene una marca di spazialità. Grazie al fatto che entrambi i lessemi contengono una marca di “processo” o di “transizione da x a y” (siano essi punti dello spazio o momenti del tempo), la metafora è resa possibile da un trasferimento di proprietà (feature transfer) o da un trasferimento di categoria (Eco 1990: 191).

 It means that metaphor is a kind of “feature transfer” from one sign to another: the two terms composing a metaphorical structure containing a “semantic mark” that makes the mental association process possible. If we assume this poetic figure works not with words but with “mental images”, we should logically suppose that metaphors have a universal language that exists in every human mind and it works in the same way for every speaker of every country. This is exactly what postulated the supporters of cognitive linguistics’ theories led by George Lakoff, who – in his publication Metaphors We Live By (jointly with Mark Johnson) – tries to prove how all our thought process is actually based on metaphors. We should thus conclude that if they have their own universal language there will be no problem with their translation. That is false. Even if metaphors work on a mental plane, common to every thinking man, they exist in this state just in a pre-speech moment: to communicate the metaphor, we have to express it by words, i.e. by language. So, even if we understand metaphors mentally, the poet cannot express them if not writing and here is where the problems with translation about which we would like to speak begin.

In his personal process of metaphor creation, Leśmian employs the method of the vicious circle, which serves as a device aiming at a “dynamization” of the metaphor. As noted by Artur Sandauer, “The compared subject flows into its own likeness” (Sandauer 1956: 19) creating a constant flow from one metaphor into another, a constant circular motion. It was on using this phenomenon that Leśmian constructed the poem “Przemiany” (“Metamorphoses”). This type of metaphor is a good example of the sixth semantic rule pointed out by Sławiński about the process that the Polish poet used to create such an unusual language. The rule says:

The meaning does not irrevocably correspond to one sign; if in the not-textual repertory of signs, the limits that delimitate each meaning are – in dictionaries – clear, in speeches they undergo changes: meaning are here ready to switch from one sign to another, they flow from one word to another […] (Sławiński 1971: 120)

The Polish verses containing these two metaphors sounds like:

Mak, sam siebie w śródpolnem wykrywszy bezbrzeżu,
Z wrzaskiem, który dla ucha nie był żadnem brzmieniem,
Przekrwawił się w koguta w purpurowem pierzu,
I aż do krwi potrząsał szkarłatnym grzebieniem, […]


… A jęczmień, kłos pragnieniem zazłociwszy gęstem,
Nasrożył nagle złością zjątrzone ościory
I w złotego się jeża przemiażdżył ze chrzęstem […]

(Leśmian 2010)

The verbs serve as a link in the dynamic flow of action, at the same time maintaining the analogy of the subjects. For example: “mak, … przekrwawił się w koguta” (“a poppy… blood-changed into a scarlet-plumped cock”); “A jęczmień… w złotego się jeża przemiażdżył” (“And the barley… crunched itself into a golden hedgehog”). Due to the specific predicate, each subject (mak, kogut, jeczmien, jeż) represents one stage in a continuous process, thus constituting a metonymic unit (Stones 1976: 205). The semantic marks that allow the metaphoric association are, in the first case, “blood” “red” “scarlet”, which combine the poppy with the cock. We immediately note that there is an evident dominance of a kind of “color semantics”. The elements that allow for the metamorphoses are the colors that flow from one object to the other and are involved in the process of transformation. Professor Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel says that:

[…] Zagadka metamorfozy bohatera, dla którego trzy poprzednie przemiany stanowiły prawzór, ma coś wspólnego z nasyconą erotyzmem czerwienią, ale i z barwą pokrzywy, miedzy, i kwiatów, a więc z zielenią ukrytą w nocnych ciemnościach (Czabanowska-Wróbel 2009).

There is not enough space here to explain the role of colors in Leśmian poetry so, for now, let us focus just on the specific issue of metamorphoses.

In the second case, the marks are “gold”, and “husk”. In Polish, the other element that allows the association is “ościory”, i.e. is both corn’s “husk” and the hedgehog’s “quills”.

So, if in the first case, the metaphor is less or more translatable, in the second case it is not because of a non-overlap between terms: in English we have two different terms for Polish “ościory”. In Italian, unfortunately, we have the same problem. We can try to translate this metaphor using another metaphor but there will still be only a loose connection between the terms that compose it and the result is not guaranteed. An Italian version of this poem, as translated by Paolo Statuti, has been adduced below:

Un papavero, là, nel campo senza fine

Si scoprì, e con un grido privo di suono

Si trasanguò in un gallo in piume porporine,

E la scarlatta cresta scosse con frastuono,

E cantò nella notte con terrore insano,

Fino all’eco dei galli veri da lontano.


L’orzo, indoratosi d’anelito addensato,

Rizzò le spighe dalla rabbia avvelenate,

Si traschiacciò scricchiando in un riccio dorato,

E corse via pungendo verdi barricate,

Guaì, e ai fiori tenne il broncio, inciprignito,

E nessuno saprà mai ciò che ha visto e sentito

(Leśmian 2012).

As said, if the first metaphor is a perfect transposition of the original, in the second metaphor we lose the association created by the coincidence of “spighe” and “aculei”, the latter being omitted probably because of its inevitable inefficacy.

If on the one hand we have inevitably lost something in translation, on the other hand, a good translator will always try to find a way to compensate. In this specific case, the compensatory strategy is evident in the choice of “il riccio rizzò le spine”: these two words, riccio (hedgehog) and rizzò (raise), have the same etymology and the verb rizzare (that is the infinitive form of rizzò) can also be used also in association with the barely. It seems the translator preserved the metaphor: in fact, he transferred the image of something raising husk/quills in another object, conserving the barley’ s golden color. The same strategy was adopted by Marian Pankowski in his French version of this fragment,which goes as follows:

…l’orge, ayant doré son épi par un désir dense,

A, brusquement, hérissé sa barbe exaspérée par la colère

Et s’est transformé pesamment en un hérisson d’or…

(Pankowski 1967: 213)

Here the words hérissé and hérisson, which stand for “hedgehog” and “raises” respectively, or the Italian il riccio (che) rizzò, thanks to the phonetic similarity and the clear belonging of these terms to the same semantic range, make the translated text produce an effect very similar to the original one. This seems to be a case of an almost perfect translation, where we mean this almost, as Umberto Eco did in his Experiences in Translation (Eco 2000).

In conclusion, by using translations in different languages to show how translators succeeded (or almost did), my aim has been to give an idea of the complexity of the translation process in general, and especially when it comes to poetry. By adducing the examples reported in this paper, I meant to shed light on translators’ possible solutions to situations almost impossible to solve. Translation is never to be meant as an operation that merely involves two different languages, transferring one word mechanically from one system to another and a translator is not a machine: their work is better conceived as a dialogue between cultures, a complicated metaphorical structure. A machine would not be able to translate Leśmian, at any rate.


Czabanowska-Wróbel 2009: Czabanowska-Wróbel, A. Złotnik i śpiewak. Poezja Leopolda Staffa i Bolesława Leśmiana w kręgu modernizmu. Kraków: Universitas, 2009.

Eco 1990: Eco, U. I limiti dell’interpretazione. Milano: La Nave di Teseo, 1990.

Eco 2000: Eco, U. Experiences in Translation. Translated by Alastair McEwen. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Gliński,  Kaźmierczak 2017: Gliński, M., M. Kaźmierczak. Translating from Leśmianesque into English: An Interview About Polish Literature’s Mission Impossible. –, 2017. <>

Lakoff, Johnson 1980: Lakoff, G, M. Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Leśmian 2010: Leśmian, B. Dzieła Wszystkie, vol. 1-2 red. J. Trznadel. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 2010.

Leśmian 2012: Leśmian, B. Trasformazioni. Translated by Paolo Statuti. – In: Un’anima e tre ali – il blog di Paolo Statuti. <>

Leśmian 2017: Leśmian, B. Marvellations. Translated by Marian Polak-Chlabicz, New York: Penumbra Publishing House, 2017.

OUP 2020: Oxford University Press. “Definition of tautology”. – In:, 2020. <>

Pankowski 1967: Pankowski, M. Leśmian: la révolte d’un poète contre les limites, Bruxelles: Presses Universitaires de Bruxelles, 1967.

Sandauer 1956: Sandauer, A. Filozofia Leśmiana. – In: Moje Odchylenia, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1956.

Sławiński 1971: Sławiński, J. Semantyka poetycka Leśmiana. – In: Studia o Leśmianie, red M. Głowiński, J. Sławiński. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1971.

Stone 1976: Stone, R. H. Bolesław Leśmian: The Poet and His Poetry. Berkley: University of California Press, 1976.

[1] In this case the translator has used an archaic English verb, not a neologism. This confirms the observation of the Polish scholar Żaneta Nalewajk-Turecka who claims that “when you read Leśmian’s poetry from today’s perspective it is easy to mistake the archaic forms for neologisms” (Nalewajk-Turecka 2018: Nalewajk-Turecka, Ż. Pytanie o uniwersalia. Leśmian w Europie i na świecie. – Textualia, 1 (52)/2018, 5-10), which is characteristic of the poet’s use of the Polish language (Editors’ note).

About the author

Francesca Fratangelo was born in 1993 in Poland but she grew up in Italy. She graduated in Padua in 2016 with a thesis on Russian, Polish and Italian proverbs and now she’s a MA student of Slavic Studies at University of Ca’Foscari, in Venice. She is writing a thesis on Leśmian’s poetry, focusing on translation difficulties to do with his unusual language.