Web Translation Projects/Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski in Translation

As the year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, one of the best-known Polish poets of the wartime period, I found it appropriate to focus my course project on the figure of this prominent Polish poet, who is, unfortunately, unknown beyond Poland. This project contains a shortened biography of the poet, his impact on the Polish culture, the characteristics of his poetry, and, finally, the comparison of three poems by Baczyński, two concerning the theme of war and one love poem, and their English translations.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński


Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was born on 22 January 1921 in Warsaw and died on 4 August 1944 in the Warsaw Uprising.[1]


Stanisław Baczyński

Baczyński came from a line of patriots who fought for Polish independence. His family had a significant impact on his later life and poetic choices.[2] His father, Stanisław Baczyński, was a literary historian, literary critic, publicist, and author.[3] The son of an insurgent from 1863[4], he sympathised with the socialist movement from his youth and fought under Józef Piłsudski. Stanisław Baczyński belonged to the progressive cultural left of those times and undoubtedly shaped his son ideologically, placing a strong emphasis on the patriotic education of young Krzysztof.[5] His mother, Stefania née Zieleńczyk, who came from an assimilated Jewish family[6], worked as a teacher in a private secondary school in Warsaw. She was also the author of fairy tales and short stories. Unlike her husband, she was a fervent Catholic who passed on to her son an excellent knowledge of the Bible.[7]

School years and first poemsEdit

Young Baczyński had no difficulties with his studies, though he did not apply himself to them particularly hard and preferred expressing his rebellion in satirical poems about his teachers.[8] The pieces circulated in copies among students. Baczyński, unsurprisingly, was also the editor of the humour column in the class newspaper. In 1935 he joined the semi-secret socialist youth organisation “Spartacus”[9], where he joined the Executive Committee as a school representative[10]. Under the pseudonym “Emil”, he co-edited the magazine Arrows, where he published his first poems. The hero of one of them, the poem “Rebellion”, was the leader of a slave uprising in ancient Rome, who, as Jerzy Święch wrote, was: “(...) the first in Baczyński's gallery of titanic heroes, a lonely man unreconciled to his fate, who bears on his shoulders a huge responsibility”[11]. These works were the poet's real début, unfortunately no copy of the magazine has survived. The following years 1937-1938 are the years of Baczyński's first surviving poetic attempts, which echo the works of of Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire.

World War IIEdit

In June 1939, he received his secondary school leaving certificate. Unfortunately, his father's death and the outbreak of war thwarted Baczyński's plans to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. Not much is known about Baczyński's life in the first year of the occupation, but it was undoubtedly a time of identifying his poetic path.[12]

On 1 December 1941, he met Barbara Drapczyńska while studying at the underground university. Both fell in love at first sight, which is proved by the fact that Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński asked for Barbara's hand only four days later. They were wed in June next year. It is said that they always appeared everywhere together.

In 1943, the poet began to study Polish philology at clandestine classes at the University of Warsaw. This same year he joined the Home Army. From July 1943 he was a soldier of "Zośka" Home Army battalion[13]. He took part in sabotage missions and derailing trains. He was also the head of the poetry section of the socio-literary monthly Droga (Road), published from December 1943 to April 1944.

The Generation of ColumbusesEdit

K. K. Baczyński (1940)

The term Generation of Columbuses generally refers to a generation of young Polish writers born around 1920, but it may also include all young people born around that time, for whom entering adulthood coincided with the beginning of World War II. The war was the experience that shaped their consciousness and identity to the greatest extent.

The first to be born in a free country after 123 years of partitions, they were brought up in very patriotic families. Many of them took an active part in the resistance movement against the occupying powers and fought in the Warsaw Uprising. The reality of war did not allow them to enjoy their youth, happiness or love, and instead forced them to fight and lay their lives in service of their country. The name for the generation comes from the title of Roman Bratny's book Kolumbowie. Rocznik 20. Between 1939 and 1945, their works were most often published under pseudonyms by underground publishing houses and distributed in secret.

Many representatives of the Generation of Columbuses perished on the battlefield or were imprisoned and killed. Those who managed to survive paved roads for development in Polish literature.[14] The name “Columbuses” proved apt in that after 1945 they had to rediscover a new world – impoverished and devastated by war atrocities and under the power of the Communists.

Other names of the Generation of Columbuses are: “the lost generation”[15], “the generation without future”, and “the generation of storms”.

The themes and motifs characteristic in their writing included[16]:

  • a sense of historical catastrophe, images of war
  • crisis and destruction of values
  • fall of human dignity and morality
  • struggle to survive in a world full of cruelty, ruthlessness, and death

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński is considered the most prominent representative of the Generation of Columbuses.


The poet died on the 4 August 1944, the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising on Teatralny Square in Blanka Palace.[17] Not long after Baczyński's death, his wife - Barbara, was hit by a shard of glass during a bombardment and died on the 1 September. She never knew what happened to her husband. According to Mrs. Drapczyńska her daughter was pregnant and was looking for her husband to share the happy news.[18]

Because there were no witnesses to Baczyński's death, it was uncertain for a long time whether he lived or died. It wasn't until Baczyński's mother, together with his mother-in-law, recognised his body after the exhumation of insurgents' mass graves in 1947 that Baczyński's death was officially confirmed. Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was buried at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. In the same year, an extensive selection of his poems was published.[19]

The grave of Krzysztof and Barbara in Warsaw

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński in Polish cultureEdit

Baczyński’s poetry is highly appreciated by the Polish people, being celebrated and taught in schools to new generations. Baczyński himself has grown into a legend, and a symbol, often referred to as the last of the Romantics[20], whose young life has been tragically shortened by war, but who represented what is considered best in the generation of young people of that time – love for one’s country, a fighting spirit, bravery, the capacity to love and bear the difficulties of life. Already in his lifetime, Baczyński enjoyed considerable recognition, especially from older writers[21] (among them Andrzejewski and Iwaszkiewicz). The post-war reception of his poetry was tightly linked to the biographical legend according to which Baczyński was a model representative of the Columbus generation. Despite a few critical voices, his poetry enjoys popularity among readers and the respect of literary scholars, and Baczyński himself is considered the most outstanding artist of his generation.

A Polish film based on Baczyński's life, titled simply Baczyński, had its release in 2013.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was chosen by Sejm (the Lower House) as the patron of the year 2021.[22] On 22 January, to celebrate the poet's life and his impact on Polish culture, Narodowe Centrum Kultury (the National Center for Culture) unveiled a mural dedicated to his memory.[23]

Outside of PolandEdit

Unfortunately, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński is largely unknown to the non-Polish reader. His poetry has been translated and published only once, in White Magic and Other Poems, a 2005 compilation of poems, containing about one-tenth of all of Baczyński’s poems translated by Bill Johnston.

One of the reasons why Baczyński’s poetry is so rarely translated may stem from the fact that he and his writing are very strongly associated with a specific generation of Polish people - the Generation of Columbuses. The translation, therefore, requires from the translator a certain level of knowledge about Polish history so as to adequately convey the meaning of the poems. Still, the effect they will have on the target reader will be different, as the non-Polish readers will have had different experiences. For example, the notion of regaining independence after more than a century of partitions, and the emotions and obligations connected with that, present in Baczyński's poetry, will have a significant meaning for the Polish reader, but not necessarily for the target reader of the target culture in which the partitions are a foreign concept.

Beyond historical context, Baczyński's poems, as all poetry, are extremely difficult to translate because of the linguistic limitations. Some words simply do not have the same connotations in English as they do in Polish, and other words may not even exist in the target language. The same may be said about syntax, as Baczyński often includes a reversed order of words, which is to serve a specific purpose. However, it may not always be possible to follow such patterns in English. Therefore, translators of poetry are, more often than not, faced with a dilemma whether to copy the author and risk not being well received or introducing some changes that they believe the target reader will appreciate. Therefore, it all depends on the translators' choices.


Despite his short life, Baczyński managed to leave behind several hundred poems, the most famous of which are, on the one hand, a testimony to the catastrophe of a generation marked by war[24], and on the other, a love confession to his beloved wife Barbara[25]. This rich oeuvre has prompted successive generations of readers to seek new interpretations of his poems. Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński also left behind many prose fragments and hundreds of works of art, proof of a talent whose development was interrupted by his untimely death. It was only thanks to the forethought of two women – the poet's mother Stefania Baczyńska and his mother-in-law Feliksa Drapczyńska – that it was possible to save all the poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. The family played a significant part in the post-war publications of the late artist's poems. Baczyński's mother treated these poems as a priceless keepsake. Before she died in 1953, she passed them on with the request that they be brought into full publication, so the memory of her son will live on. Mrs. Drapczyńska openly stated that those poems are her “grandchildren”[26] – the only living legacy that was left after the death of her son-in-law and later her daughter Barbara.

Frequent themes in Baczyński's poetry:

  • generational catastrophism expressed by the feeling of collective defeat and premature death
  • philosophical reflection on the past, present and future
  • references to Romantic authors, mainly Juliusz Słowacki and Cyprian Kamil Norwid
  • transience of life
  • sensitivity to the beauty of nature; contrast between war and nature
  • sadness and melancholy
  • sense of duty juxtaposed with the senselessness of death
  • dramatic choices between the fight for homeland and personal happiness
  • dehumanization and moral struggle of the entire Columbus generation
  • longing for lost childhood and innocence

Literary devices:

  • complex metaphors
  • rhetorical questions
  • building sentences on the principle of ellipsis
  • personification of the forces of nature
  • nature and war imagery blended together
  • symbolism of fire and water (common for the poets of the "apocalypse fulfilled"[27])
  • numerous symbols, keywords, combinations of motifs

Translations and analysisEdit

Professor Bill Johnston is an American translator of Polish literature. His translations of these and forty other Baczynski's poems were published in 2005 as a bilingual edition titled White Magic and Other Poems.[28]

Professor Barry Keane is a lecturer at the University of Warsaw and a recognized translator of Polish early literature.

Doctor Alex Kurczaba is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Language and Literature at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, where he teaches courses on Polish literature and culture.

Translations by professor Keane and doctor Kurczaba can be find at All Poetry web page.


Pokolenie Generation

transl. by Bill Johnston

        Wiatr drzewa spienia. Ziemia dojrzała.
        Kłosy brzuch ciężki w górę uniosą
        i tylko chmury - palcom czy włosom
        podobne - suną drapieżnie w mrok.
        Ziemia owoców pełna po brzegi
        kipi sytością jak wielka misa.
        Tylko ze świerków na polu zwisa
        Głowa obcięta strasząc jak krzyk.
        Kwiaty to krople miodu - tryskają
        ściśnięte ziemią, co tak nabrzmiała,
        pod tym jak korzeń skręcone ciała,
        żywcem wtłoczone pod ciemny strop.
        Ogromne nieba suną z warkotem.
        Ludzie w snach ciężkich jak w klatkach krzyczą.
        Usta ściśnięte mamy, twarz wilczą,
        czuwając w dzień, słuchając w noc.
        Pod ziemią drążą strumyki - słychać -
        krew tak nabiera w żyłach milczenia,
        ciągną korzenie krew, z liści pada
        rosa czerwona. I przestrzeń wzdycha.
        Nas nauczono. Nie ma litości.
        Po nocach śni się brat, który zginął,
        Któremu oczy żywcem wykłuto,
        Któremu kości kijem złamano;
        I drąży ciężko bolesne dłuto,
        Nadyma oczy jak bąble - krew.
        Nas nauczono. Nie ma sumienia.
        W jamach żyjemy strachem zaryci,
        w grozie drążymy mroczne miłości,
        Własne posągi - źli troglodyci.
        Nas nauczono. Nie ma miłości.
        Jakże nam jeszcze uciekać w mrok
        przed żaglem nozdrzy węszących nas,
        przed siecią wzdętą kijów i rąk,
        kiedy nie wrócą matki ni dzieci
        w pustego serca rozpruty strąk.
        Nas nauczono. Trzeba zapomnieć,
        Żeby nie umrzeć rojąc to wszystko.
        Wstajemy nocą. Ciemno jest, ślisko.
        Szukamy serca - bierzemy w rękę,
        nasłuchujemy: wygaśnie męka,
        ale zostanie kamień - tak - głaz.
        I tak staniemy na wozach, czołgach,
        na samolotach, na rumowisku,
        gdzie po nas wąż się ciszy przeczołga,
        gdzie zimny potop omyje nas,
        nie wiedząc: stoi czy płynie czas.
        Jak obce miasta z głębin kopane,
        popielejące ludzkie pokłady
        na wznak leżące, stojące wzwyż,
        nie wiedząc, czy my karty iliady
        rzeźbione ogniem w błyszczącym złocie,
        czy nam postawią, z litości chociaż,
        nad grobem krzyż.

   22 lipiec, 1943
        The wind whips the trees to foam. The earth
        has matured. Corn-spikes raise heavy bellies
        And only the clouds, rapaciously-
        like fingers or hairs-cross into the darkness.
        The earth is brimming with fruits, and boils
        like a giant bowl in plenitude.
        Yet from the spruces standing outside
        hangs a severed head that haunts like a cry.
        The flowers are drops of honey that burst
        compressed by the swollen earth; underground,
        bodies twisted like roots are crammed
        alive beneath an unlit vault.
        Huge skies drone overhead. People
        call out in oppressive dreams like cages.
        We have pursed lips and wolflike faces,
        watching by day and listening by night.
        Underground, streams are heard carving their way,
        while blood gathers in the veins of silence;
        the roots draw up blood, and from the leaves
        a red dew falls. And the distances sigh.
        We learned our lesson. There is no mercy.
        By night come dreams of the brother who died,
        his eyes put out while he still was living,
        beaten until his bones were all broken,
        deep and painful the chisel's carving,
        his eyes bulging like bubbles with blood.
        We learned our lesson. There is no conscience.
        buried by fear, we live in pits;
        in terror we carve out our dark loves,
        statues of ourselves-evil troglodytes.
        We learned our lesson. There is no love.
        How could we then escape into darkness
        from the sail of the nostrils sniffing us out,
        from the staves and hands in their spreading net,
        when the mothers and children would never come back
        to the hollowed out pod of an empty heart.
        We learned our lesson. One must forget,
        so as not to die imagining it all.
        We rise in the dark and slippery night.
        We look for the heart, take hold of it, strain
        our ears: the pain will be extinguished,
        But stone-yes, a rock-will still remain.
        And so we stand on tanks and on trucks,
        on aeroplanes and in the rubble,
        where the serpent of silence will crawl over us,
        where the ice-cold torrent will cleanse us, not knowing
        if time is standing still or flowing.
        Like foreign cities dug from the depths,
        human strata turning to ashes
        lying on their backs or standing straight,
        not knowing whether we are the pages
        of a fire sculpted Iliad in shimmering gold,
        whether, if only from pity, they, build
        a cross over our grave.

   July 22, 1943 

The reading of the original poem in Polish can be found here. You may also enjoy the poem as a song here.

Analysis and comparison:

The poem consists of ten stanzas with a differing number of lines. It has an irregular structure. The lyrical subject reveals his presence only in the last few stanzas - the first part of the poem is a description of idyllic at first glance, but in actuality, dreadful landscape destroyed by war and its cruelty. The means of artistic expression used in the poem are mainly aimed at describing the war-torn landscape. The poem is rich in metaphors (“W jamach żyjemy strachem zaryci”), epithets (“bolesne dłuto”) and examples of vivid imagery (“kłosy brzuch ciężki w górę unoszą”).

At first glance, one can notice that the lines in the translated poem are significantly longer and that the dashes, frequent in the original, were, to an extent, eliminated in the translation. Moreover, when reading the poem, one can observe that in most instances, Baczyński’s use of commas and colons were also disregarded, and some were added in lines where there were none in the original.

The translation introduces changes to the poem in the form of rearranged order of words within individual lines. In the poem, Baczyński often uses grammatically reversed structures in Polish to put emphasis on certain words and underline the pessimism and the tragedy of the generation of young soldiers, but this is not the case in the English translation. For instance, in the fourth stanza, the line “Ludzie w snach ciężkich jak w klatkach krzyczą” has been translated into “People call out in oppressive dreams like cages”, creating an awkward and ambiguous structure in English, which implies that people are cages. In addition, it is not as full of emotion as the original line. A similar problem occurs in the sixth stanza:

Po nocach śni się brat, który zginął,

Któremu oczy żywcem wykłuto,

Któremu kości kijem złamano;

Which was translated as:

By night come dreams of the brother who died,

his eyes put out while he still was living,

beaten until his bones were all broken,

Although in this example, the order of words is largely the same as in the original, the emotional tone of the words is different. The translation does not capture the raw emotion present in Baczyński’s words. Perhaps due to the impossibility of certain structures in English and out of the desire for more poetic vocabulary, Johnston eliminates the word “kijem” (with a thick stick) and introduces the word “beaten”, therefore the non-Polish reader has a slightly different connotation; the person was beaten with fists, and not, as in Baczyński’s original, bashed with a stick.

The composition of the second part of the poem, starting with the fifth stanza, is largely determined by anaphora – “nas nauczono”, representing the voice of a generation that, despite its young age, had to witness the horror of war and fight for the country. Although the anaphora is present in the translation – “we learned our lesson”, its emotional impact is different. In the original, the anaphora “nas nauczono” conveys the sense that terrible lessons the people had to learn in the war were forced upon them, whereas the English translation is more general.

"Elegia o ... [chłopcu polskim]"Edit

Elegia o ... [chłopcu polskim] Elegy

transl. by Bill Johnston

Elegy For A Polish Boy

transl. by Berry Keane

 Oddzielili cię, syneczku, od snów, co jak motyl drżą,
 Haftowali ci, syneczku, smutne oczy rudą krwią,
 Malowali krajobrazy w żółte ściegi pożóg,
 Wyszywali wisielcami drzew płynące morze.
 Wyuczyli cię, syneczku, ziemi twej na pamięć,
 Gdyś jej ścieżki powycinał żelaznymi łzami,
 Odchowali cię w ciemności, odkarmili bochnem trwóg,
 Przemierzałeś po omacku najwstydliwsze z ludzkich dróg.
 I wyszedłeś, jasny synku, z czarną bronią w noc,
 I poczułeś, jak się jeży w dźwięku minut - zło.
 Zanim padłeś, jeszcze ziemię przeżegnałeś ręką.
 Czy to była kula, synku, czy to serce pękło?
 20 marzec, 1943 
 They kept you, little son, from dreams like trembling butterflies,
 they wove you, little son, in dark red blood two mournful eyes,
 they painted landscapes with the yellow stitch of conflagrations,
 they decorated all with hangmen's trees the flowing oceans.
 They taught you, little son, to know by heart your land of birth
 as you were carving out with tears of iron its many paths.
 They reared you in the darkness and fed you on terror's bread;
 you traveled gropingly that shamefulest of human roads.
 And then you left, my lovely son, with your black gun at midnight,
 and felt the evil prickling in the sound of each new minute.
 Before you fell, over the land you raised your hand in blessing.
 Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?
   March 20, 1943 
  They've taken you, my son, from your dreams and like a butterfly
  they've embroidered you, my son. Your sad eyes bleed ore.
  They painted landscapes, yellow-stitched, in horror and gore,
  they adorned a hanged man like a tree, the sea's waves to ply.
  They taught you, my son, your land and its ways by heart
  and by its footpaths you sob iron shards for tears.
  They tuned you in darkness, fed you in loaves of terror.
  You tread, groping through to dark, the road of fear.
  And you ascended at night, my golden son, with a black gun
  you perceived in the passing of a minute-bristling evil's thirst.
  Before you fell, you hailed the earth with your hand,
  did it soften your fall, my sweet child, did the heart burst?
   no date

Please enjoy the reading of the original poem in Polish by Gabriela Oberek:

Another very moving reading by a Polish actress - Ewa Wencel - can be found here. You may also enjoy the poem as a song here.

Analysis and comparison:

“Elegia” is probably the most famous poem by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. As far as the genre is concerned, the work is, in accordance with the title, an elegy. The work contains three stanzas, each of which has four lines.  The work contains both perfect rhymes (trwóg - dróg), as well as slant rhymes based on similarities of sound at word endings (ręką - pękło). The use of slant rhymes is a reference to ancient Greek poetry, in which perfect rhyme was rare and characteristic of more humorous works. Some rhymes appear in the translations by Johnston (butterflies-eyes) and Kurczaba (ore-gore), but they are not in the same place as in the original and at times seem more accidental than deliberate.

In this poem, Baczyński presented the fate of an entire wartime generation that came of age during the war. The lyrical subject of the poem is a mother who laments the loss of her son. She directs her touching words to the addressee - the fallen son, expressing the pain and sorrow that come with losing a child who fought in World War II. To express her love and affection, she uses diminutive forms from the word “syn” (son) – “synku” and, more often, “syneczku” (the latter being even more affectionate) and epithet “jasny” (light/fair/bright) which together with the black gun creates a complex metaphor, juxtaposing an innocent young boy with the sinister gun. In translation, the diminutives are less expressive, which is typical, as English has fewer ways of creating diminutives than Polish. Johnston chooses to use “little son” for all the diminutives used in the poem, which does not come across as strongly as in the original. Kurczaba decided to abandon diminutives altogether and changes them for “my son” or even just “son”, which, in my opinion, loses the meaning conveyed by Baczyński - that the son who died was more a child than a man. It is also less emotion-packed than Baczyński’s “syneczku”. Only in the last stanza is the diminutive “synku” translated as “my sweet child”, underlining the loving relationship between mother and son. When translating “jasny”, Kurczaba once again leaves the original and introduces a different adjective – “golden”, which, in a way, still expresses the original thought but making the juxtaposition of light and dark less transparent. Johnston also abandons the stylistic effect and introduces a different adjective – “lovely”.

To compare some of the differences, I would like to focus on the first stanza in particular:

Oddzielili cię, syneczku, od snów, co jak motyl drżą,

Haftowali ci, syneczku, smutne oczy rudą krwią,

Malowali krajobrazy w żółte ściegi pożóg,

Wyszywali wisielcami drzew płynące morze.

translated as:

They kept you, little son, from dreams like trembling butterflies,

they wove you, little son, in dark red blood two mournful eyes,

they painted landscapes with the yellow stitch of conflagrations,

they decorated all with hangmen's trees the flowing oceans. (Johnston)


They've taken you, my son, from your dreams and like a butterfly

 they've embroidered you, my son. Your sad eyes bleed ore.

 They painted landscapes, yellow-stitched, in horror and gore,

 they adorned a hanged man like a tree, the sea's waves to ply. (Kurczaba)

In translating “Elegia”, both Johnston and Kurczaba introduce some changes to the original, which can be seen in the first stanza. Both translations fall short of the original, but whereas Johnston largely follows literal translation, Kurczaba significantly moves away from the original meaning. In the second line, Johnston inverts the word order of the original (“in dark red blood two mournful eyes”) and, in the fourth line, he substitutes sea (“morze”) with “oceans”.

Kurczaba's version contains more serious problems. First of which is the destruction of the poem structure as Kurczaba disregards the original punctuation pattern, omitting commas and introducing full stops where there were none, which ruins the rhythm of the poem. The second problem is the inaccurate tense; instead of using the past tense throughout the stanza, Kurczaba mixes past tense with present perfect tense, making for a confusing whole. The third problem is seen in the first and second lines as Kurczaba completely reshapes Baczyński's simile – “od snów, co jak motyl drżą,” (from dreams that tremble like butterflies) into “from your dreams and like a butterfly/they've embroidered you, my son”. It misleads the English speakers and does not allow them to experience the real Baczyński.

The fourth line proved incredibly problematic for both translators. In my very literal translation, the line goes: They sewed with hangmen's bodies the flowing sea of trees. The verb “wyszywali” (they sew) is changed by Johnston into “decorated” and is then followed by a confusing structure that introduces elements that are not in the original (hangmen's trees”). Kurczaba's translation is no better. Like Johnston, he misunderstood the Polish original and changed it even more significantly. Kurczaba changes the plural “wisielcami” (hangmen) into a singular form “hanged man” and adds a nonsensical simile “adorned a hanged man like a tree”. Both translations, or rather mistranslations, demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Polish language.

In conclusion, I would choose neither translation as the better one because, in my opinion, both fall short of Baczyński's “Elegia”, not allowing readers to experience the genius Baczyński.


Erotyk Love poem

transl. by Bill Johnston


transl. by Alex Kurczaba

W potoku włosów twoich, w rzece ust,
kniei jak wieczór - ciemnej
wołanie nadaremne,
daremny plusk.
Jeszcze w mroku owinę, tak jeszcze różą nocy
i minie świat gałązką, strzępem lub gestem,
potem niemo się stoczy,
smugą przejdzie przez oczy
i powiem: nie będąc - jestem.
Jeszcze tak w ciebie płynąc, niosąc cię tak odbitą
W źrenicach lub u powiek zawisłą jak łzę,
Usłyszę w tobie morze delfinem srebrnym ryte,
W muszli twojego ciała szumiące snem.
Albo w gaju, gdzie jesteś
brzozą, białym powietrzem
i mlekiem dnia,
barbarzyńcą ogromnym,
tysiąc wieków dźwigając
trysnę szumem bugaju
w gałęziach twoich - ptak.
Jeden dzień - a na tęsknotę - wiek,
Jeden gest - a już orkanów pochód,
Jeden krok - a otoś tylko jest
W każdy czas - duch czekający w prochu
Mojej najdroższej Basi - Krzysztof
   2 luty 1942 
In your hair's torrent, your mouth's river, in
the forest dark as evening
a vain summoning,
a plash in vain.
I'll enwrap yet in dusk, in night's rose-flower
and as branch, scrap, or gesture, the world will turn,
then it will mutely stagger,
pass through the eyes like a blur
and I'll say: not being-I am.
Flowing into you still, and bearing your reflection
in pupils, or like a tear from eyelids hanging,
I'll hear in you silver seas etched by a dolphin,
like sleep inside the shell of your body ringing.
Or in a grove, where you are
a birch tree, pure white air
and the milk of daylight,
a huge barbarian,
bearing a thousand centuries
I'll burst with the copse's noise
into your branches, birdlike.
one day-and a whole age in which to long,
one gesture-and endless storms at once come crashing,
one step-and here you are, and you alone
each time-a spirit waiting in the ashes.
To my darling Basia-Krzysztof
   February 2, 1942 
In the torrent of your hair,
the river of your mouth,
in the forest dim as dusk,
cries are futile
idle the splash.
I'll wrap up even in darkness, in twilight crimson indeed
and the world will go by with a twig, a shred or a gesture;
then silence will tumble
pass the eyes in a streak
and I'll say: not being I am.
Thus flowing in you, your print
in my eyes or hung like a tear on my lids,
I'll hear in you the sea with a dolphin silver-engraved,
in the shell of your body which roars in sleep.
Or in a grove where you are
a birch, white air
and milk of day,
giant barbarian
heaving a thousand ages,
I'll burst through the rustle of the copse
in your boughs - a bird.
One day - yet while yearning - an aeon,
one gesture - yet already the hurricanes march,
one step - yet here you are
forever - spirit waiting in dust.
(no dedication)
(no date)

Please enjoy the reading of the original poem in Polish by Adrian Wiśniewski:

Analysis and comparison:

As Levine (1978) writes in her article, Baczyński’s love poetry, in comparison with his other poems, is extremely gentle, as he “makes frequent use of images which are pure, transparent, and fluid in order to blend erotic and spiritul love” [29]. His wife – Barbara – to which he dedicates his love poetry, is always enveloped in delicate “images of light and graceful movement: moonlight, snow, waterfalls, mirrors. She is a crystal vessel, a birch tree, a white wind whose purity is redemptive for the man who loves her.”[30]. It is no different in the poem above.

Although the original title is Erotyk, Johnston chose to translate it as “Love poem”, which puts additional emphasis on the spiritual sphere of love in the poem.

As far as stylistic devices are concerned, Baczyński is very fond of metaphors. In the poem, the reader may also notice the various rhyme types and patterns. In the poem, Baczyński uses the perfect enclosed rhyme in the second stanza (gestem - jestem, oczy - stoczy), as well as slant rhyme. In the first stanza there are enclosed rhymes (ust - plusk, ciemnej - daremne), and cross-rhymes in the second (odbitą-ryte, łzę-snem). Unfortunately, in both translations, the rhymes are lost. What is interesting, Johnston, in the first stanza, chooses to use the -s genitive (the mouth’s river), whereas Kurczaba prefers the “of” genitive (the river of your mouth). Moreover, both translators tend to modify the original structure of the poem by either making the lines longer (Johnston) or dividing them into shorter ones (Kurczaba).

Although the rhymes could not be preserved, both Johnston and Kurczaba provide rather close translations of the poem. Yet, at times, both tend to introduce some changes. For example, in Baczyński's original, the fragment of the first line of the second stanza, “tak jeszcze różą nocy” is closely translated by Johnston as “in night's rose-flower”, whereas, in Kurczaba’s translation, we read “in twilight crimson indeed”. However, although Johnston sometimes tends to remain very close to the original in terms of lexicon, he occasionally introduces some additions. For example, in the second line of the third stanza, “białym powietrzem”(white air), translated literally in Kurczaba’s, is modified in Johnston’s to be “pure white air”. Johnston also makes changes in the structure of the lines by inverting the order of elements. For example, the third line in the second stanza, “i minie świat gałązką,strzępem lub gestem”, has reversed order: “and as branch, scrap, or gesture, the world will turn”. Kurczaba chooses, in this case, to follow the original pattern: “and the world will go by with a twig, a shred or a gesture”. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the complex metaphor in the last lines of the second stanza:

Usłyszę w tobie morze delfinem srebrnym ryte,
W muszli twojego ciała szumiące snem.

Which is translated as:

I'll hear in you silver seas etched by a dolphin,
like sleep inside the shell of your body ringing. (Johnston)


I'll hear in you the sea with a dolphin silver-engraved,
in the shell of your body which roars in sleep. (Kurczaba)

Johnston’s translation significantly changes the original metaphor. Firstly, he once again reverses the word order in both lines, creating an unnecessary emphasis on the word ‘dolphin’ and creating a confusing structure in the second line. He also mistranslates the ‘sea’ to be ‘silver’ instead of the dolphin.  Kurczaba retains Baczyński’s word order, and although his rendering is also not perfect (the first line does leave room for some ambiguity), however, personally, I prefer it to Johnston’s translation.

Concluding, in my personal opinion, both translators managed to render in their translations the atmosphere of the original poem, as well as its balance between pure, delicate love and sensuality and desire. Yet if I had to pick my favourite out of the two, I would choose Kurczaba’s translation.


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