On Translating Anna Piwkowska
Iza Wojciechowska is the recipient of a 2013 NYSCA grant, as nominated by the PEN/Heim Board, for her translation of Anna Piwkowska’s The Dye Girl. Read a few of Piwkowska’s selected poems here.
There is something to be said for mythology: for those ancient stories that provide a backbone for our understanding of the world, and for that familiarity we encounter when these stories become braided into our own lives. Anna Piwkowska’s poetry collections—and particularly the most recent, Farbiarka (The Dye Girl) and Lustrzanka (Camera)—are stunning explorations of mythologies. The contemporary Polish poet incorporates Greek, Roman, and pagan myths into her poems, but she also explores myths of love, death, family, and place in a way that captures the contemplative beauty of human existence.
I have always been fascinated by languages, and growing up bilingual allowed me to cultivate my interest in words and language from an early age. And from an early age, too, I was exposed to Piwkowska’s poetry because she is my mother’s sister. In a way, she was our family’s own mythical figure—a Poet—but I have always found her poems to be magical in their own right and to captivate me in ways that other poetry didn’t. Maybe it was because I recognized the little-known places she wrote about, or because I had a first-hand understanding of the lore that infused her work. Maybe because we had some sort of kindred, genetic understanding that made us both love the same things: sunlight in the garden, the dog in the park, windows on the sea, the rhythms of our family. Or maybe just because Piwkowska’s poems are lovely: they’re intimate and evoke a strong sense of place and of having been there before, even if one has not been to Crete or Odessa or Warsaw, even if one has not been a Greek sacrificial figure or had her heart broken on a trip to the Ukraine. Threads of melancholy and family dynamics are woven through the poems, threads of change and sensitivity. It is easy to identify with Piwkowska’s poetry, but it is also easy to become enthralled by the incantatory rhythms, to want to stay forever in her world of blooming flowers and first snows, of touching fingers and cups of tea.
I began translating Piwkowska’s poems in earnest when I enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University with literary translation as one of my concentrations. I looked at poetry and prose by several Polish writers, but Piwkowska’s poetry always stood out to me—and not just because she’s my aunt. Poland has an extraordinary literary legacy, and Piwkowska really does deserve a spot in the canon. Her work has been met with much acclaim in Poland, where she has won some of the country’s most prestigious literary awards. It is her particular attention to sound and her sensitivity to the lovely that make her poems worth noticing; her work is important because it tells us about ourselves. It points things out to us that we may not otherwise notice, it dwells on details that may be often overlooked. Her poetry blends the mythic with the very real, producing something otherworldly and yet instantly recognizable. She treads carefully and deliberately chooses images and words; what results are impeccable collections of poems that convey what it means to be human.