Leonard Kress

A Note on Translating Jan Kochanowski’s “Threnodies”

I FIRST BECAME interested in translating the work of Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584) a decade ago. I was studying, among other things, Polish literature with Professor Samuel Fiszman at Indiana University, and was involved in a desperate struggle to translate Pan Tadeusz, the 19th century Polish romantic epic of Adam Mickiewicz — a prodigious task to say the least, ten thousand rhymed couplets of Polish alexandrines. In order for me to understand Mickiewicz’s line, Fiszman suggested I would have to know what preceded it, which to him and most other students of Polish literature meant Jan Kochanowski. In fact, Czeslaw Milosz claims that Kochanowski’s verse was a “perfect ordering of language” that flowed “naturally. . .without any apparent effort;” a “pure breathing of Polish.”

But it wasn’t Kochanowski’s polonized versions of the Psalms of David, his verse-play The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, or his mock-epic Chess that interested me. Instead, it was his intensely personal poem-cycle of laments, Treny (or Threnodies), composed after the death of his two-and-a-half year old daughter Urszula, that seemed to me to be his most crucial work.

By the time he was forty, Kochanowski had given up his life as a roving student (having spent time in such renaissance centers of learning as Padua, Konigsberg, Paris and Marseille) and his life as a courtier (having risen to the position of secretary to King Zygmunt August), and had retired to his ancestral state in eastern Poland. It was there at Czarnolas (Blackwood), away from the intrigue of the court, that he dealt through poetry with the death of his small daughter.

These translations, culled from the nineteen laments which make up Kochanowski’s Treny, represent a multi-stage process too complicated for me to describe adequately, but one with the intention of producing something that might engage a contemporary reader of poetry in English. I began with the original Polish text, dictionaries, and literary histories, hoping to replicate or at least approximate Kochanowski’s rhyme schemes and stanzaic patterns, while remaining true to his imagery and tone. Following the various stages of translation (or is that grief I’m thinking of) delineated by so many translators before me, I produced what I now might term successful pseudo-historical imitation artifacts. However, I felt somewhat defeated or foiled. My insistence on a particular type of faithfulness to the original poems (the rhymed syllabic couplets standardized in Polish by Kochanowski) seemed to lead me in English toward a stiffly baroque sophistication found in John Dryden, writing more than a century after Kochanowski:

Why are we then so fond of mortal life,
Beset with dangers, and maintained with strife.

Clearly, this sort of dignified command and elegant control of language and couplet might be appropriate for a classical elegy, even a classical renaissance elegy — but certainly not for the intensely troubled and almost wailing grief of Kochanowski’s Treny. He is, after all, mourning the loss of his two-year-old, not a military leader or head of state. Rather, he employs the ancient death/wedding thematic coupling often found in Slavic folklore, a strategy more likely to be found in the works of a Romantic poet like Keats. Even a similar lament by a near contemporary, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), reveals itself to be working on a more controlled level, devoid of underworlds, grotesque and bathetic imagery, madness and peasant songs:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and thee I pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

And, besides all this, a poet/editor once asked me — what do you do with all those nightingales?

In the end, I seem to have decided, perhaps by default, on versions or adaptations or imitations of the originals. Most of what I present would, I’m sure, pass an interpreter’s scrutiny. However, I have introduced various stanzaic patterns not found in the original — terza rima, for one, which rarely occurs in Polish, even though the Renaissance in Poland was very Italian. Moreover, rhyming — and especially end-stop rhyming — in Polish is a relatively simple matter, since it is a highly inflected language with seven case endings, similar in this regard to Latin. But, since rhyme is always a tricky issue in English, I opted for less obtrusive ways of capturing the sound of the original. I have also cut some of the images that might seem stale to my contemporary readership (a few of those nightingales perhaps). But the most controversial changes may be that in a few places (surely not many), I have inserted biographical details and bits from other Kochanowski laments and poems (the ancient linden tree on his estate in “Threnody 6,” for example) and tinkered ever so slightly by adjusting the tone. In any case, I hope the resulting translations convey something of the “pure breathing” of Kochanowski’s 16th century poems, a breath both beautiful and tortured. —Perrysburg, Ohio, August 20, 1995