TRANSLATING "PEBBLE" WITH CZESLAW MILOSZ

PEBBLE

the pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

---Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Herbert's poem "Pebble" (Kamyk) is rightly one of his best known in translation. It was also one of the easiest Herbert poems for Milosz and me to translate, because of its matter-of-fact lucid exposition of a trope which, for the most part, is not dependent on subtleties of language. In essence it is an intellectual presentation of what we may call an apathetic (in the Stoic sense of emotionless) fallacy, warning us about the falsity of pathetic fallacies. His emphasis on what has been called "the thingness of things" reminds us of the work of earlier objectivist poets, notably Rilke, Williams, and Ponge.

"Pebble"'s astringent anti-romanticism can be read as a rebuttal to Milosz's early poem 'Love':

...whoever sees that way [with love] heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills --
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend....
He doesn't serve the best who understands.

(The sense of a dialogue between poets becomes even stronger when we read the later "Conversation With a Stone" by Wislawa Szymborska: "I knock at the stone's front door./ "It's only me, let me come in."/ "I don't have a door," says the stone.")

Straightforward though the poem may be, it was one of the very few Herbert poems which, precisely because of its tight austerity, gave rise to two irresoluble disagreements between Milosz and myself as to how to translate it. I failed forty years ago to persuade Milosz to accept these two changes. At the time I was filled with awe and gratitude for the exciting and educational experience of translating with him, so I deferred. Nevertheless my two suggested alternatives have since continued to haunt me. How important these nuanced differences are, the reader can judge.

In the first couplet, "kamyk jest stworzeniem/ doskonalym," there is, as is normal in Polish, no article, either definite or indefinite. English requires one, unless you cheat and use a plural -- "pebbles" -- which would not work well with what follows, especially the penultimate stanza. I wanted very much to start off in a low key, "a pebble/ is a perfect creature." Milosz, I'm not sure why, insisted on 'the pebble/ is a perfect creature,' establishing a tone which I considered unsuitably elevated, declamatory and didactic. (A definite article is available in Polish, but Herbert chose not to use it, which is a further reason to think of 'a pebble' as the default translation.)

A more serious disagreement arose over the last stanza. Milosz insisted on translating the last two lines as "to the end they will look at us/ with a calm and very clear eye." I have always believed that we should have followed Herbert's carefully selected word order in Polish (okiem spokojnym bardzo jasnym), which is "with an eye calm and very clear." In general we agreed that it was important to respect Herbert's very precise choice of word order; but here I think that Milosz followed his own personal preference for a continuous vernacular style, over the slightly heightened resonance of Herbert's final word "clear."

I still disagree with this choice. I find it jarring, as well as metrically awkward, to come down heavily at the end on the false metaphor 'eye;' I believe that Herbert intended the line to proceed from that small metaphor outwards, to the open-ended clarity that characterizes not just the word but the entire poem.

To this day my admiration of Milosz is one which still generates in me the desire to dispute with him. As to which is the better version of 'Pebble,' I will let the reader decide.

PEBBLE

a pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

---Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with an eye calm and very clear