Friday, November 17, 2006

Brueghel's Two Monkeys, Part II

The Two Apes of Brueghel

This is how I dream my final examination:
two apes chained together are sitting at a window,
outside the window the sky is flying
and the sea is taking a bath.

I'’m passing an exam on the history of people.
I'’m stammering and floundering.

The ape staring at me listens ironically,
The other seems to be dozing–
but when there is a pause after a question
he prompts me
with a soft jangle of chains.

– Trans. Barbara Rejak (1978)
I first read this poem shortly after I began studying Polish in the early 1990s. It was the first poem by Szymborska I ever read. There is something about the comedy of the chained monkey helping the person get through the history exam--is it a reminder of our own intellectual and/or political chains?--that resonates still with me after nearly 15 years ... perhaps because I'll be working on my own comprehensive exams and subsequent oral defense of my dissertation in the next few years.

As if to further corroborate that all translation is first and foremost interpretation, Rejak's mistranslation of małpy as "apes" seems acceptable both for the year of Szymborska's original composition (1957) and Rejak's translation (1978). The two apes for Poland throughout the twentieth century were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In this scene they are blocking the view out the window of the motion and movement of sky freely fluttering and sea freely bathing itself.

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