Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Brueghel's Two Monkeys, Part IV

Brueghel’s Two Monkeys

This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.

The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away–
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinking of his chain.

– Trans. Barańczak & Cavanagh (1993)
Barańczak and Cavanagh are probably the most prolific English translators of Szymborska's poetry. Before studying Szymborska on my own in the original Polish, I never had a problem with their versions. But now phrases like "chained to the floor" stick in my mind and sound all wrong and out of place. Why do you need to stick your own phrases into an already perfect poem, especially ones that make no sense? The monkeys are chained to the floor but they're sitting in the window?!?! I first read this poem almost 15 years ago, and it wasn't until last week that I looked up the Brueghel painting, but still that phrase rang false.

Also, the monkey's "mocking disdain" is more of a misinterpretation/mistranslation than the monkey-as-ape version from Rejak in 1978. Szymborska is known for her wit and irony, it's true. But she likes to have a good time. Her laughter is never mean-spirited but instead is playful and level-headedly optimistic (that is, not blindly optimistic). The trick is to accept the original "[he] listens ironically" as if that were purely logical and obvious, for how can one indeed listen ironically? But Szymborska insists it is something we can observe on the face of her monkey--that creature that best mimics the human creature. Is the test-taker aware of her/his own expression of irony that the monkey is mirroring? Who sees the irony of this scene? The reader/observer? The test-taker? The monkey? And yet the monkey is helping the nervous test-taker along every time she/he pauses. Would someone who listens with "mocking disdain" really care to help anyone in this situation? This double-mirroring (of both chains and expressions) is one of the truly brilliant moments in Szymborska's poetry. And there are so many more.

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