Empty spaces and a rotten fruit

I believe it’s high time I came back to something translation-related. To tell the truth, lately I’ve been working on different poems — translating them into English, so I can gain some experience and further improve my abilities. That’s why I decided to make an entry dedicated to analysis of a translation of mine. Poetry is a really troublesome thing, especially when it comes to translating into a foreign language, so this might be an interesting experience! 

Focusing on small free verse poems seems a fine solution, as there are no rhymes to take care of. Well, it might be reasonable at first, although when you think about that it doesn’t make everything easier. The most important thing for me is to fully understand and ‘feel’ the poem, as we are translating not words or phrases but images, emotions and concepts. These words must be in unison, must work together to create a coherent piece of an art. While I do realise that not many of you will understand this text as it’s written in Polish, I still insist that you have a look at it, just to get the basic idea of the poem’s structure, meanwhile I’ll do my best to explain the basic concept. This verse written by Tomasz Jastrun is titled Puste miejsca, the meaning of which I will explain later.

Za długo trzymaliśmy się za ręce

I poranione są nasze dłonie

Zbyt wiele było słów martwych

I już nie mamy sobie nic do powiedzenia


Zamiast kwiatów rosną w naszych doniczkach

Puste miejsca o dużych liściach

Gdy pada na nie promień słońca

Prześwitują żyły i powieki


A jednak za krótko tuliliśmy się do siebie

Za mało było szeptów i krzyków

Za mało w nas ciepła dla naszych roślin

Które pną się na przekór niebytom


 I skąd wokół tyle krwi zabitych malin

Tu gdzie nikt niczego nie zrywał

Because this poetry does not have any rhymes in it, we would classify it as a free verse. Regarding the structure, it is rather schematic, as we’ve got three quatrains with a couplet at the end. An anaphora in the 3rd stanza is also important and we should try to transfer it. Regarding the language, it’s rather simple and does not use overly sophisticated metaphors. It’s rather subtle and emotional — traits we might want to include in the translation. Last but not least, the content and the atmosphere: there is definitely emptiness, grief over falling out, over the fact that a relationship has ended. I believe this poem could have been described as ‘bittersweet’.

Anyway, now let’s move on to my translation, so you can finally read it on your own and understand more than from my vague explanations.

We’ve been holding our hands far too long

Our palms are hurting and bleeding

There were far too many empty words

And so we have nothing else to add


Instead of flowers in our pots

We are growing there empty spaces

In the sunlight all of their

Veins and arteries become transparent


And yet we would cuddle too rarely

Not enough of whispers and screams

Not enough of warmth inside us for our plants

Growing upwards against all odds


And why is there so much blood of a rotten fruit

Which has never been harvested before

As you can notice, the structure is more or less the same, there are no rhymes and there is even an anaphora in the 3rd stanza. But what about the content? What changed and what stays the same? Let’s find out!

In the first stanza I used the adverb far twice, which is supposed to emphasise the emotional load carried by the persona. Such thing does not occur in the original version, though, so why did I do that? I guess I simply wanted to make it more emotional, to make these words sound stronger and firmer. If we were to translate the original without changing the meaning, we would get simple “too long, too many” which might have sounded too plain. Another interesting thing is the word “dłonie”, which apparently corresponds to English “hands” and “palms”. In the Polish writing, repeating words is considered to be a bad habit (it’s like you couldn’t come up with any synonym) and because I’m not too knowledgeable of the stylistics of English, I decided not to choose “hands” again. I thought we didn’t have a (separate) word to describe “the part of the inner surface of the hand that extends from the wrist to the bases of the fingers.” (via: Dictionary.com, thanks!) but, to my surprise, it seems that “dłonie” can mean both the inner surface of the hand and its dorsum. It might seem irrelevant, however, it is important to realise all these minor details, tiny differences between two languages (or even intricacies of a one), as it can result in subtle changes in the meaning.

But moving on with the analysis, let’s have a look at the next phrase, i.e. “empty words” (pol. puste słowa). The meaning in the original version is slightly different as there are “dead words” (pol. martwe słowa). More than that, in Polish it is a postpositive adjective [słów (G pl n) martwych (G pl adj)], i.e. an adjective following the word. I’d say it’s somewhat significant, since the Polish language has a less restrictive word order, therefore both versions sound fine, meanwhile in English “words empty” definitely seems wrong. But it doesn’t explain why I changed the adjective, does it? In my humble opinion, “empty words” looks better, while keeping the same connotations of broken promises, lies and bluffs. On the other hand, “dead” may sound very serious and may emphasise how dull and fake these words would be. I believe it’s all up to you to decide which one fits better.

Yawning_cat Hang on there, we are halfway through!

Now, when we’re done discussing the lexical part of the 1st stanza, we can finally dwell on the grammar differences — a topic I find particularly fascinating. To begin with, the Polish language has only 3 tenses and 2 aspects as opposed to English 3 tenses (or 4, if we want to count in the future-in-the-past tense) and 4 aspects. The aspects play a crucial role here, because for us it can be difficult to get a grasp of these subtleties occurring in (and between) these aspects. In the first line of the first stanza I have used Present Perfect Progressive to indicate an (long) action that has ended just now or not so long ago and has an impact on the present. Or at least that’s what I was being told by various books concerning the English grammar. I’m afraid that a native speaker will always be better in deciphering all these slight changes in the meaning. To make it feel like something recent, fresh it was my intention, but did I truly manage to convey the meaning I had thought of?

In Polish, we are using different prefixes and suffixes to describe an action (un)done — in some cases we can even give a sense of repetitiveness to it [kopał (he was digging/kicking), wykopał (he dug/kicked), wykopywał (he would dig/kick repeatedly)], but here it’s not going to work; so how can I explain what the original version is supposed to mean? In the aforementioned example I used PPP, while in Polish version the action is described as continuous in the past (we were holding) with no link to the present. Only the conjunction “i” (eng. and) in the second line serves as a link between these two tenses. As you can notice, in the second line the Present Progressive is used to indicate an ongoing action in either the moment of speaking, or the current period of time (if I can call it that way). This (hopefully) helped me with stressing how important is the state of being here and now. In this case “bleeding” and “hurting” might refer to performing an action (that’s what I think at least), while the Polish term “poranione” (which can, funnily, be perceived as either passive adjectival participle of ranićto hurt, or a verbal adjective deriving from the same verb OR a denominal adjective deriving from ranaa wound) is more of an adjective, since it clearly refers to the trait, the state of an object. While it doesn’t make a huge difference in understanding these two texts, I’d say it’s still noteworthy. If it doesn’t tell much about the languages then at least it tells something about me and how my native tongue influences the English translation.

KittyApparently there are some who do not love poetry…

In case you haven’t already fallen asleep, we can finally start analysing the next stanza. I believe I will skip the grammar part, because I’d rather avoid writing yet another page about differences between tenses in English and Polish. Let’s focus on the vocabulary and decipher the title of the poem, shall we?

With no context given, the phrase “puste miejsca” (which translates roughly to “empty places”) definitely makes sense, as it conjures up an image of few deserted place with no life, no people or animals nearby, only a dreadful silence remaining. But here we do have a context, rather metaphorical one. The original speaks of “empty spaces with big leaves” growing in our pots, instead of flowers — if you cut out these big leaves it is more or less what we have in the translation. But what is that supposed to mean? I believe the intention of the author was to show how the persona suffers after the breakup, how his/her apartment looks empty, like there’s someone missing. These empty places are growing and growing, slowly taking over our life, making us think with grief about the past; these are not plants but tumours. And yet, for some reason I decided to turn “places” into “spaces”. Why? Once again, I felt that one of them looks better while still keeping the meaning. Empty spaces remind me of an endless area like a barren desert or a vast sea, an ocean even. Maybe due to these connotations I found it more appropriate for this metaphor? But what do YOU think about it? Which version sounds better to you? Don’t be afraid to leave a comment bellow, I’m curious about how native-speakers understand and perceive such matters.

To finish the 2nd stanza, let’s have a look at its last line, because there are few modifications as well. In my interpretation we have veins (żyły) and arteries (tętnice) which become transparent (przejrzysty, przezroczysty), while the original speaks of veins and eyelids (powieki), which don’t become transparent but instead have the light shine through them (prześwitują). Veins and arteries get along with each other pretty well, this combination seems better and more natural than the first one. On the other hand, veins and eyelids might relate to physical (veins = blood) and mental (eyelids = dreams = mind) aspects of human life. God, I do hope it’s not too far-fetched.

Phew, just two more verses left, we can do it! Now, a few more words regarding the grammar differences. To my surprise, on my first year of studying at the university I discovered that ‘would’ can be a synonym to ‘used to, i.e. can describe a past habitual action which is not habitual anymore. In Polish language, we use certain prefixes and suffixes to indicate a past action that would be repeated (remember the example with wykopywał 20 pages before?) or certain phrases, like “miał w zwyczaju” ( “he was accustomed to” I guess), because our modal verbs have to do nothing with repetitiveness. Surprisingly (well, not really) I slightly twisted the original message once again, since the Polish version doesn’t really mention a habit but rather a one continuous action. “Tuliliśmy się” means “we were cuddling” and “za krótko” means “too short, not long enough”. I hope you agree that it isn’t too emphatic. Turning it into a habitual action would make the image stronger, show that this couple would spend days together, embraced and yet it wasn’t enough. When you combine it with the latter lines, it actually depicts a sad relationship with two people unable to listen to each other and substituting the real caress with a simple hug, fake corporeality. Yes, a habitual action fits better here.

Then, regarding the last line of the 3rd stanza, I described these plants as “growing upwards against all odds”, thinking that these two people might still love each other in some way. The original version, however, is more metaphorical. In Polish version, our plants “pną się na przekór niebytom” which might be roughly translated as “they ramble against/in spite of nothingness”. Deciphering it and coming up with a good English equivalent wasn’t easy, as one could interpret it in various ways. Ultimately, I chose the idiom “against all odds” but I’m afraid it might not be the best option out there.

Sleeping_cat I do hope it is not how you all look right now.

And then, at last, the final couplet! There is nothing to be discussed, except for one or two things. In my translation, we have a fruit, that is, an unidentified fruit. In the original version, author speaks of raspberries (maliny) which are not rotten (zgniły) but dead (martwy). Once again, it’s the matter of emphasis but also of logical consequences. In the last line ever, we are told that this fruit hasn’t been harvested before, therefore it turned rotten! The original asks us simply why there is some much blood here, where nothing has been harvested before — so as you can see the meaning is more or less the same. Overall, I guess that rotten fruit is as suggestive as the dead raspberries are.

Okay, now you can wake up, as that’s all when it comes to the analysis. Now, we only need to sum everything up. To conclude, I think that my translation is nothing more but fine. It’s definitely not the best translation out there, as it can surely be improved by more experienced translators, however it’s not that bad either. Yes, I changed some words or phrases slightly changing the meaning but I think that was necessary. Translating a poem is a difficult task and I’m inclined to believe that I’m allowed to give something from myself, add or remove some words to slightly alter the image conjured up by the original author. I realise you cannot compare my version the Polish one but if you find anything interesting, if you have any questions or remarks regarding my vocabulary and/or grammar, I’ll be very happy to hear from you! I’m very curious about how native-speakers interpret this poem.

Thank you very much for reading this! I hope this entry was enjoyable in some way. See you next time!



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