Translating Zbigniew Herbert

Yes, a few of us here at 3QD deeply love Zbigniew Herbert. In the NYT:

[F]or most of us, discovering “the Poland that is real” means reading works translated from Polish. The most significant such translation this year — possibly in many years — is Zbigniew Herbert’s “Collected Poems, 1956-1998” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $34.95), translated by Alissa Valles, which was published in February to (almost) universal acclaim. The book is significant for two reasons. First, Herbert himself is significant — like Frost and Auden, he’s a poet whose failure to win the Nobel Prize says more about the prize committee than about the writer. Second, his poetry is relatively difficult to find. Although most of Herbert’s collections have been translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, many of those books are now out of print. For the casual reader, then, this “Collected Poems” is the likeliest path to this poet’s achievement.

That achievement is well worth the journey. Along with Tadeusz Rozewicz, Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz, Herbert is one of the principal figures in postwar Polish poetry — and by extension, in European letters generally. Born in 1924, he was active in the Polish resistance during the German occupation, then became an admirably uncooperative citizen of the subsequent Soviet puppet state. (According to a recent article in Süddeutsche Zeitung, whenever Herbert was asked by the secret police to write up reports on foreign trips, he would fill them “with interpretations of the poems of the Nobel Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz … as well as long-winded cultural-philosophical observations.”)