May 1939

Translating a Heartbreaking Poem

Eve Bigaj
Eve Bigaj
Jan 28 · 9 min read
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Zuzanna Ginczanka. (All images public domain.)

May 1939. These two words say it all: the spring before the war, the calm before the storm. They form the title of a poem written by the brilliant and ill-fated Zuzanna Ginczanka when she was only 22 years old.

May is the month of love — especially when you’re 22. But history doesn’t care about the seasons, and troubling rumors from across the German border disturbed the poet’s romantic reveries. Throughout the piece, three forces — spring, love, and war — are locked in a perfectly balanced dance. For Ginczanka, it is a dance of uncertainty. For us, it is a dance of death.

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I’d like to tell you how I translated May 1939 from Polish into English. I want you to understand what it takes to transpose such a delicately balanced creation. I suppose I am proud — but I also want you to understand that poetry is as much a delicious riddle as it is a weighty revelation. Translating poems is no different than solving crosswords — only more satisfying. Maybe if I show you my methods, you’ll be inspired to try it too.

So how do I crack a puzzle like May 1939? I start by finding its heart: the part which can’t be removed without murdering the poem. In this case, it’s that perfect balance between themes of love, spring, and war. You can see it most clearly in these two couplets (which form half of two adjacent verses):

O spring, o spring of love!
No, not of love. Of war!

and

O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

Those are the fragments I translated first. This most literal of translations has come out in near-perfect iambic trimeter, a rhythm of ta-DA ta-Da, ta-DA. Fantastic! Poetry is writing itself! But also: disastrous! Six syllables to a line is really freaking short. Fitting all the richness of Ginczanka’s poem into a trimeter is about as difficult as braiding a buzzcut.

This is why for a while I toyed with extensions: “No, not of love. Spring of war!” or even “No, not of love. A spring of war!”

Say it out loud: “No, not of love. Of war!” The period creates a tense pause, almost a skipped heartbeat. And after? “Of WAR!” “Pow-POW!” A punch to the gut. By comparison, “A spring of war!” is a gentle massage.

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So I decided to keep these couplets short, while allowing myself as many as nine syllables in the other lines. A buzzcut interspersed with braids might not be elegant, but in this particular context punch felt more important than elegance.

The fact that the most natural translation fits so well into iambs is a wonderful gift. Unfortunately, what the right hand of English giveth, the left hand taketh away. In particular, this puritan language has removed much of the beauty of the original.

O spring, o spring of love!
No, not of love. Of war!

stands for

O wiosno, wiosno miłosna!
Nie, nie miłosna. Wojenna!

The internal rhyme in “Wiosno miłosna,” can’t be captured by anything within a hundred mile radius of “spring of love.” Similarly, in

O wiosno, wiosno wojenna!
Nie, nie wojenna. Miłosna!

(O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!)

the alliteration in “wiosno wojenna” is lost without a trace in “spring of war.” And this isn’t just decorative frill. “Wiosno miłosna!” “Wiosno wojenna!” Spring’s very name seems to carry the seeds of war as well as love. English is too blunt for such subtleties.

After I grieved this loss of nuance, I turned to the task of fitting the rest of the verses around the couplets. Ginczanka used an abab rhyme scheme (i.e. she rhymed alternating lines), and I wanted to maintain this. After all, the original poem is intensely musical. “O spring, o spring of love!” has the character of a refrain, and, as we’ll see later, the poem borrows from songs (“will I take the high road or will I take the low?”) and rhythmical clichés (“he loves me, he loves me not”). Rhyme and rhythm are integral to its conception.

(Actually, rhyme and rhythm are integral to my enjoyment of translating. Everything else is motivated reasoning.)

So we’ll have to rhyme something with “love” and “war” at least twice. I can handle “war,” but “love” is going to be a nightmare. My rhyming dictionary has seven entries:

dove, glove, shove, of, above, belove, thereof

Two of these (“belove,” “thereof”) are barely even real words, “of” requires a precarious enjambent (i.e. a line break out of step with the grammatical flow of the poem), and only sentimental babies rhyme “dove” with “love.” So we have a choice of three, maybe four rhymes for our two lines.

Since it’s easier to adapt rhymes for “war” to a fixed rhyme for “love” than vice versa, I started with the love problem. Here’s a literal translation of the first of the verses.

A nighttime comet flashed,
a daily newspaper arrived.
O spring, o spring of love!
Not, not of love. Of war!

So for an abab rhyme scheme, “flashed” needs to be replaced with something rhyming with with “love.” A nighttime comet doth shove? Night’s comet is wearing a glove? Night’s comet is thinking of…? A nighttime comet above… is fitting this line like a glove!

Given “A nighttime comet above,” there’s really only one way this verse can go:

A nighttime comet above,
a daily paper below.
O spring, o spring of love!
Not, not of love. Of war!

(Note that I’ve changed “newspaper” to “paper” for rhythm.) Now “below” doesn’t strictly rhyme with “of war,” but it will do as a slant rhyme (especially since Ginczanka herself doesn’t shy away from such “imperfect” rhymes.)

This is good, but grieving is still necessary. In the Polish, the word which rhymes with “miłosna” (of love) is “nocna” (nighttime), while “wojenna” (of war) is paired with “dzienna,” (daily, literally “daytime”). There’s that perfect balance again: language seems to pair the very concepts of night and day with love and war.

Despite this unfortunate loss, English made this particular verse was, relatively speaking, a breeze. Not so with the next one... The literal translation:

The springtime full moon arrived
and brought many dreams with itself.
O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

Once again, let’s start by finding a rhyme for “love” to take the place “itself.” Reusing “above” will make us sound desperate, so let’s try to avoid that. Shove? Too violent. That leaves “glove.” Not too promising… But squint hard enough (and, really, you should never read poetry with your eyes wide open), and you’ll see a moon bringing dreams… perhaps holding them… perhaps in a hand… perhaps in a GLOVED hand. Trying to squeeze this metaphor into the verse, we get something like

The springtime full moon arrived
and brought many dreams in its glove.
O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

That’s progress — but no amount of squinting will force “dreams” to rhyme with “war.” Back to the rhyming dictionary! The springtime full moon doth soar? The springtime full moon’s a whore?

The springtime full moon implores
this rhyming game is a bore,
so let us be rhyming no more…

…Basically, this stage is trial and error. I try to find a rhyme that will fit into something vaguely resembling “the springtime full moon arrived and brought many dreams in its glove.” In the end, I settled on “a score” as a substitute for “many:”

The springtime full moon arrived and brought a score
of dreams in its glove
O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

Admittedly, the more idiomatic use would be “scores,” and “a score” has other meanings than “many.” But this was the best I could do (and I quite like the bonus interpretation where “a score of dreams” stands for a musical score.)

We solved the rhyme problem, but now we have…

The springtime (*yawn*) full moon arrived (get to the point!) and brought (kill me now!) a score
(*whoosh*) of dreams in its glove (what was that? that went by fast!)

We have to put the first line on a diet and fatten up the second one. The first part is easy. Since by now everyone knows that the poem is set in the spring, “The full moon brought a score” is just about synonymous with “the springtime full moon arrived and brought a score.”

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Fattening the second line is trickier. You don’t want to bloat the poem with superfluous words, but it’s also better not to attract too much attention to fragments which don’t correspond to anything in the original. In the end, I decided to look for an innocuous adjective to describe the moon’s “glove,” settling for “of dreams in its ivory glove.”

Why “ivory” and not “white”? To read “of dreams in its white glove” in iambic trimeter, you’d have to unnaturally emphasize “its:”

of DREAMS in ITS white GLOVE.

Better to go with “of DREAMS in its Ivory GLOVE,” since in a line without strict meter, irregular emphasis isn’t as jarring.

If I had translated this poem a few years ago, I would have been likelier to write something like “of DREAMS in CREAMy GLOVES.” Back then, I counted syllables on my fingers and religiously measured out iambs. I still recommend this for your first few translations — it’s certainly better than the other extreme, disregarding meter altogether. But a poem which never strays from its iambic tracks turns into a train; its regular ta-DAM, ta-DAM, ta-DAM puts everyone to sleep. At some point you have to stop counting and trust your ear to deliver less precise, but still musical, rhythm.

But beware of where your ears take you! If you lengthen the tracks in one verse and shorten them in the other, you might derail the train when it tries to move between verses. This happened in my translation:

A nighttime comet above,
a daily paper below.
O spring, o spring of love!
No, not of love. Of war!

The full moon brought a score
of dreams in its ivory glove.
O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

The second verse sounds fine on its own, but the rhythm in “The full moon brought a score” is unpleasantly different than in “A nighttime comet above,” leading me to trip over my tongue when I try reading it. I fixed that by settling for “The full moon clutches a score.”

So that’s how I handled those two crucial verses. Here’s what I did with the rest of the poem.

May 1939

One moment, hope is stirring,
the next, my worries soar.
Too many things occurring —
it’s coming: love or war.

Signs are portending war:
the comet, the addresses.
Signs are portending love:
dizziness, heart’s excesses.

A nighttime comet above,
a daily paper below.
O spring, o spring of love!
No, not of love. Of war!

The full moon clutches a score
of dreams in its ivory glove.
O spring, o spring of war!
No, not of war. Of love!

I read the papers like crazy,
I try to connect the dots.
I pluck the petals of daisies:
He loves me… he loves me not…

O pregnant, prophetic spring
unlike the springs of old!
Anything you might bring,
I’ll take and endure it all.

I stand at the crossroads of May,
the paths take contrary turns,
but both roads are paving the way
to ultimate concerns.

Longing is singing its sigh-ode,
warnings are clogging the radio.
Will I be taking the high road -
Or will I take the low?

Zuzanna Ginczanka was murdered in the Holocaust in 1945. She was 27.

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Eve Bigaj

Written by

Eve Bigaj

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

Eve Bigaj

Written by

Eve Bigaj

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

Blank Page

Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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