A few years ago, I began translating from Polish in earnest, trying my hand at classic short stories and chapters of contemporary novels here and there. But as much as I liked what I was doing, I felt restless with prose, veered into poetry, and settled—perhaps unintentionally—much closer to home. Now, I translate poems by Anna Piwkowska, a poet living in Warsaw, who’s published nine books of poetry and won some of Poland’s most prestigious literary prizes for them. She leads an envious life teaching middle-school literature and scrawling poems in notebooks amid rose gardens at a nearby palace, on rocky Cretan beaches, or in cabins in the cold, imposing mountains in the south of Poland. I’ve come to know her well through her poetry, but I knew her well before I ever started reading it, because she also happens to be my aunt.
I chose to focus on her poetry not because she’s in my family, but because I thought her poems were lovely and I felt they somehow spoke to me. But did they speak to me because she’s in my family? It’s possible. I saw in her poems places I recognized, dogs I had known, accents and mannerisms I could identify as belonging to someone she had introduced me to. I saw in them my grandparents and I saw in them situations I had heard discussed at other points in my life; I recognized touchstones of my family narrative juxtaposed with other unfamiliar elements. A good poem has the remarkable quality of eliciting a response from someone who has not experienced what the poet has, but can connect to the words and the beauty nonetheless. In working with Anna’s poetry, I found myself in a unique position of understanding the source of some of the poems and feeling like they were a part of my own family’s heritage.
Of course, I don’t understand all her poems or where they come from. She is, after all, a poet; she’s enigmatic and symbolic, she’s deft at manipulating words, she writes in the codes of the literary, the girlish, the spiritual. Her poems mix mythology with modernity, childhood with fear and wisdom and age, Catholicism with the pagan, with cave paintings and salty seas. But here, too, being her only niece has its advantages. I can send her an email asking her to explain a line, and she’ll respond with a brief explanation followed by an effusive update on everything. I can visit my family in Warsaw and talk to her about a poem over dinner and pastries filled with rose jam at my grandparents’ house.
Last summer, I was working on some of Anna’s poems from her eighth book of poetry, Farbiarka (The Dye Girl). I was staying with her, and we went out for a walk in the woods near her apartment with her pointed-ear dog. We talked about a book I was working on, a book she was working on, about the palace-cum-artists’ colony our family’s history is tangled in, about her upcoming trip to Rome. I asked her about a few of the poems I was translating that I was having trouble with. I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘transmissive lights’ and what do you mean by ‘the magnetic card?’ and what is the poem about the girl about at all?” And instead of giving me simple answers, she spun me tales of the cosmos, of ancient Polish literature, of double-entendres, of doomed relationships and berries in a winter forest. She talked until we realized that it had gotten dark and the dog had gotten lost, and after we called and called and he loped back, pleased with himself, we walked back to the apartment where I felt newly inspired and ready to work.
Though perhaps I’ve nurtured an incestuous relationship to poetry, it is certainly interesting to translate a family member. Translating my aunt’s poetry has given me an opportunity to work more closely with a poet than I think I could have otherwise, and this in turns allows me to create the best translations that I can. She and I have similar taste: she writes some of her poems at the palace we both know—the one that used to be an aristocratic home and became a wonderful artists’ colony after World War II and a museum, which my grandfather, her father, curated—and I am also writing a book about the history and aura of this palace. We are both fascinated by that, but not only that: also our family—its history of museums, paintings, and books—the rose garden, Anne of Green Gables, girlhood. These are threads I instinctively include in what I write, and then I read her poems and see glimmers of the same. I don’t know that I am inspired by her poetry, necessarily, but I think I’ve come to cherish some of the same things she does. Whenever I visited Poland, especially when I was young, she and my grandparents took care to show me the things they loved. These in turn became things that I loved, and they were exotic and glamorous, and they were what I had to piece together my Polish heritage. Inevitably, these places and gardens and books show up in her writing and in mine.
The poems Anna has published have become, in a way, a family project. It’s exciting to me that I am able to bring them out of Europe and into a more mainstream language, giving her access to a much wider readership. And it’s exciting to work on something I can recognize, talk to the poet about at length, and, sometimes, at it’s luckiest, feel a connection with and understand completely.