The very act of translating Tomasz Różycki’s “Dark Coat: On Adam Zagajewski,” a tribute to the phenomenal Polish poet who passed away earlier this year, has been a process of mourning for me. Tomasz and I met thanks to Adam, who introduced us nearly two decades ago. Our friendship and collaboration since then can be credited to his keen facilitation, and now we come together to honor the role he played. Adam was my mentor and M.F.A. thesis advisor at the University of Houston, where he started the Kraków Poetry Seminar that brought me to Poland for the first time. Sitting here laboring to render Tomasz’s words in English, I feel Adam’s presence at every turn, just as he exists in so many books that do not bear his name but that never would have come into existence without him. This presence includes both encouragement and critique—the amalgam of true mentorship that, perhaps, one can only fully appreciate after the fact. I take courage in recalling his exacting gaze whenever I translate, whenever I write.
In addition to this personal act of mourning, I’m also aware of the way that all translation is a kind of elegy. The original words die away and are transmogrified, reborn in a new language. “One is never ‘by oneself,’ however isolating the act of writing might appear,” Rosanna Warren says of how all writing receives and transforms—translates—literary tradition. Some transformations gain in the new version, providing consolation for what has been lost and even acquiring additional nuance. I love, for instance, the way this tribute speaks differently to American and European readers (it has also appeared in Polish and German), highlighting how Adam’s work leaves distinct legacies in each place, in each language and literary tradition. One era’s “poet of 9/11” is another’s forbidden fruit, another’s establishment. Other transformations that occur in the process of translation remain in the realm of grief. How can I, for example, here make up for the fact that what we call a bell’s “clapper” in English is called its “heart” in Polish? And the bell’s body, which we call the “waist,” is its “coat”—a word that plays out in the very title of this tribute and its striking final image. Thus, the process involves both love and loss. It entwines the two in a ritual of grief, this translation, which I offer for you.