Piotr Gwiazda on translating Zero Visibility by Grzegorz Wróblewski

An essay by the translator

Grzegorz Wróblewski’s book of poems Zero Visibility (Phoneme Media, 2017) gathers the poems he published in Poland in the last several years. These poems display the characteristic features of his verse: anthropological focus, objectivist detachment (though not without hallucinatory interference), minimalistic precision. But they also signal the presence of new elements. One of them is an extensive reliance on found language, the preferred mode of Anglophone conceptual writers, here acquiring a distinctly Eastern European flavor. Of special note is “Wzmocnione Techniki Przesłuchiwania” (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”), which incorporates tabloid stories and news reports alongside a list of “enhanced interrogation” methods that were used by CIA operatives, with the approval of the George W. Bush administration, during the early years of the US war on terror at extraordinary rendition sites in several countries, including Poland. Like some of Wróblewski’s other examples of appropriation in Zero Visibility (“Tests on Monkeys,” “Makamba,” “Bronisław Malinowski’s Moments of Weakness”), this poem engages in dialogue with the news for satirical and, inescapably, political purposes.

In his book Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, Jahan Ramazani describes the relation between poetry and the news as both “affiliative” and “agonistic.” Since, as Wittgenstein claims, poetry doesn’t belong in the language-game of giving information, the dialogue between poetry and the news can only be “vexed”; “you can get the news from poems,” Ramazani argues, “modern and contemporary public poems rely heavily on journalism to tell the news as they see it. But the news told in poetry isn’t conceived the same way as it is in newspapers and other news media, since even newsy poems question journalism’s language, procedures, and assumptions.”

With this idea in mind, we can view Wróblewski’s “Wzmocnione Techniki Przesłuchiwania” (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”) as an example of a contemporary “newsy” poem that, while including journalistic material, subverts the norms and assumptions of news reporting. The extraordinary rendition program was very much in the news in 2005, when its existence was first revealed in articles published in The New Yorker and The Washington Post, and in 2009, when top-secret memos from the US Department of Justice to the Acting General Counsel of the CIA detailing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were made public. Wróblewski wrote “Wzmocnione Techniki Przesłuchiwania” in the summer of 2011, several years after rumors about the presence of a secret prison in Stare Kiejkuty, a little village in the Polish lake district, had begun circulating (the Polish government, of course, continued to deny its existence). According to Adam Goldman, writing in The Washington Post, this particular prison “was arguably the most important of all the black sites created by the agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was the first of a trio in Europe that housed the initial wave of accused Sept. 11 conspirators, and it was where Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of the attacks, was waterboarded 183 times after his capture.”

Wróblewski himself is no stranger to the world of journalism. His father was a prominent radio and television reporter in the city of Gdańsk, where the poet was born in 1962. The family later moved to Warsaw, where Wróblewski grew up and where he spent his youth before emigrating to Copenhagen in 1985—even as he was getting noticed as one of Poland’s most promising, if controversial, young poets. Wróblewski’s poem first appeared in his book Wanna Hansenów, published in Poland in 2013. An early version of my English translation was published alongside the Polish original in the October 2014 issue of Asymptote. Here is the poem again:

enhanced interrogation techniques

It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and
even out his teeth! People magazine named Jennifer Lopez the world’s most
beautiful woman.
Mixing mushrooms with alcohol causes the skin to turn into pesticide-
covered rootworm. Do you remember the Colorado beetle?
Alas, but . . . we can’t all have an hourglass figure.

An hourglass figure means wide hips, proportionally narrow waist, and
big bust. But if that doesn’t happen to you, there’s no
chance you’ll ever wear skirts with belts or get hired
for a movie about Angelina Jolie’s borderline personality disorder.
Angelina weighs 45 kg. Two small planes with Poles on board went down.
It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and
even out his teeth! In 2002 during the premiere of the film Space Station
3D the actor proudly displayed his orthodontic apparatus. Now what?
Statue of Jesus, King of Poland? We know the interrogation methods used
on detainees: chwyt wymuszający uwagę (attention grasp),
uderzanie przesłuchiwanym o ścianę (walling), chwyt za twarz (facial
), policzkowanie (facial slap or insult slap).
Remember? Angelina weighs 45 kg.
Przetrzymywanie w ciasnych
pomieszczeniach (cramped confinement), pręgierz przy ścianie
(wall standing), pręgierz zwykły (stress positions), pozbawienie snu
(sleep deprivation), wpuszczanie owadów do ciasnego miejsca odosobnienia
(insects placed in confinement box), as well as podtapianie (the waterboard).
It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and
even out his teeth!
Later, the CIA used additional “enhanced interrogation techniques”
that included: długotrwała nagość (prolonged nudity), manipulacje żywieniowe
(dietary manipulation), uderzanie po brzuchu (abdominal slap).

Two small planes with Poles on board went down.

Oblewanie wodą (water dousing) or spryskiwanie wodą (water flicking)

It seems clear that in composing his poem Wróblewski transcribed (or more likely copied and pasted) textual material from various news outlets, braiding together tabloid stories about Tom Cruise’s teeth, Jennifer Lopez’s body shape, and Angelina Jolie’s weight with a report of a midair small-plane collision that occurred in Spain in June 2011, killing three Polish citizens on board, as well as the list of “enhanced interrogation techniques” I mentioned earlier. With respect to the poem’s language, it can be best described as direct, colloquial, proselike, but not necessarily dull; indeed, it has the concision, immediacy, and attention-grabbing quality of news headlines. The interrogative and exclamatory expressions—including the confrontational “I co teraz? / Now what?”—hint at a somewhat testy relationship between the speaker and his audience. The speaker addresses the audience using the second-person plural (reproduced as “you” in my translation), but there is enough in the poem to suggest that, to some extent, he includes himself in the group. He is addressing (and perhaps channeling) a specific audience with which he shares a commonality.

What is that commonality? Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, and Angelina Jolie are world-famous celebrities, and they need no introduction. But there are two local references in the poem that may need some elucidation. The Colorado beetle in line five refers to the black and yellow leaf beetle, originally found in Colorado, that threatened to devastate much of the potato crop in Eastern Europe in the first decades of the Cold War. At the time, the authorities in Poland and other Eastern European countries claimed that large numbers of beetles had been dropped by American planes as part of a plot to destroy their agriculture and introduce food shortages. The beetle was subsequently depicted on propaganda posters as a tool of American imperialism. In line fifteen, “Statue of Jesus, King of Poland” refers to a giant statue of Jesus erected in Świebodzin, a little town in western Poland, in 2010. Made of concrete and fiberglass, and towering at over one hundred feet, the so-called “Christ the King” is said to be the tallest statue of Jesus in the world. It is not only a popular pilgrimage site but a reminder of the strong linkage between religion and nationalism in Poland, often manifested in the idea of Poland as a defender of Catholic values, indeed by now one of the last bastions of Catholicism in Europe. The Virgin Mary, for example, has been viewed as the spiritual “Queen of Poland” for almost three centuries.

In light of these stylistic and linguistic features, Wróblewski’s poem offers a not particularly subtle critique of the contemporary modes of news production and consumption. Indeed, Wróblewski enacts the very experience of consuming the news, especially the news obtained from the Internet. He too is exposed to it at all times. He too is hypnotized by the media noise—what he once described to me as “the hum of the planet.” He too has no control over what appears in front of him on the screen: a farrago of information referring to celebrity worship, hallucinogenic drugs, body image ideals, next to the illegal torture of “enemy combatants” at secret US-run prisons around the world. Composed in the spirit of Juvenalian satire, the poem exposes the superficiality of the daily news cycle, but also points out how selective we are in our intake of information, how desensitized in our role as spectators. As a contemporary poem about the news, “Wzmocnione Techniki Przesłuchiwania” (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”) both assimilates and distances itself from a news report. As Ramazani would say, it “push[es] poetry as far as it can go toward journalism” without quite becoming it.

When translating this poem from Polish, I initially followed the conventional (if optimistic) strategy of trying to reproduce the effect it had on its first readers—at least as far as I could imagine it. But I quickly realized that as soon as a poem crosses linguistic borders, differences in interpretation become unavoidable. Mindful of the fact that the poem is likely to be received differently by Polish- and English-speaking (especially US) readers, I left its bilingual passages largely unchanged—the Polish terms for “enhanced interrogation techniques” come first, followed by their equivalents in English—to highlight the presence of at least two interpretive contexts. In other words, I did not automatically reverse the order, as might have seemed appropriate, or seriously distort the poem by eliminating the Polish text altogether. I did not choose either of those solutions because, in my view, the translation gains aesthetically as well as rhetorically from the presence of both Polish and English, in this order. It seemed to me that having the Polish language so unexpectedly and unapologetically declare itself on the page, with the English equivalent in parentheses, might highlight some of the more shameful aspects of the extraordinary rendition program—how in 2002 the Polish government secretly agreed to the establishment of an extraordinary rendition site in Stare Kiejkuty originally in exchange for, according to the Washington Post article, cash, and in the long run to ensure America’s “friendship” (that is, a guarantee of military protection from Russia). More importantly, my hope was that to the typical US reader the intentionally “untranslated” second part of the poem might illustrate the brutal and opaque nature of today’s geopolitical order. Structurally, indeed typographically, it crystalizes the idea that covert and illegal torture took place on foreign soil in the name of US national security.

This is, of course, the tricky part. I could only anticipate the poem’s reception by the typical US reader, vis-à-vis the typical Polish reader—a model of reception that from the outset appears too static or rigid. (For example, who does “we” refer to in my earlier sentence about the poem being composed in the spirit of Juvenalian satire?) Still, I hope to have demonstrated that translation is never an unproblematic transfer of meaning from one language to another, and never just a search for verbal or stylistic equivalence. Rather, it is a process of negotiation between two audiences (however broadly conceived) and their respective horizons of expectations. As Lawrence Venuti puts it, translation is “the inscription of an interpretation, one among varying and even conflicting possibilities, so that the source text is seen as variable in form, meaning, and effect.” The irony, of course (which should be pointed out because it cuts so deep), is that the Polish text I have been calling “original” throughout this essay is in itself almost entirely a product of translation from English-language news sources.

In composing “Wzmocnione Techniki Przesłuchiwania” (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”) Wróblewski doesn’t invent his own language; rather, he incorporates the language that already exists, manipulating it for artistic and rhetorical effects. In his own take on what Brian Reed calls a “poetics of redirected language,” he ingeniously mashes up his source material to create an obsessively repetitive, unnervingly disjunctive text. In doing so, he questions the mechanisms of news production and consumption. He recontextualizes the news, defamiliarizes it, makes it strange. “As artists whose basic medium is not language so much as the deformation of language,” writes Cole Swensen, “poets are in a perfect position to liberate the I from its servitude to personal history and instead emphasize it as the point of public locution, the point at which the individual becomes the multiple of the social sphere.” As Wróblewski’s poem shows, the same preference for found language, the same taste for the anti-poetic, the same commitment to the public and the social can be found among poets working in other linguistic and national contexts around the globe. This, in turn, offers a new chapter in the story of modern and contemporary Anglophone poetics and its Eastern European counterparts—a story of mutual connections, influences, and indeed translations.