Lost in Translation: Reflections on ‘Zbigniew Herbert: Between Two Worlds Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird’



                     by Zbigniew Herbert

                     The pebble
                     is a perfect creature

                     equal to itself
                     mindful of its limits

                     filled exactly
                     with a pebbly meaning

                     with a scent that does not remind one of anything
                     does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

                     its ardour and coldness
                     are just and full of dignity

                     I feel a heavy remorse
                     when I hold it in my hand
                     and its noble body
                     is permeated by false warmth

                      – Pebbles cannot be tamed
                      to the end they will look at us
                      with a calm and very clear eye

I came across Zbigniew Herbert in school in Warsaw where I grew up. My parents moved there when I was 2 years old and by 7th grade, when we came round to analysing his work in class, I was lucky enough to be able to understand it in its original language. Looking back on it now, I think I didn’t give him a chance. Probably I was too young to understand him.  On Wednesday I decided to give him a second chance. I went to the tenth anniversary of his death at the Southbank, sat in the dark and warm auditorium and listened… Of course, I couldn’t help thinking just how proud my Polish teacher, Mr. Motrenko, would have been to see me here.

Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird are all huge fans of Zbigniew Herbert. All of them have come across his work in different ways. Al Alvarez had personally known Herbert in the 60s; Eva Hoffman came across him when she was asked to write a review on one of his collections for The New York Times and Nick Laird picked up Mr. Cogito in a second hand bookstore for £2.50 and after some hesitation, he realised that he came across a unique artist.  They all read a few of their favourite poems by Herbert after which there was a discussion on his work and a screening of a couple of his short films.

Eva Hoffman read in polish and this made me confused. I didn’t know whether to read the translations, or listen to her words? I ended up doing both-listening to the poems in polish and picking out words in english that I thought really worked well in the poem. I was lost and found at the same time. The experience was quite unusual- it felt as if I was re-writing the poems in my head- making a virtual collage of his work. At the same time I felt as if I was experiencing his poems in 3D.

But putting aside my little game, I have realised that Zbigniew Herbert’s work was quite unique and that I probably would not have been able to play and enjoy this game of collage with any other poet because, as Hoffman said, ‘ In translation he is better than anybody else.’ Herbert was full of wit. He spoke in his own voice and was completely unafraid to speak his mind. He believed in Roman virtue, decency and clarity and as Laird said, ‘ he was a wonderful political poet in a totally neutral way […] he speaks in his own voice, he is ironic but never bitter’. He uses mythical figures in his poetry. He writes of angels and daemons and he actualises them- gives them flesh, talks to them and makes them real. Herbert was ‘ a poet whose life and work echo each other- a poet of historical irony who insists on having second thoughts on his work and ideas’ ( Al Alvarez). In one of his poetry collections Mr. Cogito, he immerses himself in ‘the questioning of his existential questing’ (Hoffman) whereby his poems are composed of conversations with his alter-ego; Mr. Cogito (deriving from Descartes’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’).

 Mr  Cogito and the Imagination

by Zbigniew Herbert


Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors of dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth


When it comes to Herbert, it’s difficult to ask what context he is operating in because ‘great poets bring their context with them’ (Hoffman). In one of his films,  Herbert stated that his aim as a poet was to appeal to a ‘universal emotion’ that people share. My impression is that as his poems work so well in translation- he has managed to reach into the core of his thoughts and those of the reader. I believe that with the honesty, clarity and the sharpness his words, he has become the universal.


This was a truly inspirational event and the best possible way I could have given Herbert a second chance.




2 Responses to “Lost in Translation: Reflections on ‘Zbigniew Herbert: Between Two Worlds Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird’”

  1. Sharp Says:

    Synchronicity swells up in the cracks of different lives, like the sudden overflow of an underground sea that makes new springs here and there, cityscapes away. I have recently been reading the translated works of Czeslaw Milosz. A friend of mine noticed the volume on my shelf and immediately told me with a grave sort of tone to walk him home because he had something for me. At his house he brought me down a thick black volume of the collected works Zbigniew Herbert, then explained that Herbert was a contemporary of Milosz and distinguished by brilliance in his own right.

    Sure enough, as I’m flipping through this book I come across this poem.

    To Czeslaw Milosz

    Above San Francisco Bay–the lights of the stars
    at dawn mist which divides the world in two parts
    who knows which is better weightier which worse
    one must not think even in secret they’re the same

    Angels descend from heaven
    when he sets down
    his slated

    It makes me smile that I discovered this poet only last week and, considering how seldom I use the WordPress tag surfing option, this is the first thing I see on tramp around the internet.

  2. Barbara S Says:

    Thanks for your take on Herbert: it sounds like you had the double advantage of knowing the ‘home’ language as well as the ‘target’ language and this has given you a unique angle.

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