Szymborska's poem "Tarsier" ("Tarsjusz" in the original Polish) has been translated, in a version that says "Translations and Comments by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire", as follows:

I tarsier, son of tarsier,
grandson of tarsier and great-grandson,
I tarsier,
know how important it is to be tarsier.

Another English translation (I don't know who was the translator here) uses less idiosyncratic grammar:

I am a tarsier and a tarsier's son,
the grandson and great-grandson of tarsiers,
I, a tarsier,
know well how essential it is to be a tarsier.

Which of these translations better captures the style of the original Polish poem? Did Szymborska write in an "I tarsier" style of grammar, perhaps indicating a simple childish creature, or in fully correct grammatical sentences?

It should be noted that Polish, like many/all Slavic languages, has no articles, no equivalent words for "a" and "the". When translating from Polish to English, the choice of where to put articles may sometimes be a stylistic one. But is it the translators putting their own style into "I tarsier", or trying to capture Szymborska's original style?

  • FWIW, I asked a Russian friend if внук Тарсия и правнук (Google translation to wnuk tar­sju­sza i pra­wnuk) is grammatical in Russian, and it isn't (it should be: внук Тарсия и правнук Тарсия), so it can hint about Polish (i.e., if it's not grammatical, the first translation is closer to the original). Maybe you should just ask about the grammar on e.g SE Linguistics. – HeyJude Sep 13 at 13:41
  • @HeyJude In Russian, there's no word for am/is/are as well as no word for a/an/the. Saying "I am a tarsier" in Russian would be just two words, like "I tarsier". But it's not quite like that in Polish: there's a single word jestem but it encodes both words in "I am". (I don't speak either language fully, but I know a little about them both.) It's not a purely grammatical/linguistic question, as I'm also interested in the point of the stylistic choice made by the author and/or translator. – Rand al'Thor Sep 13 at 13:41

I think the first translation you mention is more accurate. Still, omitting comma in first line and adding in last would be more accurate, and here is why:

In original it's

Ja tarsjusz syn tarsjusza,
wnuk tarsjusza i prawnuk,
Ja tarsjusz
wiem, jak bardzo trzeba być tarsjuszem.

In the first row it's not "Ja jestem tarsjusz", or "Ja jestem tarsjuszem", "Jestem tarsjusz", ''Jestem tarsjuszem'' - while "Ja" (I) can be omitted, omitting "jestem" (am) would normally go with comma (Ja, tarsjusz = I, tarsier). So, it's rather a matter of punctuation then grammar. Why is it like that? I don't think it's conveying any childishness, rather it makes the line a sort of "not a list". Together with second line it conveys certain... timelessness, or universality, which should also be translated. That's why there should be no articles in translation - it's not about a tarsier, or the tarsier - not any particular, like here. It also preserves highly condensed from of these lines.

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