Only what is human can truly be foreign
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski

Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Feb 5, 2003

More Polish poetry in translation:


Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!

How many clouds float past them with impunity;

how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;

how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil

in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers

or alights on the roadblock at the border?

A humble robin - still, its tail resides abroad

while its beak stays home. If that weren\'t enough, it won\'t stop


Among innumerable insects, I\'ll single out only the ant

between the border guard\'s left and right boots

blithely ignoring the questions \"Where from?\" and \"Where to?\"

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos

prevailing on every continent!

Isn\'t that a privet on the far bank

smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?

And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,

would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?

And how can we talk of order overall

when the very placement of the stars

leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

Not to speak of the fog\'s reprehensible drifting!

And dust bowling all over the steppes

as if they hadn\'t been partitioned!

And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,

that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!

Only what is human can truly be foreign.

The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

--Wislawa Szymborska (1996 Nobel Prize)

translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh



Of earthly civilization what shall we say?

That it was a system of colored spheres cast in smoked glass,

Where a luminescent liquid thread kept winding and unwinding.

Or that it was an array of sunburnt palaces

Shooting up from a dome with massive gates

Behind which walked a monstrosity without a face.

That every day lots were cast, and that whoever drew low

Was marched there as sacrifice: old men, children, young boys and young girls.

Or we may say otherwise: that we lived in a golden fleece,

In a rainbow net, in a cloud cocoon

Suspended from the branch of a galactic tree,

And our net was woven from the stuff of signs,

Hieroglyphs for the eye and ear, amorous rings.

A sound reverberated inward, sculpturing our time,

The flicker, flutter, twitter of our language.

For from what could we weave the boundary

Between within and without, light and abyss,

If not from ourselves, our own warm breath,

And lipstick and gauze and muslin,

From the heartbeat whose silence makes the world die?

Or perhaps we\'ll say nothing of earthly civilization.

For nobody really knows what it was.

--Czeslaw Milosz (1980 Nobel Prize)

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee


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Only what is human can truly be foreign

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