In 2021, Anna Frajlich’s Polish-language poetry collection Imię Ojca/Im’ia Bat’ka (The Name of the Father) received its first translation into Ukrainian. On Wednesday, February 16, Deputy Events Editor Ava Slocum attended the Harriman Institute’s book talk and poetry reading for the new edition, translated last year by Vasyl Makhno.
Memories are always in transition through time and place, but how can memories expressed in the written word be shared across a language barrier? The new Ukrainian translation of Anna Frajlich’s poems in Imię Ojca/Im’ia Bat’ka (The Name of the Father) seeks to do just that, while connecting this link between Poland and Ukraine to Frajlich’s own experience as an Eastern European immigrant to the United States.
Polish poet Anna Frajlich moved to New York in 1970, after fleeing Poland with her husband and son in the “Jewish exodus” of the 1960s. She is the author of eighteen books of poetry and is a Senior Lecturer Emerita at Columbia’s Department of Slavic Languages. Mark Andryczyk of the Harriman Institute moderated Wednesday’s Zoom discussion, which featured Frajlich in conversation with Ukrainian poet and translator Vasyl Makhno about the new bilingual Polish-Ukrainian edition of Frajlich’s poems.
The Ukrainian translation, Frajlich said, felt like a return to her roots. Although she was born in Kyrgyzstan and grew up in Szczecin, Poland, her parents both came from Ukraine and she was raised in a house heavily influenced by Ukrainian culture. She mentioned that a translation of one of her poems recently appeared in a Ukrainian seventh-grade textbook, which, to her, was deeply meaningful given her family’s origins. “It was an important and symbolic return for me,” she said.
“Return,” in many ways, is a significant word in talking about Frajlich’s work. The new Polish-Ukrainian translation of her poetry is an heir to centuries of overlap between Polish and Ukrainian literature, beginning with the “Ukrainian school” of Polish romantic literature in the 1890s, when Polish poets, including Antoni Malczewski, developed a trend of incorporating Ukrainian history, folklore, and geographic scenery into their work. (In some of his work, Malczewski referenced a particular castle in Ukraine that also inspired the setting for Nikolai Gogol’s “A Terrible Vengeance”). The new Ukrainian translation of Frajlich’s poetry is a natural successor to this part of literary history, while expanding the scope of the genre’s cross-cultural narrative through the specific lens of Frajlich’s experience as an immigrant from Poland to the United States.
The journey, for Frajlich, was an impossibly arduous one. “I belong to the Second World War generation,” she explained. “I survived [the war] because of where I was born, even though my family spent most of the war-time in Europe.” Many of her Jewish family members who lived in Germany and other parts of Poland would not survive. “The major trauma of my adult life,” she added, “was my political immigration from Poland, which was my major challenge.” Most of her writing, including her poems, prose, and essays, references that experience in some way.
Fittingly, translator Vasyl Makhno referred to the current political situation in Ukraine before beginning his comments on Frajlich’s poems and the translation process. “It’s a dangerous time for Ukraine and for each citizen,” he said. Nevertheless, he suggested that art such as Frajlich’s poems have power “to shed some light in a dark time,” and he hopes that his Ukrainian translations will help the poems reach a broader audience, especially considering Frajlich’s background and her family’s ties to Ukraine. Immigration, he mentioned, “is a very complicated situation for writers.” In his opinion, however, Frajlich’s Polish poetry still “brings a memory of home,” even though so much of her work centers on her immigration and adaptation to New York. Many of the poems selected for the new edition specifically reference the mass immigration of Jews leaving Europe during the twentieth century, a group of people who, in Frajlich’s words, consistently “experienced the lack of one place. It is not a tragedy, but a difficult condition.”
The latter half of the book discussion included readings of some of Frajlich’s poems in both their Polish and Ukrainian versions. Frajlich’s reading of her poems in Polish and Makhno reading their Ukrainian translation was the first time I had heard either language spoken out loud. The fact that I, sadly, can speak and understand neither Polish nor Ukrainian meant I missed out on most of the meaning during the readings. But hearing the poems without comprehension gave me the chance to listen to each language solely for its sounds and rhythms. To me, the poems sounded lovely in both languages. It might have been a function of the languages or of the poems themselves, but I thought both Frajlich’s and Makhno’s readings had a distinctly musical quality to them that stayed consistent from the original to the translated versions.
I would have loved to be able to understand the actual words of the poems, however, after hearing Frajlich’s short description of each one. Her poem “Memento Mori” (the only one with a title not in Polish but in Latin) alludes to the medieval concept and practice of keeping objects (such as skulls) that serve as reminders of death and its inevitability. Frajlich wrote this poem after 9/11, a life-altering change in the city she had started to call home. She likened this experience of watching the world crumble to her immigrant experience as a whole, which she said she also remembers as “upsetting the foundations of security.”
As the reading went on, the poems shifted from reflections on Frajlich’s homeland to descriptions of her process of immigration, finally ending with her arrival in New York and her adaptation to her new life. “My generation faced the process of rooting,” Frajlich said toward the end, “the process of finding a place that one can accept and calling it home.” Sitting there on the Zoom webinar, listening to poetry read in languages that I don’t understand, I was grateful for the tiny glimpse into this part of Frajlich’s life story, which for her has served as a source of sadness as well as creative inspiration.
In response to an audience member’s question, Frajlich spent some time musing on the importance of our homelands and how they affect us throughout our lives. She mentioned that her mother, growing up in Ukraine during World War I, had her childhood “take place in very miserable circumstances,” and yet her mother always looked back fondly on her home and upbringing. “No matter how far and how long ago,” Frajlich said, “we can never forget our place of origin.” Her poems, in their new translation, will preserve her memories of her own homeland, while bringing those memories and their resonating story to a broader global audience.
Wednesday’s event, sponsored by the Ukrainian Studies Program and the East Central European Center at the Harriman Institute, is recorded and available on YouTube.
Imię Ojca/Im’ia Bat’ka cover via the Harriman Institute event webpage