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Expanses of the Unspoken: An Interview with Peter Dale Scott

By The Editors

by Peter Dale Scott

Cynthia Haven interviews Peter Dale Scott, one of the earliest translators of the work of Zbigniew Herbert. You can find James Marcus's introduction to the poet over here.—Editors

Peter Dale Scott has worn many hats: he is a poet, former diplomat, professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and an influential and provocative author. As a poet, he is best known for his three-volume trilogy Seculum, beginning with Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror, which was inspired by the 1965 massacre in Indonesia of perhaps a million people, in which he believes the United States played a role. His many nonfiction books include The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America (2007). He is also one of the earliest translators of Zbigniew Herbert into English. Scott eventually collaborated with Czesław Miłosz on the 1968 Selected Poems. In this interview, he talks with Cynthia Haven about his meetings with Herbert and what it was like to translate the poet's "suggestive expanses of the unspoken" into English.

Cynthia Haven: You were perhaps the first to translate Zbigniew Herbert into English, two years before you began working with Miłosz on Postwar Polish Poetry, the anthology that brought Polish poetry to the attention of the West. How did you become aware of Herbert's poetry?

Peter Dale Scott: By great good fortune, when I arrived in Warsaw in 1959 to work as a Canadian diplomat, I hired a Polish tutor—M., an intelligent lively woman whose name I have forgotten. When she learnt in our second lesson that I was a poet, she showed me the work of her friend, Zbigniew Herbert. While I was in Poland he had only published two small books.

Although at this point I was barely competent in Polish, I immediately recognized the originality, power and importance of the poems she showed me. My first translations with her were simultaneously lessons in learning Polish. This was an excellent way to learn a language: the Polish words used by Herbert in his poetry—niepokój (unrest), milość (love)—still remind me vividly of those first lessons! While still in Poland, and before I met Miłosz, I had a group of seven Herbert translations accepted by Encounter magazine. Encounter then returned them with the explanation that they were instead going to publish Miłosz's translation of Elegy of Fortinbras, as they did in August, 1961. So my translations appeared instead in the Spring 1963 issue of Hudson Review.

Haven: You also met the poet during those Cold War years.

Scott: I met Herbert exactly twice: once shortly before I left Poland in 1961, and again when he came to Berkeley in, I think, 1968 or 1969. The first time was at night in M.'s tiny Warsaw apartment, possibly by candlelight, as the room was very dark. We sat cheek by jowl at a small table in a corner, where we consumed a 26-ounce bottle of Scotch and almost the same amount of vodka. M., who didn't drink, hovered nearby. We discussed poetry with great excitement, but I cannot remember whether we spoke more in Polish, or in English. My principal impressions of Herbert were that he was shorter than I expected, and a chain smoker.

I remember expressing my curiosity about the name and origins of the Herbert family. He said that the family, which had once lived in Vienna, believed that an ancestor had fled from England to France in 1688 with King James II. If true, this would probably be James's companion Sir Edward Herbert, Chief Justice of the King's Bench. Sir Edward is recorded as having died unmarried in France in 1698, but of course illegitimate children were common in the Stuart entourage. Sir Edward's father was a cousin of the poets George and Edward Herbert.

In the late 1960s, Miłosz, Herbert,and I read Polish poetry together at an event in Berkeley. I was able to mutter briefly to Herbert that Miłosz and I disagreed about the Vietnam War. Herbert replied briefly that he also differed from Miłosz over Vietnam. But there is no indication of this in his later famous and astonishingly wrong-headed attack on Miłosz in 1994, for lacking "a sense of identity."[1] There Herbert seems to reprove Miłosz for not having been militantly anti-Communist enough.

Haven: Herbert's work has, in general, been less recognized by the Western public than that of, say, his friend and fellow Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, or even Wisława Szymborska. It's not merely that Miłosz lived in America and received the Nobel, though certainly those factors helped. Can you explain a bit why the West hasn't embraced Herbert with the same enthusiasm? For example, why has it taken this long for a Collected to appear?

Scott: The Nobel Prizes to Miłosz and Szymborska were responsible for vaulting both to international prominence, especially Szymborska, who was more or less unknown in the West before. But I believe Herbert was always held in high esteem by key critical figures, especially in Europe, where he won many prizes and gave many readings. I have heard also that he was a major candidate for the Nobel the year that Szymborska won it.

Haven: Yes, but in the West…

Scott: Herbert was far less known in America and partly for an accidental reason—the 1968 Penguin edition of his poetry was not for sale in America, and there was no U.S. edition until 1986. I have no knowledge why this was the case, but I suspect that the falling out between Miłosz and Herbert was not unrelated. A possible other reason might have been that Miłosz and I were also distant from each other in those years, thus unable to press together for an American edition.

Haven: That 1968 Penguin edition, in the Modern European Poets series, was the result of your collaboration with Miłosz. Those translations have been included in the new Collected. Could you describe that collaboration and how it worked?

Scott: I would meet regularly with Miłosz for long evenings, sometimes lasting well past midnight. We would exchange initial drafts of translations which each of us had prepared separately—far more of these coming from him than from me. Then we would go over drafts we had exchanged earlier, very carefully—line by line, word by word, with the help of dictionaries in both Polish and English. Usually we could finally agree on the final text. But I was distinctly the junior translator, and on those relatively few occasions when we disagreed, Miłosz always prevailed.

Haven: Did you ever work with Herbert directly on any translations?

Scott: I never collaborated directly with Herbert. You have to remember how risky it was back in 1961 for Poles, and especially for those like him who were frowned on by the PZPR government, to meet privately with Western diplomats. For the same reason I did not attempt to correspond with him after I came to Berkeley. I believe, however, that some of the translations I did with my tutor were reviewed by him, and perhaps occasionally altered for her to return to me. He did pay me the compliment in 1961 of saying that he preferred "Two Drops" in its English translation.

Haven: Which of the poems you translated is your favorite, and why?

Scott: It's hard for me to choose between "Two Drops", "Seventh Angel", and "Pebble". My partiality for the first two cannot be separated from the excitement I felt on first discovering Herbert; I felt like Keats with Chapman's Homer, except that Keats knew very well he was not the first to glimpse that ocean.

Haven: What was the greatest difficulty you found in translating Herbert's Polish into English?

Scott: I would say that of all the many Polish poets I translated, Herbert was probably the easiest. This was because of the intellectual structure of his poetry which transcended language differences. His poetry of ideas was immediately accessible to Westerners; and did not depend, in the way that Miłosz's did, on the uniqueness and syllabic density of Polish. For example the matter-of-fact lucidity of Herbert's íkamyk jest stworzeniem / doskonałym" is immediately transferable into English: "a pebble is a perfect creature." The consonantal jungle of Miłosz's íSkrzecała sroka i mowíłem: sroczość,/ Czymże jest sroczość?ë—look at those double and triple consonants—is only faintly represented by the English "A magpie was screeching and I said: Magpiety? What is magpiety?"[2]

Perhaps the greatest difficulty was translating "To Marcus Aurelius." This is a very early Herbert poem with the unusual feature of being written in tight rhymed tetrameters, when his usual style is a more permissive free verse. The shortness of the lines induced me to let up somewhat on the rhyming, and even cheat once on the words: my "gold alarm of stars" is in Polish "srebrne larum gwiazd," "silver alarm of stars"; but that would have created an unwanted dactylic intrusion into Herbert's varied iambs and trochees.

Also, of course, it was impossible to recreate the tensions of the Polish political situation, which surrounded each lyric with suggestive expanses of the unspoken. I do not know for example if Americans can easily pick up the strident political resonances of "Three Studies on the Subject of Realism."


[1] "Mr. Cogito's Duels: Zbigniew Herbert: A Conversation with Anna Poppek and Andrzej Gelberg", Cf. "Khodasevich", in Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (New York: Ecco, 2007), 496-97.

[2] Scott notes that "Magpiety," where "Magpieness" would normally have been expected, was his contribution, as a way of drawing attention to the uniqueness of the word itself and not just the concept expressed. The English word, which began as a hapaxlegomenon, has since taken off on its own: "Magpiety" is now the title of a well-known fine poem by Philip Levine, and also the stage name of two British folk-singers. See Arthur F. Bethea, "Philip Levine's 'Magpiety' and His Literary Debt to Czesław Miłosz," College Literature, Summer 2006.

Published Jan 8, 2008   Copyright 2008 The Editors

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