Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”


The Poem Stuck in My Head


Barańczak in a photo from Ostatni wiersz z Widokówki z tego świata, 1988.

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died in 2014 at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:

As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.

It’s a dismal state of affairs. Worse still: even in the “free” countries, 34 percent of writers told PEN they were inclined to self-censor—they avoid or consider avoiding certain subjects in their work.

Two of Barańczak’s poems appeared in The Paris Review’s Spring 1983 issue, both of them focused on surveillance. Here, in memoriam, is “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”:

This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone

Well let’s assume it’s yes, but this is not a conversation
for the telephone, you know, our ears
have vigilant listeners, so let’s just prepare it in
a language foreign to them and us, and don’t say “yes”
before you translate it;

well let’s admit it’s yes, but this is not
convenient for the moment, you know, our
walls have sensitive ears, so let’s just preserve it
for later, keep it and don’t say
“yes” before you wait it out;

well let’s agree it’s yes but this is not
a condition forever, you know,
our souls have thin walls, so let’s just presume
it for today, for a while, and don’t
say “yes” before you delete it;

well it must be no, but this
is not a conclusion for a real,
you know, our listeners have sensitive souls, so let’s
pretend for now that we protest, and
don’t say “no” before you apologize.

Translated by Valeria Wasilewski

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.