Adam Zagajewski – ‘Praise’ versus ‘extoll’ (41/50)


There’s one more anecdote which presents me in a bad light because it shows my imperfect grasp of English. The English title of my poem is
‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’. At some point, my translator, Clare Cavanagh, used the verb ‘praise’ which in Polish means to laud and in English, there is no good, literal translation of the word, ‘opiewać’. There’s only ‘praise’ which has quite a broad meaning. But then she said that perhaps
there’s another verb – ‘to extoll’. ‘Try to Extoll the Mutilated World’. So then I thought perhaps ‘extoll’ was a better word because ‘praise’ was such an everyday word that got used all of the time. ‘Extoll’ somehow sounded more interesting to me. Then I had an email from ‘The New Yorker’ asking me if it was to be ‘praise’ or ‘extoll’. So I said, ‘extoll’. This was followed by a short silence after which I had a series of emails from
‘The New Yorker’ begging me to keep the word ‘praise’. Alice Queen prefaced it, although it was obviously fabricated and it had come from an editorial team at ‘The New Yorker’, demanding that ‘extoll’ be replaced with ‘praise’. And then I understood my own
limitations in my knowledge of English because for a native speaker of English, ‘praise’ is a Biblical word which has a deep and ancient meaning whereas ‘extoll’ is a superficial word which is less profound. I think, although this isn’t the place for a lecture, that the English language has two parts. One is the ancient Anglo-Saxon with a concise lexicon, but since we know that England
was conquered by the Normans, hey brought French with them and
introduced a multitude of French words which has made English a strange conglomeration of the original Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with one that’s referred to as Latin, namely words that were brought
over predominantly by the French. And ‘extol’ is one of these novelty words – I mean, a 1000-year old novelty, but still a novelty. Whereas ‘praise’ is an archaic word and… I’m not so bad that I was going to stick stubbornly to ‘extoll’ although, theoretically, I could have. However, I understood that this
was the limit of my involvement, and they were right – ‘praise’ was a better word. And this poem is still circulating – I was even told that when Trump came to power, people unearthed this poem because they were so horrified by
what was happening in America, that it’s a poem for those dark, bad days. There’s a lot of coincidence here because if Alice Queen hadn’t
been reading my poems that day, this would never have happened. Also, they’re very careful about this, had that poem already appeared
in some other publication, ‘The New Yorker’ would not have been able to use it since they follow certain principles:
it had to be unpublished. The poem was unrestricted. It had been written much earlier. This was also something I was often asked about: had I written it on the day… had I
written this poem on September 11? No, I’d written it a year-and-a-half before then.

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