• The Polish Poet’s Red Bus – in English!

It seems a good moment – the 30th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland – to post an English translation of Jacek Kaczmarski’s 1981 song Czerwony Autobus.  I wrote on this six days ago, but did not then have a translation.  Thanks to extremely helpful friends in Warsaw, I have been able to fashion a more-or-less literal translation, although the bite and cryptic nature of some lines remain hard to render in a foreign language.

Interestingly, Kaczmarski reinvents some of the characters from his source of inspiration, Bronisław Wojciech Linke’s painting Autobus (1961).  His performance (reposted below) is vehement, but the translation also reveals the anger in the text (the Polish lyrics and English translation are as side-by-side as I can make them in the WordPress system!).  This recording was made before 13 December 1981, so formed part of the cultural-political landscape of the Solidarity period.  Kaczmarski found himself abroad on that date and did not return until 1990.  To give hope and support to his compatriots at home, he worked and broadcast for Radio Free Europe.

Pędzimy przez Polską dzicz
Wertepy chaszcze błota
Patrz w tył tam nie ma nic
Żałoba i sromota
Patrz w przód tam raz po raz
Cel mgłą niebieską kusi
Tam chce być każdy z nas
Kto nie chce chcieć – ten musi!
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie mija czas!

We tear through Poland’s wilderness
Bumpy roads, scrub, mud
Look behind, nothing there
But sorrow and shame
Look ahead, again and again
The destination entices with blue mist
Each of us wants to be there
Those who don’t want to, must!
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus time goes by!

Tu stoi młody Żyd
Nos wskazuje Żyd czy nie Żyd
I jakby mu było wstyd
Że mimo wszystko przeżył
A baba z koszem jaj
Już szepce do człowieka
– Wie o tym cały kraj
Że Żydzi to bezpieka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka, na nas Raj!

Here stands a young Jew
The nose shows if Jew or non-Jew
And as if he is ashamed
He had survived despite everything
A peasant woman with a basket of eggs
Is already whispering to someone
“The whole country knows about it
Jews are the secret police!”
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait, for us – Paradise!

Inteligentna twarz
Co słucha zamiast mówić
Tors otulony w płaszcz
Szyty na miarę spluwy
A kierowniczy układ
Czerwony wiodąc wóz
Bezgłowa dzierży kukła –
Generalissimus!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta! – Luz i mus!

An intelligent face
That listens rather than talks
A torso wrapped in a coat
Tailor-made to fit a gun
And a steering system
Guiding the red wagon
A headless dummy steers
Generalissimus [Stalin]!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!  – Take it easy, it’s a must!

Za robotnikiem ksiądz
Za księdzem kosynierzy
I ktoś się modli klnąc
Ktoś bluźni ale wierzy
Proletariacki herszt
Kapować coś zaczyna
Więc prosty robi gest
I rękę w łokciu zgina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina! Mocny jest!

Behind a worker, a priest
Behind the priest, peasant recruits with scythes
And someone prays, cursing,
A blasphemer who believes
A proletarian boss
Gets what’s happening
So makes a simple gesture
“Up yours” with hand in elbow!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!  He is strong!

A z tyłu stary dziad
W objęcia wziął prawiczkę
Złośliwy czyha czart
W nadziei na duszyczkę
Upiorów małych rząd
Zwieszonich u poręczy
Krew w żyły sączy trąd
Zatruje! I udręczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy! Jedźmy stąd!

And at the back an old creep
Clasps a virgin in his arms
A malicious devil lurks
In the hope of a soul
A row of little ghosts
Dangling from the handrail
Blood dribbles leprosy into veins
Poison them! And torture them!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!  Let’s get out of here!

• Znak czasu (A Sign of the Times)

It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed since 13 December 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, outlawing the free trade union Solidarity  and bringing to an end an extraordinary period in Polish history.  Traumatic though this action was for the country, it proved not to be conclusive, as subsequent history both in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc has amply  shown.

Poles woke up to find telephone lines cut, radio and television rigidly controlled by the military, airports closed and internal travel severely restricted.  Such an information clampdown is hard to imagine today, but back then there were no social networks or mobile phones (many homes didn’t even have a landline).  All people could do was to sit tight, scrabble around for supplies, and think of what had happened to Solidarity’s bid – and that of virtually the entire population – for greater freedom of action and belief.

Mementos of the Solidarity period became even more iconic: badges, publications, photographs, posters.  I had visited Warsaw in September 1981, not only to attend the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival but also to experience the excitement and activism of the Solidarity movement.  I visited one of the Union’s headquarters and while there bought a number of items, including a small A3 poster that quickly became a prized possession.  My copy of ‘Kardiogram’ is now a bit crumpled and faded (it was then a bright Polish red on white), but it still speaks volumes.

‘Kardiogram’s’ direct design is typical of Polish poster art.  It may be a bit crude in its fervent execution (its typed dates at the top are skew-whiff), but that’s the point.  Its rallying message was a powerful one.  As Jacek Kaczmarski said about his 1981 album of songs Muzeum, Solidarity was just the latest in a continuum of Polish social and political movements that stretched way back before the 20th century.  In this brilliant image, the timeline peaks at moments of insurrection and brutal deaths: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the food riots and crisis that came to a head in October 1956, the student and intellectual protests of March 1968, the food riots in northern Poland, especially in Gdańsk, of December 1970, the workers’ protests of June 1976, and finally the lock-in at the Gdańsk shipyards that led to the formation of Poland’s first free trade union Solidarność in August 1980 under its leader Lech Walęsa.  The image culminates in one of the world’s most memorable graphics, a proud march of letters (figures) waving the Polish flag aloft.

‘Kardiogram’ was designed by Czesław Bielecki in 1980 and is stamped at the base: ‘Druk: Komitet Wydawniczy NSZZ “Solidarność” Region Mazowsze’ (Printing: Publication Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union, Mazowsze Region).  It’s worth noting that printing presses and materials, like paper and ink, as well as the new-fangled photocopiers, were not publicly available in those years in Poland.  Such activities were carried out almost entirely ‘underground’.

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