Saturday, 30 August 2008

Tuwim's Lokomotywa, in English

Ever since I mentioned Julian Tuwim's verse Lokomotywa last December, and its emotional impact on me as a child (especially the version illustrated by Jan Lenica), I noticed that a fair amount of traffic coming to my blogsite has been referred from people googling the poem in English. I've not come across a good translation of it (click here or here or here for the original in Polish), so I translated it myself.

So here it is. I've worked hard to keep sense, rhyme and rhythm as close to the sense of Tuwim's original; it was not easy. Let me know what you think!

The locomotive’s standing at the station,
Huge, heavy, it drips perspiration –
Oily lubrication.

It stands and wheezes, it groans and gnashes
Its boiling belly stuffed with hot ashes:
Arrrgh, what torture!
Phew, what a scorcher!
Panting and puffing!
Hissing and huffing!
It’s barely gasping, it’s barely breathing,
And still its fireman more coal keeps on heaping.

To it were coupled wagons of iron and steel
Massive and heavy, they weighed a great deal
And crowds of people in each one of these,
And one’s full of cows, another of – horsies,
A third one with passengers, every one fat,
Sitting and eating sausagey snacks.
The fourth was packed with crates of bananas.
The fifth one contained – six large grand pianos.
In the sixth a large cannon, cor! what a whopper!
Each of its wheels chocked up right proper!
The seventh, oaken wardrobes and chairs.
The eighth an elephant, giraffe and two bears.
The ninth, fattened pigs – no spare spaces,
The tenth full of trunks, baggage and cases,
Wagons like these – another forty remain,
Not even I could tell you what they contain.
But if a thousand strongmen gathered right here,
And each one would eat a thousand burgers a year,
And each one of them strained with all of his might,
They couldn’t shift this colossal weight.

Suddenly – WHISTLE!
Suddenly – bustle!
Steam – eruption!
Wheels – in motion!

Slowly at first, like a tortoise just waking
Strains the engine, every single joint aching.
But it jerks at the wagons and pulls with great zeal,
It turns, and it turns, wheel after wheel.
It gathers momentum and takes up the chase
As it thunders and hammers and speeds up the pace.

And where to? And where to? And where to? Straight on!
By rail, by rail, by bridge, now it’s gone –
Through mountains and tunnels, through meadows and woods
It’s rushing, it’s rushing to bring on the goods,
It’s knocking out rhythms like banging a drum

It’s gliding so smoothly – no effort at all,
No engine of steel, just a little toy ball,
No massive machine, all panting and puffing
But a plaything of tin, that weighs next to nothing.

From where does it, how does it, why does it rush?
And what is it, who is it, gives it a push?
That makes it go faster, all thrashing and hissing?
It’s steam’s scalding power that keeps the train moving.
It’s steam, piped from boiler to a piston that glides
Back and forth pushing rods that turn wheels on both sides,
They’re striving and driving, the train keeps on bumping,
‘Cause steam keeps the pistons a-pumping and pumping,
Producing a rhythm so pleasing to some:

(Translation copyright Michael Dembinski 2008)


Anonymous said...

That's great Michael! Thank You for the translation!
This is my favourite polish version=) Piotr Fronczewski in action:

Anonymous said...

Greatly enjoyed – and will “record for keeps” – your translation of Tuwim’s “Lokomotywa”. In the course of the most memorable of my various (chiefly rail-enthusiasm-oriented) visits to Poland -- the one I made in 1984 – I found and bought, as a souvenir, a children’s-book version (colourfully illustrated, possibly by Jan Lenica, as you cite) of the poem. (Life’s ups-and-downs for me since then, have meant that I no longer have the book.) My knowledge of Polish was, and is, minimal – but I got the general drift that “what it was about”, was a charming agglomerative nonsense-verse for kids. Extremely pleased to have same, thanks to you, in English.

Robert Hall

Michael Dembinski said...

I've just discovered that a certain Professor Walter Whipple has translated it (

Anonymous said...

I love your translation.I'm going to read it to Polish children in English school(Eastbourne),if you don't mind.
Thank you:)

Michael Dembinski said...

Ah! Eastbourne! Happy childhood memories of summer holidays by the sea. Thanks for your comment, by all means, please read it to the dzieciaki!

Anonymous said...

hey, I've just come across your blog by chance and I have to say that your translation of Tuwim's poem is marvellous!

greetings from Ochota

Peter said...

I love your English translation of the poem.
I have translated it myself into Slovenian after comparing the Polish version with an excellent Ukrainian translation.
I have to say that I prefer it much to prof. Whipple's translation as it is much closer to the original and we shall not forget that it's a poem for children - at least in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Good evening,
I'm writing a BA thesis on 4 different Lokomotywa translations and I haven't been able to get to your email address to consult/ask, firstly whether I've got the permission , and , secondly, I'd love to know whether you've tried to translate anything before -Magda

Michael Dembinski said...

Hi Magda - please send me an email: michaeldembinski(at sign)

Which other translations are you looking at?

All the very best,