We always need more children’s books to delight the eye and the ear, in as many languages as possible. The Polish Dwie Siostry (two sisters) Publishing is awarding 2,500 euro to the best new one to add to their catalogue: the deadline for proposals next week.
If I was judging I’d be looking for more books like this Polish classic, which still needs an English edition. The poet, Julian Tuwim, didn’t just write for children; he led an experimental poetry movement, wrote songs and cabaret, translated Pushkin from Russian, and much more.I read my mum’s battered childhood copy of Tuwim’s Lokomotywa/The Locomotive long before I started learning Polish formally, and it’s the sounds that get you; it’s so wonderfully onomatopoeic, you can hear the train moving. Listen to a classic performance of it in Polish here and you’ll see what I mean (you can follow the text here). This English translation by Michael Dembinski does real justice to all the pistons and whistling.
The locomotive’s standing at the station,
Huge, heavy, it drips perspiration –
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
DUM-buDUM, DUM-buDUM DUM-buDUM-DUM!
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:
DUM-buDUM, DUM-buDUM DUM-buDUM-DUM!
The images of the 1982 edition of Lokomotywa are from this rather lovely site of illustrated Polish and international children’s books.