Polish Literature in 4 Minutes: An Interview with Ksenia Staroselskaya
A study of Polish-Russian relations in literature: readers in Russia can enjoy everything from the Polish classics to Polish literature of the 21st century – and the person to thank for that is Ksenia Staroselskaya.
In an interview with Culture.pl, we asked Staroselskaya about translating Polish literature into Russian today, the qualities necessary to become a true translator, misconceptions about the profession as well as some funny stories from the life of an editor.
Ksenia Staroselskaya is a translator of Polish fiction, a member of the editorial board of the journal Foreign Literature, a longtime editor of the Polish series for the publishing house NLO. She has won numerous awards, among them the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the Polish PEN Club Prize and the Transatlantic Prize from the Institute of Books in Krakow. She has translated the works of Konwicki, Różewicz, Hłasko, Myśliwski, Mrożek, Sienkiewicz, Witkiewicz, Miłosz, Pilch, Krall and many others.
Natalia Vitvitskaya: How do things stand in Russian publishing with translating Polish works into Russian?
Ksenia Staroselskaya: It’s difficult for me to talk about publishing as I am not a publisher. I can judge only by how many books come on to the market. Undoubtedly, there are fewer and fewer being published. Even the great series by the NLO (editor’s translation: The New Literature Review), with which I was involved for some time, was discontinued. This series was created to publish the newest works of Polish fiction and it did so with success for almost 10 years. However, gradually the publishing politics began to change, circulation began to fall, and it also became harder for me to find worthy fictional pieces: today in Poland, in my opinion, reportage is much stronger than fiction, and willy-nilly non-fiction works fall into ‘my list’. And though works deserving of attention absolutely appeared there, the series did not generate much interest. And I haven’t even mentioned other publishers, who only occasionally publish Polish literature.
What are the reasons for this drop in interest?
Polish literature, unfortunately, was never at the top of the interests of our readers. Actually, that’s not true. In Soviet times, it was very much in demand because it filled the void left by the lack of books by western writers. The books were a ‘window to Europe’. When the perestroika began, it became possible to print everything. Translators began to pull everything they had wanted to publish but were not allowed to out of their bottom drawers. For example, I was finally able to print Marek Hłasko. And he became well-known. That was around 1993. On one hand, Polish literature became even more available. On the other hand – it was ‘beaten out’ by western literature. By English-language literature mostly. For example, I translated a couple romance novels from English for Eksmo Publishing House, when it had only just been established, having been promised that, in return, they would take Polish literature ‘seriously’. They still needed to make a living. Now, it seems, things are even worse.
Is the political situation affecting this?
I don’t want to presume – my relationship with politics is one of a philistine’s. But some unpleasantness is in the air, that’s for sure. Take, for example, our censorship, the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications). Their task is to remove profanity and the names of terrorist organizations. But sometimes they prevent the publishing of Polish works quietly, not calling it an outright ban. We all know about one such occasion. A book of articles by Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was ready for release. The circulation was quite tiny – no more than 500 copies. It was supposed to be published by a small St. Petersburg publisher that had only just started up. Suddenly a commission appeared intending to ‘check the book’, but instead of taking one copy or a digital version, they took all 500 copies. And that was it. It was not an outright ban. But this book was not released – that is a fact.
Another story. The Poles initiated the publication of a guide on modern Polish literature. I think it was called – A Guide. In a story on the Russia 24 channel, an outraged reporter ranted that the book promoted homosexuality (there was a chapter called ‘Polish Homosexual Prose After 1989’). What’s more, he came down on Szymborska! Can you imagine! The Noble laureate and famous Polish poet Wisława Szymborska dared to write a poem… which on do you think they were talking about? The First Photograph of Hitler. I, of course, immediately found it in Polish. It is about how Hitler was also once a child, a sweet plump little boy in a funny outfit. I’m sure, that they were given a special assignment ‘from higher up’ to ‘dig up’ something on this or ‘denounce’ someone. The worst thing is that there are now similar initiatives on social media.
There aren’t outright bans on some Polish names. But there are indirect bans – financial bans. Publishers pay a negligibly small amount for translations. The interest of readers of Polish literature is decreasing, so profits are decreasing and with them, the interest of publishers.
How do you think Wisława Szymborska would respond if she knew about this?
She was a very witty person. Maybe she would even be amused. She would say: ‘Ha-ha-ha! They're accusing me of being a Hitler apologist.’
Today, what is most often translated from Polish?
We only translate Janusz Leon Wiśniewski. About 8,10 years ago, I received a call from the Culture channel. They had a television programme on literature that was hosted by Nikolay Alexandrov. They asked me to appear in a segment about Polish literature. They literally told me: ‘you will have 4 minutes’. I answered: ‘Well, in 4 minutes I can’t say much’ – ‘Sure you can! What’s there to say? Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Wiśniewski’. True story! I was able to politely tell them what I think about this topic in four minutes after all. But there weren’t any words in the segment about Wiśniewski. Instead, a video clip played: I was filmed at home on a ladder, taking a Bruno Schulz album off the shelf. Right after that, there was footage from a book store where Wiśniewski had come to give out autographs. Who else do they print? We love Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy books.
What is your average circulation today?
1000-1500 copies. We printed 2000 of my translation of a book about Provence by Adam Wodnicki with Ivan Limbakh Publishing House. Limbakh publishes great, worthwhile books that won’t make a profit. It is very valuable and merits every respect. They published the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz and now they are now preparing a big book on Jerzy Giedroyc.
Any prospects for the future?
Only sad ones.
What about young translators?
In the USSR, there were many good translators. We had an excellent school. It’s hard to say whether such a school still exists today. I don’t think so. In Soviet times, one could make a living translating, not doing anything else. I was earning approximately the same amount as a Ph.D. student at a research institute. Maybe even a senior researcher. This was enough for quite a dignified life. I knew that if I translate a lot and I could earn enough money that my son and I could live quite comfortably.
Nowadays a very sad practice has developed – when a publisher wants to make money, it gives translators a very short time to work. It’s simply not possible to do a truly good translation in such a short period of time. No one has ever offered me such a job, thank God, but I know, for example, that one of the Harry Potter books had to be translated in 2 months. Can you imagine? An unusually difficult and long book. In the end, three of the best English translators were working on it – Golyshev, Ilyin and Motylev. They split the text into three parts among them. Again, these are very good translators and, even so, there were tons of mistakes. It wasn’t enough time even for them.
Young translators agree to any terms. They need to earn a living. I used to have my own personal norm – I would translate, on average, two pages a month. I was responsible for every line and I did not hurry. But now young translators frequently do translations with their left feet and most likely with the help of electronic translators. I don’t want to make accusations, I don’t know for sure. But when I was a member of the jury for the Szymborska contest, I was handed a few nearly identical translations. The same set of words. A terrible thing!
Perhaps one shouldn’t blame the translators for this.
This is what I most sad about. But still, there are so many bad translations. But I am looking through the eyes of an editor. I just can’t read translated books. I notice everything – carelessness, hurriedness, crudeness. Almost none of my students work as translators, with very few exceptions. The Polish language is a hobby for them, a love. They all need to feed their families. So where are we supposed to get good translations from?
Would you say that, for you, Polish language is also a love?
It is my life. I would say so, yes.
What exactly do you love about Polish culture?
One time the wonderful writer, now passed, Kornel Filipowicz, asked me: ‘What do you like so much about these Poles?’ I answered: ‘I like that they can live peacefully, but when needed, an outburst occurs, a common impulse unites the people, they arise as one. They all stand up shoulder to shoulder.’ To that Filipowicz answered: ‘Yes, of course, but they are just as capable of being discouraged’. This cooled my ardor a bit (laughs), however my romantic notions never disappeared. At the end of the 1960s, I only went to Poland about once every three years by private invitation, but when I was there, I stayed for a whole month. I was able to see so much. It was quite a different life. More free, western. A different way of life. Different attitudes. Of course, I wasn’t in the Polish countryside, I didn’t see the so-called ‘lower class.’ My world was literature, which I loved very much. For practically my whole life I have translated what I wanted to. That tethered me to Poland.
Translators have this concept of ‘their authors’. What is the common thread among ‘your authors’?
The ability to write well. I won’t talk about the only classic which I’ve translated – it was Henryk Sienkiewicz. Among ‘my authors’ there is Nowak, Myśliwski, Konwicki. Masters of a higher level. The more youthful the discourse, the more I fall in love. And (I saw this not without pride) I opened our readers up to the best: Jerzy Pilch, Olga Tokarczuk, Paweł Huelle, Stefan Chwin. And Hłasko is forever young.
What is happening today in modern Polish literature? Any good tendencies?
The tendency is clear, not only to me. Polish literature today is literature of facts. They have a multitude of brilliant reporters, they are a special breed of masters. Do you know who the ‘Three Ks’ are? Krall, Kapuściński, and Kąkolewski. The creators of Polish literature of fact. They have many students and successors. But take for example, Małgorzata Szejnert, who worked at the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza for 15 or 20 years in the department of reportage. She taught young reporters the trade and also wrote four wonderful books. Everything that she writes is true – more fascinating than novels. It is like she wrote it all in one breath. No extravagance or special techniques necessary. And there’s Hanna Krall, with whom I now am in touch all the time, who writes in a direct and compact way. I think that soon she will start working without words (laughs). She keeps on reducing the number of words she uses, as if they only get in her way.
Can you tell who will become classics in the future?
It’s hard to say. Well, for example, Jacek Dehnel. He is still young, he is about 35 years old. He has written a few books of various kinds. Will he become a classic? I don’t know. But he has a truly brilliant style. And the reason that he may become a classic, is that he has what it takes.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about being a translator?
Almost no one regards translation as an art form. Only as an ancillary activity.
What does someone who wants to become a translator need to know?
You need to have a good ear. Not only the ability of ‘bringing the words’ into your native language but also a good ear. This is absolutely necessary to understand the meaning of the words. It is like the first layer you rip off the author you are translating. Then the meaning is laid bare before you.
Do you ever get tired of books?
I only get physically tired. I realize that my work suffers the moment I stop finding the right words. But in all other respects translation is therapy for me, medicine. If I am in a bad mood, if it is difficult to get out of the house because I have a cold or my feet hurt, I forget about it as soon as I sit down to translate. It makes me happy. It is interesting to me.
I want to end our conversation on an optimistic note. How would you like to see the relationship between the two cultures– Polish and Russian?
It is always good when people understand each other. But if these people live in different circumstances (and now the circumstances are becoming more and more different), then they must somehow find a way to understand one another. So they don’t see each other as enemies. That Jews don’t see don’t see everyone in Poland as an anti-Semite, and Poles don’t say that Russians always oppress them. We must break down stereotypes and see each other as people, not through the prism of politics.
Interview by Natalia Vitvitskaya – journalist, theater critic, press attaché of the Studio of Theater Arts (CTI) Sergey Zhenovach; translated by KA, 9 Mar 2017