10 Recommended Polish Fiction Titles in Translation
#language & literature
portrait, Sean Bye, photo: Julia Sanches, center, sean-bye.jpg
Literary translator Sean Bye reveals to Culture.pl readers his must-read Polish fiction titles in translation.
I started studying Polish literature as an undergraduate in 2005. Fifteen years later, as a literary translator, Polish literature is still a major part of my life. I wanted to share some favourite titles from my last decade-and-a-half of reading – all these are available in translation, so you can check them out no matter what your Polish is like!
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1. ‘House of Day, House of Night’ by Olga Tokarczuk
- English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This was the first book I ever read in Polish. Olga Tokarczuk is, of course, Poland’s most recent literary Nobel winner and is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for her ‘constellation novel’ Flights. But she had already been a major star in Poland for over a decade. This haunting mosaic portrait of Nowa Ruda, the town in Silesia where Tokarczuk lives, blends the town’s history and its present into a kind of ghost story. Reading it, I couldn’t help but remember that in Poland, the past is never truly past.
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2. ‘Swallowing Mercury’ by Wioletta Greg
- English translation by Eliza Marciniak
Wioletta Greg (whose full Polish name is Grzegorzewska) made her career as a poet, but this debut novel caused a sensation in Poland and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. An unflinching portrayal of life in rural Poland in the 1980s, I loved having Greg immerse me both in the stunning beauty of the countryside and the stifling reality of life in a village where everyone knows one another and secrets are never too far from the surface. Amid the darkness, Greg’s prose shimmers and shines with imagery that’s stuck with me long after reading.
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3. ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ by Jerzy Andrzejewski
- English translation by David Welsh
Jerzy Andrzejewski was the leading Polish novelist of the mid-20th century. His career spanning five decades, the Second World War, and numerous ideological and stylistic permutations – Andrzejewski was the consummate chameleon. Ashes and Diamonds is his most famous novel. Reading this book as a student in Kraków, I couldn’t get enough of the noirish atmosphere as loyalists of the pre-war republic struggle against the new communist authorities on the final day of WWII, amid a society in physical and spiritual ruin. I’m also fascinated by the book’s back-story: published before the imposition of censorship in communist-era Poland, it was later reissued with politically sensitive material removed. The film version, directed by Andrzej Wajda and starring Zbigniew Cybulski, is widely considered a classic.
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4. ‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus
- English translation by David Welsh
Often considered the best novel in the Polish language, The Doll is an epic and in-depth portrait of an entire society in the late 19th century. Bolesław Prus is my favorite of the major novelists from this era--a leading advocate for the cultural and educational power of literature, his social realist work was meant to nourish Polish society in the dark days of foreign occupation. The book’s main characters – young Wokulski, a struggling scientist and businessman, and the older Rzecki, a veteran of the failed mid-19th century independence uprisings – show a modern Polish society fighting to establish itself amid social conservatism, class division, and foreign occupation.
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5. ‘Collected Stories’ by Bruno Schulz
- English translation by Madeleine Levine
Little remains of the work of this remarkable author and artist. A victim of the Holocaust, Bruno Schulz was arbitrarily shot in the street by a German Gestapo officer in 1942. Many of his works were lost in the course of the war – yet his surviving short stories sent ripples around the world, making him one of Poland’s most influential writers. The first time I read Schulz, I was riveted--his remarkable portrayals of pre-war Jewish life blend reality and dream in a way that reminded me powerfully of Magic Realism, but that predates that movement by decades. Wojciech Jerzy Has’s wonderfully surreal film The Hourglass Sanitarium, based on Schulz’s stories, is another favorite of mine and one example of how this author’s work has lived long past his tragic death.
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6. ‘The King of Warsaw’ by Szczepan Twardoch
- English translation by Sean Gasper Bye
Okay, I’m tooting my own horn here, but this book is really good. Szczepan Twardoch is one of contemporary Polish literature’s breakout superstars. His most famous books show antiheroes in grim historical settings, and feature enough graphic sex and violence to make Quentin Tarantino blush. The King of Warsaw tells the story of Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and gang enforcer striving to rule the capital’s underworld as Polish society collapses on the eve of WW II. With an unreliable narrator, heart-pounding action sequences, and a mysterious flying sperm whale, this book is compulsively readable, while offering a thoroughly researched and unsentimental portrait of a fascinating period in Polish history. I can’t wait to see what waves it makes in the English-speaking world.
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7. ‘A Grain of Truth’ by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
- English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Poland today is known for its strong crime writers, and Zygmunt Miłoszewski is a leading example. I’m not a fan of simple whodunnits, but Miłoszewski’s novels are anything but, always probing the dark underbelly of Polish society, casting a light on challenging issues and sparking debate. Here, prosecutor Teodor Szacki has left Warsaw for charming and beautiful Sandomierz. But when a victim is found, apparently murdered in a way reminiscent of Jewish slaughter, a wave of anti-Semitic paranoia sweeps through the town. Szacki must fight social prejudice at the same time as trying to solve the case. A Grain of Truth sparked controversy in Poland, but was later adapted into a successful film directed by Borys Lankosz and starring Robert Więckiewicz.
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8. ‘Malvina, or the Heart’s Intuition’ by Maria Wirtemberska
- English translation by Ursula Philips
A somewhat forgotten classic, Malvina is not only considered the first modern Polish novel – it is also the first by a woman. Published in 1816, it follows its main character through a series of trials and tribulations in a creative structure that includes narrative, internal monologue, and epistolary passages. I find it remarkably action-packed and entertaining for a novel from so long ago-but others won’t be so surprised. Maria Wirtemberska’s style and subject matter have led some to call her the Polish Jane Austen, though sadly her popularity hasn’t lasted into the present in the same way. Still, this pioneering work by an exceptional novelist deserves more widespread attention.
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9. ‘Cosmos’ by Witold Gombrowicz
- English translation by Danuta Borchardt
Witold Gombrowicz is one of Poland’s most renowned and anarchic writers. He spent much of his life in exile in Argentina – there, free of the limitations of censorship, he wrote work that probed the depths of the grotesque, fetishistic and queer. Set in a roadside boarding house, Cosmos tells the story of two friends convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that their new lodgings conceal some dark mystery – and find hints in everything from their hosts’ behavior, the arrangement of sticks found outside, and the shape of cracks on the ceiling. I still often find myself laughing at this Gombrowicz’s demented and hilarious exploration of humans’ tendency to find patterns everywhere and delude ourselves into believing even the strangest hypotheses.
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10. ‘Pan Tadeusz’ by Adam Mickiewicz
- English translation by Bill Johnston
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polish literature in translation
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Pan Tadeusz is admittedly a work of poetry – but as a novel in verse, we can think of it as perhaps the crowning achievement of Polish fiction. Considered Poland’s national epic by the country’s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz tells a love story on a Lithuanian estate, portraying the dying days of the old Polish nobility in the early years after Poland’s loss of independence. I have to admit I expected Pan Tadeusz to be pious or dry--but actually it’s a fantastic read. Combining romance, humor, action and beautiful descriptions of nature, its story is told with sensitivity, yearning, humor and charm. Translated numerous times into English, the latest version by Bill Johnston is perhaps the best yet.
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