10 Polish Non-Fiction Picks in Translation
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Literary translator Sean Bye tells Culture.pl readers his personal pick of Polish non-fiction books in translation.
I recently gave you all some of my favourite fiction titles from my 15 years of reading Polish literature. But I’m an even bigger fan of Polish non-fiction. In addition to essays, memoirs, and historical writing, Poland has its own nearly unique tradition of literary long-form journalism, sometimes called reportage (say it like it’s French – it rhymes with massage).
So here are some of my top titles in Polish non-fiction. All of them are available in English (or will be very soon!) so you can check them out no matter what your Polish is like.
A brief note before we start: you’ll notice the books here on Polish history tend to be about the Second World War. That of course reflects the importance of the war in Poland’s modern history, but it also reflects what English-language publishers tend to go for: for better or for worse, World War II is perhaps the best-known chapter of Poland’s history in the Anglophone world. Personally, I hope that as time goes on, works in translation will help expand knowledge of many aspects of Poland’s rich history, and we’ll see a greater variety of titles in English.
With that being said, here are my ten picks!
10 Recommended Polish Fiction Titles in Translation
1. ‘The Emperor’ by Ryszard Kapuściński
- English translation by William R. Brand
Ryszard Kapuściński is the father (or at this point, the grandfather) of the Polish school of reportage. For years the only foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency, he was the one who got sent to cover major international events no matter where they were taking place – Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, he went everywhere. The Emperor is what first brought his name to the English-speaking world. It’s the story of the 1974 coup against Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, as told first-hand by courtiers, officials, and staff in the Imperial Palace. Kapuściński’s writing is so beautifully smooth, I’ve often wondered how much he adapted these materials – and indeed, controversy has raged for years about how much of this book is factual. But I still find it an insightful and entertaining peek behind the curtains of autocracy – and all the cruelty and absurdity that go along with it.
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2. ‘Gottland’ by Mariusz Szczygieł
- English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Mariusz Szczygieł is a household name in Poland – he hosted Poland’s first-ever talk show, making him a sort of cross between Jerry Springer and Oprah. But he’s also an extremely talented writer, with a razor-sharp wit and an eye for the hilarious – and an ardent Czechophile. Gottland is a collection of true stories from modern Czech history. They are fascinating, sometimes frightening, and often hilarious, and with Szczygieł highlighting the Czechs’ stoicism, self-effacement and black humour. From the world-famous Bata shoe company’s model towns, to the brutal Nazi German occupation, to the construction – and almost immediate demolition – of the world’s largest statue of Joseph Stalin, the stories in this book are unforgettable.
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3. ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall
- English translation by Philip Boehm
Hanna Krall is a master storyteller of the Holocaust. A survivor herself, she has committed her life to preserving and retelling the wartime stories of Polish Jews. She writes in a highly literary, but distinctly plain style – she has said that the more harrowing the material, the simpler the prose should be. Chasing the King of Hearts tells the story of Izolda, whose husband, Shayek, is deported to the concentration camps. Izolda goes on a years-long journey to follow him and attempt to free him, by any means necessary. To me this short, gripping book reads almost like a novel, its events so extraordinary it’s easy to forget they really happened. Krall also unflinchingly tells of the problems the couple faced when finally reunited after the war – and the ways that trauma can drive a wedge between two people, even when devoted to one another.
4. ‘Ellis Island: A People’s History’ by Małgorzata Szejnert
- English translation by Sean Gasper Bye
Polish reportage authors tackle topics from all around the world, including from right in us Anglophones’ backyards. Małgorzata Szejnert is one of the most important living Polish journalists – an opposition activist under Solidarity, she went on to co-found the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper and for 15 years mentored an entire generation of journalists. After ‘retiring’, she devoted herself to writing books. Now in her 80s, this year will see the publication of her first translation into English. Ellis Island: A People’s History is the story of the most important immigrant entryway to America. Szejnert tells the island’s whole history – from pre-Columbian times to the present day – concentrating on the individuals who shaped and were shaped by this iconic place. As I translated it, I was struck by how many of the last 150 years of debate about immigration echoes today. Szejnert ensures these tales of acceptance and discrimination, failure and success always have a human face.
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5. ‘The Captive Mind’ by Czesław Miłosz
- English Translation by Jane Zielonko
Czesław Miłosz is probably best known as an émigré poet whose extraordinary writing earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. In 1951, when Miłosz was a diplomat in Paris, he defected to the West. Published a few years later, The Captive Mind is an early attempt to lift the lid on the totalitarian system then holding Poland in its grip. Troubled by the question of why so many Polish intellectuals seemed to accept or even embrace communism, Miłosz embarks on an insightful deep reading of his society and his generation. My favourite moment of this book is when he profiles four actual Polish writers, whom he calls Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta – each with their own strategies for surviving, and in some cases thriving, under communism.
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6. ‘The Crime and the Silence’ by Anna Bikont
- English Translation by Alissa Valles
One of the most painful chapters in Poland’s wartime history took place in the small town of Jedwabne. Here, in 1941, the local ethnic Polish population turned on their Jewish neighbours, rounding up hundreds of them and burning them alive in a barn. This history was suppressed under communism, and to this day the precise events, what sparked them, and how many died are all extremely sensitive topics in Poland. In The Crime and the Silence, journalist Anna Bikont bravely tries to get to the bottom of the story, having devoted four years to research with eyewitnesses and in archive materials. To me, this book is a living example of Polish society processing intergenerational trauma in real time.
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7. ‘Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising’ by Miron Białoszewski
- English translation by Madeleine Levine
Miron Białoszewski was one of the great voices of the post-war generation, known above all for his poetry. But he also wrote drama and prose, and his A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising remains one of the definitive texts of this harrowing stage of World War II. Białoszewski lived through the uprising of 1944, a last-ditch attempt to drive the German occupiers out of the city before the Red Army arrived. His book, written decades later once censorship had eased, is a mile-a-minute, street-by-street account of a historic event at a human scale. I love how deftly Madeleine Levine handles Białoszewski’s fragmented and incomplete sentences. Fun fact: this was the first book Levine ever translated (in 1970), and she had the chance to revise it for its republication in 2016, over 40 years later.
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8. ‘Watercolours’ by Lidia Ostałowska
- English translation by Sean Gasper Bye
Ostałowska’s writing concentrated on marginalised people and communities, and she had a particular interest in Poland’s Roma (sometimes called Gypsy) community. Watercolours tells the story of Dina Babbitt, née Gottliebová – a Czech Jewish artist imprisoned in Auschwitz. Dina was forced to work as a medical illustrator for the notorious Dr Joseph Mengele, who was conducting horrific experiments on prisoners. Among her tasks was to paint watercolour portraits of Mengele’s Roma test subjects and victims. Dina eventually survived the war and emigrated to the United States. Her paintings, long thought lost, resurfaced decades later and became the subject of a long-running ownership dispute. I love that Ostałowska doesn’t satisfy herself with retelling Dina’s (admittedly riveting) story. She also gives her readers a cultural history of Auschwitz, tracing how conflicts over history and identity have shaped our collective memory of the Holocaust. Finally, she shines a much-needed light on the Nazi genocide of the Roma – a chapter of World War II history which historians are still investigating.
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9. ‘Medallions’ by Zofia Nałkowska
- English Translation by Diana Kuprel
Zofia Nałkowska was a towering figure in 20th-century literature, and one of my personal heroes. One of the most important novelists of the interwar years and a prominent feminist, she is best known in Poland for her remarkable war diary. Nałkowska spent most of the war in Warsaw, documenting her day-to-day life – before being practically dragged from her apartment on the eve of the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, her prominence ensured her a remarkable degree of freedom, and she served on the commission investigating German war crimes on Polish territory. She turned these harrowing stories into a slim, poetic and heart-wrenching collection of miniatures titled Medallions. Few books can bring home the horror of the war with such emotional intelligence and power as this one.
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10. ‘Ganbare! Lessons in Dying’ by Katarzyna Boni
- English translation by Mark Ordon
This is another book that’s not quite out yet in English, but it’s a great example of ambitious Polish reportage. Boni traveled to Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster – the tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown that scarred Japan. She tells the stories of those affected by the disaster – those who lost loved ones, those who worked in the plant, and those who helped rescue survivors. But she also tells a story about the culture of death and mourning in Japan, which is informed by centuries of Japanese experience dealing with mass catastrophe, but also new and innovative ideas about emotional openness in a society known for de-emphasising individual needs. I enjoyed how Boni takes a blended historical, cultural, and even philosophical approach – and it helps that she’s a great prose stylist.
Written by Sean Bye, April 2020
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