From Leśmian to Sosnowski and Masłowska, scholar of Slavic languages Ben Paloff discusses the challenges of translating Polish authors and answers the most difficult question of all: can Henryk Sienkiewicz ever be interesting for English readers? (And why the Polish diaspora is the worst adviser).
Mikołaj Gliński: Your fascination with Polish literature started with Miłosz, but your first book-length translation was Masłowska. This may be a bit surprising.
Ben Paloff: By the time I started translating larger works my education in Polish literature was sufficiently advanced that I realized not only that there was more to Polish literature than Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska – although these are all wonderful writers – but also that what I had been taught much earlier about these authors was incredibly narrow and myopic, even misleading. The sort of martyrological narrative of Polish poetry, and of Polish culture generally, was artificial and false. I learned of other contemporary poets, like Miron Białoszewski, who give us a very different view of Polish history, as well as of poetic language. Masłowska was someone who at the time was garnering a great deal of interest as a young, contemporary innovator in language – and the peculiarity of language is my main interest in translation.
This interest surfaces in some of the texts you had decided to translate, like Gombrowicz...
Before Masłowska I had translated one of the late texts from Gombrowicz’s Bacacay, called Szczur. It was actually through this translation that the publisher of Masłowska found me. Attempting to translate Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną was a continuation of that same interest in the language and poetics of translation, not just in, say, the pre-fab historical narrative. Although Masłowska does double duty in that sense, as someone incredibly valuable in providing a counter-narrative to Polish martyrology.
Was Gombrowicz helpful in developing the English idiom for Wojna?
In a way. Gombrowicz is a tremendous challenge for translators into English. One of the principle challenges for me as a reader of Gombrowicz in Polish and English is that Gombrowicz is deadly serious and systematic and also incredibly funny. That's why I get kind of frustrated when I hear Gombrowicz descibed as an absurdist. There's really nothing absurd about it, it's not anti-system, and in fact he’s scrupulously consistent. This is why he declared himself the first Structuralist. Some of the early attempts to translate Gombrowicz into English could capture his philosophical vigour without capturing his humor. It was a kind of tonal problem. There have been now at least two translations of Transatlantyk, for example. One that came out in 1995, and which was fairly widely read, I don't particularly like, because I read it, I understand it, but it doesn't make me laugh. And that for me means that something is missing.
So the challenge of translating something like Szczur was to create something in English that would be both intellectually stimulating and also laugh-out-loud funny. Because if I translate something that makes me laugh, and someone else reads my translation but doesn't laugh, then I haven't really completed the translation. One reason you translate is because you want to share it. Most of my friends don't read Polish, and I don’t like having to say, “Oh, this is really funny/smart/interesting/horrifying. Too bad you can't read it! Just take my word for it”. There's no reason why you should ever take someone's word for it when it comes to funny or sad. You either experience this viscerally, or you don't. I translate because I want to share the experience.
How was translating Masłowska different from Gombrowicz?
I can say that translating Masłowska was certainly more challenging, but it's quite clear the extent to which she extends the Gombrowiczian tradition. Of course, when the book came out in Polish many critics immediately remarked on how it really revives that interwar experimentation in language.
Do you think the English translation of Masłowska was successful in this respect? She is also what one would call a “funny” author, I believe.
Well, it's successful for me. Since this translation came out ten years ago, I've taught the book, my colleagues have taught the book, and I’ve spotted several errors, several things I would probably change or approach differently. Just because I'm changing, too. But, overall, it still makes me laugh and feel pretty sad.
That's a good definition of Masłowska's art.
One of the most important aspects of my own compositional process is reading the work aloud, often impersonating the voices of the characters as I hear them. If that performance works out for me, then the translation is falling into place. That book still works for me.
Speaking of challenging authors, you have also translated Leśmian, one of the most difficult poets of Polish language. How did that work?
Leśmian is an ongoing interest of mine. As is Interwar philosophical literature in general, especially if it touches on ontological problems and paradoxes. Thus my interest in Gombrowicz, Schulz, Witkacy. You're referring to a translation of Dziewczyna – this is one of several poems of Leśmian I have translated, but I have been slow to publish others. I have been translating Leśmian at a very slow rate, maybe one or two poems a year, through many, many drafts. Leśmian is a kind of extreme example of that test of musicality, because he is so musical in his lyric poems that one wants to capture the song-like quality of the verse without making it sound sing-song. A good analogy would be to the lyric approach of early Yeats, or to an extent Emily Dickinson. These are really both extremely difficult poets to translate, and it took a master like Barańczak to translate them into Polish. Stanisław Barańczak had a supernatural ear for the musicality of language, in both English and Polish. But for me Leśmian is a very slow process of writing in a way that is capable of conveying the sound information without making it sound like it’s cardboard. Leśmian is not a pop song.
Musicality is probably one aspect of the difficulty with Leśmian. Another issue is his word-formation... How do you tackle this? Is it possible to translate Leśmian at all? I personally cannot imagine his poems in any other language...
I do not subscribe even remotely to this idea of something being impossible to translate. Everything is possible to translate. In fact, in Polish it comes across extremely well in the verbs tłumaczyć and wytłumaczyć – there's a way of explicating information that is already implicated in the term translate. The problem that I find very often with lyric poetry in traditional form is that the translator simply resigns from the necessity of translating aural information and goes only for semantic information. But if those two things aren’t working in tandem it isn’t a poem anyway. That's what a poem is: sound and sense.
Leśmianisms are a big challenge, but it can be done. Frankly, I especially like when someone says, “That's untranslatable”. It makes me feel contrary, it plays into the oppositional side of my personality, something between anger and arrogance that I otherwise try to keep at bay. I remember being at a translators' conference in Krakow several years ago, and there was a discussion that touched on Leśmian’s poem “Tu jestem, w mrokach ziemi…” and focusing on the phrase “drżąc ustnie.” One particularly self-assured translator in the first row said, “But it's impossible,” and I immediately thought, “OK, let's see how impossible it is”. My translation of the poem uses “orally atremble.” which is to my mind an appropriate reflection of what a Leśmianism is, that is, totally comprehensible and utterly weird, almost what a child would come up with when trying to express him- or herself on the basis of linguistic norms that are not fully digested. Children create things that don't exist in language, but they should. When she was maybe four years old, my daughter stubbed her toe or hit her foot and exclaimed, “Fuck dammit!” This does not exist in English. And I immediately said, “It's not very polite, sweetie, but it's pretty good”. It doesn't exist in English, but it should: it's a perfect expression of modern displeasure. Children do this naturally, Leśmian had to do it intellectually. But if we are willing to put ourselves in this mindset, he's certainly translatable.
Another "difficult" poet in your translation CV is Andrzej Sosnowski. Why did you decide to translate Sosnowski? Considering that he is described as a poet particularly dependent on the American poetic tradition...
Among those who are really tied into contemporary American literary culture, names like Miłosz, Szymborska, and Herbert are quite large, but that’s one particular tradition, and there are – well, I don't want to say “alternatives,” because these things are always in conversation with each other. But it seemed to me that the conversation that I've been hearing about what constitutes Polish poetry was incredibly repetitive and reifying, reinforcing itself over and over again. So I thought it was time to broaden the vision a little bit. That’s one reason I was motivated to translate Andrzej Sosnowski. But what I just said is almost like a rationalization after the fact. The real reason is because I feel compelled by this particular writer.
I'm a great admirer of Sosnowski’s work, I think he's a great poet, and he’s eminently relevant to American literature. I've described him in the past as being kind of what contemporary American poetry looks like when seen through a funhouse mirror. Sosnowski isn’t the only one who provides that; Piotr Sommer does, too, and some members of Brulion. I recently finished translating a very large selection of Krzysztof Jaworski's poems. These are poets who broaden the conversation because they provide a different wavelength of Polish poetry.
Sosnowski is a great admirer of John Ashbery, James Schyler, a huge fan of David Bowie. I'm a great admirer of Ashbery and Schyler and a huge fan of Bowie, so I felt like we were in conversation with each other. I see Sosnowski’s influence very strongly in my book And His Orchestra, which I wrote more or less simultaneously with my Sosnowski translations. He had me thinking in a longer, discursive line, and he has long helped me appreciate the oddity of quotidian experience when the poet resists narrativizing that experience into a preconceived meaning. If we resist the impulse to make sense of what we see and hear and, as one often finds in postwar poetry both in Poland and in the United States, to make that sense somehow universally relevant, the information of our daily interactions in the world are fascinating and strange, as is the language we use to “tag” those interactions. This is why the difficulty readers have with the likes of Ashbery and Sosnowski – and it is a real difficulty – is so interesting. When we read them slowly and think seriously about their deep allegiance to living language –to its often tortured syntax, misfired yet illuminating rhetoric, its potential for creative confusion – it becomes clear that it’s the language(s) we speak among ourselves all the time, and not lyrical language per se, that is so perplexing.
Do you mean the Polish Sosnowski or the English one?
Once you translate 200 pages of something, they become the same, in a way. In fact, some of Sosnowski's poems in Polish strike me as being interesting translations of Sosnowski from English. It seems almost as if he had thought of them in English and translated them into Polish himself. I think that the dialogue between Sosnowski and specifically the New York School poets is so thick that these things are inextricable.
Another way of answering the same question would be to say that when I see Sosnowski's influence in my poems, it's my Sosnowski I have in mind. Because, in some sense, translation is a transcription of one’s own reading. You're doing a very intimate, close reading of a text and then transcribing your experience of that text over time. There is to my mind – and I'm saying this as someone who does scholarly work on literature as well – no more intimate way of reading than translating.
Yes, scholarly work and teaching are another aspect of your experience with Polish literature. You teach Polish literature of the nineteenth century, for example, which is quite obscure when compared to work by Russian authors of the same period: Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy... One could go on, but it would be much harder to pick out a single Polish author from this period who is known outside of Poland. What do you make of this under-representation of Polish Realism among foreign readers? Or, if under-represented, perhaps justifiably so?
This is a complicated question, and it's also of paedagogical interest to me. If you say that nineteenth-century Polish literature is underrepresented, one can immediately ask, “Underrepresented for what”? What is the audience using this literature for, and how might different audiences find their own ways of using it—including the option of ignoring it altogether? One of the challenges for teaching and discussing a foreign literature in the American context is that the value a text might hold in its native context is not the value this text might hold in a foreign context.
One of the reasons Russian literature has been so successful in the Anglo-American context – and there are a number of reasons, many of them historical or institutional – is that even as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were writing there were British translators providing that material to English readers specifically within a English cultural context. So at the time when British readers were still very much enamoured of George Eliot and Charles Dickens, there were writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy available to them. These are writers that are both in conversation with that British tradition and who are also broadly aligned with the same moment in so-called “world literature.” In that sense, it's not only a matter of translating the text – you have to translate the context. In the case of Tolstoy, that's especially valuable because he spoke to religious or spiritual movements then active in Western Europe and North America. If I were to point out one major impediment to the reception of nineteenth-century Polish literature in the United States today – and this may be controversial, and it’s certainly disputable – it would be Polonia [i.e. Polish diaspora].
In what sense?
Because Polonia, which is an important and influential part of the American cultural fabric, tends to present certain writers as being valuable because they're valuable in Poland, or in fact had been valuable to Polish readers at the time when Polonia was established in the US. Those same writers are often less valued in Poland today. And even if they are, the idea that we should read Henryk Sienkiewicz because he is very important for Polish national consciousness is an almost absurd notion to the average American reader. Why should we care? At the same time, focusing on writers like Sienkiewicz or, for that matter, Reymont, writers whose cultural import is at least partially attributable to that fostering of Polish national consciousness, is often to the exclusion of other writers like, say, Bolesław Prus, who came to American attention much later. I think that Prus is an exceptional writer, and I think he actually is increasingly recognized in the US as a great Realist author. This is true of Eliza Orzeszkowa, too, though to a lesser extent.
By the way, Sienkiewicz, Reymont, and Orzeszkowa were all translated into English early on, around the turn of the century – so these writers had been available to us, but in the case of Orzeszkowa the translations quickly disappeared from public view. I taught [Orezszkowa's] Meir Ezofowicz last semester at the Univesity of Michigan as part of my course on nineteenth-century Polish literature, and it was quite well-received. It was much easier for the students to relate to that text than it was for them to relate to Mickiewicz's Dziady, for example. When it comes to literature that actually speaks to a contemporary readership, Orzeszkowa has real potential.
Why do you think that’s the case?
As a writer who was herself interested in ethnography and inter-ethnic or inter-racial relations – in fact, not just between Poles and Jews, but among different kinds of Jews within a small community – she speaks to questions that are part of everyday discourse in the United States. I know Poles don't read her very much these days, but Orzeszkowa is an excellent example of a writer who speaks more for the contemporary American context than she may for the contemporary Polish context.
The same could be said of Prus. The most recent edition of Lalka was published by the New York Review of Books, one of the most outstanding and prized contemporary publishing series. I do think he will be read more. Whether he will be read as much as Dostoyevsky–well, I'm not sure that he will ever be read in Poland as much as Dostoyevsky.
Does Sienkiewicz have similar potential in English?
The biggest surprise for me teaching nineteenth-century literature last year, teaching course that I have been teaching for several years, is that I found myself seeing Sienkiewicz differently. I've tended to keep Sienkiewicz to a minimum on my syllabi, simply because I find Sienkiewicz irritating. (Of course, his very, very long novels would swallow up a lot of our time). So usually I would teach something from the Mała Trylogia, like Selim Mirza. And, for the first time, I really enjoyed it. In some way it finally “clicked” with me. For me Sienkiewicz is very similar to Tolstoy: a fantastic storyteller who’s so exasperatingly pedantic that at times I literally want to throw the book across the room..
Take, for example, Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. Part of what makes it such an amazing piece of literature is that the more compact narrative leaves little room for the author to make a consistent, preconceived philosophical point. He gets so tangled in his own idea that he had to write an explanation that is almost the same length as the fictional text. That, to me, is interesting: I like knots, I like complications, especially when they exceed the author’s effort to contain them in form. I think the charm of Sienkiewicz’s Selim Mirza this time around was very much in my appreciation for how Sienkiewicz doesn't give himself time to untie the knots.
Unfortunately, this is not one of the texts that comes immediately to mind when we think of Sienkiwicz, and, again, this is in part because of Polonia, which is much more likely to say, “Read Krzyżacy”. But Krzyżacy, I think, has very little interest for an American audience, perhaps because what motivates someone who has a very strong Polish national consciousness to have us read Krzyżacy is exactly why we wouldn't want to read it.
So, one of the ways in which nineteenth-century Polish literature can be revisited in the American context is by seriously re-evaluating why these things are worth reading in the first place and understanding that the reasons for reading this text in Poland are not sufficient for reading it in the United States.
But doesn't this comparison of Sienkiewicz and Tolstoy also point to something else, namely, that the literary potential of the Kreutzer Sonata, with its interest in the most abysmal existential issues of man's life, is far greater (more universal) than the potential offered by the subject matter of Selim Mirza? Isn't it a sign that Russian literature is much more liberated from the local/patriotic/national tasks?
I certainly recognize that point of view, and I should note that my own skepticism remains a minority position even in academia, where there are still plenty of people who would ground a given literary canon in the intrinsic value of “great books” – that is, in the texts themselves. For my part, I’ve come to doubt the intrinsic value of literature in general, let alone of specific books or authors. I haven’t always harbored these doubts, but it happens that a lot of my professional life has been spent thinking and writing about how literature is used in different socio-cultural contexts, and it’s hard to do that kind of work without recognizing how much of what we would like to think is an innate quality of a text – including its “universality” or “localism” – is in fact contingent on circumstances: where and when the book is published, how it’s publicized, what’s going on on the other side of a border or the other side of the planet. Is Tolstoy a beautiful writer? Sure. Has he been important to his readers? Yes. Is that because a man confessing spousal murder to his neighbours on a train is inherently more relatable to contemporary readers than a story about being caught behind enemy lines? Nah. Sienkiewicz could have transposed the same story to another military conflict, much as Sergei Bodrov set his successful 1996 film version of Tolstoy’s Prisoner of the Caucasus in war-torn Chechnya. In fact, Sienkiewicz did just that with Selim Mirza, which was originally set in Poland during the January Uprising. Political sensitivities forced him to set the action a few years later, in the Franco-Prussian War.
How do you see the situation of Polish literature in translation in the US?
Almost all of Gombrowicz has now been published, Masłowska is being published, Lem remains widely read. Regardless of how you feel about these writers, they have found an audience in the United States. Except for those of us who specialize in Central European literature, it doesn't really matter how Poles feel about them.
Lately, Myśliwski has been extremely successful – among the literary public, of course: it's definitely not airport literature, you can’t pick it up at a newsstand – but he has been very well regarded critically in the US. Stasiuk is pretty widely read, too. Both authors, we should note, are veritably obsessed with the local. And Miłosz once remarked that he could’t see Gombrowicz achieving success in the American literary marketplace because he was “just too Polish.” Ultimately, it is the audience – and not some abstract “universality,” which is generally asserted well after the fact – that determines what value the text will have in its new context.
In any event, we’re talking about authors published by very small, nonprofit publishing houses, not money-making institutions, published in beautiful editions in artistic translations and read and discussed at universities. The more financial support these publishers have – the broader and stronger their donor base – the more they will be able to publish this work and support their translators, and the more financial support the universities have for those specific programs that discuss the work, the more the works themselves are discussed, the more the audience grows, the deeper the understanding becomes. And, frankly, the more Polish literature is woven into the fabric of American literature, which is really what we're talking about. The narrowly national approach, by contrast, would be to say, “Well, we don't really want to be woven into American literature, we just want you to read this stuff because it's great in Poland” – that doesn't really work for us. It really has to be subsumed into our diverse multicultural society.
Who do you mean by “donors” – millionaires?
No. A press like Archipelago Books in New York, which is one of the best publishers of literature in translation in the US, is a nonprofit press. They publish Myśliwski and Tulli, among others. This is a press where you can make a 10-, 15- or 20-dollar donation. You just go to their website, make a donation, and they will use that money to plan the next couple of years of their publishing program.
You can do the same with a university. If you want to endow a chair in Polish literature, there are many universities, including my own, where we would welcome that. But it can't come with strings attached because it would compromise its value as an intellectual program. There are quite a few chairs of Russian literature or Comparative Literature focusing on Russian around the US and Canada. There are relatively few institutional investments for the study of Polish. As with literary canons, it has less to do with a culture’s intrinsic value than with the history of how particular academic programs have been funded. But because these contingencies are usually invisible to the non-academic public, it’s natural that people would assume that Russian literature simply has more to offer.
You also specialize in Czech literature. When you teach Polish and Czech literature, what strikes you as the biggest difference between them?
The biggest difference in historical scope is that Polish literary language goes back to the late Middle Ages. At least, Poland is a place where literature is produced very early, and when I teach early Polish literature I always begin with Latin texts produced in Poland by German authors. That's part of the fabric of Polish literature as well. Czech, on the other hand, has an early literary tradition which then is systematically repressed and revived again in the mid-nineteenth century. It has a different set of problems. In the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, there's both the pressure to revive the national tradition and, at the same time, the tremendous sense of freedom that comes when you don't have the pressure of a preexistent national tradition.
In that respect, early twentieth-century Czech literature is much more experimental and bizarre when compared to the same period in Poland. Polish literary language in particular becomes somewhat stultified, stodgy, until experimentation is revived by Gombrowicz and Schulz. Even the decadent texts of someone like Przybyszewski are linguistically quite traditionalist compared to what you get in Czech literature.
After the Second World War, I think the two traditions are quite similar. One of the main differences between them is that modern Czech literature almost always reflects a national consciousness of the smallness of Czech geography relative to neighboring states. Culturally, this rarely presents itself as an inferiority complex, the kind that Gombrowicz – quite correctly, I think – diagnosed as a symptom of Polish culture, that constant need to defend oneself. In Czech you're still likely to hear things like jsme malý národ – “We’re a small nation” – which no one ever says in Poland. That kind of difference in cultural positioning vis-a-vis one's neighbours is significant. You can see it in Bohumil Hrabal – the level of self-deprecation and comic self-regard is pervasive in the text. This is hard to find in even the most self-deprecating Polish authors.
Does it translate into how these literatures function in global context, in translation? Is Polish literature more hermeneutic with its Polish complexes and Czech literature more universal with its local Czech problems?
I don't know if it's universal, but it certainly translates very well. Hrabal is very much appreciated in English. And despite his self-seriousness, Kundera’s descriptions of everyday life are infused with anxiety and often sexual discomfort or humiliation, and this speaks very well to our contemporary cultural situation.
It works in the other direction, too. There are relatively few American filmmakers who are consistently well-received in Central and Eastern Europe, but one of them is Woody Allen, and I think it's largely because, whether his movies are good or bad – and he's made both – he is always tapping into those same concerns. One way to understand why Masłowska has been well-received in North America is because she also ties the national conversation into a very personal reflection on anxiety and insecurity. I find that Masłowska is very good at both expressing that insecurity in a very personal way and making fun of it at the same time. Meanwhile, the same resistance you find to someone like Masłowska or Gombrowicz in Poland, by the social or cultural conservatives – you see the same resistance in the US.
How does this resistance manifest itself?
A good example of cultural mistranslation is that the broad cultural anxieties that one finds in Poland often stem from disruptions to a national narrative. But the Polish national narrative is largely illegible to us in the US, not to mention irrelevant. What we are obsessed with and afraid of is drugs – obsessed with consuming them and not consuming them. So when Wojna appeared in Poland most of the pushback was a reaction to how Masłowska was tearing down the national narrative, but when it was published in the US most of the pushback had to do with how this was a drug narrative. For Polish readers, the representation of drug use has been almost beside the fact; all it does is establish the voice and mindset of the main character. But a lot of American critics couldn’t see past our own cultural obsessions, and for them drugs are what the novel itself was about! Readers who rejected the book saw it as a glorification of speed, which is like calling Trainspotting a glorification of heroine (as some of our critics did). If anything, reading Wojna will make you see amphetamines as the worst thing you can possibly touch.
Masłowska's last novel Kochanie, zabiłam nasze koty, which you've been translating, is set in the realities of a big, Western city, possibly New York. In a way, with this book Masłowska broke with Polish topicality and Polish subject matter. Does this affect the translation into English?
One of the things I've been thinking about while working on the book is Kafka's first novel, usually published as America. Kafka didn't know anything about America. Apparently all he really understood about America he had learned from the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It's a very poor source of information about the US. A classic example of Kafka's poor – or at least fanciful – understanding of American geography is that he erects a bridge between New York and Boston, which is about a 5-hour drive. (Though I love the idea, because I don't especially like driving through Connecticut.)
Though no less fanciful, Masłowska's vision of New York and New Jersey – both of which she never mentions – strikes me as more accurate. This idea that you can be in one metropolitan area but feel utterly separate from the other parts of the same metropolitan area–this in itself is a good translation of Masłowska’s experience, not only of New York, but also of London and, frankly, Warsaw, where you can live in Praga, or Żoliborz for that matter, and not be aware that there's a Śródmieście.
One of the things which is done very well in the book, and I think works well in the translation, is its spatial imagination, the sense that this is everywhere, that wherever you happen to be as you're reading it is the place it’s about. That is to say, the book is set in your city. Dorota has an amazing ear for language and cultural dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction with what we're sold by a media- saturated culture, including the product that we call “city life,” the commodity that is our ideal of urban togetherness. That book is entirely about how this urban togetherness we’re promised is actually also a myth. You are surrounded by people and feel utterly alone. It's in fact a classic American story – and I think it will work very well in English.
Is the love of Polish literature and language skills contagious? Your wife is now also translating from Polish... Can you explain this and say something about this book?
My own experience suggests that love is considerably less contagious than its opposite. Again, it comes down to circumstance, to contingency. My wife, Megan Thomas, recently published Zofia Nałkowska’s The Romance of Teresa Hennert, which she co-translated with Ewa Malachowska-Pasek. If Megan didn’t have an extraordinary ear for language, if she hadn’t travelled with me on my own research trips to Poland, if I myself hadn’t read Miłosz at a young age and allowed that experience to generate new interests and experiences, if I hadn’t received the encouragement and instruction I needed at critical moments… If these and countless, unaccountable variables had not fallen this way instead of another, well, I can’t say that there would be no translation of Nałkowska’s novel, but I can say it wouldn’t be this translation. And this is the translation I want, so I’m glad that, in this case, reality worked out.
The interview took place in August 2015, Published: January, 2016.