Polish Books Coming to English Readers in 2020
#language & literature
default, Still from 'Blinded by the Lights', directed by Krzysztof Skonieczny, photo: HBO, center, slepnac-od-swiatel-hbo-10_0.jpg
After a positive 2019, Polish literature looks all set to reach even more readers in 2020. Prepare yourselves for new books by Tokarczuk, Szabłowski, Twardoch and others.
After 2019 saw a Nobel Prize for Olga Tokarczuk and many new translations available in bookstores, expectations for Polish literature this year are modestly rising among publishers and literary agents. Here’s a look at what translators have prepared for us readers this year, with a few hints about what’s coming in 2021.
New Polish Books in English Translation Coming in 2019
‘The Invincible’ & other books by Stanisław Lem
One of the earliest Polish premieres of 2020 in our selection is also a multiple one. MIT Press is bringing out no less than six books by the Polish master of science-fiction Stanisław Lem (1921–2006), in anticipation of the writer’s 100th anniversary, due to be celebrated in September 2021.
The selection includes some of the best known Lem novels like His Master’s Voice, Return from the Stars and The Invincible. Admittedly, of these, only the latter prepared by Bill Johnston can be called a truly new translation (the previous English version was actually a translation from the German translation).
Lem fans will also get a chance to once again read one of his all-time classics, that is Memoirs of a Space Traveler, the rather fantastic but also instructive adventures of Ijon Tichy, a Gulliver of the space age. Earlier imprints of the ‘memoirs’ are considered to have inspired the creators of Futurama.
To round up the set, there’s Highcastle, which is the closest Lem ever got to an autobiography (even if it only covers Lem’s early life in Lviv, at the time called Lwów). Lastly, there’s the early, realist, partly autobiographical novel Hospital of the Transfiguration. Written in 1948, and set in a psychiatric hospital during World War II and the ongoing Holocaust, the book was initially suppressed by the censors, an experience which, according to many, led Lem to focus entirely on sci-fi.
And this may well not be the end of MIT’s adventure with Lem. The publisher’s agenda in the coming years, reportedly includes Lem collected essays, a book of late conversations with the author, as well as a two-volume collection of short stories.
Stanisław Lem: Did the Holocaust Shape His Sci-Fi World?
‘Highcastle: A Remembrance’ (trans. Michael Kandel), ‘His Master’s Voice’ (trans. Michael Kandel), ‘Return from the Stars’ (trans. Barbara Marszal & Frank Simpson), ‘The Invincible’ (trans. Bill Johnston), ‘Memoirs of a Space Traveler’ (trans. Joel Stern, Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek & Antonia Lloyd-Jones) and ‘Hospital of the Transfiguration’ (trans. William Brand) by Stanisław Lem. Publisher: MIT Press. Publication date: February 2020.
‘Blinded by the Lights’ by Jakub Żulczyk
Written originally in 2014, Blinded by the Lights (Polish title: Ślepnąc od Świateł) is a crime novel set in the Warsaw underground scene. It tells the the story of a cocaine dealer called Kuba as he tries to find ‘a way through the middle of the whirlwind of violence and betrayal sweeping him away’.
The book, the sixth novel by Jakub Żulczyk (b. 1983), an author known primarily for his YA novels and genre fiction (horror, sci-fi fantasy) as well as his predilection for pop-culture references, may have been Żulczyk’s first venture into dark gritty crime fiction, but it proved quite successful.
In 2018, the novel was turned into a TV series by HBO (with Żulczyk as a screenwriter). Praised for its realistic depiction of Warsaw’s dark underbelly, the series turned out the most successful Polish production shown on the streaming service HBO GO that year, also proving popular in other countries of Central Europe. Now those who watched the series will get their first taste of Żulczyk’s literary talent.
Writing from the Dark Side of Warsaw: An Interview with Jakub Żulczyk
‘The Birds They Sang’ by Stanisław Łubieński
When published in Poland in 2016, Stanisław Łubieński's The Birds They Sang (original title: Dwanaście Srok za Ogon) quickly became one of the most beloved new books among Polish readers. The following year, this book about birds made the shortlist for the Nike Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Poland. It went on to win the readers’ vote.
So, what was so enchanting about this avian book? As the American publisher, Westbourne Press, explains:
In ‘The Birds They Sang’, Stanisław Łubieński sheds light on some of history’s most meaningful bird and human interactions, from historical bird watchers in a German POW camp, to Billy and Kes in ‘A Kestral for a Knave’. He muses on what exactly Hitchcock’s birds had in mind and reveals the true story behind the real James Bond. Undiscouraged by damp, discomfort and a reed bunting’s curse, Łubieński bears witness to the difficulties birds face today, as people fail to accommodate them in rapidly changing times.
The Birds They Sang will appear in English thanks to the work of Bill Johnston, the award-winning translator of books by Witold Gombrowicz, Lem, Magdalena Tulli, Wiesław Myśliwski, Andrzej Stasiuk, Tomasz Różycki and, most recently, Adam Mickiewicz (Pan Tadeusz).
The Season of Birdsong: A Walk with Stanisław Łubieński
‘The King of Warsaw’ by Szczepan Twardoch
It’s 1937 in Warsaw, Poland. Things are about to get very tense for Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and enforcer for a powerful crime lord – a self-proclaimed king of the Warsaw underground. But with fascism and anti-Semitism encroaching, Szapiro finds himself in a situation where even his high position and muscle power may not be enough to survive.
Originally published in 2016, The King of Warsaw (originally: Król) won praise for its vivid, realist representation of violence and brutal social reality of Interwar Poland. Popular with readers, the book is currently being adopted into a film. In 2018, it was followed by a sequel which took the story of Szapiro into the Holocaust and beyond.
The King of Warsaw is the first novel by Szczepan Twardoch to be translated into English. Early in the year the novel had already found itself on The New York Times’s list of 20 books to be watched for in 2020.
From Page to Screen: New Literary Inspirations in Polish Cinema
‘How to Feed A Dictator’ by Witold Szabłowski
What was Pol Pot eating while two million Cambodians were dying of hunger? Did Idi Amin really eat human flesh? And why was Fidel Castro obsessed with one particular cow?
These are just some of the questions which, along with the eponymous one, get answered in Witold Szabłowski’s How to Feed a Dictator. Written by one of Poland’s leading reporters, the author of award-winning reportages like The Assassin from Apricot City and Dancing Bears, the book is a glimpse into the appetites of five of the 20th century’s most infamous and voracious dictators (just add Enver Hoxha and Saddam Hussein to the names mentioned above).
To write it, Szabłowski travelled across four continents and sought out the cooks who had worked for these terrible rulers (who, as it turns out, were often very fine gourmets). What he arrives at is a mix of terrifying and grotesque and, honestly, rarely appetising.
The book made headlines in Poland before it was written, after it was announced that it had been contracted by Penguin Random House. This likely makes it one of the most awaited Polish books of the year.
A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage
‘Ellis Island: A People's History’ by Małgorzata Szejnert
Between the late 19th and mid 20th century, one little island just outside New York City received some 12 million people passing through on their way to the promised land of America. In this masterpiece reportage, Małgorzata Szejnert takes a look at the stories behind the dramatic experiences of Polish, Jewish, German and Italian immigrants passing through the ‘Gate to America’. Their stories are told along with those of the Ellis Island station employees: the doctors, nurses, commissioners, interpreters, social care workers, even chaperons. All of this together makes this book ‘a moving, dramatic, multi-vocal account of the agony and ecstasy of arriving in Ellis Island’.
Originally published in Polish back in 2009, this is the first book by Małgorzata Szejnert (b. 1936) to be translated into English, which may come as a surprise since she is one of the most important writers of Polish non-fiction, having won awards for books about Poland, Zanzibar and Belarus.
Hundreds of Polish Emigrant Stories Released
- ‘Ellis Island: A People's History’ by Małgorzata Szejnert. Translated by Sean Gaspar Bye. Publisher: Scribe US. Publication date: 4 August 2020.
‘All Lara's Wars’ by Wojciech Jagielski
Wojciech Jagielski (b. 1963) has witnessed some of the most important political events of the end of the 20th century. His reporting from some of the most inflamed points around the globe, such as Chechnya, Uganda and South Africa, has earned him many literary awards as well as praise from the likes of Ryszard Kapuściński (to whom he is considered a legitimate successor).
All Lara’s Wars brings us the story of a Georgian woman who discovers that despite all her efforts her sons have joined ISIS. We follow Lara on her travels to Syria where the new Caliphate is rising, as she tries to dissuade her sons and bring them home. This in itself would be more than diverting, but this unusual reportage also allows us to see some of the major events of the last half-century through Lara’s eyes: the realignment of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chechnyan wars – and their effect on a regular family.
As the publisher notes:
As in all of Wojciech Jagielski's books, he tells here the story of any modern war, how the individual lives of civilians and combatants are obliterated in the sweep of the larger narrative – and how the humanity of these individual lives is revealed, and the price paid in human endurance and persistence and loss.
All Lara’s Wars — Wojciech Jagielski
- ‘All Lara’s Wars’ by Wojciech Jagielski. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Publisher: Seven Stories Press. Publication date: 13 October 2020.
Collected Plays by Witkacy
The year 2020 will hopefully also see the publication of the dramatic corpus of another Polish giant of modernism, the infamous and unique Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Also known simply as ‘Witkacy’, he was an undeniably avant-garde writer, painter, photographer and playwright. His excessive lifestyle – rife with drug-taking, experimental art-making and wild antics – expressed the complex cultural life of Poland’s interwar period.
The massive four-volume edition of Witkacy’s theatre output, produced by the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the City University of New York, is the first complete edition of the artist’s 23 extant plays in English. The plays appear in the excellent translation of the late Professor Daniel Gerould (1928–2012), a theatre scholar and longtime ‘Witkacologist’. Each play is accompanied by a contextual introduction and visuals created by young Polish illustrators and graphic designers.
Witkacy: The Scandalising Portrait Artist
‘I Nina’ by Olga Tokarczuk & Daniel Chmielewski
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature for Olga Tokarczuk has certainly piqued the appetites for more of her books available in English. But with her magnum opus The Books of Jacob still being translated (by Jennifer Croft) and likely unavailable until March 2021, this may mean that the next Tokarczuk book you can read is... a graphic novel.
I Nina is based on Olga Tokarczuk’s 2006 novel Anna in the Tombs of the World. Conceived as part of the Myth Series commissioned by the Scottish publisher Canongate Books, the book is a contemporary retelling of the ancient Sumerian myth of Goddess Innana’s journey into the underworld.
Daniel Chmielewski defly transports the narrative into a near-future dystopia where humanity survives in a hermetically sealed multi-level world. As the society slowly decays under a 'social currency' regime, Nina, 'no-one,' becomes the focus of long-buried revolutionary energies that could change everything.
10 Need-to-Know Books by Olga Tokarczuk
- ‘I Nina’ by Olga Tokarczuk and Daniel Chmielewski. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones & Kate Webster. Publisher: Uncivilized Books. Publication date: 15 September 2020.
...& many more
The titles listed above are obviously not all the ‘Polish’ books to be published this year. On poetry shelves, you should find collections of poems by Krzysztof Siwczyk (Defense Mechanism, from Magra Books) and Jacek Gutorow (Invisible: Poems, from Arc Publications). Both have been translated by Piotr Florczyk. Readers can also expect a selection of Marcin Świetlicki’s poems, forthcoming in the spring from Zephyr Press and translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Lese.
literature in translation
english translations of polish literature
new books in translation
polish authors in translation
In the children’s section, but not necessarily in bookstores, you may find a collection of Adam Mickiewicz’s Fables in Marek Kazmierski’s translation (and binding) – find out more here. Kazmierski is also currently working on an anthology of Julian Tuwim’s verse. Elsewhere, children (and adults too) will get a chance to indulge in the newest edition of the Mizielińskis’ Maps (Bonnier Books in the UK and Candlewick in the US). The so-called Purple Edition of this ultimate bestseller from Poland comes in Antonia Lloyd Jones’ translation.
Another prolific and dedicated translator, Charles Kraszewski, is bringing out a collection of Rafał Wojasiński’s short stories entitled Olanda, while Anna Zaranko is the translator of a photo book by Jacenty Dędek. In May, the acclaimed translator of both Polish and German books Philip Boehm is bringing English readers A Little Annihilation, a Holocaust tale by Anna Janko. Elsewhere, Bronisław Wildstein's novel An Imperfect Time will be available in English from March. Guido Zlatkes’ translation of Karol Modzelewski’s autobiography should also be available later this year.
All in all, 2020 is set to be a good year indeed for English readers enjoying Polish literature.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Jan 2020
Translating Mickiewicz: Poland's International Man Of Mystery