New Polish Books in English Translation Coming in 2019
#language & literature
default, Part of the cover of 'The Memoir of an Anti-Hero' by Kornel Filipowicz, Penguin, photo: press materials , center, filipowicz_memoir_penguin-1.jpg
Here’s what English-language translators of Polish literature are cooking up this year.
After last year’s awards for Polish literature in translation, appetites are increasing... Thanks to the dedication and hard work of the translators below, it looks like it’s going to be another good year for Polish literature in English. From crime to poetry, fiction to reportage, here’s our selection of the Polish books English-language readers shouldn’t miss in 2019.
‘Against the Devil in History’ by Aleksander Wat
This book was actually published at the end of 2018, but we missed it in our selections last year – and we think it’s too important not to mention. Against the Devil in History brings together poems, short stories and essays from one of Poland’s most important, yet still somewhat underrated authors.
In the English-speaking world, Wat is primarily known as the author of My Century, an account of his tumultuous political life – a book based on conversations with Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz. Wat came a long way from an ardent interwar proponent of communism to a dissident critic of the regime after the war. But, as this new volume reminds us, Wat was also a brilliant poet, whose literary path took him from futurism to a more classicist, if dark, idiom, as well as an author of brilliant essays and short stories.
As the translation’s publisher, Slavica, argues, Wat:
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draws from numerous sources, including the Old and New Testaments, mythology, Oriental traditions, history, sociology, politics, biology, and mineralogy, to name only a few.
This is sure to make for as powerful a combination in English as in the original Polish.
- Against the Devil in History: Poems, Short Stories, Essays, Fragments by Aleksander Wat. Translated by Frank L. Vigoda. Edited and with and introduction by Gwido Zlatkes. Published by Slavica Publishers / Indiana University. Publication date: December 12, 2018.
‘Mrs Mohr Goes Missing’ by Maryla Szymiczkowa
It is the year 1893. We find ourselves in Kraków, where the 38-year-old Zofia Turbotynska, the respected wife of a university professor, is about to discover the great passion of her life. This turns out to be: solving detective mysteries. The unlikely sleuth and her servant Franciszka follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie’s more famous protagonists, as the-turn-of-the-century Kraków becomes an equivalent of foggy Victorian London.
The book, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, has already made the Calvert Journal’s list of nine books from the ‘New East’ which English readers shouldn’t miss in 2019. Here, the book was labeled as ‘Wes Anderson meets Agatha Christie’. Indeed, Maryla Szymiczkowa may be the Polish mistress of mystery – even if she’s only the pen-name of a writer duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.
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'Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead' by Olga Tokarczuk
As usual, it’s looking like a busy year for Lloyd-Jones, but readers will have to wait until 2020 for all of the fruits of her labour. In Summer 2019, they will witness the premiere of the translator’s US edition of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, an ecological crime thriller set in the remote area of south-western Poland. The book's protagonist Janina Duszejko finds herself entangled in a mysterious case of serial killings of local hunters. While at first it seems that the most likely suspects are animals... it only gets stranger from here.
This is yet another book by Tokarczuk available to English readers. The Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft and published in 2018, was recently awarded the Man Booker Prize. For more from Tokarczuk, who in October 2019 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, readers would have to wait a few more months. The publication of her epic Books of Jacob, translated by Jennifer Croft, is slated for 2020.
In the meantime, the indefatigable Lloyd-Jones is working on new non-fiction books by Witold Szabłowski (How to Feed a Dictator, to be published with Penguin in April 2020) and Wojciech Jagielski (All of Lara's Wars) – as well as a graphic novel by Daniel Chmielewski (I, Nina Shubur, based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, in a co-translation with Kate Webster). All of these are slated for 2020.
For children’s books translated by Lloyd-Jones this year, scroll to the bottom of the page.
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‘Honey, I Killed the Cats’ by Dorota Masłowska
Benjamin Paloff takes on the work of Dorota Masłowska for a second time. Once a wunderkind of Polish literature, Masłowska is one of the most accomplished Polish writers today – an author of novels and theatre pieces, respected for her linguistic inventiveness and humour.
These elements were already present in Paloff’s translation of Masłowska’s Red and White (Wojna Polsko-Ruska Pod Flagą Biało-Czerwoną) in 2005. The writer’s debut novel about drug-addled youth in post-communist Poland, speaking a street slang which at times surprisingly verged on poetic, was admittedly a great challenge for a translator. But this time, the task may be even harder.
Masłowska’s 2012 novel Honey, I Killed the Cats (Kochanie, Zabiłam Nasze Koty) is set in a dreamlike cosmopolitan city by the sea – reminiscent perhaps of New York – and the book’s protagonists speak a language of failed English-to-Polish translation (think a bad Google translation of sorts). Their words are full of cliché phrases from colourful magazines and trashy romance novels.
This presents doubles the struggle for the translator, who may find himself in the position of having to translate a badly translated novel (would that mean: translating it back to its hypothetical original?) – and, of course, finding an American-English equivalent for all of this.
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‘The Polish Theatre of the Holocaust’ by Grzegorz Niziołek
Meanwhile, in academia... Ursula Phillips, another accomplished translator of Polish literature, will bring one of the most important new works of the Polish humanities into English. Originally published in 2013 as Polski Teatr Zagłady, Grzegorz Niziołek’s The Polish Theatre of the Holocaust is, in the words of the publisher:
a pioneering analysis of the impact and legacy of the Holocaust on Polish theatre and society from 1945 to the present. It reveals the role of theatre as a crucial medium of collective memory – and collective forgetting – of the trauma of the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis on Polish soil.
In the second part of the book, Niziołek closely analyses key post-war theatrical events in the country, including productions by Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Warlikowski.
The Polish Theatre of the Holocaust reveals how theatre has served as the setting for fundamental processes taking place within Polish culture. By testifying about society’s experience of its tragic events, it has confronted suppressed traumatic experiences of war and a collective identity shaped by the past.
This text will be a must-read for all English-language readers who are interested in Polish theatre and the impact of Holocaust on Polish arts and culture.
‘The Memoir of an Anti-Hero’ by Kornel Filipowicz
Kornel Filipowicz (1913-1990) was a poet, author of short stories, as well as the longtime partner of Wisława Szymborka, with whom his art shares many similarities. Dubbed ‘the master of small realism’ throughout his writing career, only recently has he been recognised as one of the greatest Polish writers of the last century. Written in 1961, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (Pamiętnik Antybohatera) is one of only two novels that Filipowicz wrote.
Set in Poland during World War II, the story closely follows a protagonist whose only intention seems to be to survive the war. According to the publisher’s note:
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Meticulously he recounts his experiences: the slow unravelling of national events as well as uncomfortable personal encounters on the street, in the café, at the office, in his love affairs. He is intimate but reserved; conversational but careful; reflective but determined. As he becomes increasingly and chillingly alienated from other people, the reader is drawn into complicit acquiescence. We are forced to consider what it means to be heroic and how we ourselves would behave in the same circumstances.
Filipowicz’s novel appears in an English translation by Anna Zaranko, whose recent work includes translations from Polish (short stories by Julia Fiedorczuk) and Russian (The Way of a Pilgrim, a 19th-century spiritual guide; to published in Zaranko’s translation in March 2019).
- The Memoir of an Anti-Hero by Kornek Filipowicz. Translated by Anna Zaranko. Publisher: Penguin Press. Publication date: September 2019
‘Accommodations’ by Wioletta Greg
Accommodations (originally published as Stancje in 2017) is the second novel by the poet and writer Wioletta Grzegorzewska, who is better known to English readers by her pen name of Wioletta Greg. Accommodations can be considered a kind of sequel to Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (Guguły, 2014), the story of a childhood spent in the Polish countryside in the late 1980s. This text was translated into English by Eliza Marciniak in 2017.
Accommodations picks up this story and takes it further, as the protagonist leaves her rural community for the city of Częstochowa. As Jennifer Croft, this novel’s translator, notes:
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‘Accommodations’ is a beautiful and frenetic coming-of-age tale by a brilliant poet whose unparalleled linguistic resources enrich and enliven the page. If you haven’t read Greg’s Swallowing Mercury – now’s your chance. Regardless, this book about finding one’s place in the world – accommodating and being accommodated by new people and places and things – will be a treat.
Croft is the award-winning translator of, among other works, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.
As Accommodations comes out, Jennifer Croft will surely be continuing her translation of another Tokarczuk text – The Books of Jacob (Księgi Jakubowe), scheduled to appear in March 2020. The bulky novel tells the entertaining story of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jewish religious leader whose teaching revolutionised Jewish life in Poland, leaving an indelible mark on Polish culture.
For those English-language readers who can’t wait for the new Tokarczuk, you can read Croft’s translation of the writer’s All Saints’ Mountain. The short story was recently published by Hazlitt.
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‘The Salt of The Earth’ by Józef Wittlin
Written in 1935, the Salt of the Earth (originally: Sól Ziemi) is the story of Piotr Niewiadomski, a son of the Hutsul woman and an unknown Pole. Upon the outbreak of World War I, he is drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. The book remains an all-time pacifist classic and a brilliant analysis of the consequences of war on ordinary men.
Wittlin, who intended the novel as the first part of a trilogy, was never able to complete the full project. Nevertheless, the book had a great reception upon its publication. Translated into several languages, it was even considered a Nobel Prize contender in 1939.
Wittlin was a close friend of Joseph Roth (whom he also translated into Polish), and his masterpiece certainly shares some resemblances to Roth’s work – for one, his interest and perhaps fascination with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its splendid collapse. Roth fans shall not be disappointed.
‘Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal’ by Renia Spiegel
'Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human being could ever be that kind of friend.'
These are the opening sentences of the diary Renia Spiegel started writing on 1 January 1939. The diary remained hidden in a desk in New York for the last 70 years and only resurfaced earlier this decade. The book, consisting of 700 pages of notes by a young Polish Jewish girl, was published in Polish for the first time in 2016 and then translated into English. Since then it quickly became recognised as an important contribution to Holocaust literature.
Naturally, the figure of the author drew immediate comparisons with Anne Frank, but Renia was a little older. She was 15 years old when she started writing the diary in early 1939 and 18 when she was killed by a Nazi German soldier on the street of Przemyśl. Another difference, as Robin Shulman points out, is that Renia wrote frequently in poetry as well as in prose. She was also living out in the world instead of in hiding. As Shulman concludes, the diary of Renia Spiegel may be especially relevant today:
At a time when the Holocaust has receded so far into the past that even the youngest survivors are elderly, it’s especially powerful to discover a youthful voice like Renia’s, describing the events in real time. [
‘The Birds They Sang’ by Stanisław Łubieński
When published as Dwanaście Srok za Ogon in 2016, Stanisław Łubieński's The Birds They Sang quickly became one of the most beloved new books of Polish readers. The following year, this book about birds made the finalist list for the Nike Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Poland. It went on to win the readers’ vote.
What was so enchanting about this book about birds? 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, Stanisław Lem, Magdalena Tulli, Wiesław Myśliwski, Andrzej Stasiuk, Tomasz Różycki and, most recently, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, published by Archipelago Books in 2018.
‘A Burglar of the Better Sort’ by Tytus Czyżewski
Rest assured that Charles Kraszewski, one of the most prolific translators of Polish literature, will remain busy this year. After a ‘Romantic’ last year, which saw the publication of Słowacki’s and Krasiński’s plays, as well as Mickiewicz’s sonnets (not to mention Wyspiański’s Acropolis), Charles Kraszewski is moving on to the 20th century.
The translator is currently preparing a book on the leading Polish futurist writer and painter Tytus Czyżewski. A Burglar of the Better Sort brings together the translator’s interpretations of Czyżewski’s plays, verse, as well as theoretical notes.
And that’s not all, as Kraszewski is also aiming at bringing out the poetic work of the leading Polish poet of the Enlightenment period, Ignacy Krasicki, with his mock epics (like Monachomachia) and The Chocim War (and Wojna Chocimska in Polish).
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The Dramas of Witkacy
This year will also see the assembling and republication 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.
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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.
New Forms in Painting and the Resulting Misunderstandings / Aesthetic Sketches - Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
‘Greek Myths and Mazes’ by Jan Bajtlik
Born in 1989, Jan Bajtik is a young, but already accomplished painter, illustrator and graphic designer, as well as the recipient of numerous awards. In 2018, his previous book, published in the US by Roaring Book Press, Our Car, featuring Bajtik’s illustrations and written by J.M. Brum, was named the 2018 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year.
Greek Myths and Mazes, both written and illustrated by Bajtlik, takes the young reader on a mind-boggling journey through the labyrinthine narratives of ancient Greek mythology. This large-format book crawls with tiny figures who invite readers to find a path to the next page, leading them through ancient civilization and sharing insight into the misfortunes and adventures of mythological heroes.
Other forthcoming English-language children’s books from Poland that you (or your children) shouldn’t miss include Archi.TEKTURKI: Postwar Buildings of Warsaw, Marlena Happach’s book about post-war Polish architecture published by the Warsaw Rising Museum. Here, the most iconic buildings of Poland’s capital city all but pop up from the pages in Robert Czajka’s illustrations.
The tireless Antonia Lloyd-Jones also is announcing not less than two translations of Polish children’s books this year: Boom! Boom! Boom! by Przemysław Wechterowicz, with illustrations by Marianna Oklejak (Scribblers – Salariya Book Company) and Oscar Seeks a Friend by Pawel Pawlak (Lantana Publishing).
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Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 19th February 2019