The Untranslatables: Polish Writers You Will Never (Fully) Read
#language & literature
small, The Untranslatables:
Polish Writers You Will
Never (Fully) Read, Leopold Buczkowski, one of the most demanding Polish writers of the later 20th century and one of the Untranslatables., buczkowski leopold portret forum 2_7105145.jpg
Word has it that of all foreign languages Polish is one of the most difficult. Logically, this makes Polish literature the least accessible – yet among Polish authors, there are a few who deserve bonus points for ‘untranslatability’.
Culture.pl's selection features writers from then and now who, even after decades of gruelling Polish classes, you won't have a hope of deciphering in full.
Rej, considered the father of Polish literature, is a demanding activity even for the most fluent speakers of Polish, for the straightforward reason that much of his vocabulary became obsolete right after he was publishing. Unlucky Rej wrote at the time of the transition between Old Polish and Modern Polish, and as result, he became rather obscure to later generations of frustrated Polish learners. The difference is striking in comparison to Jan Kochanowski, who wrote and lived only slightly later, but who nevertheless is much more comprehensible – and known to this day as the greatest Polish poet prior to the 19th century.
Still, Rej is widely and viciously quoted by well-versed native speakers: ‘Polacy nie gęsi, swój język mają’, which says that Poles have a language of their own, not an anserine speech (one which remains completely incomprehensible or goose-like, even when translated). Apart from a few dry quotes, his writings aren't particularly exciting to Polish readers, unless they nurse a passion for social patterns of early Renaissance Poland, with a good dose of moral didacticism...
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One of the leading poets of Polish Renaissance – a forerunner of the Baroque. His name alone sends shivers down a foreigner's spine. The religious, metaphysical poetry of Sęp makes use of numerous Baroque literary tropes, paradoxes being his favourite. His stylistic intricacies are designed to stun the reader and can be stunning indeed, if by stunning we mean knocking a Polish scholar out cold with its sheer conceptual complexity. In short, the Polish John Donne.
Jan Chryzostom Pasek
Another exponent of the Polish Baroque, representing a whole new dimension of literary challenge and incomprehensibility. Jan Chryzostom Pasek came to fame with his widely read Diaries, written in the late 17th century in a curious mixture of Polish and Latin. This practice of suffusing Polish texts with Latin interjections of varying length was a popular mode of writing prose and poetry – and speaking! – amongst the Polish nobility of the era. This phenomenon of macaronic language (see more here) spread to the extent that it came to be a trademark of the szlachta, the Polish nobility of the 15th to 18th centuries.
The Polish-Latin hybrid varied widely in terms of proportions, though with Pasek the prevalent element is Polish – fortunately – and his linguistic mastery and natural gift for narrative made him very popular among Polish readers. One of Pasek's great admirers was Witold Gombrowicz. But you're not Gombrowicz. Don't try.
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Cyprian Kamil Norwid
Cyprian Kamil Norwid is considered one of the most demanding Polish poets. Norwid, misunderstood and rejected by his contemporaries during his lifetime, was discovered only in the late 19th century. Born in 1821 in the Mazowsze region of Poland (at that time under Russian occupation), he spent much of his adult life as an émigré in Paris. The lifestyle left its mark on his writing themes as well as his style of expression. Some even imply that his complicated syntax and obscure allusions result from his being separated from his Lechitic mother tongue for too long.
In spite of those unkind insinuations, the fact remains that Norwid raises issues difficult to word – deep reflections, and bitter philosophical insight. This master of silence has become notorious among Polish literature experts for his use of the dash, which can take on many different meanings and functions. He also coined new words, most of which, unlike Shakespeare’s neologisms, never made it into mainstream language. Last but not least, his perplexing syntax also provokes much conjecture and study.
It is therefore unsurprising that Poles should have the following saying: ‘być skazanym na ciężkie Norwidy’. Roughly translated, it becomes ‘to be sentenced to rough Norwid’, a reference to the hard labour of students trying to read and analyse Norwid during lessons – a testimony to the hermeneutic impossibility of the poet. However, Poles hold his talent to be unquestionable, and every Pole should minimally be acquainted with his poem Chopin's Piano. One hopes.
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If you dare, try translator Danuta Borchardt's heroic efforts in the collection Poems (Archipelago, 2011).
Norwid was also a sculptor and painter – see his paintings and drawings at Polona.
In all likeliness, Bolesław Leśmian is read exclusively by Poles. Leśmian’s language could easily take the cake in a worldwide untranslatability contest. His metaphysical verse teems with fantastic creatures derived from Polish folklore populating regions between life and death. His style relies heavily on the vertiginous word-formation potential of Polish (inherited straight from the frighteningly versatile prefix+verb formula of Slavic languages).
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Who would ever dare translate sentences such as: ‘W nicość śniąca się droga’ or ‘Pójdźże ze mną, dziadoku - dziaduleńku -dziadygo!’? (Literally: ‘a road dreamt into nothingness’ and ‘Come with me, old manny, old manikin, old mannyboo!’ More or less.) Actually, there exists a handful of such translator-daredevils... like Krzysztof Bartnicki.
Amongst our series of enigmatic figures, Bruno Schulz may the best known. His two books of short stories are translated into many languages, with his tales filmed, most famously by the Quay brothers and Wojciech Jerzy Has. This shouldn’t lull a foreign reader into a false sense of security. Schulz's perilous, dense poetic prose is a forest of never-ending sentences that will entrance at first then leave you lost in the dark. His prose relies on the laxity of Polish word order and sentence structure, and merges at times into poetry.
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Understanding futurism in itself is a tall order, but when it comes to Polish futurism, many a Slavist has shed hot tears of despair. Bruno Jasieński took things to a whole new level by employing a writing system of his own, designed to simplify the byzantine rules of Polish orthography. Jasieński's ambitious plan was to do away with digraphs (the Polish double-letters cz, sz, rz, etc.) and replace them by a single diacritic sign. His proposal was dismissed and Polish youngsters are still condemned to learning traditional rules of Polish orthography. Novices should therefore avoid Jasieński at all cost.
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A lesser-known figure, Leopold Buczkowski is nevertheless one of the most compelling – and at the same time, it goes without saying, one of the most punishing – Polish writers of the second half of the 20th century. His writing has been compared to that of James Joyce. After early novels like the expressionist Wertepy and the magnificent war novel Czarny Potok (Black Stream), which is in fact translated into many languages, Buczkowski veered towards a highly experimental kind of literature, namely a mishmash of different varieties of speech with no logical connection to one another and offer no hint or clue when one looks for general meaning.
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After publishing the acclaimed novel Snow White and Russian Red in 2002 (in English by Grove Press, 2005) – the monologue of Nails, a Polish dresiarz, or stereotypical denizen of tenement houses or tower blocks in Poland today – Masłowska went on to write or, actually, rhyme (since the book reads like a hip-hop song) a new novel called The Queen's Peacock, for which she was awarded the Nike, Poland's most prestigious literary award. Since then, she has written two plays and most recently a novel set in the U.S., Honey, I Killed Our Cats. All employ a very difficult idiolect – refined and at the same time chocked with corrupted phrases from colloquial Polish.
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Considered a prodigy – she wrote her first hit novel at 18 – Masłowska remains the enfant terrible of Polish literature. Her independence in artistic choices and firm decision to stay away from politics earned her, most recently, sneers from left circles and raised questions about her access to the right. The fact is Masłowska remains a distinct entity in Polish literature... and so does her language.
cyprian kamil norwid
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, edited by LB, 24 Sep 2013