Translating Sindbad from the Antipodes: An Interview with Mary Besemeres
#language & literature
default, Artwork by Julia Konieczna for 'The Adventures of Sindbad the Seafarer' , photo: courtesy of the artist, center, adventures_of_sindbad_the_seafarer_12.jpg
The writer and translator Mary Besemeres first encountered the fairytale world of Bolesław Leśmian’s ‘Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza’ (The Adventures of Sindbad the Seafarer) while growing up between two languages and cultures in Australia. Here, she talks with Culture.pl about her decades-long endeavour to translate it into English – which now involves her collaboration with the illustrator Julia Konieczna.
Mikołaj Gliński: Do you remember your first encounter with the work of Bolesław Leśmian? I understand it’s not the most typical story, considering you grew up in Australia...
Mary Besemeres: I remember my mother reading to my sister and me from the two books, Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza (The Adventures of Sindbad the Seafarer) and Klechdy Sezamowe (Stories from the Arabian Nights, literally Sesame Tales).
I remember especially, from ‘Klechdy’, the story about Princess Parysada and Ptak Bulbulezar (the bulbul bird), with the doomed knights who turned to stone because they couldn’t resist turning around – when stalked by invisible, chattering demons – to see who was there. Such a good image for self-doubt and self-sabotage. Also the ‘Baśń o Rumaku Zaklętym’ (The Magic Horse), with its compelling evil magician who appears to Prince Firuz-Shah in a dream as a flying head, sarcastically asking the prince to stop playing ball with it and step in before the king has the magician’s head cut off.
Leśmian’s wizards are among his most memorable characters. As a teenager I was struck by a strange poem [by Leśmian] about a wanderer drowning mysteriously in the colour green: “topielec zieleni”. One summer when I was fifteen, I translated Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza on my typewriter, while staying at the beach cabin of our family friend, Ciocia Irena. That version is the basis for the current one (although much has changed!).
MG: The first volume of this new-old Sindbad translation appeared towards the end of 2019 in a limited edition, with beautiful illustrations by Julia Konieczna. How did this collaboration start?
MB: In late 2018, the artist Julia Konieczna was looking for someone to translate Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza into English, as she’d already begun to create a series of artworks for the book and was looking to publish them with the text in English. She came across my essay in Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures (which I co-edited with my mother Anna Wierzbicka) and wrote to me, asking if I would be interested in contributing my translation. I of course jumped at the chance. I reworked my old translation over almost a year.
MG: 'Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza’ by Bolesław Leśmian is a version of a classic tale found in the famous Arabic collection ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. What is the difference between Leśmian’s version and the original?
MB: There are a lot of differences, as well as some obvious overlaps. The basic outline of a seafarer’s seven voyages is there, but whereas in the Arabian story, Sindbad travels to seek his fortune, Leśmian’s Sindbad is a rich young man seduced into travel by a charming, persuasive monster, Diabeł Morski (the Sea Devil). I love Julia Konieczna’s images of the Diabeł Morski; they convey his almost endearing quality as well as his sly intent. There is no poor ‘Sindbad the Porter’ in Leśmian’s version, but instead, an annoying uncle, Wuj Tarabuk, who helps prompt Sindbad’s adventures by making him want to leave home. Tarabuk is a boastful and terrible poet – a crime in Leśmian’s books, yet he is also ultimately loveable, a bit like Toad in The Wind in the Willows.
Leśmian kept some famous episodes from the original: Sindbad stranded on an island that turns out to be a whale, Sindbad carried by the giant bird Roc to a valley of diamonds. But Leśmian’s book is not an adaptation so much as a riff on the original. It uses the familiar story as a springboard for his own wild imagination and preoccupations. On every voyage, Sindbad meets with both dangerous figures like Roc and with enchanting ones, like the wizard-princess, the ‘flaming’ (płomienna) Sermina. (As he admits to us, Sindbad falls in love easily and often.)
The menace mostly comes from a churlish, coarse figure, usually male, the allure from someone ethereal and mysterious, invariably female – most obviously in the struggle between Stella (a gourmand princess) and Urgela (Sindbad's lute-playing dream). (I call Urgela ‘Irgella’ in the text to avoid her name being read as ‘Erguhla’ or ‘Erjela’.) The other absolutely original quality which Leśmian brings to the story is the voice he tells it in – his special mix of styles, from the eerie and enigmatic to the downright hilarious.
MG: Why did you decide to translate this particular book by Leśmian and, say, not ‘Klechdy Sezamowe’ or ‘Klechdy Polskie’ – Leśmian’s other beautiful tales for children?
MB: Sindbad’s adventures were so entertaining and the narrator’s voice so unique that I’ve always wanted to share them with English speakers. Leśmian conjures up a real aura of mystery about the sea and its far-off places – that spoke to me as a child and still speaks to me now more than the idea of looking for one’s fortune.
In fact, I did mean to translate ‘Klechdy Sezamowe’ as well, but I only got as far as ‘Baśń o Rumaku Zaklętym’, which I called ‘The Enchanted Steed’. Finishing that translation is something that I'd like to do. There are some wonderfully feisty heroines in it, like the Bengal princess, and Morgana, who would capture readers’ imaginations. I never read ‘Klechdy Polskie’, as we didn’t own a copy.
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MG: Leśmian’s Sindbad is now more than a hundred years old. Writing for children – its techniques and topics, sensitivity to political and social matters – all of that has very much changed over the last century… Where does the relevance of Leśmian’s Sindbad lie for you, today?
MB: It’s true that writing for children has changed a lot over the past century. But there are ‘classics’ like Winnie the Pooh or Babar or Pippi Longstocking that continue to be loved by readers across languages – in the case of Pippi, despite some passages that are seriously dated. As a reader, it’s possible to reject those problematic sentences, to mentally bracket them, while still cheering on the irrepressible heroine.
There are children’s books that endure, and Leśmian’s Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza is one of these for me because of its sheer inventiveness, theatricality, and deadpan humour. My children loved hearing it in translation (and are keen to see the book in print with more of Julia’s pictures). In Poland, Leśmian’s books clearly retain classic status, with Klechdy Sezamowe reissued in 2017.
I also think Leśmian’s tale would fascinate anyone with an interest in poetry and prose for children, and particularly in Jewish literature for children. So many Polish childhood classics were created by Polish Jewish authors, like Jan Brzechwa (Leśmian’s cousin), Julian Tuwim and Janusz Korczak, not to mention the illustrator J.M. Szancer. Two of Korczak’s novels have appeared in English (as Kaytek the Wizard and King Matt the First). There are readers for this literature, and Przygody Sindbada is a striking example.
MG: You grew up in Australia and from early on spoke two languages. Growing up in two languages is probably also about reading children’s books in English and Polish. Did that experience mark your life?
MB: Yes, a great deal. In an essay for Translating Lives, I wrote: ‘The Polish children’s books I read growing up in Australia had a certain lyricism which made them very different from English-language ones. Stories in Polish often conveyed a wistful mood. There was none of the expectation of humour that seemed built into stories for children in English – British classics like Alice in Wonderland [or]... Beatrix Potter’s books, and Australian ones like The Magic Pudding – books that I also loved but which didn’t transport me to quite such a haunting other world.’
I think these differences that I perceived in books are related to differences which I experienced whenever I moved between the English-speaking sphere of school and the Polish-speaking sphere of home, and especially when we visited Warsaw. People there typically related to each other differently from how they did in Australia. Things that were acceptable in Poland – emotional warmth, open expression of sadness, open disagreement – would seem either sentimental or too confronting in mainstream Australian society. I grew up understanding both these modes, and feeling more at home in one or the other, depending on the context. I enjoyed the warmth of Polish speakers, the depth of their conversations, but I also valued the dry humour on offer in Australia. And I missed these things when I was in the other place and culture.
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MG: Did this experience of bilingualism impact how you looked at this project and your decisions as a translator?
MB: Yes. I wanted readers to have access to this rich world that I grew up with. In translating the book, I was inviting them into that world, so I was conscious of not wanting to lose their interest. In a few places I decided not to include a sentence or two because I knew the joke would fall flat in English or would distract too much from the story. For example, one of the experienced old sailors Sindbad meets – his eternal nemesis – talks about how big the Roc is by comparing it to a ship, then takes his time making the point that he hasn't actually seen the Roc himself... I cut that passage short in my version.
MG: Leśmian’s writing for children is certainly uncanny and very evocative. Some people consider it disturbing, and even unsettling for younger readers.. Do you share this feeling? Could this be a problematic reading experience for younger readers?
MB: Perhaps it depends on the child, but given how grim the Grimms’ fairy tales are, Leśmian’s writing seems unlikely to me to alarm younger readers. It might surprise them. Like The Phantom Tollbooth or the film Yellow Submarine, what could be alienating for some readers will appeal to others as ingenious. I think the book can be enjoyed without understanding every nuance. There’s a scene where Sindbad encounters a monument to an unknown man, which he brings to life by calling it “Genius”, as per the instructions engraved on the pedestal. The statue begins to tell Sindbad a strange story of having ruled over a kingdom from which he banished all poets, plants and birds, and built a temple to mediocrity that he made his people worship at. When Sindbad hears this, he yells: “Donkey!” - the only way to silence the statue, according to the inscription. With an unhappy look, it turns back to stone. The scene is funny and dramatic, but can clearly be read at different levels.
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MG: Leśmian’s poetry is widely considered untranslatable. What do you find to be the greatest difficulty when it comes to translating his prose into English?
MB: Leśmian combines a haunting, uncanny quality with often absurd humour. In this he’s a bit like Kafka. The tone of the book is one of the things I found the hardest to translate, since English is less comfortable with such a wide range within a single narrative voice. In the Polish, there’s a constant zig-zag between tones, which works. In revising my translation, I noticed, too, how often in the original there was a non-sequitur or a detail that in English would just sound bizarre or irrelevant. It’s as though there’s less patience among readers of English with this level of quirk. Leśmian’s narrative also has an incantatory feel, fed by frequent clever and amusing rhymes, that is very hard to capture in English. I did my best.
MG: You’ve published the wonderfully illustrated first chapter of Sindbad. What’s your next step? And what is the goal of the whole project?
MB: Like Julia, I am keen to make this strange and enthralling work of Leśmian’s better known outside of Poland. I’m honoured to be involved as a translator and very glad of the opportunity to try to mediate between the worlds of Polish and English. Julia has also been teaching illustration workshops online for children to develop their drawing abilities and flex their imaginations in response to Leśmian’s story. I have already seen some terrific Sea Devils (diabły morskie) produced by her students. We hope the book will be published and will ‘catch on’ with readers of English, young and old.
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After publishing the first chapter of the book in a single sample volume, the authors of The Adventures of Sindbad the Seafarer are currently looking for a publisher for the whole book. To find out more about the idea and support the project, go to: https://www.mynameissindbad.com
- Dr Mary Besemeres was born in Warsaw in 1972 to John Besemeres and Anna Wierzbicka, and migrated to Australia aged 10 months. She is an Honorary Lecturer at the Australian National University's School of Literature, Languages & Linguistics, and writes about cross-cultural autobiography, bilingualism and migrant experience. She is the author of Translating One's Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross-Cultural Autobiography (Peter Lang, 2002). With Professor Anna Wierzbicka, she co-edited Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures(UQP, 2007). Mary was founding co-editor with Maureen Perkins of the Routledge journal Life Writing.
Interview conducted in English by Mikołaj Gliński, Apr 2020