Translator of English and American literature. Born on the 22nd of August 1914 in Innichen in South Tyrol (today the town is called San Candido and belongs to Italy). Died on the 9th of March 1985 in Warsaw, where he is buried in the cemetery of the Evangelical Reformed Church.
Translator of English and American literature. Born on August 22, 1914 in Innichen in South Tyrol (today Italy). Died on March 9, 1985 in Warsaw...
Bronisław Zieliński on a hunting trip in the 1970s, photography: family archives
Zieliński won renown as a translator of works by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Truman Capote.
He was brought up in the Żbików estate near Warsaw. After graduating from Stanisław Staszic Secondary School in the capital city, Zieliński studied law at the University of Warsaw. He earned the Master of Laws degree in 1938. Next, Zieliński was drafted to the Officer Cadet School of the Cavalry Reserve in Grudziądz. He served the compulsory military service in the Józef Piłsudski 1st Light Cavalry Regiment.
Zieliński fought in the September Campaign of 1939. On October 2, 1939 he was captured by the Soviet army near Janów Lubelski. He managed to escape from the transport of Polish officers to the prisoner-of-war camps in the East. Most of the soldiers were later murdered by the NKVD.
After returning to Warsaw, Zieliński became involved in the activities of the Government Delegation for Poland and the editorial board of the underground newsletter "Biuletyn Informacyjny". As an officer of the Directorate for Diversion of the Home Army Headquarters, he participated in the Warsaw Uprising. Following its capitulation, Zieliński escaped imprisonment. Soon after the end of the World War II, he worked as an expert at the National Museum in Warsaw. Next, he received a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; he helped to organize the visit of General Dwight Eisenhower to Warsaw. He also worked for the UNRRA mission in Poland and as an editor at the Western Press Agency.
On October 10, 1947 Zieliński was arrested by the officers of the Office of Public Security on the charge of an attempted coup d'état against the State National Council, the Council of National Unity, and next against the Sejm, legislative house of the Polish Parliament and the Government of the Republic of Poland. He was also accused of attempting to seize their powers and change the political system of the Polish State, and of gathering state secrets, including documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and providing representatives of the Anglo-Saxon embassies with information regarding the political and economic life in Poland. Allegedly, he was to receive 35 thousand zlotys in return. The indictment was signed by the Head of the 2nd Division of the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Public Security, Major Adam Humer.
When Poland regained independence, Humer was sentenced for abusing detainees in order to force them to give evidence. Zieliński was among the tortured. Colonel Jacek Różański, Stalin's loyal executioner, Head of the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Public Security, appeared several times during his interrogation.
The detention of Zieliński was most probably part of a plan directed against the Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the leader of the Polish Peasants' Party and a politician independent of Moscow's influence. The provocation of the Ministry of Public Security was based on charging Mikołajczyk with subversive activities conducted with the help of an organized sabotage unit known as the "Ośrodek" (Centre). The plan was to accuse Zieliński of being a member of this fabricated organization. Tortured by investigators, he was to provide incriminating evidence against the indicated persons targeted by the authorities. The entire plan fell flat when on October 21, 1947, two weeks following the imprisonment of Zieliński, Mikołajczyk left the country in secret. Bronisław Zieliński was sentenced to six years of imprisonment. He was released in October 1950.
He made his debut as a translator in the following year with Fires in Smithfield by Jack Lindsay. Then came Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Experts unanimously recognized the translation as highly accurate. Above all, Zieliński won renown as a translator of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Truman Capote. The translator met these three writers in person. The novels by James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line) and Mario Puzo (The Godfather) that he translated into Polish brought him great success.
Zieliński was married twice: to Monika Żeromska and Barbara Jankowska. He had two children with Jankowska - Anna and Tomasz. Hunting was his hobby. He was also interested in ancient apparel, collecting ancient weapons and furniture. Above all, however, he was fascinated with portrait painting of the 17th and 18th century.
Jerzy Pomianowski, a writer, journalist and translator, once said that Bronisław Zieliński was one of the few Polish men of letters who knew how to be wisely selective in using their talents.
He also had a specifically non-Polish feature: he was able to focus on one field and not to waste his talent. He devoted himself to translation although he could have written successful short stories. He noticed that behind the worst intentions, Communism in Poland did the best thing. Namely, it fought illiteracy so that people were able to read the communist newspaper People’s Tribune and The Abridged History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Bronek made the best of this situation and filled the huge gap in the translations of Anglo-Saxon literature.
Zieliński was humble but aware of his value. In his opinion, writing was a craft. He would say, "Success is achieved through nothing but effort. And there is no use counting on the muse".
He would work every day from the early morning throughout the set number of hours. He used to sit at his favourite desk in his study surrounded by hunting trophies. He wrote by hand. On average it took him about four months to translate a book, however he spent a year on Melville's novel. While translating he read each book ten times.
To be or not to be
Although Zieliński considered English to be a much more concise language than Polish, he believed that it is possible to provide a faithful translation to the original.
Naturally, I think about the accurate conveyance of meaning, but also about retaining the climate of the prose and writing style. The style of an author is a series of very subtle elements which are often difficult to capture; it is hidden both in the melody of a sentence and inclinations towards certain associations and words. For example, Hemingway often uses short, one-syllable words. In Polish we do not have so many of them, however I tried to translate entire pages of the Hemingway dialogues so that they stayed faithful to the original not only in terms of content but also to retain the same linear layout as much as possible. Of course, it takes a lot of effort, but it is possible.
While working on Moby Dick, the translator was forced to wade through specialised publications and ask experts for advice. The reason for it was the fact that there had not been long-established sailing traditions in Poland. Nobody there had specialised in whaling. Thus, Zieliński lacked the proper vocabulary. The translator arrived at each of the terms, which were all perfectly obvious to Melville, on his own. When he completed the work, he would joke: "I came to know nearly all the details of ship rigging. I could almost serve as the captain".
Zieliński was aware of the fact that translations may become outdated. However, he believed that there was a remedy for it. The chance for "prolonging" their lives lied in simplicity and the avoidance of embellishments, bizarre effects or a Baroque-like style.
He believed that idioms present a real challenge for a translator, in particular those no longer in use. Being patient and alert as well as analysing each sentence from the perspective of a logical and meaningful understanding can prevent a translator from committing lapses. Contrary to some of his colleagues, Zieliński maintained that one should not undertake translating without a large number of dictionaries available.
Even the greatest proficiency of language skills, which is after all what we seek, is not enough. And one more thing: a translator needs a certain sense of the linguistic effect produced in his own language. If one does not have it, then we will read in a translated version that a guy who was standing on a platform with a suitcase suddenly "raises his trunk" and gets on the train. The meaning is, of course, "picks up his suitcase", but the English word "trunk" carries a double meaning.
Zieliński was of the opinion that a person who makes a living by translating needs first of all to demonstrate a great proficiency of one’s own native language. A translator needs to know its history, tradition and standards.
He thought that the most famous line of Shakespeare was not translated into Polish accurately enough. The line "to be or not to be" (in Polish "być albo nie być") does not convey the essence of Hamlet's dilemma; it does not highlight the drama behind the choice. Być czy też nie być, oto jest pytanie would be the more accurate translation according to Zieliński. Alas, it is too late. The previous translation has become so commonly recognised that nothing can be done.
At times, the translator would face an impossible task. As in the case of the novel A Farewell to Arms. In English the title of this love story set in the times of war carries a double meaning thanks to the word "arms", which does not have such an equivalent in Polish.
Bronisław Zieliński noticed that there is some correspondence between a translator and a pianist, as both of them receive somebody else’s work to perform.
A pianist translates into a language of sounds, while a translator into words. And it is commonly known that if one does not have the talent, one can do piano exercises and practice etudes for years, but one will never become a pianist. However, the career of a pianist is different from that of a translator. The name of a pianist is printed on a poster in capital letters, and the audience gathers to listen not so much to Beethoven but to Rubinstein or Zimerman. We, translators, are not appointed the rank of a virtuoso.
Zieliński translated only the books that he himself liked. He considered William Faulkner to be a great writer but his heart was not in his works and ended up translating only a handful of his short stories. Bronisław Zieliński's was also responsible for the translation of the stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Dale Wasserman won immediate recognition.
In press interviews, the translator maintained that one should specialise in one foreign language (aside from English, he spoke French, Italian, German and Russian) and should also focus on the works of one single writer. For Zieliński, it was Ernest Hemingway.
One Needs to Survive
As he explained, Hemingway totally fascinated him with his personality and works. He liked the author’s strict, concise writing style. But also his romantic side, stripped of mawkishness and sick sweetness.
The literature written by Hemingway confirmed what Zieliński had anticipated. They shared a common view on the world and life. They believed in one philosophy but its was the writer who found the words for it: "One needs to survive". The first book by this author translated by Zieliński was The Old Man and the Sea. It was from this novel that the translator derived his life motto: "A man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated".
Among Hemingway's protagonists, he considered Robert Jordan portrayed in For Whom the Bell Tolls to be the most fully developed character. He was impressed by the men depicted by the author of To Have and Have Not - men who suffered in silence and mocked tragedy. Zieliński remembered such moments from his own life.
Before the outbreak of the war, one officer of the cavalry participated in an equestrian competition wearing a beautiful uniform and mirror-polished boots. When the horse jumped over the obstacle, it threw the rider, who broke his leg so badly that the shinbone pierced the bootleg. As befits a real man, the officer did not scream or get hysterical. He cleaned his monocle, looked at the sticking bone and composedly said: - Oh! Damn it! It was such a good boot!. Today I would say: He behaved in a totally Hemingway-like way.
In autumn 1958 Bronisław Zieliński left for the United States on a scholarship granted by the Ford Foundation. He asked the organisers to arrange a meeting with John Steinbeck, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. The last request was considered a wishful thinking as Hemingway avoided publicity and mostly stayed in one of his estates in Florida, Cuba or Idaho.
Yet, he made an exception for Zieliński. Apparently, a letter from the translator made an impression on the writer. It read: "Please accept my deepest appreciation and gratitude for all the wonderful moments spent translating your works".
While finishing a telephone conversation preceding the meeting in person, the writer asked just one question: "Mr. Zieliński, as a good Pole, will you arrive sober or drunk?" When he heard that the guest would try not to have any drink before arrival, Hemingway answered: "Well, we'll take care of it later on".
The Old Wolf from Warsaw
Zieliński reached the hardly accessible Ketchum in Idaho by a single-engine plane rented by Hemingway. They landed on a glade at dusk. The writer came to welcome the guest, picked up his suitcases and helped to carry them.
He was a man who did not act as a star or master at all. He appreciated simplicity; he did not follow any social conventions. I spent three and a half days at Hemingway’s house. During that time he wore a tie just once at a fancy good-bye dinner. However, he managed to have the tie on for not longer than half an hour. He was a great writer, who was aware of his value and position in the contemporary world literature, but at the same time he was not "spoilt" by his fame at all. He would listen very carefully and patiently to his interlocutor.
In Ketchum they would discuss literature while drinking Californian chianti, or go hunting for pheasants, partridges or rabbits. Right away Hemingway made a pun and called Zieliński a "Magnetic Pole". In his letters to the translator, however, he referred to him as the "Old Wolf".
A month after his visit to Idaho, Zieliński met John Steinbeck for a glass of whisky and soda and discussed California, the state where the writer spent his childhood. He noticed that the author of The Grapes of Wrath gesticulated expressively and nervously. In his journal, Zieliński wrote that Steinbeck goggled, unexpectedly slouched and titled his head to the side. When he burst into laughter, his sullen and rough-hewn face suddenly brightened up.
They met for the second time in Warsaw, where the writer arrived in the autumn of 1963 soon after being awarded the Nobel Price in Literature. He stayed in the Bristol hotel. At that time President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Zieliński, who had an appointment with Steinbeck found him in shock. After a while, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the then current Chairman of the Association of Writers, appeared accompanied by a translator to offer condolences to Steinbeck on behalf of the Polish writers. Iwaszkiewicz started to deliver an oration. The speaker was so focused that he did not pay attention to the translator who from time to time made every effort to break in and translate a fragment of the speech. Of course, Steinbeck did not understand a word but still tears came to his eyes. Witnessing this scene, Zieliński realized how redundant words may be and that sharing emotions is much more important: "This conversation brought to mind certain observation about people. Well, they are more united and closer to each other than it may have seemed".
Whereas the translator met Steinbeck and Hemingway during the days when their most famous works had already been completed, his encounter with Truman Capote took place in an exceptional moment. The writer had already published Breakfast at Tiffany's and was looking for another subject to explore. In 1959 in Holocomb, Kansas, two ex-convicts murdered the Clutter family. Capote read about this event in a newspaper and travelled there to gather more information for a literary reportage. On the spot, he realized that it was a topic for the entire book, the first non-fiction novel in the history of literature, in which each word and each event would be true.
When Zieliński read and translated In Cold Blood, he became less and less interested in traditional novels. In his opinion, the future belonged to non-fiction rather than fiction writing. And he was not mistaken.
The portrait of the writer as sketched by Zieliński in his journal is astoundingly similar to that featured in a brilliant film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. The translator expected Truman Capote to be "a tall ephebe with gazelle-like eyes and the face of a fallen angel". While he turned out to be "a fatty half-pint wearing glasses". "He moved like a snake" and his voice was "super-feminine".
The Burden of the Unsaid
The contribution of Bronisław Zieliński to the Polish literature should not be underestimated. His translations were highly appreciated by Leopold Tyrmand and Marek Hłasko. Ryszard Kapuściński said:
We were brought up reading socialist realist propaganda and it wasn’t until we read Hemingway’s short stories, thanks to Bronisław Zieliński, that we realized that one can write in such a style. It made a strong impression. In this way, Polish writers found out how to compose a dialogue in which words are as important as what is left unsaid; how to construct a text which brings to mind an iceberg - it is only the one-seventh of it that can be noticed above the water.
Translations by Bronisław Zieliński:
- Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story / Ernest Hemingway - historia życia, Warsaw 1971;
- Georg Gordon Byron: Letters and Journals / Listy i pamiętniki (jointly with Zygmunt Kubiak and Stanisław Kryński), Warsaw 1960;
- Truman Capote: Other Voices, Other Rooms / Inne głosy, inne ściany (Polish edition 1958), Breakfast at Tiffany’s / Śniadanie u Tiffany'ego (Polish edition 1962), The Dogs Bark / Psy szczekają (Polish edition 1982), The Grass Harph / Harfa traw (Polish edition 1962), In Cold Blood / Z zimną krwią (Polish edition 1968);
- Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography/ Moja autobiografia, Warsaw 1967;
- Joseph Conrad: The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ / Murzyn z załogi 'Narcyza', Warsaw 1961;
- Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea / Stary człowiek i morze (Polish edition 1956), For Whom the Bell Tolls / Komu bije dzwon (Polish edition 1957), Green Hills of Africa / Zielone wzgórza Afryki (Polish edition 1959), A Farewell to Arms / Pożegnanie z bronią (Polish edition 1957), The Sun Also Rises / Słońce też wschodzi (Polish edition 1958), Across the River and Into the Trees / Za rzekę, w cień drzew (Polish edition 1961), 49 Short Stories / 49 opowiadań (jointly with Mira Michałowska and Jan Zakrzewski; Polish edition 1964), A Moveable Feast / Ruchome święto (Polish edition 1966), The Undefeated / Niepokonany (jointly with Jan Zakrzewski, Polish edition 1967), Death in the Afternoon / Śmierć po południu (Polish edition 1971), Signed: Ernest Hemingway / Sygnowano: Ernest Hemingway (Polish edition 1975);
- James Jones: From Here to Eternity / Stąd do wieczności (Polish edition 1963), The Thin Red Line / Cienka czerwona linia (Polish edition 1984);
- Jack London: Novellas / Nowele (translated by various translators, Bronisław Zieliński: Koolau the Leper / Trędowaty Koolau, The House of Mapuhi / Dom Mapuhiego, Warsaw 1985); Jerry of the Islands / Jerry z wysp in: A Son of the Sun / Syn Słońca, Jerry of the Islands / Jerry z wysp, first edition in this setting translated by Tadeusz Jan Dehnel ("A Son of the Sun" / "Syn słońca"), Bronisław Zieliński ("Jerry of the Islands" / "Jerry z wysp"), Warsaw 1986;
- Jack Lindsay: Fires in Smithfield / Łuny nad Smithfield (Polish edition 1951), The Passionate Pastorale / Pastorałka (Polish edition 1954), Betrayed Spring / Zdradzona wiosna (Polish edition 1954), Rising Tide / Przypływ;
- Ford Madox Ford: The Fifth Queen / Piąta królowa (Polish edition 1984);
- Herman Melville: Moby Dick or the Whale / Moby Dick czyli Biały Wieloryb (Polish edition 1954), Taipi (Polish edition 1963), Billy Budd (Polish edition 1964);
- Mario Puzo: The Godfather / Ojciec chrzestny, Warsaw 1976;
- John Steinbeck: East of Eden / Na wschód od Edenu (Polish edition 1958), Once There Was a War / Była raz wojna (Polish edition 1961), Travels With Charley / Podróże z Charleyem (Polish edition 1991), The Winter of Our Discontent / Zima naszej goryczy (Polish edition 1965);
- William Styron: Set This House on Fire / Na pastwę płomieni (Polish edition 1967), The Confessions of Nat Turner / Wyznania Nata Turnera (Polish edition 1973);
- Robert Penn Warren: All the King’s Men / Gubernator (Polish edition 1960), Wilderness / Puszcza (Polish edition 1964), Meet Me in the Green Glen / Spotkajmy się w zielonej dolinie (Polish edition 1975).
Books on Bronisław Zieliński:
- Mira Michałowska: Do zobaczenia, Stary Wilku. Opowieść o przyjaźni Ernesta Hemingwaya z jego polskim tłumaczem - Bronisławem Zielińskim / See you, Old Wolf. Story About the Friendship Between Ernest Hemingway and his Polish Translator – Bronisław Zieliński, Wydawnictwo Prószyński i S-ka, Warsaw 1999;
- Bartosz Marzec: Na wzgórzach Idaho. Opowieść o Bronisławie Zielińskim, tłumaczu i przyjacielu Ernesta Hemingwaya / In the Hills of Idaho. Story About Bronisław Zieliński, translator and friend of Ernest Hemingway, Warszawskie Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza, Warsaw 2008.
While working on the article, the author referred to the following press publications:
- "Słowo za słowo", "Zarzewie", March 9, 1975;
- "Hemingway i inni... w oczach tłumacza". Małgorzata Mokrzycka’s Conversation with Bronisław Zieliński, "Dookoła świata";
- "Sztuka nie zawsze doceniana". Kira Gałczyńska’s Conversation with Bronisław Zieliński, "Trybuna Ludu" no 41, February 10, 1974;
- "Emocje tłumacza". Grażyna Banaszkiewicz’s Conversation with Bronisław Zieliński. "Tydzień", January 1976;
- "Twarze w 'Zwierciadle' Bronisław Zieliński", "Zwierciadło", no 26, July 1, 1962;
- "Od Melville'a do Hemingwaya". Literary reportage by Henryk Tronowicz;
- "Stary Wilk z Warszawy. O Hemingwayu i innych pisarzach amerykańskich". Henryk Ankiewicz’s Conversation with Bronisław Zieliński. "Magazyn Lubuski", July 8-9, 1972.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, December 2010