Bedside table #46. Maciej Świerkocki: I use every interstice to replenish my reading deficit

The translator and writer Maciej Świerkocki talks about his work on the translation of James Joyce's Ulysses and a book devoted to this novel, translator's misanthropy, rare readings for pleasure, formative readings, a decisive encounter with "Literatura na Świecie" (World Literature) magazine, as well as reveals who, according to him, is the greatest writer of all time.

What does a pandemic mean for a translator? At the very beginning of the lockdown, I found the following message on the Facebook page of the Association of Translators of Literature: "Dear Translators! Don't leave your houses, don't meet with people, type your lines within your four walls. In a word, do what you always do!" Does it mean that the isolation and social distancing were a blessing for you?

In a mental or psychological sense, a pandemic troubles translators just as much as an everyman who deals with it, i.e. regardless of their profession. Of course, there are also disadvantages that are already specific to our activity, for example fewer orders from publishers or other entities that use our services, i.e. lower earnings, which are, after all, low or very low anyway. Luckily for me, these problems didn't really affect me this year, mainly because I usually plan my work well in advance and have already signed a few contracts, so for now, I don't have to worry about whether I'll have food to put on the table. I know, however, that many of my colleagues have encountered financial problems. What's worse, it seems to me that the effects of not so much a pandemic but a lockdown will be long-term, and, unfortunately, they will stay with us for some time, so far it's hard to say for how long as not every one of them is visible yet. Almost all the publishing houses had to change their publishing plans, postpone the publication of some titles to a later date, resign from some, and also stop or strongly limit purchases of new titles, which, of course, means less work for translators. Besides, many of us also work and earn money by travelling around the country, and sometimes abroad, and receive grants to do it and for doing it, honoraria for author's evenings, for running translation workshops, for participating in various literary festivals, and so on. This year, of course, this was not the case and, for now, it is not known when it will restart, although something is slowly beginning to revive, but the so-called normality is still a long way from now, and face to face contact with the living recipient cannot be replaced by even the most perfect electronics.

On the other hand, writing in general, including translation of course, is a lonely job, done within your four walls, away from the hustle and bustle, misanthropes-friendly, so isolation and social distance are everyday life for most of us. In this regard, therefore, nothing has actually changed for me except that I couldn't go to any ‘house of creative work’ and write there more effectively than at home, where reality always squawks, i.e. there are plenty of everyday, practical, ordinary matters to be dealt with, which distract the translator from literature. So, I was burdened by the sense of insecurity and confinement; I dealt with it in such a way that every day, for almost two months, I got in the car and went out of town for an hour or two, enjoying an illusory sense of freedom. However, to put it as broadly as possible, during such a state of emergency, working is certainly more difficult than easier.

It's no secret that you've been working on a new translation of Ulysses by James Joyce for several years. The first five chapters have already been presented in "Literatura na Świecie" (“World Literature” periodical), and the first polemic, with Piotr Paziński, about your translation appeared. What stage of work on Ulysses are you at? Is Leopold Bloom's day over and the sun sets over Dublin?

I've been working on Ulysses for nearly seven years now, so my drudgery is slowly coming to an end, although this novel in particular is simply a bottomless pit, and, to say the least, one could devote one's life to it. In addition to the five chapters published in "World Literature" that you mentioned, two more, the twelfth and thirteenth, are being published as episodes on the pages of "Odra" monthly, which began printing them in the January issue of 2020 and will end in December – remember, however, that these are still all draft versions. Shorter fragments have also been read several times by superb actors, for example in Wrocław, at the Silesian Theatre in Katowice, or twice at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw. This year, on the occasion of Bloomsday, an excerpt from "Cyclops" was brilliantly presented - unfortunately, only online - by director Andrzej Seweryn. The book has also gone through its first edition, so in April 2021, it should go through the second, then to proofreading, then to me again, and finally - to the printing house - the publishing house Officyna intends to publish a new Ulysses in October 2021.

With Piotr Pazinski, I am perhaps in not very frequent, but constant and very good contact; Piotr has even promised to write an afterword to my translation quite a long time ago, so we could say that we are cooperating. I am also working on my own independent book about Ulysses. Mainly about its translation, although, in fact, it will be somewhat a small guide to this novel, prepared with the modern reader in mind. Łódź Ulissesa (“Ulysses’s Boat” or “Ulysses’s Łódź” – Łodź [literal meaning ‘boat’] is a city in central Poland where the author was born – translator’s note), as will read the title of my book, is addressed to Joyce's amateurs, who are not professionally engaged in his texts, i.e. to non-specialists; to students rather than academic researchers, to people who only heard about this novel, or only read it in excerpts or only once (and have not returned to it again) rather than to fanatics, sleeping with the book under their pillow and knowing whole fragments by heart, although we do not have many readers of this kind. It was, among other things, Łódź Ulissesa that absorbed me and continues to absorb me during the pandemic, because I have been working on this title all year round, and I have at least a few more months of work ahead of me - the more so as the thing keeps growing and will probably eventually be only a little shorter than Ulysses itself, and it should appear more or less at the same time. We have never had such a book in Polish before, so I hope it will be useful and will make it easier for the reader to move around the great ‘labyrinth of the world’, as Egon Naganowski once put it. However, reading it will not replace reading the novel, yet in Łódź..., we will find summaries of individual chapters, so I clearly advise that this is a book for those who will first read Ulysses itself - whether the old translation by Maciej Słomczyński or the new one, it doesn’t really matter.

Do you remember the first time you read Ulysses? It must have been Maciej Słomczyński's legendary translation, the PIW (The State Publishing Institute publishing house – translator’s note) blue dust cover edition, for which - as legends say - people not only queued up, but then also showed up with it around the city, showing it off like a fashionable gadget.

Of course, I remember, and I even write a little bit about it in Łódź Ulissesa. And yes, it was the first edition of the PIW you mentioned, borrowed from a friend. It's even a bit funny, though it's also somehow sad, because time also became somewhat pandemical then - well, I read this translation as a student of the second year of English philology, in December 1981, two weeks after the imposition of martial law, i.e. during an unexpectedly long military-police ‘lockdown’ and very long holidays that General Jaruzelski treated us to. Later, I read this translation at least twice more, and I also read Ulysses twice in the original. Of course, now that I'm working on a new translation, I had to do it a few more times both in Polish and English, so in total, I'm probably already approaching ten readings. Incidentally, I value both Joyce's work and Słomczyński's translation much more today than nearly forty years ago.

Did the idea of translating this book ‘in your own way’ come then or sometime later?

I started thinking about the translation of Ulysses anew only many years after that first reading, and initially without much enthusiasm - perhaps because I was afraid of this translation for many reasons. The need for a new translation has been discussed for a long time, and around 2010, when Joyce's work was about to go into the public domain - which meant that no more money would have to be paid for the copyrights - many publishers started looking for a new translation. Frankly speaking, I was a little surprised that no one had a new Polish version already in their drawer and offered to publish it immediately after the seventieth anniversary of the writer's death, but since it turned out that nobody was working on the new translation, I was slowly getting brought round to the thought of a new Polish Ulysses, also convincing myself, because the decision-making process in my case took about two or three years. I also know, of course, that various publishers also approached other translators, but none of them decided to do so; I can only guess why. Perhaps Zbigniew Batko, who was probably the only one to work on the new Ulysses for some time then and even published the first few chapters, would have taken it up, but unfortunately, Zbyszek died prematurely. We were friends and we knew each other well, and it wasn't until he passed away that I decided that maybe I should try to ‘do Joyce’ as if in lieu of him, an older translator and a Łódź resident. I thought that in this way, I would maintain a certain continuity and pay homage to Zbyszek, an excellent writer and translator, but also simply a great guy, an extraordinary personality. This swung the balance, although it was obviously not the most important argument. The most important was that I would be able to face one of the greatest translation challenges that one could imagine, at least in the case of English literature, and that I knew already then that my translation would be significantly different from the translation of my outstanding predecessor.

An undertaking such as the translation of Ulysses has to significantly take up vital space in life. In one of the interviews, you say you designated one day a week to translate Joyce - Wednesday. How do you organise your time to find a place to read in addition to the books you are currently translating?

This obviously requires some kind of acrobatics. For a long time now, I have rarely read for pure pleasure, mainly on holidays, because most of my readings are somehow connected with my professional life, that is, with translation and writing. And books or texts that I need to get acquainted with in order to work effectively, I get down to them in any time free from writing. There isn’t much of this free time, because my average working day lasts about twelve hours, sometimes longer, but I use every interstice to replenish my reading deficit. When a person gains experience with age, they organise their time purely intuitively. This skill is naturally acquired as the years go by.

What were the books that shaped you? Are there any books that have influenced your life choices (e.g. choice of profession as a translator, studying English philology)?

I've had a lot of formative readings. In my early childhood, it was actually all the classics of children's and teenagers' literature and more, because I learned to read on my own, when I was five years old, and I absorbed books madly. I read whatever I could get my hands on, for example, I took Sienkiewicz off the shelf somehow between the ages of nine and ten. Later, in my later youth and adult life, I was most impressed by Beckett, Lem, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chandler, Witkacy, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Rabelais, or Shakespeare, whom I still consider to be the greatest writer of all time, an absolutely unparalleled talent, unearthly, as if he really came from another planet, and yet he knew the human soul inside out. But this is only a very short selection, because the writers who somehow contributed to the fact that I took up literature could be named until the morning. For example, another extremely important figure for me was Elias Canetti, especially as the author of Auto da Fé, but also as an essayist, just like Miłosz. By the way, Canetti died and was buried in Zurich, just like Joyce, which I knew, but I didn't know - until two years ago when I visited Joyce's grave - that they were both buried in the same cemetery, next to each other. I must also add here that I also consider philosophy to be a kind of literature and that many philosophers were also extremely important for my life and professional choices, especially the pre-Socratics with Heraclitus at the helm, followed by Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Freud, Jung, Wittgenstein (particularly from the second period of his works), Popper, Gadamer, Derrida, and Rorty. This list would also be very long, so these are only examples, among which I should also mention Max Stirner and Marquis de Sade, thinkers, euphemistically speaking, very rude, lesser known, and treated rather like marginalia, oddities. Anyway, when I started studying philosophy, I already knew that I would be dealing with literature both theoretically (as an academic lecturer) and practically (as a translator and writer), and somewhat naively, although in the best of faith, I thought that philosophy would help me understand literature better.

If, on the other hand, I were to point out a reading that had directly influenced the choice of my main occupation, i.e. the profession of translator, it was undoubtedly an encounter with “World Literature” periodical, which I have been reading on a regular basis more or less since 1974. Great translators translated really good, original writers there; at a high level in "WL" stood also, and still stands, the criticism and essay section, and the longer I read this magazine, the more I wanted to join it in the future, especially as an occasional collaborator, an author, because I already knew editorial office work and was less attracted to it. It wasn't until I finally succeeded, probably at the end of the eighties, that I decided that I was anointed as a translator, that I could try to do it professionally, hence maybe even make a living from it.

And what have you been reading lately? What's on your bedside table?

I recently read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and also, for the first time in its entirety, Plato's Republic, which, I’m ashamed to admit, I knew so far only in the so-called extensive fragments. I also had to revisit Conrad's Nostromo, for I'm preparing its new translation, as well as Beckett's Murphy, because I'm also working on its first Polish version. However, on my bedside table also lies Po piśmie (“After Writing”) by Jacek Dukaj - I have literally twenty pages left to finish this book – but, as I usually read a few titles at once, you will also find The Rebel by Camus, to which I always like to return, and Art and Visual Perception by Arnheim.

Where do you learn about new books from? How, for example, do you find out about the authors that would be worth assimilating into Polish?

I'm probably behaving in this matter like anyone who lives among books - I look through the professional literary and cultural press, browse the Internet, listen to hints from my colleagues, read books that sometimes refer to other books, and visit bookshops and second-hand bookshops, which I like to do especially abroad. New authors are also provided to translators by publishers, who often offer me the works of first-time writers, and I quite willingly accept such titles, because they often include successful books and outstanding talents, such as Eleanor Catton. However, I mention her here also because I first came across the name as an internal reviewer for one of our publishers, long before she received the Booker Award and long before I took up the translation of The Luminaries. An internal review is also a good way to get to know new writing faces or new works, as well as sitting in various competition or festival bodies.  

Your translation portfolio includes not only works of such a degree of linguistic overorganisation as Ulysses, not only dense and full of intertextual games works of American postmodernism (such as John Barth's On with the Story), but also popular literature such as Joan Austen-Leigh's books. Are you a reader of such literature yourself? Is this your way of resting from belles-lettres that offer resistance (in reading and translation work)?

Oh yes, absolutely, but is this surely a rest? I like and value good popular literature, and I have never depreciated a book just because it was labelled as some supposedly inferior genre, like a crime fiction or science fiction. It was not without reason that I have already mentioned Raymond Chandler among my ‘formative authors’, and I would also add Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Georges Simenon; among the speculative fiction writers, in turn, I would mention Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, the Strugatsky brothers, J.G. Ballard, and H.P. Lovecraft, who finally saw very good translations by Maciek Płaza. I wouldn't say, however, that with all the books by these writers you can carelessly relax, because at least some of them, if not most of them, arouse anxiety rather than calm, and they are not at all as easy to read as one might think. This is perhaps not the prose of linguistic acrobatics in the sense that John Barth's works are, but it sometimes reaches the deepest and darkest recesses of human mind and heart, where, as if at the bottom of a Thales’ well, we see ourselves if we have the courage to open our eyes in this emptiness and admit that, first of all, “we know about ourselves only what we've been tested”, as our Nobel Prize winner once wrote, and secondly, that there isn’t a more pathetic creature in the world than man. Reading such things is therefore, from an quotidian, entertaining point of view, an average pleasure - sometimes, however, probably much more often than we would like, real art provides us with pleasure bordering on pain.

As far as Joan Austen-Leigh is concerned, the authentic descendant of Jane Austen, I used to translate her solely for money, but without the slightest disgust, because they were skilfully written and quite intelligent continuations/pastiches of the author of Pride and Prejudice. I wouldn't really reach for these books myself, but not because they're so poor, just because, as a reader, I’m just not interested in these kinds of sequels. To tell the truth, I never really liked Jane Austen either, although I do appreciate her style, her contribution to the history of English literature, and her sharp wit. 

Recent years have brought many new, refreshed translations of works from the literary canon. The Officyna Publishing House, in which your Ulysses is to be published next year, is publishing new translations of all volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. New translations of classics - e.g. novels by Gustave Flaubert - are regularly announced by Sic! Publishing House. What kind of books do you think would still require such a refreshment? Do you intend to translate any of these yet?

I've already mentioned Nostromo, probably my favourite Conrad novel (jokingly speaking, after The Secret Agent), and for the time being, I don't have any other such refreshed translations planned (I will finish Nostromo in two or three years at the earliest). As for the requirements, however, it is not always the case that a given book needs to be refreshed because it was once translated incorrectly - sometimes it is just about some new translation idea, a new interpretative motif, a new language, not to mention a new commission. Literature has always fed on translations, and, as translations can be done indefinitely, it will never dry up, at least as long as it exists; and, in this driving of its flywheel, I also see the sense of publishing new translations. Of course, a translator or a publisher may sometimes want to fix what, in their opinion, their predecessors did not do best - such motivations are probably given most often - or to bring the reader closer to a work which, although it has been translated well in terms of content and artistry, has become so old-fashioned in terms of language that today it is basically indecipherable. Actually, any reason to propose a new translation seems good to me, because it is always another voice in the discussion on literature, on a particular title and author, another injection that keeps the book alive, restores it, resembles works sometimes seemingly familiar to every moderately educated person, but perhaps already somewhat forgotten, fossilised in one, constantly repeated reading, dead. What's more, these translations often coexist later, because one does not invalidate the other at all, unless there is one that nobody wants to read; then, of course, it dies, but as long as it is alive, that is as long as it has its readers, it remains a full shareholder in the literary stock exchange. That is why it is probably worthwhile to translate absolutely everything anew, provided that you have something new to propose in the translation, that you at least try to speak with your voice - imitating the author's voice, of course, but in your own attire.

From our correspondence when making an appointment for the interview, I know that you like to get away from the city, to places without access to the Internet. What kind of books do you take on such trips?

Manifold, not to be bored. But these excursions you're talking about now are usually several hours long, one day at most, so then, I don't read much, I just walk in the forest. And if I manage to disappear somewhere for more than a few days and cut myself off from the world, I try to stock up on books that suit my current mood, provided I don't have to read anything for work. I often take to such trips the diaries of writers or other artists, as well as their correspondence, letters, for people who write sometimes fascinate me more than their work.

So, what are your reading plans for this intensive summer?

Surely, any week now I have to read Labirynt i drzewo (“"The Labyrinth and the Tree") by Piotr Paziński: this will be my last such lengthy supplementary reading to Łódź Ulissesa, which I should be slowly finishing soon. Comments on Murphy, i.e. Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy by C.J. Ackerley is also waiting in line. I also have my eyes on The Ghost - A Cultural History, a Susan Owens' richly illustrated monograph on ghosts in Western culture, as well Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood, a book on the religion of violence and the violence of religion. I will also soon read Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith, because it has been translated by a splendid translator, and I like this author, and I already have two of her books to my name, too. What will I be reading during my time off which I expect to use in September, I do not know yet - I usually choose books for a longer holiday only at the last minute, but there is always something from the broadly understood Tatra Mountains literature, because the Tatra Mountains and Podhale region are somehow my second, and spiritually even my first home.

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki

Translated by Justyna Lowe