Bedside table #48. Małgorzata Łukasiewicz: There is nothing better than spending your whole life reading

Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, translator of German-language literature, literary critic and essayist, talks about a wild yearning resulting from reading real literature, the pleasures of reading without commitment, the fun of re-reading books, the love of Lalka (“The Doll”); she also explains why the title of Süskind's Das Perfum reads Pachnidło (“Scent”) in Polish and why books are like people.

Recently, I had a thought that being a creator of fictional literature does not necessarily force you into continuous reading. Writers have a lot of freedom in this respect. However, the same cannot be said of essayists, literary critics, and translators. In their case, there is no escape from reading.

But there is nothing better than spending your whole life reading. I will say more - it's probably much more fun than spending it on writing. It even seems to me that the inverse relationship is true. First comes reading, only then comes translation, literary criticism, and all the rest. For reading literature – real literature - usually leaves us with some wild yearning. First: the book ends. And then, what to do with yourself? Something must be done with what has been read. You can quietly, in some corner, think it over, work it out for yourself. But sometimes the text calls for other actions. Fortunately, culture provides us with a variety of tools for expressing and dealing with emotions - for example, a conversation with another person.

The moment when we realise that something has accumulated in us during the reading is, in my opinion, the most pleasant. As well as the fact that we want to do something about it, for example, to find out why we read this book at all. What grabbed us by the throat in it? What was the catch? An experience that demands further continuation. Of course, it is rarely possible to stay on the intellectual-rational level. There is something in reading that we find in its purest form in erotic literature - a desire to focus on what… has taken us so. The eyes of the princess or something else.

So, it starts with a love of literature.

Or rather, with the readiness to get into literature.

You have been working with it for almost fifty years. Can you still enjoy it? Or maybe I wrongly assume that there is a difference between professional reading and that for spiritual enjoyment? Maybe a critical or translation-oriented reading mode is the same as reading for yourself?

It is a complicated matter. Perhaps the truth is that these professional readings, as you call them, are in some way impoverishing? That we focus on one plane, on one aspect of the piece? We are focused from the very beginning, we know what to look for, we run our permanent toolkit. The opportunity to be surprised diminishes then at a geometric pace, we do not let the book lead us. I don't know, I'm not sure about that. At the same time, there is no doubt that there is such a thing as reading without commitment. Not necessarily disinterested reading, but just without commitments. It means that I don't have to report it to anyone, I don't have to review it, it's just my – indeed – pleasure. So, it's good when we mix it, we combine one with the other. It's probably not exhaustive, though. Because, in fact, reading, or rather literature, corresponds to our most numerous, very different needs that we are not fully aware of. Haven’t you ever picked a book on the train, just to kill time, to get away from the current moment? Or when you broke your leg, or had the flu, or...

... during a three-month lockdown at home.

No need to look far. For such circumstances, special books are needed. I once fished out a beautiful sentence from Białoszewski. Bialoszewski is in hospital, it is Christmas, so everyone brings him something to the hospital, treats, but also something to read. Someone put Jane Austen’s Emma on the table. And Białoszewski writes, "I couldn't have had a better Christmas. There was something about it like eating a cake.”

That’s pretty.

There is, of course, Białoszewski's genius in this. But that's exactly what I mean by that, that reading does a lot of things to us. Hence my thesis that books are like people. They satisfy millions of our needs - from holding our hand to spiritual leadership.

Or an ardent slap.

Of course.  We need people, because we have immediate, everyday desires. Someone has to help me nail a hook into the wall, someone has to help me live. And the books are exactly in this spectrum of relationships. There is a lot going on between the reader and the book, we are not fully aware of it, but we do not have to control ourselves, we do not have to scrutinise the reading process. It is better to act off script.

You say that professional reading impoverishes us in some way. And, indeed, I have dozens of books in my head that have been read, analysed, but forgotten, thrown out of my mind.

Because maybe the book itself should show us what is interesting in it. Sometimes, we will not be interested in the structuring of the main character or the plot at all, but in some puzzling adjective or a sudden transition to another topic. Something that we wouldn’t think of before, but it is specific to this book, to this author. A new horizon is opening, a horizon of discovery without limits, without the directions of searching drawn from above.

How much do you read every day?

It depends. It depends a little on the rhythm of my work. If I'm very absorbed in some translation, i.e. I make ‘the first glance’, it's difficult for me to engage in some other reading at the same time. But what about books read again? They do not require such intense attention, and the fun is enormous. So, during intense professional work, I read fewer new titles. I return to my old friends.

I am asking also because I am curious what time of day do you read. In the morning? In the evening?

Both. But also during the day.

Do you have some kind of a bedside table?

Of course, there are very different books there.

More than one?

Yes. Now, on top of it, there is Flannery O'Connor's stories and Boostridge's essay on Winter Journey. It's pleasant to have a lot, well, maybe not too much, not a pile that can collapse at any time, but a portion of books that provides some variety.

Although it can grow into various horrifying pyramids.

I would call it an energy reserve.

What texts do you return to while working on your translations?

Children's books, for instance, with delight.

Which ones?

I can show you my bookshelf.

I'd like that.

There it is. The second one from the top. At the very top, there is crime fiction.

Which you…?

Which I read, of course. As you can see, there aren’t any thick ‘Scandinavians’ there. I am very conservative in this respect - good crime fiction is short crime fiction.

Would I find anything from Barbara Gordon there?

I don't think so. First of all, classics, with Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie at the forefront. The children's shelf is also classics.

The Children of Noisy Village, Winnie-the-PoohMary Poppins

… And if you look at this book, which recently visited a bookbinder, because it was already falling apart. Dorota i jej towarzysze (”Dorothy and her Companions”) by Wanda Borudzka. Do you know this book?

No, I don’t.

I recommend it. Worth reading. And above, also after a visit to a bookbinder’s, one of my favourite books, The Count of Monte Christo.

I know this one. And I can see Szatan z siódmej klasy (“Satan From the Seventh Grade”), which my father suggested to me.

Oh, right! I think I even have two different editions. One is censored. Do you remember the plot?

More or less.

The action takes  place in Lithuania, in the manor called ‘Bejgola’. We remember it very well, because when Adam wants to encrypt something, he writes ‘Ejgola’ on purpose. And here? The village is located near Pułtusk in Poland and is called ‘Kleszewo’. The name of the village has been changed so that it does not bring to mind the pre-war borders. The year 1948, Gebethner and Wolff.

These readings from your youth, are they still stimulating for you? Or relaxing?


Would you call these books formative readings?

I don't know. Of course, they left some trace in me. But were they formative?

In that case, what would you call your formative reading? What has shaped you?

I cannot name a single book like that. I'm sure they all amounted to it, but I wouldn't be able to give any of them a definite priority. It must be something like an accumulation of meanings and texts. One doesn’t read Dostoevsky just like that, in your birthday suit, but you usually meet Winnie the Pooh before that.

It can also be a series, a cycle, some circle.

All right, I love Lalka (“The Doll”). But I will not call it a formative book. And if so, it is only in the sense that it is an eternal source of admiration for me on how well you can do literature and how well Prus knew how to do it. In this sense it is formative. Because such reading leads us to an extremely interesting question, namely: how is it done? What did Prus come up with so that I - reading this one page for the hundredth time - still can't understand it?

This admiration you're talking about...

I don't want it to sound exalted. But maybe ‘surprise’, a willingness to follow it, to explore. it one of the reasons you translate?

It is not that I choose the books to translate by myself.  To a large extent, these are proposals from publishers, which are either accepted or not. So, of course, these are not always my beloved books. But it's good to find something in them that particularly excites me.

But Mann, Sebald…

Well yes, Sebald.  In this case, I am happy to assign myself the role of explorer. As soon as I read his first book, I immediately started looking for a publisher.

I am simply curious to what extent the authors translated by you aroused this curiosity, this desire to follow.

Sebald for sure.

And what about Walser?

Yes, of course. I read him and asked myself: why am I sitting with this book? Why can't I get away from it? Why do I return? In fact, I think Walser was the first serious mystery that literature posed to me.

I can't forget about The Robber.

And was this your first Walser?

No. But the first one that I found so difficult to read.

This is Walser's only piece from the ‘micrograms’ phase which is larger than one bite. Maybe that is why it is more mysterious than others. Like these seemingly incoherent pieces, scenes, and episodes, they form a sequence, a piece of, after all, a certain volume. Reading The Robber inevitably spreads out in time and provokes even more questions, which we try to answer in vain. So, we read again, and again, and sometimes again.

You mentioned the ‘first glance’ of the translation, this initial work on translation. What does it look like in your case?

Right, you sensed that we are going back to reading. Usually, I do not read the book I am supposed to translate beforehand, or at least I do not read it very thoroughly and certainly not in its entirety. I keep this pleasure for work. After all, it is my driving force, my reading machine - curiosity what will happen next. This method is not entirely safe, because at some point, it may turn out that this is a terrible book, or that there will be some nasty moment in it that will discourage and disgust us. This can happen. Anyway, if a publisher proposes a book to me, I look carefully, and as soon as I start to like it - I put it away. It’s like with ice cream - after three spoonfuls, I realise that they are delicious, and so I put them back in the freezer. To keep this real pleasure for a more important time.

And then you sit down in front of the book and start to walk through it slowly, until the end.


And then?

And then again, and again. And many more times.

And this curiosity is not exhausted? Or rather - what to do when it inevitably runs out?

I would rather say that it turns into a specific job with specific problems to solve. To make it smooth, but to make certain meanings clearly accentuated, to avoid a threefold repetition of ‘which’ or a repetitive ‘as if’, or to avoid internal rhymes. Purely technical matters.

Is it a tedious job?

No, it is rather a pleasure. The pleasure of picking through words. Of course, when we work for three hours over one sentence and are terribly dissatisfied with it all this time, we feel that we are exaggerating. Our noggin is drying out, we need to get up and do something else to refresh. So ‘tedious’ at most in the sense that it lasts a long time and moves forward slowly, but it is certainly not unpleasant.

I recently spoke with Andrzej Sobol-Jurczykowski, the translator of Borges. He told me that it took him two weeks to translate the first sentence of The Theologians from The Aleph. This is probably a big sacrifice.

But it is not the sacrifice! It's not unpleasant. Yes, there is some trouble. You have to survive those two weeks somehow, have the means for a bun and a morning coffee. The time needed to make a translation is no way relevant to what you earn for it, and it sometimes fails to be in accordance with common sense. Oh well, that’s the character of the profession. Such apparent disproportion occurs especially with those writers we care about most. And Sobol-Jurczykowski cares about Borges.

He translated everything.

And he discovered Borges for us. Even though Borges had other translators afterwards.

Fifty-two people in total, including Herbert, who probably translated one story, although - if I remember correctly - not necessarily the most faithfully.

Fidelity - I'm not sure if this is the right criterion to evaluate the translation, but it's rather a topic for the seminar... Another thing is bloopers, they can make a good anecdote. It happened to me once that I automatically identified the word ‘Paris’ in a title of fictional work, which appears in the German original, as the city of Paris instead of ‘Paris’ from ‘Paris and Helen’.

And you missed it?

I missed it. I understood it only during the editorial work.

Editing - is it helpful?

Of course... There are various things you won't notice by yourself. Only an editor and a proofreader pay attention to this.

Only rarely do we talk about these people.

Very wrong. Of the people I have been apprenticed to, as it should be put, my first editor is someone very important to me. The first book I translated, which was Sociology by Georg Simmel, got into the hands of Wanda Lipnik, an absolutely wonderful editor. Those were, of course, completely different times - she was ready to devote an awful lot of her own energy and attention to teach me everything she could, although it was not part of her editorial duties. We became friends for the rest of her life. I owe a lot, a lot to her.

I also attended translation seminars for young, debuting translators organised by the Polish Writers' Union in the 1970s. As well as translation classes run by Professor Garewicz at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. And during my studies, I had classes with Jerzy Lisowski. Did you have any translation classes?

I graduated from Polish studies majoring in translation, but I don't know if I got anything out of it.

For some time, I ran a translation class at the Erasmus of Rotterdam Department. It was great fun for me when I watched how the students, after a few months, start getting it, how they realise what is wrong, what needs to be improved. It's good if something like that takes the form of group activities - someone will be dissatisfied, someone will criticise us, someone will not like something. In this way, we learn to recognise the difficulties of the text and the possibilities of Polish language. This is probably the best way to introduce novices to the work of a translator.

Indeed. Recently, Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, translated by Sława Lisiecka, Jacek St. Buras, and the participants of their translation classes, has been published. I believe this is quite an interesting form?

But also difficult. In the end, there must be one person who takes responsibility anyway. For example, to defend solutions, to answer your own and critics’ every question: why is there a comma here? And why is there a participle here? We need a commander-in-chief who will take everything on the chin.

Have you ever had to strongly defend your translation choices?

In each book, really. Aren't we fighting with proofreaders over commas?

We do, because commas are the most important.

Well, of course! They can set the whole sentence rhythm differently. But I also remember the case of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. It was...

…in 1990.

The title I came up with wasn’t appreciated at all.

And the original was…?

Das Parfum. This book, as we know, has been translated into dozens of languages and was a world bestseller. The publisher's catalogue contained all the covers on which the title was repeated in different languages, a word similar to ‘perfume’. And only this Polish Pachnidło (‘scent’, old-fashioned for ‘perfume’ – translator’s note) - completely dissimilar. But I was absolutely convinced I was right.


Because Polish ‘perfumy’ (‘perfume’ in Polish is used in plural form – translator’s note) has no strength. I like perfumes very much, but their place is on the dresser. And in German, "Das Parfum" has this strength because it is a bit exotic, it is such a fussy, snobby little thing. In Polish, in plural form, it loses its power of expression. And in the singular, ‘perfuma’ (‘perfume’ in singular is old-fashioned – translator’s note), terrible, and it is immediately associated with a song: "That perfume is not for you to drink". Pachnidło is sensual, reminiscent of a passage from Macbeth about "all the perfumes of Arabia" (in the Polish version, ‘perfumes’ here was translated as ‘pachnidła’ – translator’s note). And most importantly, its grammatical gender is neutral. Mysterious strength, this je ne sais quoi.

We are now talking about translating fiction. How does such work differ from translating philosophy? Is it very perceptible?

Yes. This is something else. We prepare ourselves differently. And the accompanying works are also different. When translating, say, Habermas, I had to read a lot of other books: sociological, philosophical. In order to learn more about the subject, problems, and to look for terminology. When translating fiction, there are also various expeditions in search of words, which are very absorbing, but have a slightly different character, right? A good essay, though, or a good philosophical treatise are as engaging in reading and working on language as a great novel.

What are you currently working on? What can we expect in the near future?

The next book by Christine Lavant. A little one only, actually, not a big book. I'm really looking forward to it.

Ossolineum publishing house?

Yes. And on the desk that you can see, there is The Rings of Saturn. And they are waiting to be read before reprinting.

Do you make corrections?

No, I try not to. Only when I discover, or the proofreaders discover, some oversight that can be removed without much confusion in the text. It is difficult, because you have to avoid the temptation to translate the whole thing again from the beginning. Because if you return to a translation from years ago, you would like to do everything anew. Not because you think you did it wrong. It's just that you feel like immersing yourself in it all over again. I really like to translate Sebald. It is a lot of fun. When I return to that translation, it is very tempting, "Let's do it again! Let's walk along this ridge again, since it's so cool!" So, in order not to mess with the publisher, I try to keep myself in check.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe