photo: the author's archive

Bedside table #59. Miłosz Waligórski: I try to be suspicious of words

Miłosz Waligórski, translator, poet, and prose writer, talks about, among other things, what he looks for in books, underestimated editors, the work of a translator, literature as a sphere of freedom, and ‘his’ writers.

Miłosz, how many languages do you know? Can you even count them on one hand?

I know a few, but none quite well enough. I am learning many, with Polish at the forefront. I’m not ingratiating myself here. Really, almost every day, I come across some new Polish word, phrase, or meaning of which I had no idea before. Recently, I learnt pójść z kimś w tuzy (“to be at daggers drawn"), śledziennik (“curmudgeon”), śreżoga (archaic for “sunbeam as seen through a mist"), or lewada (“levade”), which is very close to Serbian livada (which made me, of course, immensely happy). I passionately flick through dictionaries, looking for bridges between words in different languages, and new words make me shiver with excitement. Each of them is a little window on the world.

What about those really foreign ones?

I learnt Slovak when studying Slovak philology, Hungarian during Hungarian philology, and life forced me to learn Serbo-Croatian. Then there's Romanian and Estonian, which I'm learning in manic spurts, so with no prospect of real success.

How many do you translate from?

From Serbo-Croatian, primarily, which I probably know best, because I have lived in Novi Sad for quite a few years now. I call this language in this way, although we could just as well speak of several languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, and so on. And it looks better on a CV. Besides, there are those learned at university: Hungarian and Slovak. I also managed to translate - with divine and human help - one or two poems from Lithuanian and a few from Latvian. The Latvian Māris Salējs is half Polish, so he helps me in our language. When I translate his poems, I also have Ukrainian, Russian, and English translations at my disposal. I did a handful of poetry from the Rusyn language with a dictionary, as well as some tentative Estonian verses. Each case is a bit individual. Besides, I can always count on the support of others, such as the translators associated with Rozstaje (The Rozstaje portal unites translators of belles-lettres from so-called Central and Eastern Europe – translator’s note). Knowledge of the original language is important, but the key is the ability to sculpt in Polish, which you have to look for on your own.

Ten years ago, you translated Víť Staviarski's book together with Iza Zając. What is it like translating with someone else? Is this the form of support you are talking about?

Today, I probably wouldn't dare to work in that mode anymore. I have irremovable idiosyncrasies in my blood - habits, rituals, quirks. A second translator could not bear it. Back then, a long time ago, Iza and I believed that there was one translation, it just needed to be extracted from under the original. We translated Daniela Kapitáňová's Cemetry Book in such a way that both of us made our own version of the whole thing, then we overlaid one with another like two X-rays and looked at how the blackened areas were arranged. Donkey work, and very time-consuming. With Víť's book, however, we worked on it bit by bit. Iza did a paragraph, I did a paragraph. Then we had to look for a uniform style, which basically meant translating from scratch. So much fun...

So, you don't recommend it.

Today, I believe that it is better to do it yourself as long as you then hand the text over to a good editor, whose work, by the way, is often underestimated. A good editor can make a great book even from an average translation. Anna Górecka, Joanna Pomorska, Paulina Ciucka, Olga Czernikow, Karolina Wilamowska - without them, my translations would be much weaker. You know, translators fight for visibility, for putting their name on the cover... I'm all for exposing editors. Editors on the cover!

I’m asking because I am curious to know to what extent you believe in the possibility of collective work.

I do, by all means. Working on a book is an emanation of collectivism at its best. You don't lose your sense of separateness, of individuality, and yet you are aware that you are only a link in this chain. Besides: two, three, or even four heads are better than one. The editor checks the translator, the translator checks the editor, the proofreader watches, and if they miss something, the editor comes back. A carousel of fun! But seriously - each role is very important. If cooperation is based on mutual respect, it bears fruit. This was the case, for example, with Merry Cemetery of Wasyl Stus, which was daringly translated by Marcin Gaczkowski. I had the pleasure of doing the so-called poetic editing of this poetry. Marcin and I fought over many a dot, but in an atmosphere of creative ferment. For the good of the cause.

Let's talk for a moment about this sculpting in Polish. What does your work on translation look like?

First of all, very slow. A page a day, maybe two. Two, three thousand characters. And this is regardless of the source language. As for the sculpting, it depends, but if I were to sketch out a scheme of work, I would start with the image of a desk on which objects are arranged in a geometric order, preferably symmetrically to each other. It's those idiosyncrasies.

Have they appeared over the years?

Probably so. Everyone has some kind of craze, lunacy, or frenzy - working as a translator, which requires squatting in the folds for long hours, living in solitude and isolation, only exacerbates them. It's probably not an activity for people who derive energy from being in company. I, of course, like people, I like - as you can hear - to talk, but nevertheless, I like most to be alone. The prospect of spending a whole day alone without having to leave my flat is a promise of happiness for me.

So, you have found yourself suited to the new reality.

I sure did. In January and February, I spent a month in Banská Štiavnica which was in lockdown, and it was an absolutely fantastic time. In the evenings, I read the Moomins to my daughter via Zoom, so the longing didn't bother me very much. Besides, I was surrounded by silence, a UNESCO world heritage listed silence. So not just any silence. What more could you want?

Do you start work in the morning, in the evening? Do you have any specific hours?

As I am happily divorced, I divide the week in half. My daughter is with me from Saturday to Wednesday. I don't tend to work then, because I teach Polish to Serbians until midday, and in the afternoon, I go to the kindergarten and the second half of the day begins, which is marked by playgrounds, disputes about the life of a six-year-old and a forty-year-old, and the consumption of meals poorly prepared by me. From Wednesday to Saturday, on the other hand, I work nonstop, all day long. I don't leave the house, I don't meet anyone. I kill the time. I am able to work eleven hours ceaselessly. Strangely enough, when doing literary tasks, I don't feel tired.

And what does translating itself look like?                                                     

First, I paste a piece of text into Word, looking only at the original, a bit blindly. I write word by word what comes to my mind when I read a Slovak, Hungarian, or Serbian text. Then, I put the original down and start editing. I neaten the chaos, rewrite, translate from Polish to Polish, read aloud, correct, put away in purgatory, return to purgatory. This phase could go on indefinitely. I like it a lot, because I already have a skeleton, and I can just try different skins on it. It's like dressing up your dolls or changing your phone cases. Who doesn't like that?

You are talking about prose now, aren’t you? Because you translate both prose writers and poets.

It's a little different with poetry. I read the poem and look for points of enlightenment, as I call them, i.e. places that hit me and for which it is worth assimilating it more, or polonising it. Then, I construct the translation around them.

Do you ‘read through’ an entire author beforehand to get a feel for their style?

It should be so, but it is a model situation. It does not always work out. Sometimes I go alla prima, but experience has taught me that this is just a waste of time, because later you have to translate it anew anyway. Therefore, I prefer to read the whole thing beforehand as well as the author's other stuff to get into their tale. Just as important as sensing the style of the original is finding a style in Polish. Professor Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka has written nicely about this. Right now, for example, I am trying to translate a neo-romantic poem by Juhan Liiv, the Estonian Rimbaud - or maybe Rimbaud is the French Liiv? - and I am frantically looking for the right poetics for it. Maybe it will be Staff's atmospheric lyricism? So, I have to read Staff now and feel whether it fits with Liiv. Incidentally, this Liiv, towards the end of his life, went mad and thought he was king of Poland. I therefore consider it my duty to translate at least one of his poems.

Working on your own stuff - prose, poetry - looks similar?

I think so, because writing your own stuff is also, in a sense, a translation. The trouble is that you don't quite know where the original is.

So, translating is easier?

When I translate, I feel more confident because I have the ground under my feet, that is, the original text, which I can rely on and which will not abandon me when I run out of ideas. In writing my own work, I have to rely on some kind of chimeras, phantasms, fuzzy images, and other ambiguities, and this, you have to admit, is not a very stable point of support. It’s like smoke from which you have to weave a chair or a basket. So, at the stage of materialisation of these visions, there is a lot of uncertainty, some shivers even, and not necessarily pleasant ones. The safest and cosiest phase is the editing, reviewing, composition, style selection phase, because this resembles the beautiful work of a craftsman and is governed by relatively clear rules. It's difficult for me to talk about it, and I wouldn't want to invoke ‘inspirations’ and ‘daimonions’ for help, I don’t think it’s the way. If I were to capture that first spark, I think I would look for it at the interface between the word and the sensation - so to speak - outside of literature.

You are not a linguistic poet, though.

Oh, I don't know, really, what kind of a poet I am. You never know much with poetry. It even seems debatable to say that we write it or read it. I think some other verbs would fit here. Just which ones? And a linguist like Tymoteusz Karpowicz, for example, that’s the kind of linguist I probably would like to be, but there is only one Karpowicz. I read him avidly, and sometimes, I will consciously or unconsciously pinch something from there. I remember the "thickening stop" from Odwórcone światło (“Inverted Light”). I stopped at it and borrowed it for a poem called wiata, życie po rumuńsku (“shelter, life in Romanian”), which could also be considered linguistic, because ‘viața’ is actually ‘life’ in Romanian.

So, this linguistic reflection is important after all.

Perhaps I could put it this way: I try to be suspicious of words, tap on them, weigh them in my hand, look at them from various perspectives, including etymological or phraseological ones, but then, there is always an attempt to juxtapose them, or rather to relate them to reality, to everything that is prior to speech. I try to write mainly about what I cannot express in colloquial language. This is where all sorts of contortions come from - not from the need to perform wordplay, but from the shape of what a simple figure does not adhere to.

Anyway, I do understand that there is a close relationship between your own work and the translation. Do you then choose authors at your discretion?

I'd like to say yes, but I only choose them myself once in a blue moon. I rather translate on commission and when commissioned, I tend to keep quiet about all the enlightenments and creative ferment. But you just reminded me of one interesting order, namely I once translated Czesław Miłosz into Polish! So, Wydawnictwo Literackie was preparing Rozmowy zagraniczne (“Conversations Abroad”), and Anita Kasperek asked me to translate the interviews Miłosz gave to Ljubica Rosić in the 1990s. The Polish originals - I'm guessing they were dictaphone recordings - didn't survive, so I had the opportunity to chat with Miłosz and play back his voice. Wonderful, isn't it? And so sometimes even a potboiler can turn out to be a dream job.

Well, I can't help but ask: what was Miłosz like in these conversations?

First of all, these were very difficult conversations. Miłosz spoke to Ljubica Rosić in 1995 and 1997, just after the war that divided Yugoslavia into several smaller countries. Be that as it may, the Serbs suffered a heavy defeat and, on top of that, were widely regarded as the only culprits. From Milosz, repeatedly feted in Belgrade as a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art (SANU), everyone expected support. Meanwhile, he went against their expectations. Not only did he unequivocally side with the Muslim-Croatian side, but he was also considering withdrawing from SANU, which he spoke about directly and bluntly in these conversations. For me as a translator, it was most important not to accidentally use a word that Miłosz would not have used. That's why I used to play interviews with him while working, listening to his hypnotic voice.

Apart from Miłosz... you certainly had authors you wanted to translate yourself.

Absolutely. By some miracle, I translated and then - this is absolutely incredible - published Lajos Grendel, Darko Cvijetic, István Kemény, Oto Horvat, Peter Balka, Dževad Karahasan, Dejan Aleksić, and Andrej Bán. These are so-called 'my' authors. ‘My’ in inverted commas, because I wouldn't mind if they were translated by someone else. I have no monopoly on any writer. Literature is a sphere of freedom, and everyone should translate what they like.

It's comforting what you are saying, and, at the same time, it seems quite natural to me that if we like a writer, we want to appropriate them.

Meh, no. If we like them, let‘s read them and translate them, even if internally. But let's not take that pleasure away from others. I am an advocate of music score theory, which is an approach to a literary text that allows for an infinite - which does not mean arbitrary in form and content - number of its performances, or readings, and thus translations, too. Meanwhile, translators like to, pardon my French, call dibs. And I ask: what is that phrase anyway? “Calling dibs”. It may work for a blind man’s buff, but not in translation practice.

Tell me about these 'your' writers. Maybe to start with - why are they “yours"?

Each one is a separate story. Sometimes you translate out of curiosity, sometimes for a friend, and sometimes out of centrifugal requisite. Take for example Dejan Aleksić, a poet from Kraljevo. Once Milica Markić, with whom I have a lively correspondence around translation, emailed me a poem called Tin Cockerels. This is where it all started. This poem, the desire to understand it, to penetrate its depths, to look underneath, into the realm of motivations and meanings lying underneath - all this compelled me to attempt a translation. Because, as we know, translation is an interpretation, a path to understanding. In order to make trans-lation, you first need to have trans-parency, or perhaps it is the other way round: in order to have trans-parency, you have to make trans-lation. Anyway, this mysterious poem about home, the temptations of emigration, the sides of the world and geopolitics, I wanted to catch it in the act, to answer the question of why it electrified me so much, why it grappled me. So, I started translating. Then more of Dejan's poems flowed. And more. And finally, I had enough of them for a whole volume, which was finally published by the Szczecin-based Forma publishing house. Here is one possible answer to the question about those 'my' ones. It comes down to some kind of a sparkle that ignites curiosity and a thirst for cognition - a thirst, we might add, that is never fully satiated. Fortunately.

What about Grendel? I think he's quite an interesting character.

I am his fan. It took me a long time to make this statement, but today, when we have four of his books in Polish, I say it emphatically. First and foremost, he was a fascinating man. Smart yet humble. Dark yet cheerful. Inconspicuous yet outstanding. To me, Grendel is an author who combines in his writing all the most interesting, in my opinion, currents of twentieth-century Hungarian literature. He draws on the tradition of melancholic-bawdy storytelling in the style of Kálmán Mikszáth or Gyula Krúdy, on experimentation and atypical psychologisation in the spirit of Miklós Mészöly (to whom he actually dedicated one novel and one extensive, published study), he does not shy away from surrealism or postmodern questions about the referentiality of literature, but above all, he belongs to the current of, let's call it, literature of the Slovak south - created by both Slovak and Hungarian authors: Ladislav Ballek, Peter Balka, Péter Hunčík, Ivan Habaj, and Gábor Kálmán. In the prose of these authors, you can feel the unique atmosphere of the Slovak-Hungarian borderland, especially the regions of Tekov, Hont, and Gemer. Anyone who visits them at least once and wanders around the countryside in small-town pubs, tasting wine and the self-deprecating humour of their fellow diners, and then reads the novels of Grendel or Ballek, they will agree with me.

While we're on the subject of Hungarian literature: which writers do you reach for? Do you have any favourites?

I will not be original. Sándor Petőfi. Someday, I would like to write an essay about his Slovak peregrinations, loves, successes, and famous retreats. About how he legged it from Banská Štiavnica, how he was at the same school as the Slovakian national bard Andrej Sládkovič, and how he ran away from the altar in Losonec, today's Lučenec. I am interested in joints in general: Slovak-Hungarian, but also Romanian-Hungarian, or Serbian-Hungarian. Here, in Vojvodina, lives László Végel, a prose writer very popular in Germany, whose Neoplanta I recently started to translate, I made the first preliminaries. This is an excellent novel about the city, a fictionalised history of Novi Sad with literary mastery. Of the ‘continental’ Hungarians, I think the aforementioned Miklós Mészöly deserves more attention, a prose writer who experimented with the cinéma verité technique, which produced electrifying literary effects. Suffice it to mention his novels Pontos történetek, útközben (1970, “Detailed Travel Notes”) and Film (1976), translated internationally but not yet in Poland. As far as Hungarian poetry is concerned, I would be delighted if a daredevil could be found, with the degrees of Adam Pomorski, Zbigniew Machej, or Bohdan Zadura, who would venture into the entanglements of hexameters and battalions of alexandrines of Miklós Radnóti.

Ottó Tolnai also wrote about Vojvodina - in my opinion, unbelievably beautifully. His Poet Made of Lard is perhaps just such a combination of postmodern experimentation and baroque storytelling. Is this author close to you or not necessarily?

Of course. Very close. I have read Poet Made of Lard and returned to it many times. That's what I look for in literature - poetry and lard. Refinement and pantagruelian explicitness, pathos broken by mockery and mockery lined with pathos, clownery and priestly practices. Ottó Tolnai satisfies these needs. Take, for example, the poem Fat Fannies in Furs, where Bruegel and Rubens are watched by a boy whose father, excited by art, has dragged him to a gallery. So, there is all the hoity-toity, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and there is the appropriate reflection of the son: "what the hell is the old man / about these fat fannies in furs". This is Tolnai in his entirety, incredible finesse, high modernism, essays straight from the pages of "Zeszyty Literackie" and suddenly - bam! - a fart, a yawn, a pong, and a carnival. That is what I like. I'm close to all forms of Menippean satire, the picaresque novel, rascally, roguish... Another thing to be said about Tolnai is that he is lucky with his translator. Anna Górecka is a world champion.

You mentioned that you live in Novi Sad, where you teach. Can you tell us more?

I am a lecturer of Polish language at the local Slavic philology, which is in fact Russian philology. In addition to Russian, students choose a second Slavic language: Rusyn, Ukrainian, Slovak, or Polish. They study for four semesters. The work is pleasant and rewarding if at least one or two people from the group catch the bug and devote themselves to Polish seriously. I also translate a bit with them. I mean they translate, I supervise. I am assisted by Milica Markić, the translator of Olga Tokarczuk into Serbian, among others. Milica checks the Serbian versions of the translations, I check their correspondence with the original. We are now doing Roman Gren's Schronisko (“The Shelter”), a collection of touching miniatures about the tenants of a homeless shelter in Paris.

Do you ever miss Poland?

I sometimes miss Poland, but as soon as I return to my homeland, I stop longing, and I wonder how I ever let myself get carried away with nostalgia. This is typical of a gastarbaiter, of which I am one. I glorify home, all those crumbs of bread lifted through respect, those "coffees, just like in Poland", and then I go back and laugh at myself. I look around at the intersection of Kolbe Street and Grunwaldzka Street in Bydgoszcz, which has been dug up for months, and ask myself, "Is this what you have been dreaming about for the past months?" Of course, I would like to spend more time with my parents, my sisters and their children. I would like my daughter to learn Polish from other Poles, not just from me. But this is what holidays are for. Fortunately, in the case of the work of a teacher, they are relatively long.

Do you ever read Polish literature? How much time do you devote to reading? Do you have a few moments a day for that?

I learned to read late. About ten years ago. I read slowly but regularly. Poles too, by all means! By the oak bed, I have an ornamental mahogany bedside table. In the circle of light cast by a lamp in an openwork lampshade, I have contemporary classics, in an upright position only: Bronisław Wildstein, Jan Polkowski, Wojciech Wencel, and Darek Foks. I reach for them, so I don't forget where I came from. And to whom I have to repay the debt.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe