Bedside table #62. Zofia Bałdyga: To think a poem in Polish

Poet and translator Zofia Bałdyga, recently recognised by "Literatura na Świecie" magazine in the category New Faces, talks about the contemporary poetry scene in the Czech Republic, its similarities to the Polish scene, her work on the anthology Sąsiadki (“Neighbours”) and stepping out of her linguistic comfort zone.

In your introduction to Neighbours - the anthology of poems by ten young Czech female poets which you compiled - you wrote that interest in Czech prose and film does not translate into interest in contemporary Czech poetry. And yet your book quickly disappeared from the shelves and is nowhere to be found, I can even see on the publisher's website that the publication is out of print. So, what is it like, after all? Do we want to read Czech poetry?

Well, Neighbours has shown me that I was not quite right when I wrote the introduction, which I am very pleased about. I am just as, or perhaps even more, pleased to hear that the publication is out of print, as this is my first independent book of translation.

So yes, we do want to read Czech poetry. And I think this awareness is the greatest reward for me, because I would like to continue translating and showing this poetry. I would rather ask who we are thinking of when we say 'we'. How many people actually want to read - and do read - poetry?

I am generalising, of course, there are very few readers of poetry indeed. But this may speak volumes about the book's success even more so.

It seems to me that Neighbours and other translations of the most recent poetry simply have a different readership than the popular new Czech prose published in Poland by such publishing houses as Afera, Książkowe Klimaty, Amaltea, or Stara Szkoła, to name a few. If a prose book wins the Magnesia Litera Award for book of the year in the Czech Republic - widely regarded as the most prestigious award in the field of literature - it is more than likely to be published in Poland, and relatively quickly. Meanwhile, poetry volumes awarded exactly the same prize in the poetry category, the Moleskine Litera, will not be translated in its entirety. Polish publishing houses specialising in Czech literature do not publish poetry. It was this asymmetry that gave rise to the thesis I presented in the afterword. In the end, I am glad that it did not turn out to be right, and I hope that it will not be the last such publication. I myself see it rather as the beginning of a translation journey.

The poetry scene in the Czech Republic is so rich?

It is certainly very diverse, presenting a whole spectrum of different creative strategies for which it is difficult to find a common denominator, even generational.

What would be worth paying attention to then?

Certainly, return for a moment to the nineties – with relief and joy, Czech poetry cut itself off from engagement then, and personal, everyday poetry began to prevail, linguistically and formally modest, intimate, focused on the commonplace. Perhaps the most important author for this trend, who was present and dominated until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, is Petr Hruška, known in Poland for his translations of Franciszek Nastulczyk. Two of his volumes, Unrest Rooms and Darmata, were published by the Mikołow Institute.

There was a certain turning point around 2009 or 2010, when a discussion broke about the role of engaged poetry and the need to return from the intimate everyday life to the streets. The important actors in this debate at the time were Jan Těsnohlídek, the author of austere, minimalist poetry commenting on the social situation, and the Fantasía group (Kamil Bouška, Adam Borzič, Petr Řehák), which declared in its manifesto (yes, it was the first after many years and for the time being the last manifesto of Czech poetry) the necessity of poetry to engage, but also the need to re-evaluate pathos as a way of thinking about language. The listed authors are no longer active as a group today, and their poetic languages are very different both from each other and from their own postulates from the jointly published 2008 volume.

So, it's somewhat like in Poland - from Ashberism and O'Haraism in the 1990s to political engagement. Well, maybe the latter came to us a bit later.

That is exactly right. The translatability of certain trends and debates as well as a similar timeline seem very interesting to me. Anyway, maybe that is why I have always been interested in Central European neighbours. In this sense, Czech poetry may not surprise us, however, it may show us, in a slightly different light, issues that are also current in Poland.

Especially when we are looking for allies a little further south... And what has happened to the category of engagement itself? Is it still as necessary? Or - like in Poland - are poets slowly beginning to look for other self-definitions and writing tactics?

Engagement is needed, but... in a different way. Although the truth is that authors born in the late 1980s and 1990s who pointed to its relevance a decade ago and have very different dictions today, they are returning to engagement - mainly in the context of climate disaster. The discussion about ecopoetry, about the language with which nature can be described in the face of climate disaster, has been very lively over the past two years. So, I’d rather say that engaged poems are at the same time strongly activist now, calling for change rather than just commenting on reality. One of the more interesting poets who write in this way is Jan Škrob.

So, again, similar to Poland.

Yes, this discourse is translatable and can complement those we see in Poland in an interesting way. I am curious to see what will come, as the voices of the nineties are extremely diverse. It seems to me that similar questions arise in the case of Polish authors from the nineties as in the case of texts of Czech peers. Who knows, perhaps some similarities will still be present.

And differences?

Czech poetry experiments less with form, with language as matter. On the other hand, it echoes the Surrealist tradition (Zuzana Lazarová in Neighbours).

There was no such distinct surrealist tradition in Poland?

It seems to me that the Czech one is more lively (the surrealist magazine "Analogon" is still published), and it is certainly clearer as a point of reference for young authors.

And as for those who were left out? Who, from the older years, did we not translate?

We have very few volumes by authors born in the 1960s and 1970s. The abovementioned Petr Hruška is translated, Bogdan Trojak's volume translated by Michał Tabaczyński was published a few years ago, and, literally a few days ago, the Convivo publishing house published my translation of Milan Děžinski's volume, Obcházení ostrova (“Circumventing the Island”). However, this is still not enough. What I miss most is probably a book by Petr Borkovec, but also Martin Stöhr or Pavel Kolmačka.

Let’s talk about the poets who have been included in Neighbours.

When I started following recent Czech poetry (twelve years ago, if I'm counting correctly), I felt there were not enough women in it. As recently as the 1990s, Czech poetry seemed to be primarily a male discipline, although of course there were wonderful exceptions, such as Viola Fischerová, Kateřina Rudčenková, and Marie Šťastná. And as the years passed, new names suddenly began to appear, which I was happy to follow. Those that interested me the most were included in the anthology. Some of them I had already translated before and presented in magazines, while for others, the anthology was an occasion to start translating them, although I had already been a faithful reader. These include Wanda Heinrichová, Daniela Vodáčková, Anna Beata Háblová.

What was the key to selection?

I wanted the anthology to be as diverse as possible, I wanted it to be read not only as ten separate voices, but also as a coherent whole. I was strongly inspired by the anthology Warkoczami (“In Plaits”) published by the Staromiejski Dom Kultury, in which the editors decided on a rather bold gesture and arranged the poems thematically, presenting different attitudes of female poets to similar issues. However, I made the selection of authors myself, so it is obviously very subjective. The first list of names was even longer. At the same time, I endeavoured to make each voice stand out, so that the dictions of these poets complemented and, at the same time, contrasted with each other. This is why I juxtaposed different poetics, different languages and sensibilities. The anthology includes ecopoetry, language poetry, poems from the tradition of Czech surrealism, Central European themes, ekphrasis, irony, loneliness, analysis of one's own identity...

But surely, you don’t feel equally close to all poets, do you?

Of course, I have my favourite voices in Neighbours, some poets that I would like to introduce more widely, with whole books. Time will tell if I succeed, but I'm already dreaming and planning.

What challenges did you face during your work?

The most difficult thing was the choice of texts - the necessity to present the entire output of a given author through only five poems. In the case of some poets, I decided on coherent cycles (one of them was not even published, I got it ‘from the sock drawer’), in the case of others - I chose texts from various volumes. But it was a rather ungrateful task, because some poems benefit precisely in a collection, as a closed whole. The best example is probably Kristina Laníková, whose volumes are for me organic, thoughtful compositions.

As for the translation itself, the biggest challenge was probably Petra Strej's language, full of neologisms - her poetic “spells” (as she calls her poems herself) are based mainly on sound similarities and onomatopoeias. At times, I thought here is no chance it can work, but I really wanted it to be part of the anthology. It was also not so easy to work with Zuzana Lazarová's poetry, with her accumulated surreal images, often full of big words and strong emotions. These are older translations, I worked on them several years before the anthology came out. So, when I was preparing the book, I changed a lot of things in them - I was afraid that they wouldn't be understandable.

How do you translate? Where do you start?

Multiple readings. While reading, I try... to think the poem in Polish. I try to start with what seems to me to be a dominant, some axis around which I could work. Sometimes - probably most often - it is an image or a metaphor, sometimes a sound layer (this is the case, for example, with Yveta Shanfeldová's poems, which I am currently working on). Sometimes this ‘Polonised poem’ comes immediately, and sometimes I wait for it even a few days.

Do you go back to these translations?

After a few days or weeks - and I cross things out. Always. Much more so than in my own poems. It seems to me that translation is never finished, for the mere fact that there is no one correct strategy, no one correct perspective.

Have you ever translated prose?

Yes, and even for me it came as a surprise.


Poetry is much closer to me; in fact, it is only poetry that I have translated and published.

Somehow, I am curious about this - why? Does it mean that programmatically you don't read prose?

No, it is not like that! I read a lot of prose, during the pandemic probably even more than poetry. During the lockdown (the last one, autumn-winter-spring one, lasted in the Czech Republic from mid-October to the end of April), I really needed a narrative to take my mind off what was going on around us. Especially in February and March, when the epidemiological situation in Prague was truly catastrophic.

But I knew already when I was at university that I would like to translate poetry - it was an intuitive need, perhaps resulting from the fact that I write poetry myself and I was interested in the challenge of working with the text written by someone else. Besides, I felt there was a lack of translations of Czech poems in Poland. As far as prose is concerned, I don't think we have a shortage of good translations.

I know it's difficult to juxtapose prose and poetry, but it seems to me as a reader that there are more interesting things happening in poetry these days than in prose. Twenty, thirty years ago it was different; then, the asymmetry in the foreign bohemian market would not have surprised me so much. It does surprise me now, although I know it is also influenced by non-literary considerations.

I recently read Arnost Lustig's Lovely Green Eyes, a completely exceptional novel. But, as I understand it, this is the good prose of two decades ago?

This is wonderful literature. I am very glad that the Czarne publishing house published this book and that Jan Stachowski translated it. In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting Czech titles on the Polish publishing market last year, and I would also like to mention the beautiful Basic Concepts by Petr Král, translated by Zbigniew Machej.

I don't mean that this prose is bad. These are well-written, engaging books. It's just that they seem to me to be fairly safe, moving around a limited pool of topics - such as the impact of a great story on the fate of an individual. These narratives often draw on events from the times of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia or Communist Czechoslovakia, but developed in an obvious, uncontroversial way. One example is the literature of Alena Mornštajnova, which is quite well known in Poland, for example her bestseller Hana. We know what we're going to get, we expect it, but it's still an enjoyable read.

The same is true, in my opinion, of texts that talk about women who find themselves (for various reasons and in various ways) on the margins of society. One of the most interesting such positions is Into the Darkness by Anna Bolava, Lucie Faulerová is excellent, and I hope that her book Smrtholka will soon be published in a Polish translation. There are good books, of course; nevertheless, I wait for prose that will surprise me, that is not just a novel of manners, prose that will force me somehow out of my linguistic comfort zone... Poetry manages to do this more often.

And so it made the prose translation proposal even more unexpected?

And yet. It was a funny coincidence by the way, because at the same time, I received two offers from two different publishers for the work of the same writer, Miloš Doležal. The first one was Riding Glass Down a Piss-Sodden Slope, published by the Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów (“Association of Living Poets”) in Brzeg - a book about a standardised childhood in the Czech (or Czechoslovak) countryside, a collection of miniature stories and memories. The second one, published by the Jagiellonian University Publishing House in the Bo.wiem series, The Tailor, the Gendarme and the Paratrooper. Three Tales of Czech Collaborators, is a historical reportage about negative wartime heroes.

I have not read Doležal. With which Polish writer could I associate him?

I can't think of any good comparison. He is a writer who focuses on the everyday life of 20th century totalitarian regimes. His writing is often close to reportage - Doležal tells the great story from the perspective of characters playing minor roles, as in The Tailor, the Gendarme and the Paratrooper, a book about collaborators who were active during the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. One of the protagonists is a former tailor and local informer, another is a former gendarme who decided to collaborate with the Gestapo, and the third is a cichociemny (“silent unseen”, WWII special-operations paratroopers – translator’s note) who betrayed and denounced his comrades-in-arms. The publication is meticulously researched, with texts based on documentation and testimonies from the period accompanied by a collection of photographs and documents.

And Riding Glass…?

Here, the grey reality of Czechoslovakia is only the backdrop to the children's adventures. We move to the author's ‘little homeland’, the Czech Vysočina Region, to a town which we get to know from the perspective of a boy. Small stories, the crumbs of everyday life he tells us are mostly about school, friends, and family life. The countryside of the 1970s seems grey and uninteresting at first, but with time, we begin to see different shades of this greyness. And some cracks in the reality described - the school presents the world differently, the family presents it differently...

Do you find prose more difficult to translate than poetry?

No, I don’t think so. It requires a slightly different approach, methodical, factual. It was an interesting experience. But poetry just gives me more joy, especially when I choose the texts to translate myself. And the more problems there are with them, the greater the joy. Perhaps it's because when I settled in Prague, the local poetry scene became an important part of my Prague life - and when I translate poetry, I feel like I'm showing my own home.

And the Polish poetic community? Are they close to you?

Very much so, even though I have not lived in Poland for almost eight years. I write poems myself. But above all, I read, I follow everything that happens, at least as far as it is possible from a distance. I keep up to date with magazines, I've watched quite a few events online during the pandemic, and when I come to Poland I always come back with new publications. Paradoxically, the pandemic has, in a way, made things easier for observers like me, as I have finally been able to attend meetings that take place several hundred kilometres away from me.

When I lived in Warsaw, I was closely connected with the SDK (Old Town Community Centre) environment; today I no longer have such a place, but the poetic environment as such is still very close to me. In a few months, my new book will be published. After four years it is time to show something. But I care about translations as much as I care about my own texts - I consider both to be my own in some sense.

So, you feel emotionally attached to the authors you translate?

Definitely. I'm emotionally connected to the context they come from because it's my context as well. Moving to a country whose language you translate from is a beautiful but risky thing. I live in a city that has an extremely vibrant literary scene, I have access to magazines and books, I regularly attend events. If I had stayed in Warsaw, I wouldn't have had such an overview of what's happening in Czech literature. On the other hand, when I decided to move, I also had to come to terms with the idea that I would grow into the Prague scene. This is happening. And that is why translating poems is more than a job for me, more even than a linguistic challenge.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe