Bedside table #66. Bogusława Sochańska: I don’t want to waste time on books unimportant to me
The translator and essayist Boguslawa Sochanska talks, among other things, about Danish literature, snatching time from her life to read, reading poetry, returning to Nabokov, the emigrant perspective, her translation plans and the magic as well as the meaning of great poetry.
Bogusława Sochańska: Perhaps I should not be the one to start by asking questions, but I can see you have Adda Djørup's The Least Resistance in your hand... Too bad, because I also brought you a copy. Have you read it yet?
Maciej Libich: Not yet. I tried to find out something before our conversation from the back cover, but it's quite... laconic. Anyway, to tell the truth, I don't think it would make much difference, Danish literature is alien to me, I have always looked somewhere around Hungary, Central Europe. Which is probably a brave confession before our further conversation.
Oh, no, no. After all, it's impossible to keep up to date with everything. My …, how to put it..., general development reading, even from Polish literature, came to a halt at the end of high school. You absorb everything then, including world classics. And then, Danish philology started, and I got into this literature so much that for twenty-odd years I was in a kind of tunnel. Everything else was alien to me. It has changed now; I've been catching up for the last decade or so. And, for example, I read a Bulgarian book for the first time in my life.
Yes, The Physics of Sorrow in a sensational translation by Magda Pytlak. You see, that’s a professional deformation. I start talking about the book and I instantly move on to the translation. When I read, I do the same - I scrutinise this matter of language...
Right, what about Hungary?
It has always seemed to me that they are somehow similar to us, Poles. I do not know to what extent this is true, because maybe they are not.
They must be, to some extent. This is evident even from the current political link.
Let me put it this way: they have a similar kind of thoughtful madness as some of our writers - Buczkowski, Kuśniewicz, Haupt.
Buczkowski, Kuśniewicz – that’s exactly my high school days. Of course, I don't remember anything from it now. But then I thought I could figure out everything. A person is extremely ambitious and confident during this period of life. I remember how I was fifteen and I read a two-volume biography of Marcel Proust. What for? I have no idea. But there was this curiosity in me, and even a kind of snobbery. There was also a lot more time to read.
I am glad you speak about time, because that is what I wanted to talk about in the context of all its fluctuations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, something has constantly been going on with time. How are you dealing with it now?
That is a good question. I am in a rather particular situation in my life right now, a watershed moment even. Six months ago, I finished over forty years of professional work. For the last twenty years, I have worked at the Danish Cultural Institute, which has sucked me in completely. It was an eight or ten hour a day job, with a lot of tension. And it is in these twenty years that I have translated all of Andersen's fairy tales, one hundred and sixty-four texts. I also made a huge selection from his diaries, ten fat volumes, each read three times. I translated three novels by Janina Katz and made a large selection from her eleven Danish poetry volumes. I have also translated many other texts that have never been published, saved on the computer, waiting. On top of that, my four children were actually children for much of that time. And I can't even answer the question of ‘how did I do it’? How is that even possible? To what extent was the time expandable that I, with such huge responsibilities - family life in Poznań, professional life in Warsaw - was able to cope with everything? Time is truly unfathomable. It is magically and impossibly difficult to decipher. Just like the inner energy of a person. Nowadays, I get up in the morning, between seven and eight o'clock, and theoretically I don't have to hurry with anything.
Unfortunately, this is linked to the previous period in my life, and the stress I felt at the time. That stress has stayed with me to this day, like a trauma. Besides, I don't have as much energy as I used to - the ability to dispose, to administer time changes with age. There are certain limitations which are decisively influenced by the body, you can't get around it. When you are in your sixties, it is impossible to work until one or two o'clock in the morning. I don't know, maybe some people can, but an average person like me cannot. At eleven o'clock, you have to close the laptop and go to sleep. Only that all these nerves wake me up around four or five and the first thing I think maniacally is, "I won't make it, I won't make it". Or, "It won't be good because I don't have enough time". I fall asleep again around six and manage to get an hour, maybe an hour and a half more. It’s tiring.
That's why I thought the first lockdown might have made a difference.
And you are right. A lot changed then, at least at the beginning. In March, when they locked us up for the first time, our lives went through a somewhat rapid evolution, even if it scared us badly. For example, it was while sitting at home that I discovered YouTube. Perhaps I can digress a little. I've never been particularly internet-savvy or used Facebook (which I need to make up for soon, by the way), so I had no idea what it was. And it is a window on the world, and a powerful one. I have listened to a whole host of interviews with all sorts of writers in this way - usually at that difficult time between four and six in the morning. Recently, by complete accident, I came across a YouTube video talk with Peter Gizzi. I liked it tremendously, and liked Gizzi's poems even more, so of course I bought them. And when I read these poems by Gizzi, when I got to the end, to the acknowledgments from the translator, Kacper Bartczak, I noticed your name, and I met Kacper soon after at the sensational Stacja Literatura festival (Station Literature). I thought then that everything is intertwined, that the world is simply made up of millions of connections, of such little knots that lead from one thing to another.
It's a tempting interpretation, though I'm afraid there are just really few of us in this circle...
Well, you can think that way, but I prefer to think differently. Let me return to your question about time, that is, I will tell you what I am currently working on. Firstly, I'm finishing a translation for the Biuro Literackie publishing house of a book of poetry that..., well, tears my guts out. And secondly, I am re-reading my translation of Peter Høeg's novel again, years later. His two books were published in Poland, completely unnoticed, and he is one of the most important Danish writers, translated into many languages. My colleague who ran the Danish Cultural Institute in St Petersburg told me that there were a dozen television cameras and five hundred people at the meeting with Høeg. This is one of those cases where an author functions perfectly well in one country and is virtually non-existent in another.
Who translated him?
The first book, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, was translated by Iwona Zimnicka. The second, The Woman and The Ape, was translated by Halina Thylwe.
I don’t think I am really familiar with those names, but the title of the second book rings a bell.
Iwona Zimnicka translates a lot from Norwegian and Danish, Halina Thylwe - mainly from Swedish. I wasn't particularly delighted with the second novel. Anyway - because of my work commitments - I think I've only translated four titles on request. Everything else were my choices. Not only because I had to do them at my own pace, but also because I didn’t want to waste time on books that weren't important to me.
So, you kept your translations in the sock drawer.
Yes, and then I went to several publishers to see if there is anyone interested in it. This was the case with, for example, Andersen or Janina Katz. In Janina's case it took – a record number - seven years.
The Høeg novel I am talking about is exactly one of those books translated on request. The translation was commissioned from me by an editor who saw the book at a fair in Frankfurt. And just before its premiere - really just before, because the whole thing was proofread, submitted, ready to go - it fell off the schedule along with eleven others, cut by the new editor-in-chief who came to the publishing house. And it will come out any moment now.
In the Driada publishing house, which - well, I have to admit it - was founded by my son at my instigation. It's obviously doing poorly on the market, barely surviving, yet it exists and develops. And so I thought, since I translated this novel twelve years ago, it was worth looking at the translation with a critical eye, especially since I was working intensively on Andersen's diaries at the time, and that was a priority for me. So, I read my translation now, and I thought that a guardian angel was watching over me after all. I was obviously out of shape when I translated this book, maybe because I had to steal time from Andersen? It is true that the novel is completely out of the ordinary - both in terms of theme and form - and very difficult to translate: written in the language of a man who, although educated, nevertheless comes from the margins of society, scarred in every possible way in schools, orphanages, and reform schools. It is written in a raspy, unbeautiful language. It is also a totally anti-systemic book: anti-social, anti-educational, anti-didactic. As a result, the punctuation is also scarred and anti-systemic, with commas missing before "which", "because", in general before subordinate clauses – they are in places where the narrator pauses for breath... So, as you can hear, nothing easy. But how did this translation get through editing then?! I have no idea. The book is red with my corrections now, and the PDF document was ready for printing at the time. It would have been an absolute disgrace if the novel had appeared in this form.
And why am I talking about this? Firstly: Høeg has dominated my time lately and made time so oppressive, which for further reasons it still is. And secondly: one of the significant themes of this book is time indeed. That is why your question did not seem so random to me. At one point, Høeg abandons the narrative of children from the social margins - incidentally extremely topical for us (after all, the novel was published in Denmark thirty years ago) - to move on to his own deeply philosophical musings and reflections on time. About the history of research, the perception of time; it's very interesting by the way, although it does somewhat disrupt the rhythm of the novel. Høeg writes that we have only been using watches on a mass scale for a hundred or two hundred years. That we have been administering time in the way we do today only for a short time. And that perhaps it might be worth walking away from that. Fascinating! I'm ending this digression, I know it was long, but I really want you to pay attention to this novel.
I asked about time actually in a somewhat sneaky way - to ask you about your reading time. And also, to ask how much a translator reads on a daily basis. A writer does not really have to read that much (though perhaps they should).
I have always followed the Danish market out of necessity. I have taken as much time as possible to keep up to date. But not only up to date. When I translated Andersen, I had to read about thirty or forty books on his work, his life, and the broad context of his time. But - these readings aside - I have a long-established norm: half an hour, sometimes an hour before bedtime, in bed. By the way, this is why I don't like books that are big, and heavy, in hardback. It's been like this since I started finishing work at ten or eleven, because when I worked until one o’clock in the morning, I had absolutely no time to read. And especially when I had to look after the children. Another time of day devoted to reading was on public transport, which added up to an extra forty-five minutes a day. Although there were times when I read my printouts on the tram. Anyway - I never read more than an hour and a half a day. And I think it was still a lot.
Now, of course, I read more. I absorb, I have some hunger in me to keep up with the world. I've always read a lot of poetry - because it doesn't require linearity, following a plot, you can immerse yourself in it for a moment and then come to the surface - but for the last few years, I've been discovering Polish poets in particular. I know many of them closely, so I feel a natural need to get to know their work, to find out what they think, what they have to say to me. I love the poems of Ania Piwkowska, Adriana Szymańska, who, it seems to me, is greatly underestimated, or perhaps rather appreciated by too narrow a circle of readers. I also follow people's passions. Since I mentioned Anna Piwkowska: I read her two books on Anna Akhmatova, and when I was in St Petersburg, inspired by Anna Piwkowska's passion, I bought several volumes of Akhmatova's collected works, in the original, because they were ridiculously cheap, and I wanted to read her work in the original.
Do you speak Russian?
As much as I learned in high school, so it's hard to say I know it well, but I'm planning a month-long Russian course in St Petersburg to recover the language, because it's beautiful. Or maybe not even so much to recover it as to finally acquire it, because after all, I never possessed it - we rejected top-down learning at school.
I had the same experience with German. Refusing to learn was a form of rebellion.
Yes, I also studied German in extra classes and then in high school. But I do sometimes read in German.
For me, speaking is the worst - because of pronouns and inflection.
It is bloody difficult. Only that German is very similar to Danish, and vice versa. So, having these basics and knowing Danish, I can read practically without a dictionary - the words are so similar that I often guess the meaning, I deduce it. Besides, German literature is similar to Danish, you could say that the two countries read each other, and translate. I feel it is time for another digression, you must forgive me, but with me there is no other way. Well, this year, I translated a novel by Adda Djørup, whom I mentioned at the beginning. It was published by Biuro Literackie, which won a grant for a European literature series. In choosing the titles for this series, Artur Burszta followed a pattern - understandable, of course, from the point of view of a person who does not follow every market - of European awards. There were two more titles among these award-winning books that I could have chosen for myself, but I immediately fancied Djørup's novel. She wrote The Least Resistance twelve years ago, but, again, it's a hell of a topical prose that talks about... well, I guess there's no other way to put it, that talks about how to live. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to live in defiance of time. Indeed, we can no longer escape from it.
It is, after all, oppressive.
Djørup's protagonist negates everything that the conscious part of your generation is rebelling against: consumerism, careerism, the rush of work. She is extremely reflective, standing on the sidelines, not going mainstream, and only commenting: this is important, this is not, I like this, this rain tastes beautiful, peace, reflection. It is this kind of sensitivity. The postulate of not resisting whatever life entails, and if there is resistance, it is the weakest possible resistance. This novel is a hymn to the idea of surrendering to the natural rhythm of life, not the one imposed by fashion, time, and oppressive modernity, but the natural one. On top of that, the seductive language, melodious and highly poetic, which resonates with the heroine's way of experiencing life. In a podcast that Burszta recorded about the book, a young critic, Aleksandra Byrska, spoke about it, and she called the language "traditional". But it is not a traditional language! Traditional perhaps in the context of Polish literature, not in Denmark. In Denmark, minimalism has been very fashionable for some time now, in all areas of life, including language. We did not experience this in Poland, because we did not translate these books, and they seemed, and still do, to us completely indigestible.
(Here again, a tiny digression - I had a similar problem when I translated Janina Katz, who wrote in very, really very simple language. In my first translations, I tried to be faithful to this; now, however, I think it's necessary to tweak the style a bit to what we are used to, which is how I tried to translate Janina's fourth novel The Boy from Back Then (“Drengen fra dengang”), which was published by Driada publishing house last year).
Djørup too opposes this minimalism, writing in a rich, flickering language. She brings out of oblivion words that nobody uses in Denmark today. Her entire style is extremely un-Danish, that is, as if returning to the past. So, I am curious to hear what you say. I am curious about the reception of this book in general. Will what was a revolution in Denmark be considered the norm in our country?
It’s also the question of content.
Exactly... Because the theme of lifestyle I have mentioned is only a part of a larger whole, a trifle in fact, it is perhaps most importantly about a deeper philosophical reflection on life, showing the circle of life, the interlocking end and beginning. A cliché, sure, but shown in a thoroughly engaging way. The protagonist has inherited a holiday home from her dead grandmother and would like to keep her ashes there - not that she loved her that much, but... she still feels close to her, and above all, she treats her grandmother's death as something natural. At some point, it turns out that she is pregnant; in addition, she does not know whether it is with her partner or with a random lover. She reflects on the responsibility of bringing a new human being into the world, sentencing them to a life that must end in death. But she comes to the conclusion that she must also accept pregnancy as something natural. And there is a scene I will never forget: bringing the urn into the house, she holds it like a baby. An extraordinary image.
And I return to the first topic, time. Because, in my opinion, this is a book about time, human time, time of a person - about the fact that life simply has to be passed on. One of the most important things in life is for another to be created. Of course it’s me reading it that way. The reviewer from the Biuro Literackie publishing house doesn't really talk about it at all, which doesn't surprise me at all, because today we talk more about abortion than about birth, the very subject of pregnancy and giving birth is extremely difficult. The protagonist even considers abortion but comes to the conclusion that this would violate the natural rhythm of the world. The fact that she got pregnant is a law of nature, and that's it.
It's quite a bomb to publish a pronatalist book in Poland at such a time.
Yes, I am very curious to see whether anyone will pay attention to this. And I think I must tell you straight away - the context demands it - that I am absolutely not against abortion. On the contrary, I will always maintain that it is a purely individual matter. Personally, however, I would never give myself permission for it. And in this sense, I fall into the philosophy that emerges from reading The Least Resistance.
Because in the novel, it doesn't stem from ideological resistance, does it?
No, purely from the sensitivity of the heroine. In fact, there is something meaningful about the fact that the book for translation was chosen by me, a mother of four, and it was edited by Asia Mueller, a mother of five. Only then did I read that Djørup considers the birth of her child to be the most important event in her life. I corresponded with her about it, and I told her, "Look, what a coincidence, me and Asia, two mothers with many children". To which Djørup wrote back, "I unfortunately only have one, but it is still the most significant thing that has happened to me.”
She returns to this again and again in her novels. I received her other four books from her publisher - this is also how I answer your question about reading - and one of them was called Bulgakov's Cat. I devoured the whole thing right away. Halfway through reading it, I wrote to the agent asking if they would sell the rights to the Driada publishing house, because I wanted to translate it. But I went back to reading it, and I was horrified, I decided that this book absolutely could not be published in Poland. For a Dane, this is a normal novel, but not for us. Plenty of obscene scenes, penises in almost every one - except that it's a really important book. I would translate it, but I'm just afraid. Driada could walk away unscathed from it, with great financial success, but also collapse after a major church-national scandal (if it got through at all). Oh well.
Anyway, following in Bulgakov's footsteps, I ended up with Nabokov. I don't know why, I guess I just started looking for a Russian vibe. I came across his name somewhere online and thought, well, I've only read Lolita actually, and that was many, many years ago. I don't think I was ready for it then - maybe I was too young? Maybe I didn't have the conditions, the tranquility?
I started with Lolita too, it was a good few years ago, and it put me off too. I think I simply got bored. It was only a few years later that I thought it might have been about that awful translation by Stiller. I read something on this subject - while in Nabokov's work, a wife pats her taciturn husband on the chin, in Stiller's translation she "does cootchie-cootchie under his chin”. Perhaps it would be a good idea to reach for Klobukowski.
See, I did not know that. Even better, especially since I've decided to return to Nabokov. Actually, it is - if I may drift off topic for a moment again - a strange thing about Stiller. After all, he held an extremely high status in Poland. I have never been able to understand this, nor the fact that he was always praised for translating from so many languages, for he supposedly knew thirty to varying degrees. I thought to myself at the time that these critics understood absolutely nothing. They do not understand that you cannot translate from such a huge number of languages, that these are not translations from those languages but from third languages, and that they are therefore completely unreliable. It was the same case with Andersen. The so-called "Iwaszkiewicz translation” (although it is primarily Stefania Beylin's translation), was considered to be a consummate one. Who came up with it anyway? Who invented this word? Not only is the translation done from German rather than Danish, with major errors, but it is also botched because it reduces Andersen to the role of some kind of raconteur.
Anyway, I didn't know where to start with Nabokov, and by chance, in a bookshop, I came across his third autobiography, Other Shores. There are passages I don't understand, which I think the translator, Anna Kołyszko, had problems with for some reason, but maybe that's my limitation - or maybe Nabokov just wrote them so vaguely? And there are passages of absolute beauty, translated with bravura. The overall impression is unforgettable, this is an excellent text, deeply poetic, meticulously crafted by the author, at times even too much, so that you can sense the need to flaunt an outstanding text, and full of Nabokov himself. He penetrates his past there, he goes back to the moment he left Russia, to his unusual, strange childhood; it is all somewhat nostalgic, albeit very digestible. Nabokov constantly asks himself how to live with one’s past, how to deal with everything that accumulates in a person over the years. How to overcome, to work through the youngest years, all that baggage of difficult and important experiences.
And does he find a solution?
Yes and no. Make sure you read it. Anyway, it was an important read for me, because I myself am delving into the past, going back to years gone by. I know that I am just entering the final phase of my life. I don't feel it, but I know it’s the case; in a moment, I will be an elderly lady, a grandmother, as the years fly by at a completely incomprehensible pace. Of course, this frightens me. So much so that I know I need to get away from it, to live in the present, otherwise it will all be pointless, and I will lose myself in fear.
But the past has always interested me, not only in the context of my life. Over the years, I have read a lot of historical essays, and I still do, I have some kind of a need to understand our Polish mentality, to understand why we are a society that has always been so uncomprehending. And where do our insecurities come from? Our sense of mission? A belief in our own greatness? You know all this, these are banalities straight out of Gombrowicz, but banalities that still haunt us.
Did this somehow become clear during your stay in Denmark?
Yes, of course. An outside perspective is a treasure. When I lived in Denmark for five years, I was able to look at Poland from a distance - physically! - to look at its culture, to see how it is perceived there, in the West. Which helped me, for example, and I may surprise you here, to discover Polish folklore. In Poland, in the 1990s, we used to tell ourselves all the time, "We can't keep advertising ourselves with this Mazowsze (Mazowsze - State Folk Ensemble of Song and Dance, a famous Polish folk group named after the Mazowsze region of Poland – translator’s note) because we look parochial." Blimey, or perhaps we can? This is some value that is simply not there in Denmark, it has been lost. But in the People's Republic of Poland - and this is probably one of its few virtues - folklore was nevertheless cultivated. Even if everything went along ideological lines, some treasures were saved. Now, when I go to Szczawnica (a resort town in southern Poland - translator’s note) every year, I see that various regional bands still exist, still function. I see kids who play the violin, sing, dance - you don't see that in the West. And many of us, in big cities, don't understand it at all.
During those five years, I also constantly juxtaposed Polish and Danish ways of thinking. I kept asking myself, "To what extent are these differences due to religion? And how much is due to history?" After all, Denmark used to be big, just like Poland, and only over the years did it start to lose importance, shrink until it became a small Scandinavian-Western country. But they were fortunate that no one suppressed them. This is probably a topic for a separate lecture. In any case, I value the perspective of an emigrant - even a temporary one - very much.
Have you read Jaroslaw Kuisz's book, Koniec pokoleń podległości (“The End of Generations of Subordination”)?
No, I do not know it.
He argues that we allow for all sorts of things to be done to democracy today, because for one hundred and twenty years - and for one hundred and seventy if we add the People's Republic of Poland - the Poles have been subordinate to someone all the time. They have not had the opportunity and time to develop the behaviour patterns of people who do not have to rebel against something, who do not have to be afraid of something, who do not have foreign surveillance over them. But that is an awfully long time: six, seven generations. The Danes did not function that way.
And it’s in this that I see an insecurity with which we are unfortunate to be burdened. Perhaps your generation no longer feels this way, and maybe it doesn't care about the press we get abroad. The thing with Denmark was that we didn't start well. At the beginning of the 19th century, a mass of emigrants from the Galician partition came there – peasant men and women who could not read, because complete illiteracy prevailed there. And the Danes, thanks to Luther, had been reading for four hundred years by then (okay, women, I mean all women, only for a hundred, but still). Can you imagine this gigantic difference in experience? That seems to me to be quite fundamental. It was even better afterwards. During the Second World War, our ratings went up a bit, because we got badly beaten, because we fought back, and the Danes fought poorly and came out of the war unscathed. Then, it got worse again, as 1968 came along and cemented our brand of diehard, unreformed anti-Semites. Then, sinusoidally, Solidarity and higher ratings again, then the era of car thieves and a decline, then delight at our leap forward in civilisation, the gigantic rate of catching up, and then, for the last few years, a dramatic downward spiral.
You mentioned the war. I believe the volume of poetry you are currently translating is connected to it, isn't it?
Oh, this is a poet I have been drawn to for a very long time, Morten Nielsen. A peer of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński and Tadeusz Gajcy. Born in 1922, and like them died in August 1944.
He belonged to the resistance movement. Of course, everything looked different there - the occupation was different, its conditions were different, and the underground activity was different. More... rational.
Did the Danes not like to shoot with diamonds?
Well yes, they didn't see the point. They did not want the nation to perish - and it did not. Either way, Nielsen died tragically, and in two ways. He was shot by accident. For decades, there has been debate as to whether this was murder or suicide, as suicidal thoughts often appear in his poems. However, a literary historian devoted many years of his life to the subject and concluded that Nielsen shot himself with a weapon the transport of which he was responsible for, but there is also testimony that the shot came from the hand of the person who instructed him how to use a gun. Therefore, Nielsen didn't die in the fight, and that makes it seem even more tragic to me. However, when I talked like this in front of Danish people, they looked at me like I was nuts - this mode of thinking is completely alien to them. And they were certainly not at all surprised by Nielsen's poem, which I chose as a strong, concluding touch to close the volume, a poem-protest against the glorification of heroism.
I understand that Nielsen's poetry is similar to Baczynski's?
Exactly, that is why I returned to Baczyński and Gajcy, my idols from my school years. Yes, these are the same themes, but in terms of form, Nielsen is different, rather classical, more classical. Baczyński believed that a different form was needed to describe this terrible time, and Nielsen was in keeping with the native literary tradition, although he also emphasised his distinctiveness with the form of graphic writing. These are poems of great versification discipline, rhymed. In fact, I very much like working with poetry that has a strong rhythm, with rhymes, it gives me much more pleasure.
Maybe because it is a hundred times more difficult?
It certainly is, yes. But whether it gives me more pleasure because it is more difficult - I don't know. Sometimes I ask myself this question. Because, after all, when translating such poems, one often gets angry, cracks, drops everything, and says: I can't do it, it's over. And then some time passes, and you go back and try again, and when you succeed, it's like a drug. I repeat myself, but with the alphabet - in lower case! – by Inger Christensen, I worked for eight years precisely because every now and then I would drop out, six months or a year would pass, and I would come back. Maybe I don't know how to give up, how to quit? Or maybe it's just the magic - and magnet - of great poetry...? Yes, that's certainly what it is essentially. Working with such texts is difficult and requires a reservoir of time and calm. I currently have none of these things. I signed the Nielsen contract two and a half years ago, when I did not yet know that the Danish Cultural Institute would be closed, and the consequences were that throughout 2020 I worked from morning to night, even on weekends, to close all the projects, it was a job beyond human strength, and the translations had to wait.
Was it the Danes who closed the Institute?
Yes, there wasn’t enough money. Besides, a new branch was opened in India. At the expense not only of our institute, but also of the one in Brussels and Rio de Janeiro. These branches of the Institute are constantly appearing in new places and disappearing from old ones. It is not a state institution, but a kind of NGO, it has its subsidies, but they are fixed, unchangeable and therefore insufficient for expansion, so it closes where relations with Denmark have already been developed and opens where they need developing. Anyway, it was difficult for me.
In any case, an absolute lack of time.
I wasn’t in the headspace to translate at all, and I had other things planned, such as The Boy from Back Then by Janina Katz or a text for a Danish magazine about Andersen's friendship with Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, a painter from Warsaw. So, it's only been since the spring, even though I was supposed to have been doing it for a year, that I've been working on Nielsen, clutching my head and crying, waking up at four o’clock thinking it really wouldn't be any good. This poetry needs time, it needs to mature... I swore to myself that I would never again sign a contract with a near or even distant due date, never! And also, in 2019, I signed a contract for Kierkegaard's diaries, I couldn't refuse, could I? I'm supposed to do two volumes. And you know what? Half of the first one was also to be handed in for July. No, this is all completely impossible. I promised Antoni Szwed, Kierkegaard's translator, Kierkegaard scholar, and initiator of this ambitious project, that I would make it for October, but I know perfectly well that I will not deliver either.
I keep thinking about this Nielsen... Do you read Polish poets from that time?
Some time ago, I was walking past a second-hand bookshop on Żelazna Street and came across a poetry volume by Gajcy, so I bought it, of course. I had planned to juxtapose Nielsen in the book's afterword with Baczynski in order to situate him somehow for the Polish reader, but I also returned to Gajcy.
Gajcy is probably a bit better than Baczynski. He is more economical with metaphors, and when he does metaphorise, it is more interesting.
I remembered Baczyński as a spirited romantic, incredibly temperamental, and now, he appeared to me as such. And Gajcy is indeed more economical and therefore probably closer to me today. For a young Danish reader, Nielsen is not a revelation either. But I delved deeply into his poems. And you only delve deep when you translate. A literary critic will never immerse so deeply into the matter of a poem - although they can, of course, be just as insightful - and will not break it down into its finest elements unless if they don’t have access to that subcutaneous system of vessels that is the original language. When one speaks a foreign language, it is impossible for a long time to sense the colour, the sweetness, the tones of the words. A person who is communicative in a foreign language will not understand the weight of the sentences that a mother addresses to her baby or that lovers utter during sex. There are some things that cannot be felt, that cannot be conveyed. I can often understand that something is one way or another, but emotionally I will not experience it as I would in Polish. Nevertheless, the longer one uses the language, the better one knows it, the closer one gets to these emotional diapasons. I say this because I myself - after using Danish for so many years - am only slowly beginning to feel it as my own. And I'm afraid that Nielsen may prove unattractive to Polish readers, because I don't know if I've managed to convey even part of the class of his poems. There are both dark and light pieces of work. The dark ones are about death, contamination by war, quite sombre, full of fear, and the light ones are about love, elation, joy of life. The latter form an important counterpoint, and, for a long time, I considered them important for that reason alone; I thought that it was only the parallelism of these two tones that carried this work, that expressed the tragedy of this young life and life in general, but the light poems seemed weaker to me because they did not wrench as much as the dark ones - and it seemed so to me because I needed time, a long and tender communion with them, to see them through to the end, to hear them sing to the end, and to understand what constitutes their class. I was and am afraid. But will the individual texts be able to move the Polish reader?
There is always historical-literary value, too.
Yes, I find this Polish-Danish parallel particularly interesting and important. But if I don't win the reader over with the form the way the Danish reader is won over by the form of the original, not much good will come of it. One of Nielsen's most important poems, Death, I translated it after the first reading, straight away, without rhyming. "No, they're not necessary, this is such an important and powerful poem, and every word has its place and meaning, that I'll only do harm to it with rhymes," I thought. But at some point, reading it for the umpteenth time - the tenth or fifteenth - in one of the stanzas, a rhyme imposed itself on me. So, I started shaping up others, I couldn't help myself. One by one, eventually, almost all of it came out with rhymes, although they're not exact rhymes like in the original - but that's probably a good thing.
We've talked a lot about the oppressiveness of time, yet it all sounds like you really enjoy your work.
Oh my, if I didn't like it, I would have stopped a long time ago, anyway, you know very well that you don't get much money out of it. Sometimes it can be decent, but when converted to an hourly rate, it turns out to be ridiculously low. Translating poems is a task of many, many hours, extremely time-consuming. And, so I think, a substitute for my own creation. I write poems too, but I hardly ever reveal them.
That's exactly what I wanted to ask about - is translation something of your own?
I think so. Although it obviously depends on the type of text you are translating. If there's no room to introduce your own invention, it's probably less ‘ours’. But if the text requires creative engagement, that's when it starts to be creation. These are the kind of texts I'm looking for, like Andersen, Christensen, Nielsen, or Djørup. Bringing such work to completion gives joy and satisfaction. To me, it has a special meaning, because I do not have the courage to show my poems. It has happened only a few times, in situations filled with strong and important emotions. But generally, no - I work with poetry overtly, by translating.
My girlfriend told me recently that every translator has their own texts, poems, prose, hidden in a drawer. I think we were talking about Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, I said that was impossible, to which she replied, "You just don't know about it".
There's definitely something to it. Although, most often, translators write essays. For example, Małgorzata Łukasiewicz's beautiful essays about the larder - it's like perfect creative prose! I am also writing a book of essays about Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, a great fascination and discovery of mine from my time living in Denmark. I've been writing for four years, but there's no end in sight, for the whole of the last year and a half it's been impossible to devote a moment to it.
Surely these are not all your plans?
I also have an idea for other books: about my Andersen, about the translation of Andersen and the history of the Polish reception of his writing, but also about my own and my husband's ancestors, for my children and grandchildren to know where they come from. I'd like to write it all down, I really would, I have the strength and energy, I just lack the time. If I can somehow master it, tame it, I will do all of these things. But is that even possible? Because when Nielsen goes to print, I must immediately return to the anthology of new Danish poetry and, in parallel, to the book of memoirs of the March emigrants that I already collected three years ago - these books must be published by the end of this year. And also compile a selection of Andersen's little-known tales, which I want to publish as the next volume in the Driada series Andersen dla dorosłych ("Andersen for Adults"). This series will be a project for many years, oh my, I haven't had time to tell you about it. And about so many other things.
Interviewer: Maciej Libich
Translated by Justyna Lowe