photo: Agnieszka Cytacka

Bedside table #71. Sława Lisiecka: translating and publishing is addictive

Sława Lisiecka, translator of German-language literature and publisher, talks about translating Nietzsche, Bernhard, and other giants, her work on a translation of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, the superiority of Mickiewicz and Słowacki over Goethe, the ageing of language and the need for new translations, as well as translation during parties and her own literary attempts.

I have read that you have translated over one hundred and forty titles. Is that true, or did someone slip up?

It’s true, if you add plays to prose and poetry.

Benn, Heidegger, Hesse, Ransmayr, Enzensberger - you have translated the prose of these outstanding German-language writers, and yet, you are mainly associated with Bernhard.

This is also true, but the fact is that I have translated ten of his books, and the most important ones.

Does it not bother you? Do you not feel that you’ve been “labelled”?

No, it does not bother me, quite the contrary. It is good that I am associated with the translations of Bernhard, because he is a truly outstanding writer. As for the other books I have translated... Well, of course, there are things that I am very proud of, such as the translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which I completed with my late husband almost a hundred years after the publication of Wacław Berent's translation.

Indeed, this is probably less talked about.

And for me, this is extremely important. We wanted to propose a new interpretation of this work and were not motivated solely by the conviction that Berent's Young Poland style is slowly becoming unbearable for contemporary readers - especially those of the younger generation. Personally, I consider Berent's translation to be a masterpiece of Polish literature, which shows the immeasurable richness of our language, its poetic nature, the potential of word formation. However, Zaratustra... is not only poetry but most importantly philosophy, presented simply in poetic terms. And therefore, we tried to show the beauty of the language and simultaneously conduct a consistent philosophical argument with all the key terms Nietzsche used. I have the impression - extremely immodestly - that we succeeded, except that we had a huge advantage over Berent: the distance of time and many excellent studies of Nietzsche's work.

Of all the literary languages, the language of Young Poland is probably the one that comes back to bite us the most.

Languages do age, of course. But what would we have done without Young Poland? Would we even have had Leśmian and his ingenious poems? I find this time interesting, because it was when Polish writers were trying to invent a language that would renew communication and literary possibilities – a language devoid of calques that were bound to form and accumulate during the years of political subordination. There is something beautiful about it. It is true that Young Poland did not reach wide audiences, and, in this sense, the project did not work; but today, we can admire it thanks to various literary monuments.

Has your translation of Zarathustra met with a reception?

Yes, definitely. I know it is being read at many philosophy faculties, which alone fills me with joy.

So, does it mean that some texts just need refreshing?


Which ones?

One could reflect on Thomas Mann, for example his Lotte in Weimar, but also on the rest of his novels and short stories in general. There were attempts to translate Mann's books once again, but, as a result of the transformation of the political system, this idea was somehow lost. And today, we know that Mann is no longer read as eagerly as he once was; his name as a great stylist and the last, as they say, master of the twentieth-century novel has somewhat fallen into oblivion, so publishers have also given up. But when it comes to other writers, after all, new translations of existing works are being produced all the time. To mention just a few of Shakespeare's dramas translated by Stanisław Barańczak, successive translations of Goethe's Faust, one by Jacek Buras, who is about to finish work on the second part of the work, and another by Adam Pomorski, or a new reading of Kafka's The Trial by Jakub Ekier, or new translations of Proust's In Search of Lost Time published by Officyna (for example, Krystyna Rodowska's wonderful translation of the first volume), and finally a fresh, new translation of Ulysses by Maciej Świerkocki. When it comes to new translations, I also feel a sense of responsibility...

You have made me curious.

I don't know if I should talk about it yet... But I'm currently working on a translation of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

Ah, so it is rumoured.

The trouble is that the translation that exists seems really nice to me. Or rather: it has matured well with time. You can feel the great linguistic culture of the translators, you can see the very careful editing of the text... But a new translation is needed simply because there is some interference from communist-era censors in the old one, and besides, a new Klagenfurt edition has recently appeared and is said to be authoritative. For all we know, Musil did not manage to complete his magnum opus, so researchers have occasionally attempted to reshape the whole by including previously unpublished passages or reordering individual chapters. So far, I have the first version of the translation of half of the first volume, so I can't yet say whether my translation satisfies me. I am working intensively. But there is also another issue. While the author's thoughts on the mechanisms of power, cultural transformations, and human behaviours are still relevant - because they are, so to speak, timeless - the whole story moves along at a remarkably slow pace, and readers today are looking for rather dynamic narratives. I'm not worried about sales though; people feel that there are certain books that just need to be on the shelf.

I read somewhere that Thomas Piketty's Capital - which, a few years ago, was being purchased like a best-selling novel, maniacally - was the most frequently put-down book, with readers usually getting no further than page thirteen.

It's also the case of Ulysses or the aforementioned Proust - do you know anyone who has read all seven volumes?

And would you be expected to translate all four volumes?

In theory, yes, but I really don't know if I would live long enough.

Enormous amount of work.

Yes, extremely difficult work.

I thought of Kuśniewicz and his Król Obojga Sycylii (“The King of the Two Sicilies”), which I always read as the Polish version of The Man Without Qualities. (Or maybe the response to The Man...?) Do you think it could somehow be more engaging for Polish readers?

But Kuśniewicz also died as a writer! We used to read him avidly, but today hardly anyone knows that such a person even existed. It is a similar case with Iwaszkiewicz. Attempts are constantly being made to reactivate him, but he certainly does not occupy the dignified place he deserves. This makes me very sad. Not to mention Andrzejewski, who - as a truly great writer - also virtually ceased to exist in the consciousness of readers. And Stryjkowski? We are giving up such wealth so lightly.

I also feel that the greatest Polish literature comes from the 20th century.

To be perfectly honest, I still wonder if contemporary authors have anything more to tell us.

Are the Germans and Austrians forgetting their masters too?

I think so, and, in addition, these canons are often subject to revision. Goethe, for example - until recently an unquestionable authority figure – faces enormous criticism from younger generations. To some extent rightly so. He is reproached for a great deal of mawkishness and naïvety, especially in poetry, not to mention attacks on his political stance, his vassalage, his subservience to the mighty... Let me put it this way: if we compare the poems of Mickiewicz and Słowacki with what Goethe wrote, we find works that are intellectually, existentially and philosophically superior by three levels, and I am not only saying this as a local patriot.

Maybe it's a matter of us being stuck on the periphery, so we tend to see more. And maybe we feel that somehow, we need to transcend our limitations - catch up with the West, Europe, and Goethe.

I do not think we need to transcend our limitations and catch up with the West. The problem seems to lie more in the reception of smaller literature. Everyone is enthralled with German, French, and American literature. This is a great shame, as many excellent 'smaller' texts are being missed out.

And the Germans, the Austrians - do they take a look at our literature? Can we offer them anything?

Some Polish literature has actually been published by them, especially in recent years. Largely thanks to Karl Dedecius, who has published fifty volumes of the “Polish Library” canon, showcasing our literature in a historical cross-section. He also promoted the poetry of Różewicz, Herbert, Szymborska, and Miłosz, and he undoubtedly contributed to the latter two receiving the Nobel Prize. And now we also have Olga Tokarczuk. It seems that interest in our literature also increased after 2000, after the Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Poland was the guest of honour. Today, names such as Stasiuk, Bator, and, of course, the aforementioned Tokarczuk reign supreme. But do they have a wide audience? Certainly not the one they deserve.

It is like us with Hungary. Or with the Romanians.

That is right. But it also works the other way round. We talked about Bernhard - guess how many copies of one of his books can be sold?

It would probably depend on the title...

Take a guess.

A thousand?

Well, no, a little more, two or two and a half at most. But what is two and a half thousand copies for a nation of thirty-eight million people...? Let me tell you that one thousand two hundred copies of Bernhard's Extinction were sold within a month - and it stopped. It will probably reach two thousand, but that's about it. The reception comes rather from journalists, literary critics, reviewers. The basic circulation used to amount to ten thousand. And then, there were reissues - twenty, thirty thousand each. Does anyone achieve such a circulation today?

Perhaps reportage books from Czarne publishing house?

I think there is a lot of interest in reportage in Poland. This is, of course, commendable, because we are venturing beyond the Polish fringe, but when it comes to other literary genres, it seems to look pretty poor.

But it's an interesting dilemma: we're talking about second and even third translations, and yet - as a society - we have radically low processing capacity. How to balance this? To translate twice or to focus energy on new, untranslated texts?

It is certainly worth translating a second, or even a third time, as it turns out that, especially in these older translations, a lot of errors can be found - both lexical and factual. Therefore, it is wonderful that Maciek Świerkocki has once again taken on Ulysses; we are all extremely curious to see what this translation will be like, for he has been working on it for a very long time. I am also pleased to see other new (or rather re-) translations, especially Krysia Rodowska's Proust. It's a completely new quality: the mistakes Boy made are eradicated, and this polished poetic language... I have said it before, but language just gets old, and quite quickly too. This is particularly noticeable in a translation full of anachronistic, obsolete forms. In fact, even the Polish language of the 1950s and 1960s can already be very different today. Which is not to say, of course, that you have to get rid of these anachronisms altogether, no.

Well, exactly, because it would look like the translated book is ten years old, not a hundred.

Indeed. Together with the participants of the translation workshop I run at the Austrian Cultural Forum, we are now working on translations of Bernhard's The Complete Stories, which will be published by me at the end of next year. So, we also translate his earliest prose, from the 1950s, when he - imagine this - was, for example, a eulogist of Austrian nature and the hard work of the farmer. Needless to say, this is a very different Bernhard. But we cannot strip him of the language he wrote with then, although it was a very different language from the one he used years later. We must retain something of this past.

Was it Bernhard fighting on the side of the left?

I think he was just young; he was in his twenties at the time. He had seen all the horrors and destruction of war, he had seen poverty, and he was a hypersensitive man, and it could not but move him. He was never really a communist, he tried to stay out of politics. Although it took him a while to distance himself from this prose - it was probably only in the 1960s. He also then found another way to express himself and his attitude to the world. That's why it's so interesting, these early stories show his evolution perfectly.

But are they not good as such?

I think that today they will serve precisely to show a certain path that Bernhard has taken. For the same reason, my husband and I once translated eighty of his poems. He wrote them in total - note - almost three thousand.


And best of all, there's a lot of pulp in them. These are poems about the beauty of nature, the hard work of workers and farmers. Exactly the same as in his early stories, though already thankfully fractured by that nihilistic, black-and-white world view of his. And you can also see that this young man, despite his inexperience and lack of erudition, promises to be an original author. And the fact that the same motifs, which he would also repeat in his outstanding novels, appear again and again in both poems and stories. We published this book more for historical and literary reasons. So that one can trace Bernhard's development, so that one can see where he started. Sometimes, it really is worth doing such things. After all, his great, excellent novels and short stories didn't come out of nowhere.

Don't you worry that it will hit an absolute void? That the reception will be microscopic?

No, I do not. On the contrary. I have already received indications that readers are waiting for this publication. Then again, there aren't that many of those earlier stories - maybe a dozen or so - and I think the others are sensational: they are mature, longer, with a sense of the Bernhard style we know and love. I think readers will focus on those. But let there be others too!

Does this feeling of fear that no one will read your book accompany you in your everyday life? I’m asking because I just remembered that you will be publishing a novel by Laura Freudenthaler soon - and that's quite difficult writing.

Difficult, I have just finished editing this text.

But so good! The excerpts from “Literatura na Świecie” and “Wizje” magazines are delightful.

You think so?

Freudenthaler has devised a fascinating writing method: between two random sentences that are adjacent to each other, there should always be a third that would logically connect them - but there never is. Except that it doesn't spoil the rhythm, on the contrary, the whole thing seems more dynamic because of it. At the same time, however, it is quite easy to get lost while reading.

Indeed, the narrative is conducted in such a way that we have no idea whether the main character, Anna, is talking to someone now or perhaps in the past. And things get even more complicated when Anna imagines conversations between her husband, Thomas, and his young mistress. Who is addressing whom? Who is talking to whom? What is truth and what is fiction? Is it all happening in Anna's head or in reality? The Germans nowadays write in such a way that it is really difficult to get to grips with. Sometimes, I have no idea whether they do it on purpose or simply don't know how to do it otherwise... I first tried to make the text conform to Polish book editing rules. I did a lot of work on separating out dialogues, but, at some point, I realised that the book would lose a lot if it was chopped up like that, so I removed all of the hyphens and left a confusing and unclear narrative.

But that's exactly my point - it is, after all, a huge challenge. To what extent is the owner of the publishing house afraid that readers will not take it up?

I'm a bit scared, but I don't think it's beyond the capacity of the audience. Personally, the biggest issue for me is that descriptions are too detailed - everything there is like in a film, told in time-lapse, so to speak.

Is it a long novel?

No, it's about a hundred and eighty pages long. It should be published by the end of November. Time permitting...

Time, indeed. I’ve been wanting to ask you from the start how you deal with it. One hundred and forty translated books, a publishing house of your own, translation workshops... all this is, after all, extremely time-consuming. And yet, for many years, you and your husband actively participated in Polish political life.

And raising children?

Well, yes...

But, of course, you are right. I think I have been an extremely busy person all my life. I still am... Usually, I would put the children to bed and then go to work and stay up all night translating. In fact, even when we had a party at home, which happened quite often, I would sit at one half of the table while my friends ate, drank vodka, and chatted at the other half. It happened, really, and I think it was very beautiful. But today, I don't have a private life because of this excess of activities, or if I do, it's only marginal. I should be retired now, reading books - which I miss a lot, because I only read what I translate or edit – and instead, I am slaving away. I really don't have time for good literature.... If you add to this the workshops you mentioned, you get a full picture of my time.

Do you translate for a living?

Yes, I usually translate two books at once, because I wouldn't have enough to live on - my pension is very low.

But my guess is that it is not just about material issues.

Of course. Translation, publishing - it's addictive. In addition, I publish books that interest me and that I would like to read myself. Naturally, this often has little to do with what readers are interested in, so I contribute to this undertaking from my translation fees and am constantly in the red. It is rare to get titles such as Leszek Libera's Der Utopek, of which I have sold two and a half thousand copies and from which I pocketed a few pennies. But I mostly sell three hundred, maybe four hundred copies of a book.

It's like with poetry volumes... And probably the top shelf ones anyway. In any case, a lot of publishers are in a very similar situation - Anna Matysiak from Convivo, Bogusława Sochańska from Driada.

You have to be passionate to throw yourself into it. I will not hesitate to use the word 'mission'. Because it is a kind of calling, a desire to showcase these best titles, even if the response is so small.

Is it demotivating?

It slightly is. But what can be done other than to close the publishing house? I should, because I feel very, very tired, and I keep telling myself that I will do it, that it's about to happen, but instead someone comes with a proposal, and I agree. And I have work to do again. You ask me how I organise my time... I don't organise it at all! I work all day. From time to time, I go to the theatre, to the cinema, sometimes for lunch or dinner with friends - and that's it. In the morning, I watch some silly films, I am no longer able to pick up a book. My eyes are so tired of letters that I'm more comfortable with the pictures on the AXN channel.

What is it like to read when you are a translator? You read, of course, what you translate...

...and around it! This is my great gain - the fact that while translating various difficult titles, I had to educate myself, read research papers, dissertations. I have learnt a lot from it, I really have. Though much of this knowledge evaporates from your head, you cannot remember everything, but something remains.

And books exclusively for yourself? Did you have time to read just for pleasure?

Of course, I read a great many books in my earlier years (but how...?). A mighty part of the canon, I guess. It’s worse with contemporary literature. I no longer keep up, I have no time. So, when I came across your conversation with Malgosia Łukasiewicz and read that she has a lot of time for reading, I envied her. At my place, apart from the bedside table, there is also a bedside shelf and a bedside floor. These books are piling up because I would like to read them all, to absorb them, but physically, I can't manage.

Ah yes, the infamous pile of remorse.

The worst part is that I keep buying new publications. With the unflagging belief that when the publishing house closes in two years, I'll spend the rest of my life reading.

Would you reach for Polish literature?

Yes, absolutely. So many books the uniqueness of which I read about have been published. I am also told about them by my German professional colleagues, who are more familiar with Polish literature than with the German-language literature I tell them about. But, for example, I recently started reading Śmierć czeskiego psa (“The Death of a Czech Dog”) by Janusz Rudnicki.

Oh, I like it very much.

A wonderful and extremely moving book! This is the kind of prose I would like to give myself for my retirement. Also lying on the table are Mariusz Szczygieł's Nie ma (“There Isn’t) and books by Olga Tokarczuk, some of whose titles I already know. But I would also like to return to my old readings. To Dostoevsky, for instance. I feel that I completely don't know him, I used to read him at a very young age, and I don't know if I understood even a tenth of the novels.

We are exhorted to read Dostoevsky in high school when we are sixteen, but we are probably unable to understand much of The Brothers Karamazov.

I think it is important to return to these books at a mature age. I have now translated a huge volume of Kafka's biography - the whole thing, in three volumes, will be published by the State Publishing Institute. So, somewhat out of necessity, I returned to this great writer and let me tell you that I read him very differently today. Until now, I have seen the darkness in his books, the premonition of impending totalitarianism, the entanglement of the individual in the system and so on, and only now do I notice his great sense of humour and his sharp wit. When he read his stories to people, they often laughed.

Kafka - is this literature close to you?

Oh yes. His grotesque is second to none. And The Trial, The Castle... these are masterpieces that show a man totally enslaved.

So back to Bernhard...

He too certainly valued Kafka, although there is no one-to-one relationship between their prose.

I mention Bernhard because I am looking for a common denominator. I am curious about what you are looking for in literature.

I like psychological literature, psychologically deepened characters. Playing with literature, postmodernism somehow appeal less to me. This is why I love Frisch, who brilliantly describes the inner conflicts of the individual. Her entanglement in the strangest, most disturbed relationships. And from there, it is a short way to prose about political alignments and dependencies, such as Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral. Though I have to admit that I reached for it recently - and I must have read it three times before - and suddenly, it seemed to me to have aged very badly. I don't know if it's a matter of translation or the way the narration is done... But I still love Ibero-American literature. This magic realism. I must confess, however, that I generally read like a child. I enter the world of a book and become engrossed beyond measure.

I envy you. I don't know when was the last time I got carried away by something.

But that's a bit naïve, don't you think?

Maybe so, but extremely enjoyable at the same time. When you work with literature so much, it starts to lose its charm... It's hard to wean yourself from using all these interpretive tools, it’s like a reflex.

It does turn on in a flash. This is baggage, you are right. But I also have a flaw: whenever I read translations, I try to detect mistakes. Literally, in every sentence.

I don't know about you, but I love finding complex modifiers placed before the subject.

There you have it. It really is rare that the rhythm of a sentence requires it.... Well, sometimes it does.  Anyway, I point this out to my workshop students, and I persistently rearrange it when I edit texts.

Which inevitably leads me to the question about your work on translation. I understand that you do the first translation, then the second... and the third?

Up to the fifth one.


Yes. And then the editor still has something to correct anyway. This is, however, thanks to a fresh eye. Besides, if you have been working with a foreign language for a long time, you can sometimes unknowingly transfer calques.

Let us talk about the first one.

I insert exclamation marks, question marks, underline, or put it in bold if I don't understand something. I wonder if a word will be repeated, whether a phrase will be used again, because you have to keep track of it after all.

So, it's far from the final version?

Oh yes... I always say that this first translation is a translation from Polish into Lisiecki. I do not show it to anyone. Then comes the time for the second translation, which I also do with the German text to see if I haven’t lost anything and whether I have understood everything correctly. And then I put down the German text and start working on the Polish text. It has to sound good, so I work on it, refine it, rearrange the words. The point is to hear the melody of this prose, so that the intonation is there, the rhythm maintained. And I look for synonyms. I then do the same in the fourth reading, and in the fifth - I read aloud. That's why I don't read the books I have to translate straight away, because I would really get bored to death. Although there are some that I could work on and on, study them and not leave them until the end of the world.

For instance?

Are you familiar with such a book Morbus Kitahara by Christoph Ransmayr?

Just the title.

It was something incredible. I could have kept translating it indefinitely, because I wanted so terribly to convey the stylistic perfection of the original. Or Hesse's The Fairy Tales. Or his Bilderbuch (“Picture Book”).

And what is the difference between the first and fourth translations?

A large one, really. Because at the beginning, I just write it down. I read - and write - without thinking about correctness, or at least without paying much attention to it. The second version is probably the most important, because it is when I start working on the shape of the sentences. And only in the third and fourth do I choose the right words.

All right, and when you are already working without the German text...

Sometimes I take a peek, but only sometimes. what extent does faithfulness to the original count then?

To me, being close to the original is extremely important. If it is possible to translate something word for word, I try to do so. I tell my students that if the author wanted to write 'cruel' instead of ‘vicious', they had the right words for it. They would use them. This is of course just an example, but sometimes my workshop participants use the argument that "in Polish, you would rather say it this way". All right, it would be said this way, except that the author also had the opportunity to write in such a way – and yet, they did not do so. Sure, we must remember that our target reader is a Polish reader, so our sentences must sound well in Polish. But we should change as little as possible. The Polish language is so rich and has such word-forming possibilities that it should not cause us any trouble. Even if you have to spend two weeks with one word.

Andrzej Sobol-Jurczykowski told me that he spent three weeks on the first sentence of Borges' The Theologians. But do we have time today to translate like this?

This time simply has to be found. Let's not fool ourselves, translators are enthusiasts, not people who work for profit. If I wanted to be wealthy, I would become a plumber and I would earn much more than I earn. And it would take me less time. You have to choose - to have or to be. I prefer to be, so I'm not wealthy, but that doesn't bother me at all. And I really believe that translation cannot be approached commercially. Although I myself have translated several B and even C and D class books to earn a living - after all, my husband was banned from the profession in communist Poland. I spent three years working on Benn's Brains, I had to read several PhD theses for it, I had to talk to scientists to explain every word, so if I hadn't made money in that time otherwise, we would have starved to death. These books were of course translated quickly, much more quickly, but in their case, there was nothing to particularly think about - authors who earn millions from literature always write in a very similar way, using hackneyed words from a "better" dictionary, on the highest scale. Such sentences and phrases are no challenge... Nevertheless, at some point, I decided that enough was enough, that it was over. That I prefer to eat bread and dripping every day, but I will translate decent things, even if it takes an awfully long time and I have to work exceptionally hard.

Precisely, the translation itself - in terms of computer work - probably doesn't consume that much time.

I often tell people that the worst purchase of my life was a dishwasher. Because before, when I was doing the dishes - and I sometimes spent an hour and a half doing that because we ran a big, open house - under the effect of this warm water, I would switch off and think of a word or phrase that I couldn't come up with before. Now, I am deprived of this opportunity, so from time to time, I purposely do the dishes by hand and wait for the illumination. Yes, translating is a 24-hour job. Such a profession indeed. And especially when you are dealing with outstanding literature.

And when do you translate an author close to you? Is it harder or easier? Does Bernhard not enforce some... sense of duty?

A sense of duty accompanies me always, not only with Bernhard. And as the years go by, there is more and more responsibility for words. I realise, of course, that most readers do not read the book as thoroughly as the translator must, but there are readers, after all, who analyse the works they read in depth. Therefore, they must not be disappointed.

The translator should probably be the most meticulous reader, shouldn’t they?

Absolutely. It is we who often see that even among outstanding authors, there is a whole lot of verbal padding. That some sentences are incoherent and sometimes illogical. But when you read the whole thing, you don't see that. Only by reading under a microscope do certain cracks become apparent. And sometimes it is even necessary to correct the author, otherwise the translator will face criticism that they have translated something wrong.

Do you remember such a situation?

I remember it the other way round. In one of Bernhard's books - I don't know, maybe in Extinction? - there was one lengthy, complex sentence. And he forgot to finish that sentence. I thought at the time that I would leave it like that for him. I think I was furious with him at the time.

Well, yes, you do develop an emotional bond with the author.

That goes without saying. I really enjoy having so-called my authors, translating their successive books. There is an unwritten (but fair) law among translators not to steal writers from each other, and if you do translate them, ask the previous translator for permission beforehand. I don't do Sebald, because Malgosia Łukasiewicz translates him, and she doesn't touch Bernhard, because I translate him. It used to be Marek Kędzierski, too, and more recently Monika Muskała, very well, by the way.

And yet you translate collectively, and actually it is Bernhard.

Yes, it is true. I realised at some point that I would not be able to translate everything myself. After all, I am in my seventies, I have less and less strength. But let us also be honest and say that these group translations in some sense bear my own stamp. After all, I work on these texts not only in class - I also do two rounds of editorial revision. Then, reading through everything, I unify the whole thing and really try not to let any weaknesses through.

It's a solid kick into the world of translation - to have a book with your name on the cover.

In doing so, I am repaying the debt I incurred with Slawomir Błaut, the translator of Frost, who translated this one book and then gave Bernhard to me. Mr Błaut also devoted a lot of time to me as a budding translator, sitting with me late into the evening in the editorial room at the Czytelnik publishing house, working on me, investing in me. I owe him a great deal. I am also indebted to several editors. I met good and wise people who taught me a lot of important things. I would not want their teachings to be in vain. It's a kind of duty - again, a mission - to pass on your knowledge, to tell young people what to look out for when translating. I am talking here primarily about technical aspects. When you know what mistakes to avoid, the translation immediately becomes better by half.

For instance?

Beginner translators overuse the relative pronouns ‘which, that’. But you can construct a sentence with participles, although here too, you have to be careful not to include too many of them. Or they begin sentences with 'when' too often, for example, "When he got home" instead of using the form "Upon returning home". When translating from German, you also have to be very careful not to overuse possessive pronouns and the passive voice. There is also the issue of the sequence of tenses - you cannot say, “He saw the bottle was standing on the table”, but, “He saw the bottle is standing on the table”. Do you know German?


In German, when one part of a sentence is in the Perfect tense and the other in the Präsens, both have to be translated into the present tense in Polish, and sometimes even into the future tense. For the Perfect tense - supposedly a past tense - has its consequences in the present.

Just like in English.

Ah, true… As you can see, these are quite simple matters, technical matters precisely. And there are many of them. It becomes more difficult when you have to extract the author's thoughts from the text. To put it into words and keep the style. This already requires literary skills on the part of the translator. Because anyone can learn tricks, but to give a novel a melody, a shape, a rhythm - you need talent for that.

You have to be born with it?

You do. It cannot be worked out. I often say that a translator is somewhat of a failed writer. They cannot write themselves, so they translate other writers.

And have you tried to write?

Yes, I can even tell you an anecdote. My husband, who was a poet, and a good one, after a few years of marriage asked me, "Słowniczku - because that's what he called me (meaning Little dictionary, glossary – translator’s note) - show me your poems, the ones you used to write". I replied that I would not show them because I was ashamed. These were poems from the old days, so very girlish. But he finally persuaded me, I dug out those poems, gave them to him, and he started reading. He read and read and fell silent. Then he looked at me and said, "Słowniczku, you translate so beautifully...". And that was it. Of course, I knew it was pulp, that it was too lyrical, infantile. But my husband has blocked me forever with this statement of his. I have not written anything else. I do have ideas for different texts, though - they keep popping into my head, really - I'm just afraid that I won't have enough time. There is also another kind of problem. When you spend a lifetime with such great writers as Bernhard, Hesse, Härtling, Juli Zeh, you absorb the most diverse stylistics, and you lose your style.


Yes, I just don't have my style anymore. And I used to. And I am afraid to write anything, because I would have to find a new form, a new style, a new self. But there is a glimmer of hope. As a publisher, I bought the copyright to the books for exactly two years - and in those two years, I plan to close the publishing house. Who knows, maybe I will sit down then and write some sharp socio-political prose? I can even tell you what it will be about. But that is off the record.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe