photo: Samir Ljuma

Bedside table #75. Krzysztof Umiński: Ever since I was a child, I found words enjoyable

Krzysztof Umiński, translator from French and English, author of Trzy tłumaczki (“Three Translators”) devoted to Joanna Guze, Maria Skibniewska, and Anna Przedpełska-Trzeciakowska, talks, among other things, about the thankless life of a literature translator, linguistic memory, solitude imposed by work, the readings of his youth and his formative years, as well as about the way books serve prestige and sophistication.

What do you have to sacrifice to become a translator?

I don't know if you have to sacrifice anything to become a translator, but to be one, you probably have to give up your dreams of material security and balance between work and other things in your life.

I started translating professionally right after university and was initially delighted. Firstly, because I had a job at all, and secondly, because this job seemed beautiful and meaningful to me. I lost myself completely in translation - I translated books, films and, on top of that, live meetings with writers and filmmakers. After a few years, I realised that my minimum needs and ambitions could be defined as follows: "(1) To translate good books well; (2) To survive". And that it does not work. I mean: the better books I translate, the more I dedicate myself to them, the harder it is for me to make ends meet. But it still took me another few years to decide that I didn't want to make a living out of translation any longer. Now, I'm trying to make a new life for myself.

Translation seems to be a solitary profession.

I think that most translators share an element of solitude, which does not necessarily exclude cordial relations with people or social skills. Translation suited me because, as a twenty-something, I felt insecure among people and actually attributed a certain misanthropy to myself. I changed later.

Either way - and this is also the answer to your question about sacrifice - translation imposes solitude and thus compromises our relationships with loved ones. When I finished translating my very first novel, I gave a printed excerpt to the person I was living with at the time. She took the pages to read them on her way to her family home for Christmas. A few hours later, she wrote to me from the train, "The text is manicured, polished, every word has been given a lot of attention. I am jealous of this novel. I wish I could be treated like it."

In the recently published Three Translators, you show not only the solitude associated with this profession, but also the tedious, arduous struggle for suitable working conditions. In the part devoted to Joanna Guze, you abundantly quote the requests for financial support that the translator sent to the Polish Writers' Union. They illustrate that the work of a translator is a constant struggle for living conditions and... for the opportunity to work. Do you think that the heroines of this book (apart from Guze, these are Maria Skibniewska and Anna Przedpelska-Trzeciakowska) could be kind of patrons of today's freelancers, who undertake the strenuous task of making a living from their work in the field of culture?

I would rather that today's freelancers take as their patrons charismatic plebeian tribunes who snatch pay rises and social benefits from the clutches of finance and government. It is true that the three translators were able to win their private freedom under difficult circumstances - and there is probably a universal lesson in this. But the peak of my heroines' professional activity was in the People's Republic of Poland, in an era so different from today's... How to put it? Money was worth a little less, and books were probably worth a little more.

In your work, which requires long periods of concentration, reading and writing, a sort of meditative focus on the text, you probably need to develop some specific personal techniques? How do you manage to focus, especially when a deadline is looming?

I do not have any techniques. It's just that I switch off my phone and the Internet, but I still get distracted. If anything keeps me in check, it's a sense of duty. And perfectionism, unfortunately.

When is translation enjoyable? Is it when it 'goes smoothly', or is it when, after a long struggle, you manage to solve a translation puzzle? And which texts do you like working on best? In addition to fiction, you also translate French comics.

I feel the greatest pleasure when difficult things come with ease. But it is not that simple. To get something right, you have to exert yourself.

I like to translate comics with funny dialogues. I laugh to myself, and I picture readers laughing too. Dialogues probably come easiest to me. Oh, and I'd rather rack my brains over a great, difficult text than over a piece of crap. When I rack my brains over a piece of crap, I get the feeling that some twit is robbing me of my life with their cobblers.

Was the translation of Albert Cohen's O Humans, My Brothers (”Literatura na świecie” monthly 2016, no. 1-2) such a 'pleasant difficulty'? Did you decide to tackle this text yourself or did someone suggest it to you?

Yes, it is the most difficult book I have translated. And I have brought this ordeal upon myself, but I do not regret it, I have never regretted it. I discovered Cohen through a friend, a French Jew, who gave me his most famous novel, Belle du Seigneur. A few years later, I was in Marseille for a while, I was looking for something to read, and I bought O vous frères humains (“O Humans, My Brothers”) in a second-hand bookshop. I took it to Pomègues, an island about half an hour by boat from the Old Port, lay down on a rock with a towel under my head and started reading. It was a sunny June day and the water in the bay was warm, but after two hours, all I wanted to do was run to the port and back to Marseille, to my computer, to check if anyone had translated it into Polish. It turned out no one did, so I started trying.

I finished the translation in the early autumn of 2015, when the media started rumbling about the so-called migration crisis. I read messages from my brother who was helping people on the Greek-Macedonian border, and I thought that Cohen's book was gaining some kind of frightening topicality, or rather proving its sad timelessness. Because it's a book about a Jewish child who discovers hatred on their tenth birthday. Or, more generally, a story about hatred of strangers. I thought that I would entice a publisher with this topicality-timelessness. Bugger, who will publish a dead Jewish author who didn't get the Nobel Prize or write about the Holocaust? But Anna Wasilewska and Piotr Sommer found a place for this story in "Literatura na Świecie" monthly. To them - eternal gratitude.

Who taught you to read? Or: what did you learn to read on?

My grandmother was a doctor and had a whole shelf of Westerns at home to read during her shifts. These included titles like Lassiter's Ride, Ambush for Lassiter, Call of the Canyon, Verlorene Ranch, Sundown Jim, and Gefangene der Buschwölfe (“Prisoners of the Bush Wolves”). Prisoners of the Bush Wolves was the best, because the main character - I can't remember if he was a sheriff or a lone avenger - infiltrated the Bush Wolves gang to take them down from the inside – and I think it was then that I first tasted the tension associated with the risk of unmasking, a tension that is fundamental to spy plots. I could eat those Westerns by the bucket load. Revolvers, brawls, a pinch of eroticism - a good book for a young reader.

What else? Astrid Lindgren, Edith Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Verne, Sienkiewicz, Curwood, and London. Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Asterixes, Nicholases, Tytuses. Bahdaj, with Do przerwy 0-1 (“0-1 at Half-time”) in particular. And Niziurski, and Szklarski. Sentences from these books are still rattling around my head, for example, “I'd rather give a chimpanzee a haircut in the zoo” (says Euzebiusz Sosenka from 0-1 at Half-time). Or, ”There was a latent swiftness in his soft, feline movements” (Tomek na Czarnym Lądzie [“Tomek on the Black Continent”], I think) Or, “Monsieur, I love men of your kidney; and I foresee plainly that if we don't kill each other, I shall hereafter have much pleasure in your conversation” (The Three Musketeers).

My first big people books were The Master and Margarita, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Beautiful Twentysomethings, sometime towards the end of primary school. Soon afterwards I discovered, sadly, that books not only tell stories but can also serve prestige, sophistication and so on. So, I started forcing myself into Joyce and Faulkner. And sometimes I didn't have to force myself - for example, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, or Laclos.

In an interview on the Polish Literary Translators' Association’s website, you said that you owed a lot to your mother, who corrected your essays and confiscated Przegląd Sportowy (“Sports Review”) from you. And who else has influenced your language and ear for literature?

My mother did not only confiscate and correct, but also read aloud to me when I was little. That gave me a lot. Besides, I had a good Polish teacher in high school, Ms Aleksandra Nałęcz. In an essay on Dziady (“Forefathers' Eve”), I once argued that Gustaw was a wimp and "unbearably theatrical in his behaviour". At the end - lacking an idea for a conclusion - I declared that I was more in tune with Franz Maurer, who, having found himself in a similar situation (a girl dumped him), said, “I can't be arsed to talk to you." To which she made a note, in the margin, "Franz M. is also theatrical in his behaviour, vide the garden fire". Ms Nałęcz used to give us - although it was a general education, not extended humanities class - very interesting classes on the correctness of the language and the culture of the Polish language. We acquired the seeds of metalanguage from these lessons. I regret terribly that I never got to know Polish in this way again, that I didn't get more tools to talk about the language.

But at university, in my first year, I had a course in logic with Professor Teresa Hołówka. Fascinating. It was meant to be an easy course for cultural studies dimwits – sets, types of definitions, errors in reasoning and so on - but it was something more: learning the clarity of expression, learning not to fall prey to verbosity and empty words. Professor Hołówka often asked, "What is being claimed here?” Here, meaning in some philosophical or journalistic text. Well, it often turned out that nothing was being claimed. Or that the argument is based on faulty reasoning. 

I think that after these three people - my mother, Ms Nałęcz, Professor Hołówka - no one else has had such an impact on my language. Later on, it was not so much learning the Polish language as learning to write. I would write something and then ask someone to read it and tell me how it was. I usually asked a friend from university, Marta Szarejko.

What can you train your language and ear for literature on?

I guess just like with sports training, it's good to start early. It is difficult for me to say more about this because I do not have children and I have never been able to observe how language skills develop in a child. I can only refer to my own vague memories. As I said, my mother read out loud to me, so from a young age, I knew relatively many words and found words enjoyable. All sorts of funny quips, whether from a book or from life. I stained my friend's top with a pen, to which she muttered, "You're going to launder it for me            " - I remember to this day. Or a poem written on the back of a coach seat, somewhere in the Pieniny Mountains in the late 1990s, "Hard as steel / insensitive to pain / clean as a tear / cold as ice - Skinheads Bielsko-Biała". 

From this primal joy of words sprouts, I think, linguistic memory, that is, the ability to notice and remember good sentences or whole conversations. This comes in handy especially when writing dialogues. It seems to me that this linguistic memory can be trained by learning fragments of prose, poetry, or drama. Anyway, it doesn't have to be literature. In high school, I listened to Polish hip-hop over and over again, and it was on this that I developed a memory for words. Pezet, Płomień 81, Peja, Grammatik, WWO, Fenomen, Kaliber, Hemp Gru... But now I remember less and less, it would be necessary to get to grips with it. To learn poems or monologues from Shakespeare. I would love to do this so badly, but it's hard to get everything done in time.

In addition to your translation work, you are the scriptwriter for Łukasz Grzegorzek's films (Kamper and Córka trenera [“A Coach’s Daughter”]). Isn't writing for film a kind of escape from that solitude we talked about at the beginning? After all, it involves constant collaboration and consultation with other departments - the script is born out of the element of dialogue. Does it excite you?

Hell yeah. I don't know if it's the rule in Polish cinema for the scriptwriter to take part in the work of the crew, but, with these films, I actually participated more or less in all stages of production. It was a big thing for me to work with people like Łukasz Grzegorzek, Weronika Bilska, Natalia Giza, or Jacek Braciak - talented, hard-working and stubborn as mules. Kamper and The Coach's Daughter were produced for a laughable amount of money, they could have capsized at any time, and if they didn't, it was because Łukasz had created himself a commando of daredevils and knew how to control them. "Taliban of the underground," said Jacek Braciak about the team of The Coach's Daughter. In Łukasz Grzegorzek's private dictionary, the word ‘okurwieniec’ (“fucknatic”) occupies an important place. It is, if I understand correctly, a person driven by some fixation, ready for anything, filled with some existential radicalism. And also, someone who has power. I like people of this ilk and, unless we are trying to kill each other, I find real pleasure in conversations with them.

You mentioned in one of your essays that you have a file in your computer entitled "Book Dreams". What is in it?

I have a file on my computer, notes on my phone, and notes in a notebook. Only now this file is simply called "Books I want to have". What’s on there? Torańska's Aneks (“Annexe”), which is a collection of conversations, a kind of supplement to Oni (“Them”), and I am particularly interested in the conversation with Jerzy Pomianowski, the translator of The Gulag Archipelago. Next, also by Torańska, Śmierć spóźnia się o minutę (“Death is a Minute Too Late”). Zdążyć przed nocą (“I’ll Be Back Before the Night”) by Szperkowicz and Halny (“Foehn”) by Igor Jarek - I have read the ones I borrowed and would like to have my own. And then there's Jacek Snopkiewicz's Człowiek w bramie (“Man at the Gate”), an undercover reportage from the late 1970s. Some time ago, I was asked to help dispose of the book collection of a certain deceased classical scholar. About four thousand books, most of which will go to one of Warsaw's secondary schools. I could take what I wanted from it, and I have already taken some, but I would still like to add this and that: Śród żywych duchów (“Among Living Ghosts”) by Szejnert, The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova, Kaputt by Malaparte, a biography of Tolstoy written by Viktor Shklovsky, Obłomow… Funny, I keep thinking of myself as a novel reader, and there's only one in this list.

Indeed, a novel. Let us imagine that you have two weeks of undisturbed holiday, say, in a holiday home. Which 'great realist novel' do you take with you?

If I were to pick up a novel I've already read, it might be Lalka (“The Doll”). Or Lost Illusions. Or Conversation in the Cathedral. To see what they are for me today. And of the unread novels.... I've got Marai’s Confessions of a Bourgeois on my shelf, could that be it? Or Vie de Rancé (“The Life of Rancé”), which has just been translated by Mr Wiktor Dłuski. Is it a novel, though? I do not know. Tomasz Swoboda writes that it is "a text doomed to market failure... a work that stings the eye with its unsalability and, so to speak, eremitic sex appeal". Sounds sexy indeed.

You know how it is with these 'book to take on a desert island' stories? Better not to make a mistake. I once took Rousseau's Confessions to work on Naxos Island and dropped out after three pages. And the season has started here, several hours a day in the kitchen, no chance to go into town... I started reading books taken by friends, kite instructors. Guillaume Musso, Dan Brown... Nightmare. The boss, Neapolitan, had some crime books, so I started wrestling with Massimo Carlotto's Il fuggiasco with a dictionary. Finally, in mid-August, a Lithuanian barmaid got a day off and went into town and bought me a Le Carré in a second-hand bookshop.

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki

Translated by Justyna Lowe