Bedside table #79. Krzysztof Majer: there is nothing more deadly to literature than sanctimonious treatises
Krzysztof Majer, translator of fiction and assistant professor at the Department of North American Literature and Culture at the University of Łódź, talks about what attracts him to literature, his work on the novels of Markson, Thompson, and Gurnah, his literary fascinations, editors as allies, as well as his desire of sharing what one discovers with Polish readers.
Do you often come across books that you feel like translating?
You optimistically assume that I can choose what I translate. I have only managed to do this twice. Such was the case with David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which was recently published by the State Publishing Institute (PIW). Before that, there was a collection of short stories by Bill Gaston, The Good Body, which I translated together with Kaja Gucio. Neither Markson nor Gaston are front-page writers... Let me tell you about Canadian Gaston first.
Unlike Alice Munro with her Nobel Prize or Margaret Atwood with her Booker Prize, Gaston is more of an ‘indie’ writer who more often gets nominated for minor awards than wins them. I came up with the idea of compiling a selection of his short prose, because in this form he is, I believe, most accurate, so I selected a dozen or so stories from his seven volumes and consulted the set with the writer. I can't remember anymore how long it took to find a publisher, maybe a year. I approached several publishing houses, but it was only Marginesy, with whom I had not worked before, that took an interest in Gaston and published The Good Body. Much credit for this goes to Adam Pluszko.
The idea for Markson, on the other hand, is much older; I wanted to translate Wittgenstein's Mistress as soon as I read it. I returned to this intention thanks to the magazine “Wizje”. When an excerpt from the translation appeared there, I managed to get Kamil Piwowarski of the State Publishing Institute interested in it. Previously, five major publishers had declined, albeit cordially... Some even got back to me some time ago, a couple of months before the premiere, asking if this Markson was still an option. Nice!
Markson is said to have had his typescript rejected more than fifty times.
Five versus fifty-five - that's nothing. I tried to convince people that it was a beautiful experiment, a wild first-person narrative full of allusions and covert citations. Some people will be interested in something like this, others immediately know it's not for them.... I, for one, was convinced after just a few pages that it was something completely unique. But now I know that you have to go to the publisher with a sample of the Polish text, a considerable one ideally, instead of sending the original with assurances that the thing is outstanding.
You do like a challenge - the protagonist of Wittgenstein's Mistress is a woman who claims to be the last person on Earth, and in Pop. 1280, the Jim Thompson novel you translated last year, the main character is a psychopathic sheriff pretending to be a simpleton. They are ambiguous, complex characters, and you have captured that brilliantly in the translation. Why did you decide to translate Thompson? He wrote crime fiction, only gained recognition posthumously, and even today he is not particularly popular.
Pop. 1280 was offered to me by the Czarne publishing house. It's a book from half a century ago, which is fine with me. I also don't see a problem with the fact that the guy wrote genre literature, popular literature, as long as it's done well. As you mentioned, Sheriff Nick Corey pretends to be a harmless fool, but we soon find out that he himself is the main player in complex intrigue. I found the language of this book very interesting, which is what attracts me much more in literature than plot, protagonist, theme. I am willing to listen to a skilful stylist even if they talk about toroidal transformers, yet I will pass on a bore, even if they came with the most interesting topic.
In Pop. 1280, I heard echoes of American classics, such as the roguish talk from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although in Thompson's case, we rather have a rogue with a capital 'R'. Sheriff Nick Corey does show us what lies within all those decent Christians from his town, but he himself is not a nice boy like Huck. Nor is he, like Huck, an outcast, but a representative of the local authority who has embedded himself well within it. Thompson draws on the American spoken language, its Southern variety. Much of the grotesque in here could be associated with the more pop-oriented Faulkner - from The Sanctuary, not The Sound and the Fury. And even more so from the now-forgotten novels of Erskine Caldwell, which I read many years ago, translated by Mira Michałowska or Bronisław Zieliński. It's all foundation, of course, because on the surface, we have criminal intrigue.
In Pop. 1280, it's not always clear when it is the narrator who is mocking us and when Thompson is. I like fractured texts because there is nothing more deadly to literature than sanctimonious treatises about how everyone should love and respect each other. But... I felt I was touching something more dangerous than usual. I knew Thompson is blunt and he ridicules, but who and why – I wouldn’t always know. I looked through the reviews later....
...there weren't many of them.
Mostly blogs, bookstagrams, some notes of interest. I was curious to see how the humour in this novel was received. And I often felt that readers stayed at the level of the racist jokes that the narrator exchanges with the sheriff of another town. I don't know if they actually see that Nick is tricking the other guy into revealing himself in all his heinousness. At whom, however, Thompson winks whilst standing over him? And so on...
The western and hard-boiled crime fiction conventions are not as popular with us as they used to be, which is why the translation seems to me to be the star of this novel. When I compared the original with the translation, I noticed that sometimes you go a step further than the author, the text of the translation sounds even more effortless - sometimes even coarser - than the original. Did you sense that the Polish language needed loosening with a book like this, and you're wrecking the language from the inside?
I wouldn't want to translate something where the translation would be the only star, anyway, I think that would simply be arrogant; so, of course, I think Pop. 1280 is first and foremost an efficiently tailored pulp story or perhaps anti-pulp. As far as wrecking the language is concerned, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but indeed, there is a lot of non-standard Polish here. I wanted the translation to be flowing and for the characters' speech to fall somewhere between literary convention and a realistic representation of language. However, Nick's chatter must have been caricatured because he exaggerates his simplicity, it's camouflage - so I hoped that the reader would recognise in this 'chatter' a literary chatter, constructed, stylised as the speech of a simpleton, yet smooth enough to hold the weight of the narrative. I hope readers can sense Nick’s pretence, for example in the scenes of conversations with other - 'decent' - citizens who use completely transparent English. Balancing on that fine line between flowing and stylised language gave me the most fun when I was translating.
Pop. 1280 is also a funny novel and I was very keen to retain that humour in the translation, although Thompson's jokes are often really unsophisticated. Every now and then the author tests the reader - how far can you go? Are you amused by flying bits of poo or by someone falling into a privy? I have tried to make it clear that the narrator is in control of these elements and aware of their effect. To them, we are all just another interlocutor who they manage to trick. But yes, there were also parts in the original that demanded some oiling. I had a lot of fun trying to make some of the jokes come through, while creating a sense of distaste in the reader for their own amusement.
Did you read Twain and Faulkner to get into the mood of Pop. 1280?
I didn't have to return to them because I was always close to them. I discuss ‘Huck's adventures’ every year in my American literature classes. There are very few people I value as much as Faulkner, although I still don't know him as well as I would like to. However, I always try to read a few books by the author I currently translate. I knew very little about Thompson, I associated him more with films: “The Killer Inside Me”, “The Grifters”… I read these novels; I think, though, they are a long way from Pop. 1280.
It is rumoured that the PIW is planning a new edition of some of Faulkner's works.
Yes, a new translation of the stories is planned, in two volumes; PIW published them at the end of the 1960s, translated by Zofia Kierszys, Jan Zakrzewski, and Ewa Życieńska. This time there will be four translators: we are doing the first volume together with Maciej Płaza, the initiator of the idea, and Michał Kłobukowski and Marcin Szuster will be responsible for the second volume. I'm already looking forward to getting my hands on some of the Faulkner classics, little masterpieces like A Rose for Emily, That Evening Sun, Dry September, and Barn Burning, which I often discuss with students. But it's different when it comes to translating things that have been read through: I knew Bill Gaston's short stories quite well and chose them myself, yet the translation went grudgingly. Thompson, for that matter - smoothly, just like Patti Smith's Year of the Monkey, even though I had only read both of them before I started translating. And Faulkner is difficult - there's a reason he's called the American Joyce.... Each story is a span of a vast land, a fraction of Faulkner's great project, the story of generations of aristocrats and paupers from the American South. When translating for instance A Rose for Emily, one has to keep in mind the history of the Sartoris or the Griersons, scattered over a number of novels.
So, it is true, I do like challenging texts, however, it is good to sometimes translate something lighter. I am really afraid of these most difficult books, but I know that they are worth translating and that I will learn a lot from them. Faulkner will be a challenge, perhaps the biggest one yet.
At the end of last year, the Wydawnictwo Poznańskie publishing house announced that you would be the translator of this year's Nobel Prize winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah. He is a post-colonial writer born on the island of Zanzibar, whose characters are mostly associated with East Africa. I'm fascinated by the leap you are taking in working on Gurnah, because his novels are very different from the witty, experimental North American texts you are used to.
The Nobel Prize announcement took everyone by surprise. Including the winner himself, who reportedly scolded the Academy man for mocking him. He only believed it when he saw the announcement of the verdict on TV.... And editors then frantically searched for someone to comment on the verdict. It is a shame, by the way, that specialists in African literature were not invited to comment – at least I did not see any of such views at the time; instead, the full-time experts on literature of all kinds spoke out. It will probably not come as a surprise if I say that I also had little idea about Gurnah. I never thought I would be invited to translate his work. I am not being coy - I have not translated African writers before, with the exception of Chinua Achebe's essay for ‘Literatura na Świecie’ (“World Literature”) magazine.
You're talking about Colonialist Criticism. This is one of the more important essays he wrote.
Yes. But Africa is a new experience for me. When Paulina Surniak from Wydawnictwo Poznańskie called me with a proposal to translate Afterlives, I did not want to make a hasty decision, not least because I already had many plans for this year. I only had time to skim through Gurnah's novels from a translation perspective - they called on Friday, I gave my answer on Monday.
And what difficulties did you have to deal with when translating?
The style of Afterlives is suspiciously clear, as if everything is on the surface. But it isn't. There are a lot of understatements, vague geography and chronology, unfinished storylines. There is also a rich intertextual fabric, not obvious to me and requiring much more work with literary criticism and consultation with specialists. I'm talking about African references, especially to Swahili literature - for example in Paradise, the most famous of his novels, which came close to winning the Booker. Gurnah also frequently refers to Anglo-Saxon contexts, even if they play a negative role, for example Dickens in Dottie, Shakespeare in Gravel Heart.... The novel Paradise used to be read - rightly or wrongly - through the prism of Heart of Darkness. Fortunately, the Wydawnictwo Poznańskie publishing house has provided funding for consultations with specialists, which I very much appreciate. I also, of course, had to educate myself... The books by the Warsaw University Press on Swahili literature and culture, usually edited by Iwona Kraska-Szlenk, as well as Pawel Brudek's history books on German colonial troops in Africa, were very helpful. In fact, I kept in touch with both of them at various stages of the translation work. By the way, in the Companion to African Literatures, Gurnah is merely mentioned, and it's a comprehensive volume, from 2021... One of the more popular anthologies of contemporary African prose, Gods and Soldiers, does not include him at all. My guess is that in future editions, he will already be there!
This absence is perhaps due to the fact that he has had an unusual career - he started in Tanzania, then spent years in Nigeria, and ended up as a lecturer at the University of Kent.
On top of that, his family comes from Yemen.... Yes, the case is intriguing. Some people don't consider him an African writer at all. He himself writes that the Anglo-Saxon view of Africa often overlooks the north and east coasts. For English-speaking readers, says Gurnah, it is primarily South Africa (e.g. from the novels of J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer; now you could probably add Damon Galgut) and Nigeria (Wole Soyinka, for example, and more recently Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) that matters. The area that is generically called Africa is an artificially selected fragment of a much more complex whole. Thinking along these lines, we are less likely to consider places like Zanzibar or Tanzania, with their extraordinary mix of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. I also have the impression that German colonialism is much less present in literature than, say, French or British colonialism.
Does Gurnah often mention these white patches?
Yes, in the context of Afterlives, for example, he openly says that the average reader knows little about Tanganyika, about what happened there between the Abushiri revolt in 1888 and the end of the First World War. Besides, Gurnah's attitude to colonialism is different from that of, for example, Achebe, Soyinka, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, with whom he often enters into dispute, for example in the essay An Idea of the Past. He believes their post-decolonisation optimism was premature.... He accuses them of allegorising and oversimplifying African history in order to construct a coherent and therefore exclusionary narrative about the past. He opposes a homogenised view of African history and the glorification of African nationalisms. He also defends the cultural complexity of these places - complexity in all its richness, and sometimes horror, from before the arrival of European colonisers. He believes that the post-colonial approach, while obviously needed, privileges the moment of colonisation, flattens history, and equates the history of often very disparate areas because they experienced similar violence inflicted by empire.
So, is colonialism just a mere smattering of the continent's rich history?
In Imagining the Postcolonial Writer, Gurnah portrays colonisation as one of the many historical moments that shaped Africa's destiny, alongside with earlier conquests and dependencies - primarily commercial. Alongside uprooting, migration, and refugeeism, trade is one of the most recurrent themes in his writing, because this type of exchange requires meeting the Other, entering into a relationship with them. The Indian Ocean basin is an extremely interesting place in this respect, because of the numerous trade routes that intersected in the vicinity of Zanzibar. Black Africa met Middle East and South Asia there, with African, Arab and Indian identities mixing. It is precisely this complexity that Gurnah contrasts with African nationalisms.
At the same time, it is not about idealising those places that have been colonised - the writer believes that it is also important to remember the earlier local history of enslavement, human trafficking, and violent conflicts. This can be seen, for instance, in the aforementioned novel Paradise, where we can see East Africa at the end of the caravan trade era, before it was curbed by the Germans. Gurnah describes here the journey from Tanganyika inland all the way to Congo. We see everything from the perspective of a young boy who has been put into slavery - literally 'pawned' - for his father's debts. To Muslims arriving from the coast, the peoples living in the interior appear savage, although they themselves practise slavery. The questions keep coming up: who is civilised and who is savage? And who decides this? Colonialism, Gurnah seems to say, existed in Africa before. And yet the harm the Europeans have done is unimaginable, incomparable. Coming to the rescue of this complexity of history is literature. I like Gurnah's words on the role of literature - that it should be about what cannot be easily said.
From what you say, it seems that Gurnah dispels, in many ways, the myths of happy pre-colonial times.
It is hardly surprising that he challenges the monolithic narratives of African nationalists when he himself has fallen victim to them. After the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, his family had to flee the area. He was sixteen years old at the time. A year earlier, Zanzibar had freed itself from the yoke of the British and become a sultanate. The Arab minority, to which the Gurnahs belonged, was the dominant political force there, but, when the sultanate was overthrown and Zanzibar was merged with Tanganyika, Arabs and other inhabitants of the island deemed to be non-African became the target of bloody repression. Gurnah himself, who has a background at a British colonial school and a Koranic school, says he is a Tanzanian with Zanzibar roots, but not everyone is rooting for him there. After the Prize, the relationship between Tanzania and semi-autonomous Zanzibar began to be discussed again, sometimes in a rather heated way. Some fear that people like the Gurnah family will return for what they left there - or, rather, what was looted from them. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? There are also voices claiming that it is the height of cynicism for Tanzania, which expelled the writer from his Zanzibar home, to celebrate his Nobel Prize.
And how is his work perceived in Tanzania?
His books are written in English, and in England, as Gurnah spent thirty years working at the University of Kent. So, until recently, hardly anyone read them in his home country! Before the Nobel, he was a niche author, falling rather into the category of 'Black British Writers', which would also include, for example, writers so different from him, like Zadie Smith or Bernardine Evaristo. By the way, it was expected that the Nobel would rather go to Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who has avoided English for years, creating instead in the Kikuyu language. Those not in favour - especially those who were rooting for Ngũgĩy - might even say that the award for Gurnah is another accolade for English-language writers.... There are interjections from Swahili, Arabic, or other languages in his narratives, but he generally writes in clear and natural English. His books could fall into the category Rebecca Walkowitz describes as born translated. These are texts written with the idea that they will be translated into many languages, 'born' as cross-national, global literature.
You say you have not dealt with Africa before. Is there any other non-English-speaking area of the world whose literature you enjoy?
I have been fascinated by different regions. I think everyone - everyone my age, anyway! - were captivated by South and Central America. I remember reading Gabriel García Márquez's novels one after the other, all the way. Cortázar or Vargas Llosa too, although not from cover to cover. The last such discovery was, much later, Roberto Bolaño. From time to time, I am in the mood for Austrian literature, I used to be very interested in Bernhard. Perhaps because Bernhard, like not many others, was lucky with translators? The translations by Monika Muskała, Marek Kędzierski, Sława Lisiecka, and Jacek Buras are sensational. I myself started with a book that is considered one of the least accessible, Correction - it just so happened. I was delighted with it, and then I read in Kedzierski's afterword that, if I remember correctly, Correction is the hell you have to go through to access the heaven that is Extinction. I couldn't break away from Correction, perhaps because it reminded me of the American metafiction writers I was obsessed with for many years: the prose of John Barth, William H. Gass, or David Markson.
So Latin America and Austria?
Perhaps more broadly, German-language literature. I like to return to Kafka... If I have time at all. It's sad, but lately I've been spending whole weeks - even months - completely filled with translation assignments and their adjoining texts (other books by the author, critical-literary texts), classes, and master's theses, so reading for pleasure is out of the question. That's why when I go on holiday, I usually don't take English-language books, only Polish literature and translations from other languages. The key to selection is often the translators! Not necessarily those I am familiar with. One of my recent discoveries is Karolina Wilamowska, who translates from Hungarian: I was struck by her work in György Konrád's The Case Worker. I am not surprised that she was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Award.
As well as translating, do you also write your own texts?
For many years, I made my own literary attempts. Now I'm going to try to strategise in such a way that it doesn't look like the translator is the one who always wanted to write but can't.... I often consciously imitated someone else's voice, or it soon became apparent that I had done so anyway. Fortunately, I had good and sincere friends who were not afraid to tell me what they thought. I would give them my texts and they would say it was 'watery Kafka' or 'underweight Kerouac'. It hurt, but today I am grateful to them. In fact, I have always felt that I was best at ventriloquism. I knew what the text I wanted to write should sound like, I had a particular style or voice in mind - the style and voice of the author I happened to be reading, of course. Only what is there to write about? After a couple of pages, it all seemed ripped-off, derivative to me. Not surprisingly, I then drowned for many years in Barth’s Literature of Exhaustion. I think people often carry a story they would like to tell, but they are looking for the right form. In my case it was the other way around - I could perhaps choose the form, I just didn't know if I had any story worth telling. Occasionally, I'll start something, shape half a page, then delete it. If I keep a file, after a few months I am horrified by what I find in it. And then I delete it! Translation and writing have a lot in common, but they are different skills. It should not at all be assumed that if you get one thing right, you will get the other too. There's already too much literature being published, so I think there needs to be a good reason to add to it. My wife, Paulina, even came up with a literary award for those who could write - for example, because they are already active in the market in another role - and yet do not do so. It would be called the Silentius Award. I am running for it.
I think we are all familiar with that feeling of dread that occurs when we revisit our old texts. Sometimes, it effectively discourages further attempts at writing.
For me, articles, critical texts, paracritical texts are enough now. I'm unlikely to start writing prose, but I am inspired by books of essays written by translators, for example - although it's a different form - Maciej Świerkocki's Łódź Ulissesa (“Ulysses’s Boat”). This direction seems possible to me, this kind of relaxed writing around an existing text - stemming from very deep reading and knowledge, and yet accessible. I happened to write so much that, if someone hadn't stopped me, I would have come out with a booklet instead of an afterword. Such was the case with Wittgenstein's Mistress. My afterword, a sizeable one anyway, is half of what I wrote, a quarter of what I wanted to write.
...and you also write reviews of English-language books, and you translate letters, essays, novels, short stories, and academic articles.
It is the outcome of orders. I used to translate more essays and articles, because in the “World Literature” magazine, where I was gaining my skills, it was what we started with. Today, too, of course, when they ask for something to be translated for ‘World Literature’, I don't say no. However, my element is prose. I don't even get into translation of poetry unless I really have to. I breathe prose, poetry is like diving underwater, I can look around, it fascinates me, but it's not my world. One could, of course, engage in debate about what prose really is, but - I know it when I see it. I was recently asked to translate a couple of poetic passages, and to my reluctance, the answer was that it was 'actually prose'. Yeah, right!
You mentioned somewhere that your first assignments were translations into English. Was this fiction or non-literary texts?
I was very fortunate that towards the end of my English studies I was given academic texts to translate, mainly related to the history of art and film studies. I learned a lot because they were written with flair and sometimes wit. But I wouldn't want to look into those translations today, they were written twenty years ago.
After that, there was a leap into fiction?
When it comes to translating literature into English, I gained some courage during a three-week residency in Banff, Canada, in 2015. While there, I met translators from North America, from various European countries, and even from Palestine and China. At the time, I was translating the works of Rawi Hage and Madeleine Thien into Polish for the Canadian issue of ‘World Literature’. They were both in Banff with me because the programme allowed for translated authors to be invited. Banff, by the way, was not far from them, and no one really needs to be persuaded to stay in this beautiful place in the Rocky Mountains. I guess it wasn't until there, when I had already translated two eight-hundred-page volumes of Ginsberg's correspondence, sitting at a table with two of ''my'' authors, that I really felt like a translator of literature, and the thought followed that maybe I could try to do it the other way too. I took a lungful of air (literally! For the first night you can't sleep from this high altitude air in Banff, after that it's great) and I started telling my fellow translators that my dream is to translate Andrzej Stasiuk into English.
Why specifically Stasiuk?
Stasiuk has undone the bad spell cast on me by my high school Polish teacher. She really did a lot to make me never want to read anything again, and I certainly had no desire to read Polish-language literature. At that time, apart from Gombrowicz, Schulz, Witkacy, whom I discovered myself, Polish literature did not exist for me. It wasn't until the late nineties, when I was at university - not studying English philology yet - that a friend suggested Mury Hebronu (“The Walls of Hebron”) to me and it turned out that I had no idea what was up in our country. Other names followed: Tulli, Gretkowska, Świetlicki, Myśliwski with the just-won Nike Awardx for Widnokrąg (“The Horizon”), Tokarczuk with the Readers' Prize for Prawiek (“Primeval and Other Times”)... But it was Stasiuk who turned the key for me. I will never forget the revelation that was The Walls of Hebron. For years, I read him faithfully as soon as he released something new, although I still like those early books best, with Dukla at the forefront. I translated a couple of his miniatures from the 'animal' collection Kucając (“Squatting Down”) for the British Comparative Literature Association's annual competition, and in another competition, I submitted an excerpt from Andrew Muszynski's Podkrzywdzie (“Harm’s Den”).
Are you translating anything into English now?
No, but I have an idea for Maciej Płaza. I was thinking of the excerpts from Skoruń (“Scallywag”), but someone has already beaten me to it. So, I'm wondering about the first chapter of Golem. A wonderful novel. A story of a 19th century shtetl, written in 2020? I don't quite know how this could have worked. And yet... So, if I enter the BCLT competition again, it will probably be with an excerpt from Golem.
You talk a lot about how your relations with other translators and writers make your work more enjoyable. I learned some time ago that Hervé Le Tellier, the author of The Anomaly, after receiving the Prix Goncourt, prepared the text of the novel in Google Docs, adding explanations for future translators of the book. He highlighted difficult or repetitive phrases and invited different translators from various languages to edit the file, who added their own comments.
An excellent idea... Translation is always, in many ways, the result of collaboration between different people. I believe in sharing experiences; I am inspired, for example, by working with good editors, and I am lucky enough to have such. I would also be delighted to add myself to a group of translators like that of Le Tellier. I do not know anything about Gurnah doing anything similar - although, after all, many translators in different countries have simultaneously sat down to translate his latest novel....
Have you been in contact with other translators of the books you have worked on?
Although I have not written to Sissi Tax, the translator of Wittgenstein's Mistress into German, I have looked at her translation many times. In translating Melville's micro novel Benito Cereno, I drew on Spanish and German translations and, most importantly, on an existing translation into Polish done forty years earlier by Krystyna Korwin-Mikke. I even wrote an article for the ‘Przekładaniec’ journal about this last experience, because of all my translation adventures, this one gave me the most food for thought - about how much we owe to our predecessors and how to make peace with their difficult presence in our own translation. But this is clearly not an exchange of the kind made possible for translators by the author of The Anomaly, as I had to reconstruct the choices of others based on the finished text. To be able to watch what doubts they had in the course of their work - that would be priceless. It is a shame, by the way, that the document created by Le Tellier will not be available to a wider audience.
Probably not, but we do know that there are, for example, warnings inside about bits of dialogue that recur several times in slightly altered form, while also being a reference to a film from the 1980s. In Markson's, too, there are plenty of hidden references, repetitions, and loops - have you discussed these with the book's editor?
Fortunately, the thing about Wittgenstein's Mistress is that sooner or later most of the references to other texts or works of art become clear. You have to patiently endure a hundred pages of confusion, when the narrator wrongly attributes the authorship of a painting to someone or claims to have read a sentence by Pascal, a few dozen pages further on she states that it must have been Kierkegaard, and somewhere near the end, we find out that it was Nietzsche after all. Today, it is fairly easy to check the sources of references, but Markson wrote this novel a few years before the development of the internet, in the mid-1980s, and did not anticipate a reader who patiently Googles everything for themselves. The Mistress is a deceptive book, but it works like a broken or rebellious machine - something I tried to convince the editor of. There is no randomness, no chaos, no flare-up; instead, there are mixed-up algorithms, erroneous protocols, which nevertheless execute themselves with mad precision. There is method in this madness.
The book's protagonist, Kate, travels the world and often sleeps in galleries or museums. She is clearly drawn to the visual arts. I don't know if you happen to identify with the characters in the books you translate, but I'm curious, would you choose the same 'lodging' as her? Or rather libraries or other places related to literature?
What an amazing question! Kate knows a lot about the visual arts, as she used to be a painter herself. The novel often refers to the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Middle Ages. I myself feel much more at ease in twentieth-century movements, in Cubism, Futurism, or Surrealism, many of these paintings would immediately come to my mind. And when it comes to Pinturicchio or Piero di Cosimo, I had to have a close look at them. Kate recalls these images from memory - a mediated ekphrasis. In the afterword, I wrote that Markson was fascinated by Florence, its art and history. It was one of his favourite places, although, unless I'm mistaken, he only visited it once - notably during the 1966 flood, which is mentioned a few times in the novel. Markson, however, was first and foremost a remarkable erudite, known for having a whole library in his head.
There is also a whole library in The Mistress, although without a catalogue.
Yes, Kate is human precisely because she doesn't know anything for sure. She doesn't know what her name is, how old she is, who wrote which book, who painted the picture she has just been reminded of, or whether she accidentally made it up. Nor even whether she is actually alone in the world. Whatever she knows about Nietzsche, she most likely read on the back cover of a record of Richard Strauss' Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and all her knowledge of Brahms may have come from a child's music textbook. Rather than showing off his erudition, as is his habit, Markson allows the protagonist of The Mistress to constantly err. Such a narrative, made up of strategic confusion, is a huge editorial challenge, hence the many hours of conversations we had with the novel's editor, Bogumiła Szachnowska.
You asked whether I identify with the characters - it depends, with Sheriff Nick Corey of Pop. 1280 not so much, but Kate is one of my favourite literary characters. And back to the initial question: it's hard for me to imagine what I would do after such a mess as happened to Kate, but I guess my place at the end of the world would indeed be libraries.
I'm very glad you mention the book's editor - we all know that editors are too rarely mentioned. We don't know their names unless we are part of the literary community. When you work in culture, it is also good to have someone close to you who can read critically, a spouse or friends. Do I understand correctly that you used to operate more in ‘lone ranger’ mode, and only co-opted conversation partners over time?
Yes, the openness to collaboration and consultation emerged in me as my translation confidence grew. This is perhaps a paradox, because after all, you show someone your work to help you improve it, and I started showing mine when I felt I was somehow doing well. I had to grow into it. But I don't think it's that bad any more, because when Kamil Piwowarski asked if he could send you the then-unfinished text of The Mistress, I replied without hesitation, sure! I wouldn't have done that in the past.
As you said when speaking of Le Tellier - there are few things more interesting than a literary text before the final touches, with comments by the author or translator in the margins. I'm glad I got the file from Kamil!
Exactly, you yourself asked to see the text before typesetting. But if I were sending someone a translation to consult, I wouldn't want that person to have to solve problems that I can handle myself. It is rather a matter of pointing out what I am not able to see. The first reader of almost every translation I do is Paulina. As an Americanist and literary scholar, she can be delighted but also strongly critical. Including the things I translate! Maybe I won't say which ones...
Communication with the editor of a book is half the battle.
I never doubted that editors were my allies. I have had an exceptionally good experience in this area. I owe much to Tomasz Zając, editor of my first three translations. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to work - more or less in that order - with Ewa Kaniowska, Maryna Wirchanowska, Magda Budzińska, Adam Pluszka, Ryszard Krzeska, Bogumiła Szachnowska, Małgorzata Poździk, Miłosz Biedrzycki.... With Dispatches, and I always say this, a great deal was done by Marcin Wróbel / Marceli Szpak, who is himself a translator; he was also a great consultant on Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue. Over time, I learned to consult my friends when I had doubts. Chabon was peer-reviewed by Łukasz Najder, the translation of Benito Cereno was thoroughly read by Adam Lipszyc, one of the editors of the entire volume of Melville's novellas and short stories, and Maciej Płaza, who feels much more confident in maritime literature and 19th century Polish than I do, and also knows a lot about ships and boats. There are things you can't figure out with a pictorial dictionary, and I have problems with my balance, I've never been on a sailing ship in my life, I wouldn't even get on a merry-go-round. What can I know about maritime shipping? So, whenever I can, I ask, I talk.
You've said that you take real pleasure in reading on trips, during holidays. What were the readings this year?
I set my sights on a not-so-distant Europe. I discovered Małgorzata Gralińska's talent on the occasion of Winterberg's Last Journey, a novel that Jaroslav Rudiš wrote in German. In fact, Małgorzata and I had agreed that one would read a book translated by the other, so there was Markson in return... It worked out nicely, I think these types of tandems should become more frequent. I was also amused by Juhani Karila's Fishing for the Little Pike, which was translated from Finnish with a bang by Sebastian Musielak. I have already talked about Konrád's The Case Worker translated by Karolina Wilamowska... We usually take a few Gdynia Award nominations on holiday. A year ago, I read Pomarli (“The Dead”) by Waldemar Bawołek and the excellent Bestiariusz nowohucki (“The Nowa Huta Bestiary”) by Elżbieta Łapczyńska. I look forward to reading her next book.
Don't you read in the evenings or between projects?
To be honest, when I read in the evening and I'm tired, I feel half the text escapes me, so I take something that requires less attention. I've wasted a couple of things that way, five pages here, five pages there... I can barely remember them.
I won't miss the opportunity to talk about Canada, as I myself spent ten years of my life in Toronto. Having said that, I know little about literary Canada, I was raised with the sense that it was heavily shaped by British and American influences. However, a new way of thinking about it has emerged in recent decades.
Anglophone Canada, as it is the one we are talking about here (I wouldn't dare speak of francophone traditions), has long fought to exist alongside the two great literatures you mention, and has been building its own subjectivity since the 1950s. A kind of literary nationalism has been developed there: the storylines will be set in Canada, they will deal with Canadian issues, refer to Canadian culture, and so on. A bit like the content regulation of radio and television programmes, the so-called Canadian Content Laws. Part of this shift in thinking about Canadian literature was - in the 1960s and 1970s - the careers of Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, well known to us. In the 1990s, minorities began to come to the fore. It has turned out that focusing the literary market on a single, somewhat artificially created, Wasp-ish identity is a pipe dream, and that Canadian literature not only can, but must be mosaic, multi-ethnic, just like its society. Writers with complex identities emerged who could not be reduced to some single idea of Canadianness. A good example of this is the Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) writer and poet Michael Ondaatje, known here mainly for The English Patient, and in Canada also renowned for his earlier novel In the Skin of a Lion (both translated into Polish by Wacław Sadkowski). Today's English-language Canadian literature tends to follow this trajectory: it is ethnically and culturally diverse, oriented towards dispersed identities.
What about the foreign reception of this literature?
Recognition of Canadian writers outside their own country is another story. Atwood's books sell in the States, but how many readers know that The Handmaid's Tale was written by a Canadian? The novel is set almost exclusively in the USA, with Canada playing a role in the novel as it did during the Vietnam War, that is, as a refuge from oppressive law. Some writers, moreover, are accused of deliberately blurring geographical factuality in order to piggyback on Americanness or globalism. For example, Patrick deWitt, whom I have translated, has been accused that the setting of his novels is either the Wild West, as in The Sisters Brothers, or some semi-mythical Mitteleuropa, as in Undermajordomo Minor, or New York and Paris, as in French Exit - in a word: everything but Canada. If Canadians can still get emotional about the fact that certain writers are not sufficiently 'theirs' because the story is set outside Canada, and give vent to this in reviews, it shows that those anxieties about identity that were at the heart of national literature in the 1950s have still not died out.... By contrast, Rawi Hage refers to himself today as a 'post-Canadian' writer and has no intention of being bothered by whether his works sufficiently subscribe to any national idea. Two of his four novels are set in Beirut, the action of the third unfolds in the fictional Carnival City, an amalgam of various American and Canadian metropolises. In the novel Cockroach, on the other hand, Montreal is depicted in such a way that it is unrecognisable to the inhabitants of this city.
Speaking of reception - I am very happy to see that the Czarne publishing house recently published an interesting novel by Canadian Miriam Toews, Women Talking. It was translated by my friend from university, Kaja Gucio, whom I greatly value as a translator. Three books by Anne Carson have also come out in recent years. So, there are reasons to rejoice! But yes, arguably for many readers Anglo-Saxon Canada is Atwood, who outshines even a Nobel laureate Munro.
I think, in this respect, Atwood could be compared to Tokarczuk - abroad, the two writers create a certain vacuum around them, with booksellers including Tokarczuk's two novels in their offerings and filling an entire shelf labelled 'Polish Literature' with them. Sometimes Herbert or Zagajewski will appear next to Tokarczuk.
A million dollars to whoever saw a shelf labelled “Canadian literature” in a Polish bookshop. As for Atwood, there might be some truth to that… She was harshly portrayed by Mark A. Jarman in the short story Guided by Voices, which Jolanta Kozak and I translated for the Canadian issue of ‘World Literature’. The motto is the words of Montreal poet and comedian, David McGimpsey, “Once, the snow was so deep you almost couldn't hear Margaret Atwood”. Jarman expanded on this joke, “I hop the Westjet and Margaret Atwood is the stewardess, Margaret Atwood pointing out the four emergency exits, Margaret Atwood asserting that no one has ever really seen those plastic oxygen masks”, and further, “I sneak out with Don to run with a stick on the rink in the sports hall. Margaret Atwood umpires: the striped jacket, even the hair tied up in a messy ponytail”. This is probably not only a reaction to the popularity of Atwood's or Tokarczuk's books, but also their tendency to speak out on all sorts of topics, to play the role of public intellectual. And probably most of this is the independent writer's resentment towards someone who gets almost all the attention.
Which means Atwood's popularity does not translate into popularity of Canadian literature.
No. Although Canadian literature is not scarcely published in our country, it is probably not seen collectively through this prism. Let's see how it goes with Miriam Toews and whether the fact that the novel is about a closed Mennonite community turns out to be more important.
How about young Canadian literature?
I have been reviewing prose for the “Canadian Literature” magazine for the past eight years, and I usually choose books from smaller, independent publishers, by young authors, often not known at all or little known, most likely those who can afford to experiment. I have been most impressed in recent years by Elise Levine, author of the short story collection This Wicked Tongue, among other things. I also enjoyed the quirky, gothic prose of Camilla Grudova in The Doll's Alphabet. I was even thinking of translating any of the stories from Grudova's collection, because when I come across something interesting, I usually want to share it....
Which means we are back to where we started - to the translations that stem from a reader's delight.
And why not? Justyna Czechowska, a translator from Swedish and former president of the Polish Literary Translators Association, once said that her desire to translate literature came from the fact that, living at the crossroads of two cultures, she wanted to share what she read in Swedish with her Polish friends. This approach is very close to my heart.
Interviewer: Joanna Piechura
Translated by Justyna Lowe