Madeline G. Levine: Bruno Schulz swept me away

Interview with Madeline G. Levine, winner of 2019 Found in Translation Award, given by The Polish Book Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute in London, and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.

How did your interest with Polish literature start?

I wish I could reply that I had already become acquainted with Polish literature through my own reading before beginning formal study of both Polish literature and language. But that would not be true. I think it likely that I had already read Zniewolony umysł and perhaps seen the film adaptations of Popiół i diament and Ósmy dzień tygodnia before taking my first Polish-language class, but I have no recollection of thinking of those works as representative of Polish literature, nor did I yet know the reputations, let alone the work, of Miłosz, Andrzejewski, and Hłasko. In fact, I came to Polish literature almost accidentally, via Russian literature, as I began studying toward a doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literatures with Russian studies at its core.

One of the requirements for that degree at Harvard University was to develop a minimal degree of competence in a second Slavic language and its literature. Not knowing anything about the “minor” Slavic literatures, I elected to study Polish because of the professor’s reputation as a learned scholar and a generous, kindly teacher. Clearly, that wasn’t the most mature reason for choosing a minor field, but it turned out to be perhaps the best decision I made as a graduate student and certainly the most consequential.

Professor Wiktor Weintraub opened up the world of Polish literature in his introductory lecture courses, for which, of necessity, because most if not all of us students could not yet read Polish, assigned readings had to be available in English translation. I remember approaching Professor Weintraub in the second year of studying with him to ask if there were any pre-modern works from which I could read at least a sample, just to get a taste of the writings he lectured about since none were yet available in English translation. Surprised by my serious interest, Weintraub suggested that I meet him at his office in a week to discuss what I understood of the first ten to fifteen pages of Żywot człowieka poczciwego by Mikołaj Rej. But I misunderstood the assignment. I had been so focused on catching the name of the author and the title of the work he’d mentioned that I didn’t register the number of pages I was supposed to read. And so, all I did for the following week, surrounded by dictionaries and keeping sleep to a minimum, was to make my way through the entirety of Rej’s difficult text. Thus, I started down the road of reading “real” Polish by struggling with the literary language of the sixteenth century. Thanks to that absurd misunderstanding, I gained Professor Weintraub’s respect—after he recovered from a fit of laughter at what I had done. Eventually, after 3 or 4 years of his generously offering me a range of independent study opportunities to deepen my knowledge of Polish literature while I continued on track toward my Russian-centered degree, Professor Weintraub invited me to write my doctoral dissertation under his direction. With his encouragement, I chose to write a close analysis of Julian Tuwim’s lengthy digressive-narrative poem, Kwiaty polskie, immersing myself in its Romantic antecedents, Pushkinian echoes, the author’s poetry of the preceding decades, and the literary and cultural trends of the interwar period.

Wiktor Weintraub, who sparked my interest in Polish literature, was my teacher and mentor, and for many years afterward, until his death in 1988, a beloved friend. I owe my long career as a professor of both Russian and Polish literature to his initial support, and also my success as a translator. Although to the best of my knowledge he had never tried his hand at literary translation, it was he who sent me a copy of Białoszewski’s Pamiętnik z powstania warszawskiego, challenging me to attempt a translation of that revolutionary text, but without a warning that it might be a near-impossible task. I suspect that had I known at the outset how difficult it would be, I would not have accepted the challenge. A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising appeared in 1977, the first of the more than a dozen book-length literary translations I would go on to publish, including my updated revised translation of Pamiętnik almost forty years later.

How did your adventure with Schulz start?

At some point in the mid-1960s I read Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Sklepy cynamonowe and was swept away by the vividness of Schulz’s imagination. I did not, however, attempt to read Schulz in Polish; at least, I don’t recall doing so at the time. By the mid-1970s, when I began offering an introductory course on twentieth-century Polish literature to students at the University of North Carolina, I included Street of Crocodiles (the title under which Sklepy cynamonowe appeared in the United States) as required reading. Had I already invested the time required to compare Wieniewska’s translation with the original? Probably not. None of my students could read Polish and I was a harried young professor, with Russian literature as my assigned teaching focus, while preparing to write my first scholarly book, Contemporary Polish Poetry: 1925-1975 (New York, 1981). Besides which, Wieniewska’s translation worked its magic on my students and there seemed no urgent need to question it. The best students fell in love with Schulz through her translation just as I had done a decade earlier. I concur with Zofia Ziemann’s apt description: “When I get asked whether Wieniewska’s is a ‘good translation,’ my answer is no; not by present-day standards of literary translation. It is still, however, a very good book” (“The Good Bad Translator: Celina Wieniewska and Her Bruno Schulz,”

Until I retired from teaching in 2010, I continued to teach Schulz through Wieniewska’s English version, although by then I had long since come up with my private bill of particulars against her rendition of Schulz’s distinctive voice. I insisted that graduate students get at least an inkling of what Schulz’s Polish was like by comparing a few assigned passages from Sklepy cynamonowe with Wieniewska’s rendering in Street of Crocodiles. I still assumed, however, that given the translation’s staying power, which was due in large measure to Philip Roth’s inclusion of Schulz in his “Other Europe” series, there was no hope of a new translation ever being published. When Grzegorz Gauden, the then Director of Instytut Ksiązki, announced the innovative, long-overdue program in support of multiple new translations of Schulz to be made directly from the Polish rather than indirectly on the basis of Wieniewska’s translation (the “original” text that underlay I don’t know how many translations of “Schulz” into other languages), I was overjoyed—and terrified—to be asked to come up with a new English voicing of Schulz. I suppose that without realizing it, I had been practicing for this extraordinary opportunity for decades. The result, as you know, has been met with acclaim, but I don’t for a moment believe that my performance of Schulz’s style is the only authentic way to convey in English the complex beauty of his prose.

What was the hardest in translating Schulz? Is there any idiom in English that resembles Schulz’s style, something that would be close to it?

Unfortunately, a simple listing of the “difficulties” the translator confronts in rendering Schulz’s prose in English might suggest that the author was wonderfully imaginative, with a marvelous gift for vivid, visual description, and a stunning sense of absurdity, but not yet a master of his verbal craft. This is nonsense, of course, and I’ll address that in a moment. Translators creating a voice for Schulz in languages other than English undoubtedly have their own lists of aspects of his stylistic signature that are most challenging for them. Put simply, for me the first difficulty was my own language. Why?

Lacking such clear linguistic signposts as number, gender and case in our nouns and adjectives, English does not easily accommodate the sinuosity of Schulz’s longer sentences. It would have been simpler to convey the content of those sentences by breaking them down into more manageable, less complex structures, but that would have been a betrayal of Schulz’s voice. What I wanted to achieve in the translation was to convey within my own convoluted sentences, by stretching the limits of what is stylistically “acceptable” in English, a reflection of the distinctive mannerisms or linguistic “tics” (as I came to think of them) that are characteristic features of Schulz’s style. Chief among these is repetition—repetition of individual words and of roots shared by related words. As frequently as I thought it possible, violating every rule of “good” English writing, I used the same word or root as often as Schulz did, although because of that aforementioned lack of distinctive endings in English, I could not manage to mimic the slight differences among these words in the Polish that lend visual or aural variety to what in English looks and sounds more monotonous.

A subset of challenges within the category of repetition was both more difficult to deal with and more fun to resolve creatively. Schulz enjoyed coming up with alliterative word combinations. I like to think he derived pleasure from this verbal game. My job was to arrive at suitable equivalents. I am sure that critics and future translators will arrive at their own solutions, and that will be all to the good. Another subset of repetition presented a different difficulty: Schulz’s use of the prefix roz-, which is one of the keys to the world views explored in both Sklepy cynamonowe and Sanatorium pod klepsydrą. I searched for and deployed as many words with the comparable English prefix dis- as I could come up with to reflect through that single repeated prefix, as the Polish does so effectively with roz-, the centrifugal, disintegrative forces at work in so many of the stories. It wasn’t easy, and in the end I remain aware that I didn’t fully meet that challenge.

As for the second part of your question, I don’t think I can answer it. Perhaps this will seem strange to your readers, but I am no longer as at home in English literature as I am in Polish and Russian. Indeed, the first works that came to mind as I read your query were Russian— Gogol’s early short stories and Isaac Babel’s tales. Both authors have appeared in some excellent English translations, but I certainly didn’t have their English voices in mind, just their own Russian volubility. This is a round-about way of saying that I really cannot come up with a suitable answer to your excellent question.

You translated Schulz, but also other very demanding writers such as Miron Białoszewski or Bohdan Wojdowski. Which one them was the biggest challenge for you, and why?

Perhaps surprisingly, Chleb rzucony umarłym was not particularly difficult to translate. (One reviewer, though, criticized me for taking the liberty of rendering the title as Bread for the Departed; he would have preferred something more literal, perhaps the awkwardly rhyming “Bread Thrown to the Dead”.) There were important decisions to make about Wojdowski’s use of German, Yiddish-inflected Polish, the occasional Hebrew word, but if I remember my process accurately, it was the emotional power of his story rather than the difficulty of his prose that presented the greatest challenge in living closely with the text for two years. I do not mean to suggest that Wojdowski’s prose is simple. The novel is brilliantly constructed, and the “choral” aspect of some of its most moving passages is magnificently resonant; it’s just not problematic for a translator, or at least it wasn’t for me. More difficult to deal with was the author’s impatience and his disappointment that I was unable to find a major publisher to take on the book. I was told bluntly by a representative of a distinguished New York press that they were “Holocausted out”! Wojdowski suggested  in his frustration that if only I would read Joyce and make his prose sound like that, the translation might be snatched up. Later, he diagnosed the problem as connected with my use of a computer rather than letting my words flow from my heart, through my right arm, and onto the page in ink. Bread for the Departed eventually found its publishing home in the Jewish Lives Series of Northwestern University Press.

As I mentioned above in my answer to your first question, I was too inexperienced as a translator when I undertook the translation of Białoszewski’s Pamiętnik in the 1970s and did not fully appreciate how difficult it was. I remembering thinking when I returned to my translation for a second go at it almost forty years later, that it was actually fortunate that I hadn’t been acutely sensitive at the time to its linguistic complexity. I suspect that as a beginning translator I might have been tempted to over-indulge in colloquialisms and slang, and that would not have been at all successful.

Main part of you translation oeuvre are books of Czesław Miłosz. What is the most appealing in his works from translator’s and American readers’ point of view?

I was already acquainted with Miłosz and treated by him with collegial kindness for quite a few years before he asked me to serve as his prose translator. It may have been Carol Thigpen (not yet his wife), who, after reading my translation of Skrawek czasu by Ida Fink, urged Miłosz to convince me to translate the collection of essays that we eventually published under the title Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections (1991). When he called to sound me out about the project, he revealed that he wasn’t yet certain that he wanted to go ahead with it since an anonymous reviewer who read his proposal for his publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) had found fault with it on several counts. I confessed that I was that reader, Miłosz expressed gratitude for my honesty, and we agreed on the spot that if I would promise to always speak my mind, which I did, I would be his translator for that project. And I remained his prose translator until the end.

Miłosz took to calling me his “American reader,” an appellation that we both knew was ridiculous. I had then and still have no idea how “ordinary” American readers reacted to his essays, what they valued in them, what they found unfathomable, perhaps boring, or too esoteric, or, as he feared, “too Polish”. So I can only tell you what I found most appealing and most interesting among Miłosz’s immense oeuvre. Above all, I loved his poetry. What appealed to me in the writings that I translated were their display of his passionate engagement with the political and intellectual currents of his time, his ability to make the past come alive in its complexity, its pain and its beauty. I have heard from others, from lay readers, as it were, that they are charmed by the brief entries in Miłosz’s ABC’s, appreciate his meditations on religious faith, and also enjoy re-reading A Year of the Hunter for its glimpses into the author’s life and his take on American culture. I do not know if Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943, which appeared in English a year after Miłosz died, had much appeal to American readers. (Translators, if they don’t receive royalties for their work, are not informed about book sales.) I suspect that it didn’t sell well, but I consider it an important book, a resource for anyone trying to understand what it was like to live during what seemed to be the end time of democracy.

Do you have any translational dreams?

Sitting in my drawer is a draft translation of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Cham which I put aside years ago, unhappy with my attempts at rendering nineteenth-century peasant dialect. But time is passing and I don’t like to admit defeat, so back to Cham I will go this year, with determination and some fresh ideas, to find a solution. And after that? I am open to suggestions...