English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose translation of the biography Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life received an award in 2012
Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life
by Artur Domosławski. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I am seven years old, I am standing in a meadow (when the war began we were in the countryside in eastern Poland), and I am staring at some dots moving ever so slightly in the sky. Suddenly nearby, at the edge of the forest, there is a terrible boom, and I can hear bombs exploding with a hellish bang (only later will I discover that they are bombs, because at the moment I still don’t know such a thing as a bomb exists – the very idea is alien to me, a child from a remote province, who isn’t familiar with the radio or the cinema, doesn’t know how to reada or write, and has never heard that wars or deadly weapons exist), and I see gigantic fountains of earth flying into the air.
Interview by Polly Roberts
Did you have any reservations about translating a book that exposed truths about such a celebrated and admired historical figure for journalism?
Yes. I followed the debate about the book in the Polish press and was aware that it had upset some of Kapuściński’s friends and relatives. However, I felt it to be a carefully researched book whose author had tried to analyse some difficult truths about Kapuściński in a balanced way. I also felt that an English-language audience would not have the same reaction to it as a Polish readership. In Poland, Kapuściński is rightly regarded as a great man, but Polish admiration for national heroes tends not to be very critical. Analytical biographies that examine every aspect of how a famous person worked and lived are perhaps more familiar to readers in some other countries.
Before agreeing to translate the book I discussed it with a number of people who had read it, and whose opinions I value, and these conversations confirmed my view that it was an important book worth translating. I did advise the author and the publisher that for my own part I would prefer the chapters about Kapuściński’s personal life to be excluded, as I don’t think they add anything relevant, but ultimately it wasn’t up to me.
Once the book was published, it was interesting to find that British and US audiences were most concerned about the question of why Kapuściński did not always stick to the literal, factual truth in his writing, and what a journalist’s responsibilities should be. Most of the critics understood that the book’s analysis of his secret police file shows that he did no harm whatsoever with the limited information he passed on to Polish intelligence. The English-language reviewers were not particularly concerned about Kapuściński’s private life.
Did you have any personal understanding of Ryszard Kapuściński before being handed the text to translate?
I had met Kapuściński, but only twice briefly, and did not know him at all. I did know his books, and have always been a great admirer of them. Years ago, they were one of the reasons why I wanted to study Polish. When I first read the biography it prompted me to re-read Kapuściński’s work. I’m pleased to see that in many of the bookshops where the book is on sale, it is displayed alongside Kapuściński’s books, so I hope it has inspired a revival of interest in his writing. I had previously translated one of Kapuściński’s books, a set of lectures entitled The Other, and had enjoyed the challenge of translating his style, which is very precisely worded, producing a unique voice. The biography includes many quotations from his work. Where these were from existing published translations, I quoted those publications and acknowledged them in the notes, but many were from foreign correspondence that has never been published in English, and it was a great pleasure to translate those pieces of text.
The book draws attention to the possible myth-making of one of Poland’s most celebrated journalists. Do you feel as a translator you were adding yet another layer of story, in the same way that Ryszard himself felt he was ‘capturing the essence more than the story’?
I felt the difference between translating Artur Domosławski’s text and the quotations from Kapuściński himself. Domosławski’s writing is straightforward, and I think deliberately unadorned with literary devices, because he is aiming to be factual and unambiguous. Kapuściński’s news reports are not as literary in style as his books, but I still found myself taking care to render his words as accurately as possible – to give him the same voice in English as in Polish.
How much of translation do you feel is ‘capturing the essence’?
It depends what you’re translating. Non-fiction is usually (but not always) more straightforward than fiction, but the translator’s task is conditioned by the writer. My own approach to translation is to try to be as true to the author as possible – it is his or her text, not mine – while also being as true as I can to the reader. This involves understanding not just the meaning of the Polish, but how the authors relate to their own language, how they use it to express themselves, and then thinking how to achieve the same meaning and the same effect in English, so the reader will know exactly what the Polish writer wanted to say, and through what literary effect. So I think a successful prose translation does far more than ‘capture the essence’. I don’t translate much poetry, but inevitably it is harder (if not impossible) to retain the author’s full intentions in a genre so heavily dependent on specific words, how they sound and how they combine.
When you translate Polish do you find there is something culturally ‘Polish’ about what you are reading? How do you attempt to maintain this in English?
Polish fiction is particularly self-referential. Many contemporary Polish novels are set in Poland, and involve Polish experience. This is a country where until 1989 authors didn’t have the freedom to write without censorship, and where the appalling experiences of the war and the communist era couldn’t be fully expressed through literature, academic works or the press. Every country needs to analyse and discuss what is happening to it before it can move on from the experience, so I think it is inevitable that since the collapse of communism many Polish writers have felt the need to go back over the nation’s experiences of the past seventy years and make them into literature. Of course the English-language reader won’t have all the background knowledge of Polish history and experience that is often assumed by Polish authors. Although I don’t interfere in any text, I might very occasionally add the bare minimum to explain a fact that is familiar to a Polish reader (e.g. today it was ‘[the poet] Bolesław Leśmian…’). The only genre where I sometimes depart from specifically Polish features (such as names that are hard to pronounce) is children’s literature, where the reader will need more help.
I have also translated Polish fiction that is not at all ‘culturally Polish’ – at least not outwardly. I am thinking in particular of Jacek Dehnel’s novel Saturn, which is set in 18th-century Spain and is a fictional version of the family life of the painter Francisco Goya. It is carefully researched, firmly rooted in Spanish history and even using Spanish turns of phrase.
As one of the busiest translators of Polish into English do you see any changes in Polish literature today from when you first began translating works? What drove you to first start working with this language when for years Poland itself had rarely published works outside its own language?
There have been major changes in the literature published in Poland with the development of a private publishing industry over the past two decades. There is also a difference in how much of it travels abroad from when I started, with many more titles appearing in translation. However, there are still pitifully few. There is a large backlog of excellent Polish literature from the past few decades that has never been translated, but it is hard to interest UK or US publishers in dead authors. It is mainly the small, independent publishers who take an interest in literature written in languages such as Polish which are not widely spoken or studied by foreigners, while the larger ones generally view it as commercially unviable. It is not true to say that ‘for years Poland itself had rarely published works outside its own language’. Of course in the communist era it was mainly classic Western literature that was published in Polish, and some books were banned, but that’s more than 23 years ago, and now (according to National Library research) translated books account for over 26 percent of the Polish publishing market – compared with our sad, oft-quoted figure of three percent.
I started translating Polish literature shortly before the fall of communism, rather by accident. Paweł Huelle was just starting to enjoy success in Poland with his first novel, Who Was David Weiser?. I met him at a Polish arts festival in Glasgow in 1988, to which (to their surprise) he and some other writers had been allowed to travel. Encouraged by Jan Chodakowski, a London-based publisher of Polish literature outside the censorship, and with the help of the famous British translator Michael Glenny, I found a publisher for Huelle’s book, and was asked to translate it. I had been studying Polish since graduating in Russian five years earlier, and was editor of a Polish-language magazine published by the Foreign Office to tell young Poles about Britain. I felt a youthful passion to be involved in the fight to combat communism, and was fascinated by Poland and how world-changing events were happening there before our eyes. Translating Huelle’s novel seemed like another way to make a contribution.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature into English. Her published translations from Polish include novels by Paweł Huelle and Jacek Dehnel, short stories by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and non-fiction, most recently by Jacek Hugo-Bader and Wojciech Jagielski.