Posts featuring Czesław Miłosz

In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have held...is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.

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The Good Bad Translator: Celina Wieniewska And Her Bruno Schulz

"Wieniewska was correct in her intuition about ‘how much Schulz' the reader was prepared to handle."

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is one of the relatively few Polish authors of fiction who enjoy international recognition. Originally published in the 1930s, since the early 1960s the Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist’s oneiric short stories have been translated and retranslated into almost forty languages, despite their seemingly untranslatable style: an exquisitely rich poetic prose, comprised of meandering syntax and multi-tiered metaphors. In English-speaking countries, Schulz’s name was made in the late 1970s, when his Street of Crocodiles, first published in English in 1963 in both the UK and the US (the British edition was titled Cinnamon Shops, following closely the original Polish Sklepy cynamonowe), was reissued in Philip Roth’s influential Penguin series Writers from the Other Europe (1977), alongside Milan Kundera and other authors from behind the Iron Curtain whom the West had yet to discover. Schulz’s second story collection, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (Polish: Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą), followed shortly (1978), and ever since then both volumes have been regularly republished and reprinted, as well as in series such as Picador Classics (1988), Penguin 20th Century Classics (1992), and Penguin Classics (2008).

This summer, the Northwestern University Press announced that “an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz” by Madeline Levine, Professor Emerita of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina, is forthcoming in March 2018. Commissioned by the Polish Book Institute and publicized already since 2012, this retranslation has been impatiently awaited, especially by Schulz scholars dissatisfied with the old translation by Celina Wieniewska. Indeed, it’s great that Levine’s version is finally going to see the light of day—it is certainly going to yet strengthen Schulz’s already strong position. Unfortunately, the preferred (and easiest) way of promoting retranslations is to criticize and ridicule previous translations and, more often than not, translators. Even though the retranslator herself has spoken of her predecessor with much respect, showing understanding of Wieniewska’s goals, strategies, and the historical context in which she was working, I doubt that journalists, critics, and bloggers are going to show as much consideration.

In an attempt to counter this trend, I would like to present an overview of the life and work of Celina Wieniewska, since I believe that rather than being representative of a certain kind of invisibility as a translator (her name brought up only in connection with her ‘faults’), she deserves attention as the co-author of Schulz’s international success. Much like Edwin and Willa Muir, whose translations of Kafka have been criticised as dated and error-ridden, but proved successful in their day, Wieniewska’s version was instrumental in introducing Schulz’s writing to English-speaking readers around the world. Before Levine’s retranslation takes over, let’s take a moment to celebrate her predecessor, who was a truly extraordinary figure and has been undeservedly forgotten.

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