Posts featuring Isaac Bashevis Singer

Olga Tokarczuk and Polish Literature’s Home Army

Poland has been using art to revitalize—or reform—its postwar image.

“I and motherland are one. My name is Million, because for millions do I love and suffer agonies.” Adam Mickiewicz’s words from his dramatic cycle Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) are indicative of Poland’s long tradition of voicing resistance and examining its national identity through literature. Last month, acclaimed Polish writer and past Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, and yet has also outraged many conservatives in her own country. In this essay, Cynthia Gralla takes us through the history of resistance in Polish literature in the twentieth century, before examining Tokarczuk’s own challenge, defiance, and her place in such a history.

The past hundred years in Polish literature have been, by one reading, a history of resistance through weaponized words.

Poland has made resistance an art. Born into a Polish-American family, I have heard tales of my relatives’ wartime resistance work since childhood. Between 2012 and 2014, I lived in Lublin, Poland, conducting research into their activities during Nazi occupation with the help of a Fulbright grant. My relatives served as ski couriers in what eventually became known, in 1942, as the Armia Krajowa—literally “the Home Army.” Before that, it was called Związek Walki Zbrojnej, or “the Union of Armed Struggle”, and the Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, or “Polish Victory Service”. The name mattered little; all were incarnations of the Polish Resistance, the heart of a national body so conditioned by the vicissitudes of history and occupation that it began beating again as soon as Germany invaded. It also beat steadily throughout the nineteenth-century partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in the classrooms of that century’s “flying university” (which educated luminaries like Marie Salomea Skłodowska, also known as Marie Curie, when teaching youth in Polish was forbidden,) and during the parched years of Communism. READ MORE…

The Anxiety of Translation: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Robert Croll

From a translator’s viewpoint (at least, from this translator), the best author is a dead author. That absence is a form of freedom.

Translation, by definition, is about dislocation. By traveling from one culture to another, our rootedness is turned on its head. In this dialogue on translation and anxiety, Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of NPR’s podcast “In Contrast,” and Robert Croll, translator of Ricardo Piglia’s three-volume The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (Restless Books, 2017–20), ponder the responsibility the translator has toward the original text, the discoveries of how unstable the target language is, and the realization that translation is an essentially destabilizing experience.

Robert Croll: For me, the act of translation always involves an underlying anxiety: my feeling of responsibility toward the original text, which is bound to the knowledge that my words will be taken to represent the author’s intentions, leads to a constant fear of being discovered as an impostor. But can experience in translation destabilize the way we read texts in their original languages?

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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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