An interview with Danuta Borchardt

Tul’si Bhambry

Photograph by Tul’si Bhambry

Danuta Borchardt, a writer, translator, and former psychiatrist, is best known for having brought to Anglophone readers four novels by the internationally acclaimed Polish exile writer Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969). Born in Wilno (now Vilnius in Lithuania), Borchardt emigrated from Poland in 1941 (two years after Gombrowicz) and spent her teenage and young adult years in London. She graduated with a medical degree in Dublin, then moved to Massachusetts in 1959, where she taught and practiced psychiatry until her retirement in 1993. Besides Gombrowicz, Borchardt has translated a collection by the late-Romantic poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid (Poems, Archipelago Books, 2011). Her creativity also extends to writing fiction and autobiography: her short fiction has appeared in Andrei Codrescu's journal Exquisite Corpse. She is currently working on a memoir on how she came to translate Witold Gombrowicz.

Borchardt's translations of Gombrowicz's novels have enjoyed tremendous critical success. Her version of Ferdydurke (Yale, 2000) was awarded the National Translation Award. In 2003 she was given a fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts to translate Cosmos (Yale, 2005). There followed a translation of Pornografia (Grove, 2009), for which she won the Found in Translation Award. Finally, her translation of Trans-Atlantyk appeared with Yale University Press this year.

Borchardt has brought to English-speaking readers the novels of a writer who, although he spent the last thirty years of his life in exile while his works were banned in his home country, has attained the singular status of both canonical modernist and cult figure in Poland. Gombrowicz enjoyed great popularity in France and Germany from the 1960s on, but the English-speaking world took little notice of him. The English versions of Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and Cosmos available at that time were second-hand translations based on French, German, and possibly Spanish translations, and they departed from the Polish originals in both style and content. Since the turn of the millennium, however, Borchardt's direct translations from the Polish have provided a crucial impetus for a renewed interest, both general and critical, in this challenging writer. Amidst this growing fascination with Gombrowicz's art of fiction, however, Danuta Borchardt's art of translation is no less worthy of attention. I had the opportunity to interview her during her visit to North Carolina in May this year.

—Tul'si Bhambry

You were only eleven years old when you left Poland during the war. In what context did you first come across Gombrowicz's works, and do you remember your first impressions?

During my time, in the 1940s, as a war refugee in England I read Polish authors, Witold Gombrowicz among them. I recollect Ferdydurke as an extraordinarily difficult book to read. I have a very fleeting memory as to the details of the text, and did not discuss it at the time with anyone. I do remember that there was a lot of controversy in the Polish émigré community in London concerning Gombrowicz's writing. This was a time of great national strife, and his iconoclastic stance on Polishness bordered on the sacrilegious. However, thanks to the publication of his work by Jerzy Giedoyć in his journal Kultura (published in Paris from 1947 until 2000) and the discussions that ensued, Gombrowicz became better understood and accepted by many.

Ferdydurke was published in 1937 and is now considered a classic European modernist novel. It must have been challenging reading for a teenager immersed in the British curriculum as you were. Its plot is interrupted by stories and theoretical sections that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot, though they all contribute to Gombrowicz's philosophical arguments concerning, for instance, the way individuals are torn between maturity and immaturity. Gombrowicz also creates neologisms to convey his ideas. He takes the noun pupa, which denotes a child's bum or buttocks, and transforms it into a verb—upupić—which then means to belittle or patronise someone. This experimentalism must have been quite a challenge when you first came across Gombrowicz as a young reader. How did you deal with his unconventional language when you came to translate the book into English?

Because of its linguistic innovations Ferdydurke was a most difficult novel, but it was rewarding and fun to translate. I had to put all my sense of conventional prose aside and be open to the unexpected. "Free up your English by reading Beckett's novels," was a great piece of advice from my former husband, Thom Lane, who, as a native speaker of American English, turned out to be of great help in translating Gombrowicz.

You already recounted elsewhere how you decided to translate Gombrowicz's pupa with "tush," which could easily be made into verb constructions such as "to be tushed." But then you got dissuaded. Your final decision was to keep the Polish pupa in your translation.

When Ferdydurke was to be published, Jonathan Brent, the then editor of Yale University Press, asked Susan Sontag to write a foreword. She was a great admirer of Witold Gombrowicz. It was during their communications that she objected to "tush." She had reservations about its Yiddish derivation, and she didn't think it would work for English-speaking readers. Jonathan Brent sided with her. It was also his suggestion to keep the Polish pupa. I went along with that. He said we use ruble, so why not have pupa? But I would like to change that. I still yearn for the "tush" and the verb "to tush," and feel that Susan Sontag has "tushed" me. But I have heard since then that the readers' opinion was mixed. Some people rather liked pupa.

You have now translated four books by Gombrowicz, as well as some excerpts from his Argentine travel writing, "Peregrinations in Argentina." It's understandable that Ferdydurke should have been the first to be published, given its prominent status. And yet, in your translator's note you mention that you had initially wanted to translate Cosmos, Gombrowicz's last novel from 1965. What was it about Cosmos that attracted you first, and that you wanted to return to? Can you tell us about the order in which you tackled his novels?

Reading Cosmos I was fascinated by the beauty of the very first page. As I imagined it translated into English, it scintillated both in my ear and on the page. I would never in my life have translated Ferdydurke of my own accord. But Stanisław Barańczak, having read a few pages of my translation of Cosmos, must have liked it enough to refer me to Timothy Garton Ash of the Oxford Project of Eastern Literature. I got a letter from Garton Ash asking me if I would try my hand at Ferdydurke. If you're asked you don't refuse! So that's how it happened. And then, naturally, I went back to Cosmos.

In 1959 Gombrowicz wrote a letter to his friend Jerzy Peterkiewicz in London, asking him for help finding an English translator for Ferdydurke. He gives very clear instructions on what kind of translator he has in mind: "the most important thing is that the translator should be an artist, not a drudge. [ . . . ] And that they should have a sense of humour and of poetry, as well as temperament, and also that they should really like the book." Do you agree that in Gombrowicz's case it's important to have a special liking for his works in order to translate them successfully?

Yes, I agree. But, in my opinion, one must have a special liking for any work one translates. Also, "the translator should be an artist," says Gombrowicz. Indeed, translating literature is a creative process.

Would you go as far as saying that literary translators in general should have a certain affinity with the authors they choose to work with? Does it help, for example, to have a similar temperament? Or perhaps a shared sense of humor or outlook on life can be relevant only with a certain kind of text, or a certain kind of writer?

I don't think an affinity with the author is necessary. Nor a similar temperament or outlook on life. The affinity must be with the work of art that a writer presents. I felt as close to Norwid's work as I did to Gombrowicz's. I think that having a sense of humor is quite essential because humor in a work of art can easily be missed. Sometimes we feel so serious about our work that this attitude can, sometimes unwittingly and inappropriately, spill into what we're doing.

Your translations of Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and Cosmos were the first ones directly from the Polish into English. No one doubted that there was an urgent need to replace the second-hand versions that had previously been available. But Trans-Atlantyk, which pastiches an oral genre of the Polish Baroque, the gawęda, had already been translated by Nina Karsov and Carolyn French in 1994. What motivated you to produce another version of this novel, reputedly Gombrowicz's most untranslatable?

Nina Karsov and Carolyn French's translation was perfect in terms of accuracy. But I heard mixed opinions from my American literary friends. Some had a problem with its readability. They stumbled over the old English words. The translation wouldn't flow easily. I wasn't happy with it, either, but then I had no idea what I would do instead. I experimented with cockney, with American dialect, but that of course was all wrong. Later I realized that it's simply old Polish, therefore it must be old English. That was an unexpected experience. I had to learn another language—archaic English. Fun sometimes merged into desperation as to how to appropriately convey what Gombrowicz was doing.

So you decided to render the Baroque gawęda style by reverting to old English, but using less archaic terms than the previous version by Karsov and French?

Not less archaic terms, but fewer, because it's a gawęda, a spoken tale, and it has to read easily and quickly. However, it has to be in older English. But I felt that not all of it was consistently in older Polish. There are newer pieces of literature in the gawęda style that are not Baroque Polish. I remember myself taking part in gawędas at my Girl Scouts camps, the fireside chats! As an aside perhaps, the Baroque Polish is not as removed from contemporary Polish as the English is from its Baroque style. So the main challenge was to render the archaic Polish in older English that would still be readable. Trans-Atlantyk was as difficult to translate as Ferdydurke, though in a different way.

Karsov and French's Trans-Atlantyk is based on the first edition of 1953, while you use the second edition of 1957. In what ways do these editions differ, and why did you choose the later edition?

The second edition is the one currently in use, and that's the one I happened to have. It differs from the first by lesser use of capitals and deletion of a couple of paragraphs, both done by Gombrowicz himself.

Readers of the Polish classics sense that each of Gombrowicz's novels, though they all clearly bear the mark of his style, parodies a different literary trend or genre. This density of references risks getting lost in translation. How did you ensure that your versions of his four novels preserved their distinct style, rather than coming to sound all pretty much the same?

First of all, in spite of their density of references as well as similarity of Gombrowicz's philosophy they carry, I think that the novels are very different. Both in their style and their mood. Ferdydurke is innovative in style, the mood, for me, is something like "devil-may-care" how I say it. Trans-Atlantyk is written, in large part, in archaic Polish. Pornografia is largely a stage event, a drama of "let go" and "evil." Cosmos is demure, reflective. In translating each one of the novels I had to "find" my voice, a distinct voice. But in all of them, I read my drafts out loud, I discussed my problems with my colleagues, and consulted both the previous translations and to a lesser extent the French and Spanish translations.

Besides Gombrowicz, you have also brought to English readers a collection of poems by Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Is there a difference in your approach to translating poetry versus fiction? And what attracted you to Norwid's romantic poetry after all those years spent with Gombrowicz?

Actually, these two writers are very similar. Gombrowicz's prose is so poetic. And, my translation of Norwid did not happen after Gombrowicz but in-between, strangely enough. I just loved the way Norwid presented his ideas on the page, with interrupted lines and asterisks and so on. It looked to me like very contemporary poetry. I wouldn't actually call him Romantic—he's more post-Romantic. I was also fascinated by his ideas—his concerns about people's inhumanity, hypocrisy of the established church, invasions of cultures (of China by the French, English, and Americans in the nineteenth century) and so forth—they also seemed contemporary. It's a strange experience, weaving together two different translations and also my own writing. It's difficult in terms of time. But all these things complement each other: my writing helped me translate, my translation helped me write better English.

Gombrowicz translated Ferdydurke into Spanish and French, with the help of native speakers. I wonder if you faced similar predicaments as Gombrowicz.

Since I was translating from my native to an acquired language, it was absolutely essential to have the help of a native speaker of American English (since it was this variety of English that I was translating into). I have already mentioned Thom Lane, my friend and former husband. As was the case with several other translators.

In all four of your Gombrowicz translations you acknowledge Thom Lane's contribution. How did you proceed?

Thom Lane read all my drafts. He scribbled his suggestions on the hard copies and we then discussed them by phone.

Do you think of your work in terms of a collaboration of sorts?

Yes, although I would not technically call it collaboration, because when you call somebody a collaborator you give that person a certain status—a literary translator status—whereas Thom was not educated in this field. I make reference to this in the memoir I'm writing, how selfish I was in fact, how possessive of my doing it, although he was a tremendous help as the native speaker of American English.

Your translation work accompanied you through—and survived—some tumultuous times in your relationship.

We definitely shared the love of Gombrowicz's ideas and style of writing. At times this was the strongest bond we had. When emotions were high and raw between us, the translation process kept us grounded and of sound mind. However, this bond seems to have survived past the ending of our marriage and past the translations.

And how did your relationship with Gombrowicz develop over the years?

In the beginning I had no "relationship" with Gombrowicz at all. He died in 1969; I only got involved with his work in the nineties. However, as I thought more about it, I felt that a relationship has developed. So many people think that he was an unpleasant person. But I feel, well, that's good for him! I would have enjoyed that! I admit I would have been a little scared of working with Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel Prize–winning Polish exile writer and poet, and I'm not sure I would have wanted to. Whereas with Gombrowicz, we could have had fights! He had a sense of humor. I began to feel a little defensive when people talked negatively about him.

Could you give an example?

He was considered to have a high opinion of himself. Good for him, again, he was worth it. Also, there is always talk about his homosexuality. I don't like to have him pigeonholed as a homosexual. He was a mixture of various characteristics on various levels, and sexuality was part of the things that he wanted to open up, in order to loosen up people's ideas about it.

You used to work as a psychiatrist. Is your perspective on Gombrowicz somehow informed by your professional experience?

Whenever I mention that I worked as a psychiatrist, people prick up their ears and think that I must have an extraordinary insight into Gombrowicz's psyche, because he was an interesting and unusual person, an iconoclastic man and so on. Well, I don't have any insight. The only insight I have is into the language, because I worked with schizophrenic patients, and they create their own syntax, their own language. So this is what helped me loosen up my English for the translation of Gombrowicz's prose. And even if I had any insight, I wouldn't divulge it anyway!

But in your translator's note to Ferdydurke you emphasized the continuity between your two professions. You write: "Had I not worked as a psychiatrist with English-speaking schizophrenics who invent their own languages, I may not have felt comfortable 'neologizing' English." Perhaps you were bound to embark on a second career as a translator of Gombrowicz's idiosyncratic language. But I wonder if translation is in general somewhat akin to schizophrenia, in that it demands a certain temporary or controlled mental fragmentation.

Translating Gombrowicz had to do with art, and nothing at all with my having been a psychiatrist. Before translating I had written a lot of prose fiction and some poetry (in English), and this was the energy and expertise that propelled me to translate Gombrowicz's works. The mental fragmentation you refer to I would call the ability to compartmentalize. It's not like schizophrenia, which is more like a disorganization of the thinking processes.

And yet in your memoir you write about being depressed and weeping while you translated Ferdydurke—a book of an entirely different mood. Despite your state of mind at the time, your translation overflows with energy and humor. How did you manage to suppress that "sad undertone" that Thom Lane detected in your drafts?

The weeping while translating Ferdydurke (only a certain part of it, I must add) had to do with my relationship with Thom. It was my good luck that he noticed the "sad undertone." I was then able to step aside from it, and get back to work. You will find more details in my memoir.

Could you tell us more about the project of your memoir?

It encompasses about a twenty-year section of my life. I thought that would be something interesting to write about. Many people ask me how I came to choose such a difficult writer to translate. In a way I devote my memoir to my friends, as a gift, as a response to their queries. How come I knew Polish so well, having left Poland as an eleven-year-old? And then to translate it into English, a foreign language for me? So I thought I'd just write how it happened, how it developed. Having written fiction in English has prepared me for translating Gombrowicz's prose into good English. And because Thom was such a close associate or helper or collaborator in translation, I thought I'd like to include him in my memoir. And that involved our relationship as well as our collaboration in this project.

Are you thinking about making your memoir available to a broader audience?

Some people are very interested in the process of translation itself. I wanted to shorten the translation parts, but when I presented my material at workshops I was rather surprised: my writer friends—not translators but writers—all wanted to hear about the actual nitty-gritty of translation. Another key concern was my relationship with my former husband. There were various turmoils and difficulties and wonderful things. So there is this human aspect. This might appeal to a broader audience, though it is not the reason for including it in my memoir.

And what future plans do you have?

Well, I'm a little torn here. For one thing, the Norwid scholars at the Catholic University of Lublin would like to have the epic poem Quidam translated. They consider it one of the most beautiful works of Polish literature, and it has not yet been translated in its entirety. However, it's a difficult project: definitely poetry, definitely rhyming, which is difficult! I translated an excerpt for the collection Poems, published with Archipelago Books, so I know how challenging it would be to do the whole one hundred pages. But that's one possible project.

The other possibility is a very different text: my father, a sea captain, wrote three books about his maritime adventures. The first, a bestseller in Poland in the 1960s, was translated into many languages but not yet into English. So I'm thinking about doing that, though I don't feel at home translating nonfiction. The book has a lot of nautical terms, but one of my father's students, an expert sailor who now also lives in the U.S., is willing to help me with the terminology.

In 2002, your achievements translating Witold Gombrowicz into English were honored by the Polish Ministry of Culture, as you received a medal for spreading Polish culture abroad. Ironically, a few years later there was controversy about Ferdydurke's presence in the high school curriculum, on the grounds that Gombrowicz's works were unpatriotic.

I am indifferent toward these discourses. Gombrowicz was speaking out about us, for us, as individuals, regardless of nationality.

Your translation of Pornografia won the Found in Translation Award, sponsored annually by the Polish publishers W.A.B., the Polish Cultural Institutes in New York and London, and the Polish Book Institute. The award included a residency in the spring of 2011 in Kraków. Of course, this wasn't your first return to your home country, but it was the longest. In a way, Gombrowicz took you back to your own roots.

Yes, that is true. Or, more specifically, I took myself back to my own roots by translating Gombrowicz.