Translating the Sea

/ by Justyna Czechowska

Moominmamma was sitting on the front steps in the sun, rigging a model bark schooner.

“One big sail on the mainmast, and one on the mizzen, and several small three-corned ones to the bowsprit, if I remember rightly,” she thought.


This is the beginning of Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness in Thomas Warburton’s translation. In the Polish version from 1967 the translator, Irena Szuch-Wyszomirska, puts two footnotes already on the first page. For a moment, let’s put the discussion whether footnotes are the right solution in children’s literature on the side. The author of the translation means that not every, or maybe not one, of her young readers would understand Polish words for the two things connected to the boat equipment. For Tove Jansson, it is all clear and obvious, a piece of cake. She was born by the sea and grew up very close to the open water, in the archipelago of Helsinki. The vocabulary she uses in the stories from Moomin Valley is full of words connected to the sea, boating, shorelines. Moominpappa is a skilled sailor, Moominmamma decorates her garden with shells, the weather conditions play an important role.


I came across this issue of nautical and marine terminology translating Tove Jansson’s short stories for adults, and her letters. Traditionally, Polish language grows out from the ground, the field, the landscape of meadows and forests. It feeds itself by soil, rather than sand and salt water, as Swedish does. Therefore, translating the text about so many different kinds of shores, stones and islands (there are at least 6 or 7 in Swedish) was a bit like telling someone from Africa about the snow. Hard to find right words, expressions, difficult to explain metaphors. Searching for the marine idiom in Polish literature is like dancing in darkness. Yes, we do have a long Baltic cost, but only since the end of the Second World War, so the classics never spend their vacations on the beaches, never went for residencies in small, empty houses with a sea view. The sea is rather more absent than present in Polish literature, and therefore in the Polish language.


I found my rescue in translated works: From Scandinavia, UK, Portugal, Italy, Greece (think The Odyssey). Among others, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, made into Polish by my great colleague, Magda Heydel. As well as in her translations of poetry by Irish Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. Ireland, an island, a piece of land surrounded by big water, was the favorite place of Tove Jansson. All of her life she longed to own one of the skerries, rock islets in the Finnish Archipelago. In the middle of 60s, she finally bought Harun, small rocky island, and started to build a house for her and her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. And they spent over 25 springs and summers there. No wonder her texts are salty and windy: They are the products of the big blue.


But what would literature be good for, if it were not for people all over the world to read? This is the reason why the work of a translator is so fascinating and powerful. The challenge of rewriting snow for someone who never saw a snowflake, describing the taste of meat to a vegan, telling the story of everyday life at an island for someone who visits the sea coast only twice in a lifetime.


The Gdańsk Meetings of Literary Translators, “Found in Translation,” organized since 2013, is focusing this year on so-called “small languages.” We will ponder various dimensions of the circulation of literary works belonging to “minor” cultures, in the context of great success they sometimes experience, and failures occurring, regardless of their artistic value. We will discuss the value and meaning of the cultivation and preservation of linguistic diversity, the problems of translation and popularization of minor literature, multilingualism and multiculturalism. However, we should bear in mind that the Polish language, the center of the festival, which is a mother tongue for circa 44 million speakers all over the world, counts as one of the smaller ones. One can ask: Smaller compared to which others? Our guests will discuss the subject referring to the languages they are translating from or into: Hungarian, Romanian, Slovenian, Catalan, Ukrainian, Czech on the one hand and Spanish, English and French on the other.


Possibilities of “translating the sea” keep me up at night. Therefore, I decided to invite three colleagues to discuss the issue on the last day of the festival, April 8—Especially relevant, when the venue for our meeting is the city of Gdańsk, on the Baltic cost. Maryja Martysievic is a poet and translator from English, Czech, Ukrainian and Polish into Belarusian. Sergei Moreino is a poet, essayist and translator from German, Polish and Latvian into Russian. Krzysztof Filip Rudolf works as teacher at the Gdańsk University and, together with his students, translated English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, a super-nautical piece of literature.

Next time you open a book and start reading the story from far away, don’t forget to take an extra sail with you, and take a note of the translator.

“Just in case of hurricane,” she said to herself with a happy sigh.

Justyna Czechowska

is a specialist in literary studies, a cultural manager, a translator from Swedish into Polish, an author of articles, anthologies and interviews. A co-founder of the Foundation for Literary Studies and the Polish Literary Translators’ Association. Among others she translated Swedish Versopolis poets: Athena Farrokhzad, Linn Hansén, Ida Linde and David Vikgren. Czechowska is co-author of the program of the festival “Odnalezione w tłumaczeniu” [Found In Translation].