First day at the Found in Translation festival

The „Odnalezione w tłumaczeniu” [Found In Translation] Festival, organised in Gdańsk, Poland, by the local Instytut Kultury Miejskiej [IKM, City Culture Institute] is a celebration of international literary culture, capital “C” culture, to boot. Thus it is utterly appropriate that this year it opened with the accompanying event, European Poetry University, part of the Versopolis platform for encouraging and promoting the young European poets.

The poets invited to attend, in order of appearance: Aurélia Lassaque (FR), Athena Farrokhazad (SE), Sigbjørn Skåden (NO), Katja Gorečan (SLO), and Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (LIT), accompanied by the Polish translators of their poems, gave instructive, entertaining, and utterly charming interviews on their writing – its themes, its roots, whether mythopoeic, ideological, certainly always deeply personal, but also providing the technical “tips and tricks”, down to the decisions regarding punctuation, for instance. The translators chimed in on their part in presenting the poems to Polish audience, never an easy task considering the density of poetry as medium and message. Justyna Czechowska, who translated Athena Farrokhazad’s “White Blight” cycle, observed with joy that this incarnation of European Poetry University gathered four female poets to a single male, in a distinct departure from masculine dominance in culture.

In serendipitous alignment with the subject of this year’s Found in Translation, “Small Languages, Big Literature”, Aurélia Lassaque and Sigbjørn Skåden write to a large extent in languages known to a relative handful of people – Occitan and a dialect of Sami, respectively. One might say they are the first translators of their own works, and it certainly makes them more aware of the tasks that the translators face. Actually, Skåden translated also works of other Sami writers into Norwegian, while Athena Farrokhazad interpreted the works of French and American feminists. On the other hand, Miłosz Biedrzycki, who translated the poems of Katja Gorečan, is also a recognized and acclaimed poet in his own right, which he termed both a blessing and a curse in terms of his interpretative task.

OK, so I cheated - Aušra Kaziliūnaitė had to cope without her poems’ translator, but she was ably helped by another Polish poet, Adam Pluszka, who is also a translator and editor, and who conducted the interview with all the aplomb one could expect from a guy who already has a neat volume of interviews with translators under his belt. Understandably, if paradoxically, this was the conversation least involved with the issues of translation.

(On a side note – the European Poetry University event took place at the Gdańsk University. It would appear that it’s still easy to lure students into attending by offering free snacks. This wasn’t the sole impulse that brought quite a group of people here, but the buffet’s popularity in the breaks between the individual interviews, and the reduction in attendance when supplies ran out, speaks for itself. Kudos to the organisers for providing this opportunity to merge the practical and educational aspects of students’ daily life!)

As was mentioned above, the Versopolis event, while focused primarily on the young poets, was also an opportunity for their translators to strut their stuff, which certainly helped make it a more integral part of the Found in Translation Festival. This, per its own definition, is a meeting of literary translators – to my amazement, translators (other than myself) are social creatures, gregarious and glad to gather, not in droves, perhaps; what would be the word for a group of translators? A dictionary? A Rosetta sounds cool, but pretentious, too. A codex, maybe. Gathering in codices, then, but definitely not a codification, since the Festival’s aim isn’t to force any sort of guidelines upon the interpreters, but rather to promote and celebrate their diversity, albeit focussing on the more literary end of the spectrum.

The actual official opening of the Festival was scheduled for half-past five, in the renovated Old City of Gdańsk, at the historical Artushof. It’s an awesome place, a reminder of Gdańsk’s heyday in the 17th and 18th Century, and it certainly fit the occasion. The grand hall (well, grand in the context of Renaissance patrician architecture) could barely hold the gathered audience, whose numbers testified that there still is some interest in literature in Poland, as a majority of them weren’t actual practitioners of translation.

Justyna Czechowska in her opening words listed the small languages being the Festival’s subject matter – the list included the Russian language, at which my eyebrows went uncomfortably high, but there you go.

Then, Alberto Manguel read a very erudite essay on the subject of “small languages” (published by the IKM as a companion chapbook), ruminating on how one deems a language to be “big” or “small” in the first place. Reaching to Thomas Aquinas, to Alice in Wonderland, to Heraclitus, Shakespeare, Unamuno, Papusha (a Polish Romany poetess), he touched on how the words and ideas form the basis of every identity, whether individual or that of a group. He stressed the shaping function of every language, so strict and exacting in its own way (I almost expected the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to be invoked at that point, but luckily Mr Manguel didn’t go there). Also worth noting was the observation that every language is too weak to express precisely the meaning one wishes and needs to convey, as well as the opinion that the distinction between the “small” and “big” languages does not appear to be helpful, and indeed may even be harmful. Plenty of food for thought there.

At 7 P.M. the panel on a writer and his translators started, with Wiesław Myśliwski from Poland and his four translators: Ksenya Staroselskaya (into Russian), Margot Carlier (French), Karol Lesman (Dutch), and Bill Johnson (US). This was another charming and entertaining part of the program, with all the participants along with Stefan Ingvarsson, who moderated the discussion, engaging in lively conversation. All the translators mentioned the aspects of Myśliwski’s prose they deemed crucial: the vivid speech, the garrulous raconteur as narrator, whose apparent chaotic thoughts mask a higher order along with wisdom and conciseness. Mr Myśliwski, to the dismay of his translators, ascribed to them the elevated role of co-creators, who are the actual authors of his books in their languages. The panel went so well, it lasted for almost an hour and a half instead of an hour, as was planned.

Thus it was at half past eight that the next part of program started: “Translators in action”. Three of the scheduled four translators were able to attend. It started with Miłosz Biedrzycki, who, as he enters the role of translator only incidentally, related mostly to the work of his mother, an acclaimed translator of Slovenian literature. He posited a parallel between poet and translator, inasmuch both are seeking a perfect word to fit the exact place. Then Anna Butrym provided a rapid-fire, highly entertaining introduction to the vicissitudes of those mad enough to dare translate Hungarian literature, considering for instance the fact that the most recent Polish-Hungarian dictionary was published in 1968. She also pointed out that, as opposed to the English literature, for instance, Polish readers have practically no context of Hungarian culture, which makes translating literary works even more difficult. Finally, Anna Korzeniowska-Bihun spoke of translating Ukrainian literature, noting that Ukrainian writers are far more likely to use dialects than Polish ones, which also leads to interesting choices of translating strategies, as the most obvious equivalents may not necessarily be the best ones.

At the end of the day, there was a poetry reading at the IKM, almost next door to the Artushof, so again in a historical setting, even if not so opulent. All five Versopolis poets, along with Adam Pluszka and Krystyna Dąbrowska, read selections from their oeuvre to the accompaniment of haunting electronic music by Stefan Wesołowski. In keeping with the tradition of the Occitan language, Aurélia Lassaque sang parts of her poems, adding to the mood.

To sum up, this was a day well spent. A varied programme, with well-chosen participants, made for interesting experience, with hardly a false note anywhere.

That’s it, then. Good night!


Tomasz Gałązka