Versopolis was found in Gdansk

Festival report

Day 2

…All right. Is this thing on?... OK, apparently all systems are online, it’s a bit past ten, so accounting for patriotic (and artistic, yo, homies) disregard for punctuality we can assume this day’s programme will get going in a while. Again we start at the Gdańsk University, and again the audience includes a fair share of students – we’ll see how long they will last today, considering that there is NO snack stand this time.
And so we start with a panel on translating Polish literature into other small languages, intriguingly titled “At a foreign table”, moderated by Anna Korzeniowska-Bihun, who (as was mentioned yesterday) translates Ukrainian literature into Polish. The panellists are: Judit Reiman (translating into Hungarian), Vyturys Jarutis (translating into Lithuanian), Xavier Farre (translating into Spanish and Catalan), and Ostap Slyvynsky (translating into Ukrainian), quite a few of them active also as writers or translators from languages other than Polish. The panel kicked off with the fairly obvious question, why translate Polish literature at all. The answers are surprisingly variegated – from the comfortable balance between familiarity and alienness of Polish culture for the Hungarians, through limited availability of foreign literature in the Soviet Union, and the breakaway success of Czesław Miłosz in promoting Polish poetry. Then the discussion moved on to other issues, including the political and mercantile aspects of translating Polish literature nowadays. The market situation dominated the discussion, and it was to some disappointment that the panel had to end due to the scheduled interview with Eva Hoffman.
The authoress of Lost in Translation was interviewed by Piotr Blumczyński, an acclaimed Polish translatologist. She talked of the job of translating herself into English, which she had to undertake as her family emigrated from Poland to Canada when she was nearly 14 years old. This was her introduction to the understanding of complexities of literary translation, to the relativity of languages and cultures, which, when reached, adds another layer to our understanding of the world and to our perception thereof. She also explained the intended ambivalence of the title, with the implications not just of loss, but also of forgetting one’s self in the act of translating. Another interesting subject was that of reading the Polish translation of her book, which made Ms. Hoffman realise that she became even more Americanised than she had been aware of, more immersed in the US culture. The final question concerned the somatic aspects of translation, which – some posit – is an activity involving the entire body of the translator, not just her brain as a separate entity. This led to the thoughts on the subject of internalizing the language, and to the thesis that music was the pre-language, and thence to deciding of whether to keep the melody of the original text or to switch to ones more natural to the language of translation. In summing up, Mr. Blumczyński thanked Ms. Hoffman for bringing to the light the non-literary aspects of translations, which are usually overlooked when considering the work of translators.
High noon has come and gone, and the sparring of Czech language translators is yet to begin. The idea is to compare two translations of the same short story by Ivan Vyskocil, as interpreted by eminent translators of Czech literature Andrzej Jagodziński and Jan Stachowski, with Renata Putzlacher as moderator. Gloves on, of course – the sparring, when it finally began, was unsurprisingly gentle, considering the age of participants. Mr. Jagodziński won the first round on points, due in no small extent to the commanding stage presence, since both gentlemen, former diplomats, were pulling their punches a bit. Mr. Jagodziński provided a short, instructive disquisition on the types of Czech beer, too. The sparring partners were very generous with reminiscences, explanations of choices taken, as well as with one another, contrary to the very idea of sweet science, I must say. How did it go? “Throw your towel and your flag in/and get your p...y a... off the bandwagon”, right. Only without the dots. The ring is not the place for waffling. Still, an entertaining and informative part of the program.
(If the above sounds rough, my apologies, I’m short on sleep and I crave stronger emotions. Blood would do.) (Or caffeine. Anything but pabulum, really.)
The next item on the agenda was a lecture of Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, the fifth and final one from a collection co-published by the IKM this year, Pięć razy o przekładzie [Translation approached fivefold]. The subject was “Literature from the viewpoint of translation”, that is, what does a translation do to the literature of the target language, rich in interesting facts and intriguing conjecture. The lecture concerned also the critique of translations, as concerning the wider literature as well, and sometimes being the most penetrating sort of literary criticism.
After a short interval, the action moved to the IKM, where Alberto Manguel talked with Grzegorz Jankowicz – as opposed to yesterday’s essay, this was more of a personal reminiscence, on the roots of Manguel’s essayist and fiction writings, on the reasons for his use of different languages for the particular works. In a bit of Christian allegory (a tad heavy-handed, though, in my opinion), the interview's title was “Ecce lector!”, alluding to Pontius Pilate passing judgement on Jesus Christ. Manguel admitted to being disinclined to return to his own texts and translating them, since he’d always find lines of reasoning abandoned to soon, little auctorial fudges, and so on, and thus, to spare himself the heartbreak, he prefers to leave the job to others. He consistently posits that English, by dint of becoming the lingua Franca in the recent history, has been badly hurt – impoverished lexically and simplified grammatically, so that the barbarians (OK, so that’s my hyperbole. Shouldn't have hired a barbarian to do a civilised man's job.) could handle it. He also states that it's the translator's inalienable privilege to improve the book, that if it can be done at all, it should be done. Again we had the pleasure of partaking of Mr. Manguel's breathtaking erudition.
After that one could attend the opening of an exhibition of photos by Renata Dąbrowska, hosted in a new addition to the cultural map of Gdańsk – The Daniel Chodowiecki/Günther Grass House. The exhibition, titled Zobaczyć tłumacza [To see the translator], resulted from a project aimed at bearding the translators in their dens (DISCLAIMER: To the best of my knowledge, none of the ladies participating in the project were or are actually bearded. Still, the idiom stands. Take it up with someone who cares.). The pictures were quite good, if obviously staged – I find it hard to believe that so many translators are actually operating in sterile environments, it's not that kind of surgery we're conducting! However, the ambience intruded on enjoyment – the location was so cramped, half a dozen people could crowd it with minimal effort, and there were at least five times as many inside, when I got there.
The last item of the day's agenda was the Festival's high point, the awards gala night at the embattled World War II Museum in Gdańsk. The ceremony was graciously conducted by Zofia Król and Szymon Kloska, who engaged the seven translators nominated to this year's Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński Award for Translation in engrossing repartee, resulting in anecdotes and disclosures which all those in attendance enjoyed thoroughly. The nominees were, in alphabetical order:
- Małgorzata Buchalik, for translating Maxim Gorky's Kniga o russkich lyudyach [The book of the Russians];
- Jacek Giszczak, for translating Lyonel Trouillot's Bicentenaire [Bicentennial];
- Hanna Igelson-Tygielska, for translating Raymond Queneau's Le dimanche de la vie [The Sunday of Life];
- Krzysztof Majer, for translating Michael Herr's Dispatches;
- Monika Muskała, for translating Thomas Bernhard's Ja and Die Billigesser [Yes and The Cheap-eaters];
- Piotr Paziński, for translating a selection of works from Schmuel Yosef Agnon;
- and Marcin Szuster, for translating James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere.
The jury, gathered from the top ranks of Polish translators and consisting of Anna Wasilewska, Jacek S. Buras, Andrzej Jagodziński, Michał Kłobukowski, Sławomir Paszkiet, Justyna Sobolewska, and Tomasz Swoboda, after extensive deliberations voted to award Piotr Paziński. Justyna Sobolewska lauded the laureate, who received the commemorative statuette from vice-president of the City of Gdańsk.
In a moving moment, the jury announced also the award for lifetime achievement, which went to Danuta Ćirlić-Straszyńska, as it happens, on the fiftieth anniversary of her translatorial debut. I, for one, was flabbergasted to hear that the laureate still initially writes out all her translations in longhand, and only after that types them out. On a typewriter. No mean feat for a frail dame, this.
The ceremony's mood was skilfully manipulated by Maciej Grzybowski, performing music by Tomasz Sikorski, inspired by the writings of Kafka and Borges.
And that's it for the second day of the Festival. Things are coming to a close, sadly, inexorably.


Day 3

The third day's programme began with a slight delay again, due to the traditional, patriotic (or is it artistic?) disdain for punctuality, at the European Centre for Solidarity in Gdańsk, which hides within its hideous shell a truly pleasant interior. We began with observing a minute of silence for the victims of yesterday's terrorist attack in Stockholm. This being the third and final day of the Festival, the organisers scheduled only four panels, nothing strenuous, so that the participants could comfortably decompress before going back to their toil.
Actually, on that note, the first panel's subject was "If not at your own desk, then where?" - this was a presentation of four residencies for translators, writers, and artists in general, scattered all over Europe, by Ieva Balode (Ventspils, Latvia), Lena Pasternak (Visby, Gotland, Sweden), Agnieszka Pokojska (Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland), and Gabriela Stöckli (Looren, Switzerland). All the residencies accept active, professional translators, most requiring the proof of publications with a recognized publisher, while at Looren one has to present a copy of a current contract. With the exclusion of the Irish establishment, the residencies are made available at no cost to the visitors, and even the costs of stay at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre can be offset if one manages to obtain a grant from the governmental body for promoting the translations of Irish literature. The periods of residence range from a week to as much as three months. No wonder that all the residencies have long waiting lists – for Ventspils, the earliest one might come there is 2019, and even then the summer is all booked full. Frankly, this kind of offer is unbelievably tempting.
Enough with the daydreaming, though. The next panel, “Translating the sea”, was supposedly dedicated to translating the nautical literature, but the subject was apparently treated very inclusively, albeit not to the point of suggesting that all the literature is nautical as all humans consist mostly of salt water. The panel's moderator was Justyna Czechowska, with Marya Martysevich (poet and translator from Belarus), Sergei Moreino (poet and translator from Latvia), and Filip Rudolf (translator and lecturer, Poland) conducting quite a lively discussion. They started with the issue of presence of the sea in the literature of the countries they represent, observing that there are cultures more sea-reliant than others, whose languages and lexicons reflect that, which obviously may pose some difficulty for the translators. At this occasion Ms. Czechowska trotted out the old chestnut about the Inuit having ever so many words for snow in their language, which has been thoroughly debunked long ago – the Inuit languages are agglutinative, so if we discount the pileups and count only the base words, it turns out that the Inuit have about as many words for snow as the English do, and yet not many people go around saying “Wow, the English have so many words to denote snow!” OK, that's me done ranting. The most amusing part of the panel came with Mr. Moreino tearing into Polish translations of Osip Mandelshtam's poems – it's always heartening to see Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz getting a new one ripped out. WITH SINGING.
Still, time waits for no man, singing or not, and we moved to “Women of plural languages”. Moderated by Thursday Bambhry, this was a discussion between Birutė Jonuškaitė (Poland-born Lithuanian poet and translator), Gwyneth Lewis (writing in Welsh and English), Leta Semadeni (Swiss poet writing in German and Romansh), and Żanna Słoniowska (Ukraine-born Polish novelist), all of them acclaimed authoresses. Ms. Słoniowska writes only in Polish, actually, at least for now, but the remaining three panellists move more or less freely between their mother languages and others. Ms. Semadeni noted that working on a poem in two languages in parallel helps her choose the most appropriate words, as though through a dialogue. She stated, too, that if this results in a version of the poem existing in both languages, none of the versions is a translation, they are both original works. All the panellists expressed unease with the idea of returning to earlier works and translating them into another language by themselves – they prefer to forge ahead with new projects, instead of opening themselves to the temptation of reworking and incrementally improving the old, completed work. This is a job they gladly leave to dedicated translators. A paradoxical observation was mooted, which struck me as very true, that the requirement of fidelity in translation can actually become very liberating and stimulating to a translator. Ms. Lewis quipped that “Promiscuity, in translation, is the way to go”, meaning the more languages one knows, the merrier, and again, I can only agree.
What I wasn't expecting was that the last panel of the Festival would be so brilliant. Well, of course having Tomasz Pindel (a fine critic and translator) for the moderator was an indication that it can be good, but it's the panellists who determine the quality of a discussion, and here we had Kama Buchalska (Książkowe Klimaty publishers, Poland), and Julia Nicholson (Pushkin Press, UK). And they rocked hardcore, no two words about it. The subject was the publishers' experience with “literature in 'small' languages”, and both ladies had plenty to say about it, funny, instructive (but still funny), gracious… you name it. Mr. Pindel kept the fire nicely banked, so that we all could just bask in the warmth and brilliance. Just the comparison of the markets was instructive – in Poland, translations account for 50% of titles published in a given year, and an even larger share of the sales. In the UK, the market share grew recently from 3 to 5%, which results in all translations being considered as imports from “smaller” languages. Both publishers represented in the panel specialise in translations, which is unique in the UK and pretty common in Poland, but Książkowe Klimaty does look exclusively for writers from countries long neglected by Polish publishers. To put it in a perspective, in four years of the company's existence, they published more books by Greek authors, for instance, than there appeared from all Polish publishers before that date. Both publishers welcome suggestions from the translators they cooperate with, which results in about 60% of titles in Książkowe Klimaty catalogue being those proposed by the translators. We heard stories of startling successes and unexpected disappointments, and it was a real pity that the allotted time flew so fast, because after that there were just the heartfelt thanks from the organisers, and from the attendees, and the Festival came to the end of its scheduled programme.
Those were marvellous three days, and I'm already looking forward to the next incarnation of the Festival. It's only two years from now!

Tomasz Gałązka