Archive for May 14th, 2011

As if Copernicus, Wisława Szymborska, Jan Kochanowski, and John Paul II weren’t intimidating enough…

Saturday, May 14th, 2011
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Hey, I thought that was my chair!

A couple days ago, I described the overwhelming sense of intimidation when delivering a paper in the rooms where Copernicus, John Paul II, and others once walked.  I could have mentioned other notable alums – 16th century poet Jan Kochanowski, for example; 15th century theologian and saint John Cantius; the hero of the Battle of Vienna, John III Sobieski; writer Stanisław Lem; or Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.

My friend David A. Goldfarb did not think I was intimidated enough.  So he sent me this photo.

That’s right. Czesław Miłosz speaking from the very same chair I sat in, before I went to the podium for the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival’s academic conference. David took the picture himself.

“If you can imagine, there were students watching Miłosz in the corridors of Collegium Novum on video monitors set up for the occasion in 1989,” he gloated.  “The hall was only open to University officials, officers of the student Solidarność organization, and staff of the Instytut Filologii Polskiej.”

“I was a stażysta, which was fairly unusual at the time, so they couldn’t decide if I was staff or a student, and they gave me the benefit of the doubt, so I was able to stand at the back of the hall near the center.”

This would have been Miłosz’s second euphoric homecoming, after the fall of Communist rule and the triumph of Solidarity.

(His first euphoric return had been in June 1981, when the poet, then a banned writer, saw his books published for the first time since 1945 – that, however, proved to be a false dawn, and the Communist leaders crushed Poland and instituted martial law in December.)

Counterclockwise, in Polish: postcard from Kraków

Saturday, May 14th, 2011
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Lady in a glass box (Magda Skoć at right)

At the back of the Aula of the Collegium Maius of Jagiellonian University, there was a glass box with prisoners inside.

Those were the translators.  Pity them.  Each of the 75  sessions, 20 minutes each (some 30 minutes, actually, or 40), were translated simultaneously into either Polish or English.  All of the speakers were told to submit papers by April 27, but  I doubt many of us met the deadline – in any case, we were tinkering and revising till the last minute.  Moreover, there were lots of unscripted questions and discussion after each session.

Those who listened carefully during the week-long academic conferences during the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival … well, actually you didn’t have to listen that carefully … would have noticed  that the translators working with the Polish-to-English portions of the program were still talking as the applause for the speakers began to die down.

Jagiellonian's famous arches

There’s a reason, translator Piotr Krasnowolski told me.  English is a very compact language.  The Polish renditions are substantially longer.

I think that’s one reason W.H. Auden said: “I love Italian, it’s the most beautiful language to write in, but terribly hard for writers because you can’t tell when you have written nonsense. In English you know right away.”

Another way

Another way

Ever try translating French poetry?  When I tried my admittedly amateur hand, I usually wound up needing a handful of extra syllables to stuff out the line by the time I’d expressed the French thought.  Polish even more so.

Piotr said there’s lots of English turns of phrase that have no Polish equivalents.

He cited a simple example he recalled from some translation for a software company.  Counter-clockwise.  Simple enough in English, but here’s the Polish version:

w kierunku przeciwnym do ruchu wskazówek zegara

Right again

At least, that what I can make out of the words Piotr scrawled on a napkin for me.  That’s the literal translation for:  “In the direction opposite to the movement of the hands of the clock,” he said. A mouthful.

He solved the problem with an illustration instead (he also made a diagram on my napkin with a fountain pen): “That was my translation,” he said.  Piotr and his sidekick Magda Skoć were unflaggingly courteous, though their patience must have been sorely tried, throughout the week-long ordeal.  Magda’s impeccably accented upper-crust English was a joy to listen to, even when the papers were not.  And Piotr is, among other things, an honorary citizen of Nebraska. (Long story.)

Don’t drop the headset, Piotr warned me as I walked away, fumbling with my device – though they’re made for endurance, replacing them is 500 dollars a pop.  Or maybe it was złotys.  A lot of money, in any case.

Postscript on May 31:  After rummaging around in his storage, Piotr just sent me proof of his citizenship of Nebraska, for all those doubters out there.  See right.

So you can be a citizen of a state without being a citizen of the U.S.  Who knew?