Translator’s profession is a peculiar one. Their very mission requires them to be invisible; to hide themselves behind a huge, wobbly block of text while standing on even wobblier block of original work and trying to hold them both from failing into opposite directions of obscurity. I don’t say it’s always like that. Translating Carver or Hemingway is objectively easier than Melville or Pynchon. But what about Joyce and works as radical as Finnegans Wake? I suppose it’s appropriate to extend the earlier metaphor and say that it’s like hopping from a piece of text to another over the pits of boiling lava shooting fiery balls into you, Super Mario Bros style.
And although Krzysztof Bartnicki probably didn’t have to fight Bowser after ten years of working on his translation of Joyce’s novel to Polish, some fighting actually took place. Fu wojny (“Fu of War”), published the same year as Finneganów tren, welcomes us with those striking words: “Translation is a continuation of war with other means.” That’s a very solid metaphor, actually. Translator needs a strategy to overcome challenges imposed by the source text – his “enemy.” The more difficult the text, the more complicated strategy must be put in work. What does it take to battle FW? Apparently a whole collection of ancient Chinese treatises on the application of military strategies to the art of translating.
At least that’s what Fu wojny is said to be. Why “said?” Well, there’s very little possibility that some ancient Chinese treatises delved into the detailed problems of translating Finnegnas Wake (like the fifth text from the collection, “Of the Story From the Riverbank,” which is concerned specifically with the first word of the novel, “riverrun.” Think that’s weird? Just wait till I write about Bartnicki’s Prospekt emisyjny).
Nevertheless, the book is important for a particular reason. Bartnicki takes a metaphor and stretches it into the whole book to discuss methodology of his translation. Literary images of soldiers attacking the battlefield, dialogues between generals or overcoming natural obstacles are supported by numerous footnotes referring to particular moments in the novel, comments of other translators, writers, facts from history or Joyce’s biography etc. And it does its job excellently. It talks about translation in an engaging and profoundly enlightening way, contrary to a bulk of academic books/papers about translation theory and practice.
Obviously, such work as translating Finnegans Wake somehow blurs the boundary between translation and literary creation. It needs elements of both, pretty much as in translating poetry. A lot of criticism can be (and was) drawn from the opinion that the elements of translating are getting lost in the myriad of linguistics gimmicks. That’s why I suppose works such as Fu wojny are necessary. A specific literary sensibility helps enormously in working on experimental literature; not only the passive encyclopedic knowledge but also a deep understanding of a text’s metaphorical nature and a “feel” of style/language.
So a translator’s profession is not only peculiar but also dangerous. Before Bartnicki, two other translators (Maciej Słomczyński, who translated Ulysses to Polish and Tomasz Mirkowicz) were defeated at the battlefield. It doesn’t mean though that they failed in a literal sense. The joint forces of past and present translators are like an army who accumulate experiences to “win” over their texts; hence, they make literature better for all of us.