Five Times on Translation

small__ukasiewicz__Pi___razy___ok_adka_PLATONMy first post on this blog was about Fu wojny and some innovative ways of discussing translation theory and practice. Although I wrote that it’s nice to have works which are different from the usual, boring textbooks, it doesn’t mean that we cannot have interesting books about translation which are more down-to-earth than Bartnicki’s application of “ancient war strategies” to that field.

Karakter publishing house, a rather new one in Poland and already one of my favorites published a book of essays by renowned Polish translator Małorzata Łukasiewicz titled Pięć razy o przekładzie (“Five Times on Translation”). It concisely reflects on issues such as why we have literary translations, what problems does a translator encounter, what relations there are between different entities involved in translations etc. As we read on the back cover:

Referring to the history of literature, stories of other translators and her own experiences, the author talks about the dilemmas and paradoxes of translator’s work as well as how to read translations and what literature can be.

I’m not really keen on writing full blown reviews, so let me just point out some things which I especially liked and which sparked my thought. The second essay of the collection is connected directly with my earlier reflections on Fu wojny. It talks about the multitude of metaphors about translating. What’s most surprising is that they can be used both in more essayist, or informal as well as academic and defining contexts. It shows that when translation studies was a rather new discipline, we were looking for some means of defining what translation is by referring to everything around it. However, as the discipline was becoming more and more precise and well-grounded in theory, translation itself became a certain model or archetype (Łukasiewicz gives an example of gender studies and how it talks about the original work associated with masculinity and reproduction, rewriting with femininity).

Some interesting points are made on literature in general. When talking about literary translations we cannot avoid the topic of literary studies. The author writes:

There are books which does not satisfy you even after the second or the third reading. One would like to do something more with them. It can be a truly burning desire. Rewrite them, by hand, with the use of calligraphy and the most beautiful ink on a handmade paper? Learn it by heart? Tell it to someone with your own words? Find out why they puzzled and enchanted us so much? Analyze, interpret, dig out the underlying mechanisms? Is not that the source of literary studies, book clubs, literary criticism – and translation? In his title Gadamer claims: “Reading is a translation.” Gayatri Spivak inverts the subject with the predicate but binds them with the same strength: “Translation is the most intimate act of reading.”

Reading literature is an intellectual challenge which breeds a whole universe of ideas. Literary translation is one of the products of such process. Commercialization is one thing, but for the most part translating literature is and will always be a form of artistic and intellectual expression.

There’s much more to say about the book which only proves its merit. It mixes essayistic reflections with a pinch of theory (Nida, Derrida, Spivak and others). Such works are great for students as well as for all of those who are interested in literature from a more pragmatic perspective.

Watch the Words

pointomegaSo I still haven’t read all of DeLillo’s works but I feel like it’s appropriate to say that in his newer novels he gets more inclined to write with certain ambiguity, about the metaphysical sphere of nature and aesthetics. It’s not like his earlier writings don’t share any of such characteristics, though still, reading White Noise or Underworld is different than reading Zero K or Point Omega, and the latter is the one which I’ve just read.

The title straightforwardly guides us to the so-called Omega Point, a concept developed by a Jesuit priest and an academic, Pierre de Chardin. It roughly refers to the unification of everything in the universe to a single, spiritual entity, a certain collective consciousness (entropy, huh?) In the novel, both Elster, an ex-war adviser who spends his retirement on a desert and Finley, a filmmaker intending to document his experience are concerned in different ways with the issue of passing time and the matter of consciousness. The plot starts and ends with 24 Hour Psycho, an art-piece showing Hitchcock’s movie slowed down to the period of twenty-four hours. As we read:

The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see to much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

This one nails it. To a great extent, Finley is concerned with alertness, with being conscious about your surroundings, the very subject of your interest, and looking at things as they are. This is actually the exact reason why the “post-Underworld” DeLillo really speaks to me. His later works are completely immersed in those highly cogitative subjects, focusing strongly on language, both in a textual and kind of meta-textual sense. I think it can be difficult for less experienced readers to get through it, however it’s fantastic how big is the extent to which we can interpret such prose and also how satisfying can be reading it if we look past the ambiguities and admire its aesthetic quality.

Inside the Mind of a Killer

51bFeD6U3yLI’ve always been fascinated by abstraction in writing. Obviously one of the masters of such thing would be Joyce, Finnegans Wake is the ultimate abstraction. However, letting your imagination, creativity and shitposting skills unfurl has many dimensions. 300.000.000 by Blake Butler is a story of Gravey, a serial killer and more or less involuntary cult leader and Flood, a police officer investigating his case. From the fragments of Scorch Atlas which I’ve read earlier, I knew already that this reading would be a rather extreme experience. Creepy, sick and highly addictive at the same time:

It was hard in the first hours under Darrel to figure out how to make the voice come out of my lungs the way the blood in those lungs meant to barf the syllables rejected from the vocabularies of common man. Gravey had not spoken so well in so long and I newly here inside him burned like burning books searching for the locks to keyless ways. I had to breathe way hard deep inside me like I was to be going under water; then I would close my eyes and listen hard, and through the phone over the rolling of the water I could hear the things we meant to verbalize in bone.

And that’s pretty much how the narrative works. It’s written in the form of notes or commentary; written by Gravey, Flood, other policemen or people involved in the crimes. It gets distorted a little bit in the later parts of the plot but I’m not going to delve too much into that.

Why do I find this book important? Writing in a maniacal, mystical and abstract way is not easy; pretentiousness is not very far away, IMHO Butler’s novel manages to avoid that thin border. We have fragments about sucking one’s eyeballs out, the spirit/ego/whatever-you-want-to-call-that leaving the body, police officer’s distressed reflections and many more. All of that seem to be interspersed in such a way that a certain atmospheric harmony is preserved.

Beside stylistics, the novel evokes a beautiful (if your sense of beauty is as fucked up as mine) image of apocalypse in America. The title refers to the rough number of people who live in the country and who are to be doomed. The closer the plot gets to the apocalypse, the more surreal/abstract it becomes. It also gets harder to get through the narration, that’s why ultimately I think it’s not a book for less experienced readers. The apocalypse is not the end though; I’m still struggling a little bit with interpreting the subsequent part. Nevertheless, it’s a book which left me in a weird, but kinda purgatory state. At the end of an interview from 2014 Butler was asked what is he working on now, to which he replied “I am trying to be calm.” So do I.

Infinite Read

ijWhen I first picked up Infinite Jest, I was just a naive sophomore merely entering into the sphere of THICC books and so – obviously – I failed at that attempt. And I’ve tried again. Looking for a PhD subject, I’ve thought about going somewhere into the area of media studies/consumerist culture/American society, namely something I’ve already done in my MA thesis’ chapter on DeLillo’s White Noise and what I kinda enjoyed writing about. I had a strict plan; ten days, one hundred pages each. And again, I failed.

Mostly because of bad timing. At the same time I was finishing a post-conference paper and it was much more demanding than I initially expected. And so the pressure of other responsibilities made me just browse some fragments looking for anything relevant to my present interests.

Putting aside all the jokes, memes, /lit/core material and so on, I’ve got to admit that it’s a great novel. It engulfs you. DFW creates a world full of everything I like; profound characters, obscurity, shitload of encyclopedic information, humor etc. It is problematic, of course. That whole “verbal blackface” thing, or how he depicts addicts, it’s better to read it keeping in mind all that stuff. However I cannot agree on comments about its pretentiousness. I think DFW was one of such types that he *could* appear pretentious although he was all about the real. It’s seen in his other fiction, essays, interviews, biographies, etc. Behind all that layers of obscurity, there’s a specific warmness in IJ which brings me back to this book again and again. Some kind of relatability. It makes sense if we look at it from the perspective of New Sincerity and all that it entails. It was made to give some kind of hope in our contemporary times. Does that really sound so pretentious?

Like, seriously. I love Pynchon, but from time to time it’s refreshing to read a big novel which doesn’t end in an ultimately pessimistic state of entropic disaster¹.


1. It depends on one’s interpretation, of course. Even if we assume that from his first short stories to Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon was gradually developing his view of entropy as a force ultimately better than order (which is all about fascism and stuff), then we still have this mental discontent when Oedipa enters the auction room all frustrated and devoid of hope or at the end of GR (Now everybody-). And here’s Boltzmann’s and Gibbs’ definition of entropy:


His Heart Was a Purple Castle

perfumeWhat makes good material literature? It’s when a piece of writing effectively encapsulates the essence of sensations, emotions or experiences with an emphasis on their physical dimension. In the case of Perfume by Patrick Süskind it’s obviously the sense of smell that is at the center of our attention. However, I found one paragraph which gives a fantastic description of what solitude is and how it feels like, and it goes like this:

His heart was a purple castle. It lay in a rock-strewn desert, concealed by dunes, surrounded by a marshy oasis, and set behind stone walls. It could be reached only from the air. It had a thousand private rooms and a thousand underground chambers and a thousand elegant salons, among them one with a purple sofa when Grenouille – no longer Grenouille the Great, but only the quite private Grenouille, or simply dear little Jean- Baptiste – would recover from the labors of the day.

It’s simple, poetic and violently accurate. Solitude is hiding in yourself, far from the outside world, to find one on the inside. In your guts. In your heart, or brain, whether you prefer to surround yourself with German romantic literature and suffer or write papers on analytic philosophy. And suffer. The fragment above presents the moment in the story when Grenouille finds a place where he can finally be far from the horrendous odor of humanity, where he can emerge from his bodily shell and be alone with his sweet memories and recollections of scents. Unfortunately, such transformation turns out to be impossible as he discovers a terrible truth about himself and his body. The plot goes on.

Good material literature makes a point about materiality of our world and carnality of ourselves. We cannot escape them. We’re trapped inside our bodies, trapped by the gravitational pull of earth, and so on. At least above the level of quantum mechanics, we’re governed by the laws of biology, and all we need to do is to realize and accept those laws – death, desire, the fact that every time I’ll go to the kitchen I’ll open the refrigerator even if knowing that nothing new did not suddenly appeared there but it’s a habit now and I accept that. Grenouille’s relation with the materiality was corrupted from the very beginning and that was the sole reason of his downfall.

I’ve seen the film adaptation of Perfume back in 2007 or ’08 when I was a teenager giggling at the orgy scene and surely I couldn’t fully appreciate this story until I’ve read the book just now. The Penguin Essentials edition’s cover is beautiful as well, soon I’ll probably check out Süskind’s Pigeon and I’ll give a feedback.

A Beautiful Sadness

stonerThere’s that one quote from South Park going around the internet which I like very much: “I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin’ really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feelin’ is like a, beautiful sadness.”

Simple as that. No self-help books or “Live Laugh Love” pictures on walls. And when I need some motivational guidance, I (obviously) resort to literature.

Stoner by John E. Williams is a beautiful, though a sad story – at least at the first sight. A “campus novel/Bildungsroman” about a farm boy who becomes a literature professor after discovering his love for written word really touches the heart. Throughout the story, titular William Stoner struggles with his upbringing, identity, his wife who turns out to be a different person than he initially expected, his career and various people who try to ruin it for various reasons, both world wars and how they changed the society, his only child and many more. The second paragraph already reveals the novel’s seemingly tragic character:

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual questions. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

It took me very little time to get through the book (it’s not long anyways; around two hundred pages). Williams’ writing is like a flowing river. His style is smooth, calm, even soothing in a sense. I think if it wasn’t for that style then Stoner wouldn’t have the same effect.

So what we get here is an account of a man’s mediocre, dull, an unhappy life.

Is it so?

No really, actually.

Despite all the bad stuff that happened in Stoner’s life, the novel retains a positive message. He was able to find happiness thanks to literature, which accompanied him from the moment when after reading a Shakespeare’s sonnet for an English class he decided to change his life, to the very end of his story (which actually takes place in his study room filled with books). Even if certain people tried to somehow stop him from fully endorsing his work and passion, he was still able to find courage to fight for what he really loved.

Quite often I feel very insecure about my plans for future and my ambitions to become something-like-a-serious-literary-scholar. Well, it’s not easy. Jobs are scarce, competition is wild and books are expensive (bless God for the internet! Stoner would’ve had it harder if not for the fact that in the early 20th century they were all doing only Milton and Shakespeare anyways). I guess those are some universal things for most people nowadays. However, I feel like I can truly relate to Stoner in that way. Working with literature gives me a lot of fulfillment in itself and that’s what really matters. Of course we cannot just stop thinking about competition or feeling down if our plans fail several times in a row. It all narrows down to focusing a little less on all the surrounding issues and a little more on the same subject of our work. This is just some kind of a stoic lesson which really should be endorsed; at least it works for me.

John Williams’s greatest literary achievement (beside Stoner) was Augustus, for which he was given a U.S. National Book Award. Nevertheless, it’s the first one for which he seems to be remembered the most. As Wiki tells us, in an interview he was asked if literature is written to be entertaining, to which he replied: “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.” As a writer and scholar he just did what he loved to do. And this is it. Go get the book and read it, it’s worth it.

War of the Words

fu-wojny_435Translator’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.