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Ferdinand van Kessel, Tangier, 1689, Kunsthistorischen Museums Wien.

Author: Jerzy Jarniewicz
Translator: Katarzyna Szuster-Tardi
Language: Polish
Region: Poland

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The Translator as the Creator of the Canon

An essay on translation by Jerzy Jarniewicz, translated from Polish
by Katarzyna Szuster‑Tardi.

It is best to begin with the word, that is, with the taxonomy. In the complicated systematic of literary animals, a “translator” is not the name of one species but a large family of creatures. There are numerous species of translators: depending on their goals, motives, and courses of action, or the type of audience at which the translation is targeted. 

Since we have to resign from the daunting, yet enticing, attempt at presenting the full systematic, let us have a closer look at two of the most interesting species. The first one includes a wide group of translators whose activity represents the interests of the culture from which they translate. They want to render in their mother tongue what they deem to be the most representative from the foreign culture. Hence, they try to show the widest scope of canonical writers who work in a variety of poetics and often hold contradictory worldviews. The translators from this group, whom I call the ambassadors,1 don’t try to establish their own hierarchy of values. They don’t write their history of English, French, German or Russian literature; they don’t offer re-evaluations or risky, autonomous opinions. On the contrary, they show respect to what is believed to be the best in the culture.  

One of those ambassadors was surely Maciej Słomczyński.2 It would appear that the translator, who devoted eleven years of his life to work on the translation of a text key to European modernism––Joyce’s Ulysses––might also like to show Polish readers other achievements of that current. But no. Słomczyński didn’t translate works of any other modernist authors: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Eliot, Yeats or Pound. But he did translate a relatively little-known late-medieval poem by Geoffrey Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde, as well as work by one of the greatest satirists of the English language, Jonathan Swift. As if this wasn’t enough, the translator presented Polish readers with his versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,  John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Blake’s poems. The crowning of his ambassadorial translational activity was rendering all of Shakespeare’s works into Polish. 

There are a million dollars for whomever can find a common denominator in this translational repertoire: an ideological or artistic affinity between Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Joyce, Blake and Swift. If there’s anything that these authors have in common, it must be that each of them is recognized in their native culture as the greatest writer of his era. Chaucer is the peak achievement of late medieval literature; Shakespeare is, of course, the pride of the Elizabethan Renaissance. Milton is the embodiment of 17th-century poetry, while Joyce is the acme of the modern novel. Hence, Słomczyński tried to familiarize the Polish reader with the canonical writers par excellence, with those who were placed on top of the literary hierarchy. In his translational activity, he rubbed elbows only with the finest representatives of the English-language pantheon.

A similar translational position, though not as unequivocal, is assumed by Stanisław Barańczak,3 who, as a seasoned translator of literature, easily moves between epochs—from the Renaissance to modernity. He has no problem translating works written in a variety of poetic languages: from the Baroque poetics of the metaphysical school to the succinct lyricism of Emily Dickinson; from a traditional poem of Robert Frost to the casual diction of Philip Larkin or the linguistic experiments of e.e. cummings. The poets translated by Barańczak in the series he edited entitled The Poets of the English-Language, are, similarly to Słomczyński, characters from different stories, although all of them belong to the literary canon. Apart from the authors of absurd poetry, which Barańczak set aside on his library shelf, no poets he worked on were outside the mainstream. What is distinctive of the writers he chose to translate is that none of those living poets’ work are yet to be canonized by the Nobel Prize or another distinction of that magnitude.

Barańczak’s ambassadorial ambition to represent what has been recognized as the best in English and American literature is visible in his way of entitling his anthologies and his selection of texts. Antologia od Chaucera do Larkina4 is a set of several hundred poems selected according to this particular key: they are the most popular works in English-language culture assembled in various ranks of popularity. This practice allows Barańczak to note in his subtitle that we are dealing with an anthology of “400 timeless poems.” At the same time, it’s clear that it is not Barańczak who employs his authority—of a critic, translator, poet—to bestow the status of timeless works on these texts (although, he could have). Prior to the publication of Barańczak’s anthology, these works had already existed within their national literature as masterpieces. For this reason, the ambassador-translator renders these works into Polish with appropriate humility and reverence, while simultaneously transferring the canon applied in the English-language culture. 

Aside from the ambassador, there is another species of translator, one who is driven by different motives. These translators aren’t as interested in rendering the representative works of the foreign literature—those four or eight hundred masterpieces—in their mother tongue, as they are in the condition of their native literature, culture, and language. This type of translator realizes that each translation becomes a fact of the literature of the language to which they translate. As Jerzy Pieńkos, a translation theorist, put it, “whomever translates into the language of a given nation, translates for its literature.”5 For such a translator, the hierarchies, rankings or lists existing abroad don’t matter in the least. They choose which texts to  translate by themselves, guided not by the fact that they are representative of the culture from which they originate, but because their translation may enter into a creative dialogue with the native literature, offering it new paradigms, new languages, and new criteria. The translator of the second species establishes a new artistic law for their native literature (and, if they happen to be authors, also for their own writing). I propose to call this species of translator the legislator. 

In 1960, when translations of contemporary Eastern-European poetry, including Polish, started to appear in Great Britain, it was clear that the initiators of the translations of Herbert,6 Holub,7 Popa,8 Pilinszky,9 or Sorescu10 were more interested in the condition of British poetry at the time than in an attempt to explore literatures from beyond the iron curtain. According to their diagnosis, British poetry was at a dangerous impasse. There was a need for an attractive proposition to revamp the poetic language so it could face the new, postwar reality; a need for a new paradigm of a poem open to a grand narrative that could reflect on its explicit and implicit mechanisms. This new paradigm for the poem, a new proposition for poetic language and thematic choices, was found in poetry traditionally referred to as Eastern-European. Indeed, after the translations of Herbert, Holub, Miłosz, and Popa were published in Great Britain, British poetry began to transform. Thus, these translations interfered with the unsatisfactory way literature had been practiced on the Isles. No one was interested in whether the selection of those particular poets was truly representative (and it wasn’t). The British didn’t expect an anthology of four hundred masterpieces of Polish lyricism, but translations of a certain type of poem, which was missing in the English-language repertoire—free verse, a parabolic poem that was open to a grand narrative.

In Poland, a position similar to the approach of the British translators was assumed by Bohdan Zadura,11 who wrote in the foreword to his selection of Tony Harrison’s poems: “In my deepest conviction—not of a poet nor a translator, but a reader—Tony Harrison belongs to that group of English poets, whose non-existence in the Polish language in several or a dozen years will provoke a question from the youth—where have you been?”.12 To Zadura, Harrison was simply needed by the Polish poets at the beginning of the 1990s, and more than that, he was needed by the Polish poetry at the time, which was experiencing a major identity crisis and facing new challenges. Zadura probably wasn’t interested at that point in what place Harrison held in British poetry.

It would appear that Piotr Sommer13 was guided by a similar objective when he published his famous selection of Frank O’Hara’s poetry—a volume, which like no other influenced the shape of the modern Polish poem, by uprooting the previous way of thinking about and discussing poetry. In a discussion on an internet fora devoted to new literature, Sommer wrote: “I assume that a foreign poem is translated into Polish because—or so that—the Polish language of the poem could gain something which it didn’t have before, and learn something which it didn’t know before, and which makes it (the foreign poem) exceptional.”14 In contrast to Barańczak’s collections, Sommer’s anthologies—British, Northern-Irish or American—don’t make a claim to be representative, much less complete. These are personal choices of the translator and author, who needed to do this work to initiate a serious conversation about the limits of and possibilities for a Polish paradigm of poetic language. An accusation that this author or another didn’t make their way to his book is bound to be  misguided due to the personal and fundamentally unrepresentative nature of his anthology. Such a criticism made against Barańczak’s anthologies, which aspired to illustrate the major-league masterpieces, would be a serious allegation. In the foreword to his anthology of Ukrainian poetry Wiersze są zawsze wolne [Verse is always free], Bohdan Zadura wrote something that is of great importance in the context of our reflections: “An advantage of this anthology is its multifaceted unrepresentativeness,” after which he added that in that book he wasn’t trying to reflect any hierarchy nor to establish one.15

Piotr Sommer is a particularly vivid example of the translator who doesn’t play the role of an ambassador to English or American literature. In his translational activity, he acts as the legislator, whose propositions––the translations of Americans: O’Hara, Reznikoff, Ashbery, Berryman, Cage, and earlier, of the British: Dunna, Enright, Hamilton, or the Irish: Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Carson—should be viewed as propositions to re-evaluate the poetic paradigms applied in Poland and to expand the circle of their thematic and linguistic interests. Sommer consciously translates the poets whose element is casual speech, hence, a language that opposed high speech, which clearly dominated in the tradition of Polish poetry until the New Wave turn (regardless of several notable exceptions). Sommer’s translational choices also propose a new understanding of the role of the poet, according to which their only duty is to be unfailingly loyal to the language, and not to fulfill the role of the witness to history, the moral authority, or a spiritual leader, in short, all these roles, which were played, or had to be played, by the Polish poets at least since the times of Romanticism. The fact that these roles have taken a deep root in the consciousness of the reader, and not only a Polish one, is visible in the selection of poems by Zbigniew Herbert published in 1999 in the United States, who is introduced in the first sentence of his bio as “a spiritual leader of his nations anti-Communist movement.”16 Tu l’as voulu, Georges Dandin.

At this point, we ought to ask about the consequences of both translational strategies: the ambassador-translator and the legislator-translator. It’s noteworthy to consider something that appears obvious, but isn’t fully realized. The image of foreign literature isn’t formed by the historians of a given literature nor philologists nor critics, but translators. What we consider as the canon of American, English, Russian, German or any other foreign literature, depends on what translations of these works of literature are available. We gain nothing if a phonologist or historian of literature elaborates on the meaning of, let’s say, the poetry of Basil Bunting, if his poems have never appeared in the Polish language (aside from the translations by Leszek Engelking published in Literature na Świecie). From the perspective of the Polish reader, Bunting doesn’t belong to the canon of British literature. 

It is linked to another truth, as much obvious as unrecognized: the image of a given foreign literature may vary—and often does—from the image of that literature within its home culture. Our notions about the canon of English literature may diverge from the canon existing in England. The reason for these discrepancies is that the translator—aside from translating specific works of foreign literature—also forms its canon. They are often the creators of the canon.

The creators of the canon are predominantly the translators from the second group I’ve described: the legislators. It is them who select the authors and texts according to their decalogue and artistic goals. The image of Sommer’s British poetry is different from that which can be found in anthologies, histories, or lexicons published in Great Britain. Similarly, the image of Polish poetry created by the English translators may vary from the image of contemporary Polish poetry that has been sanctioned by Polish critics. 

Translators such as Słomczyński and Barańczak are translators of not only texts, but also existing canons. Sommer and Zadura don’t translate canons—they create them for their own purposes, most often ad hoc. 

This creative role of the translator is particularly visible in the case of poetry translation. Contrary to the translators of prose, poetry translators usually do their work at their own risk, according to their system of values. Prose translators typically work on the order of publishers, while poetry translators translate by themselves and for themselves, publishing their work in journals, initially, which I know from autopsy, not even thinking about a full-length publication. Typically, it’s a task that takes years and isn’t limited by the demands of the market or prompted by media events; it isn’t accompanied by the hubbub around important literary prizes or high-profile movie adaptations. A novel that wins the Booker Prize or is turned into a movie script is quickly noticed by publishers, gets translated and published. Such mechanisms don’t apply even to the most famous poetic achievements. John Betjeman, the English Poet Laureate, whose books landed on best-seller lists, has never been published in Polish. Carol Ann Duffy, one of the most popular British female poets, is unknown in Poland, even though in England her fame resembles the popularity of celebrities. Hence, while it is publishers who select prose for translation (and the laws of the market force them to pander to the readership’s tastes), in the case of poetry, the choices are the translator’s, and they are fundamentally unrepresentative, selective, and marked by personal interests. 

The role of critics and philologists is to recognize and describe the type of translational activity which we are dealing with in a given moment. Does the project have a representative character, and does the translator behave like the ambassador to the foreign culture, or, the opposite, is it the personal choice of the translator, a proposition of a specific understanding of literature, consciously exclusive and selective, as it’s legislative?

The problem is that the selective and creative translational choices of the legislators are starting to function as representative for a given culture. For this reason, in the eyes of English critics and readers, the canon of Polish postwar poetry consists of the texts by Miłosz and Herbert, Różewicz (though to a decidedly smaller degree), and also Szymborska and Zagajewski. However, the poetry of Leśmian, Gałczyński, Nowak, or Grochowiak, which hasn’t emerged on the English-language market, has no place in the canon, whereas such an influential figure as Białoszewski has only been marginally introduced. For an English person, Eastern-European poetry appears as a phenomenon that’s remarkably uniform—according to some—even monotonous. In Great Britain, a term has been coined—“Eastern-European diction,” which reveals a conviction that this—particular, after all—type of poem is representative of the entire literature from the countries of Eastern Europe. In Poland, on the other hand, as it can be observed from ongoing discussions and literary polemics, contemporary American poetry often comes down to the works of two poets, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, while the fact is that for a number of years, these authors existed on the outskirts of American poetry and for a long time weren’t noticed by the official cultural institutions. 

In this regard, the 2009 Dzieje literatury powszechnej [The history of world literature] by Jan Tomkowski17 may be an instructive reading for a philologist. The chapter devoted to contemporary poetry of the English-language lists only the names of the poets who have been translated into Polish and who have book publications in Poland. On the one hand, unsurprisingly, it is short on several major names, which would have come up in any other similar synthesis compiled by an English philologist (for instance, Geoffrey Hill and Derek Mahon). On the other hand, it includes names that enjoy great popularity in Poland, but which are rarely discussed abroad (one example is Leonard Cohen). And there’s nothing alarming about it. The fact that the canon of a given literature sometimes takes a different shape from the perspective of foreign-speaking readers can only make the inter-cultural dialogue that much richer and more attractive, but can even trigger a revision of hierarchies that are at risk of ossification. A classic example is Edgar Allan Poe, an American poet who was discovered for Europe by French Symbolists, as until then his literary reputation was based not on his poetry but on his prose. A similar thing happened with Byron, whose canonicity was obvious to the readers of nearly all of Europe, whereas until recently, his work had raised serious doubts among English historians. In both cases, we dealt with the establishment of new canons of American or English poetry. Maintaining all proportions, one may say (because it’s hard to escape the analogies) that Harrison was needed by Zadura, and O’Hara by Sommer, the way Poe was needed by Baudelaire, and Byron by Mickiewicz.

It’s not my intention to evaluate the two species of translators I’ve distinguished or the discussed phenomenon of translators’ involuntarily creating a canon of foreign literatures. The legislator-translator is doubly creative: not only as the author of a new text, but also as a builder of artistic hierarchies. The ambassador-translator is characterized by humility towards the axiological and aesthetic solutions of the foreign literature; as any ambassador, they perform a difficult and necessary service. In a culture, as in any normally functioning country, you need both ambassadors and legislators. 

1 Jerzy Jarniewicz, Co Anglicy lubią najbardziej? Czyli poezja polska w Wielkiej Brytanii, “NaGłos” 1993, no. 12/37.
2 Maciej Słomczyński (1920–1998) – one of the most popular Polish translators of English literature and an author of detective stories, which he published under the pen-name Joe Alex.
3 Stanisław Barańczak (1946–2014) – Polish poet, literary critic and translator. Actively involved in the dissident movement in the 1970s. In 1981 he moved to the United States, where he became a lecturer at Harvard University.
4 “Od Chaucera do Larkina”. An Anthology of English-language poetry selected, translated and edited by Stanisław Barańczak. Znak, Cracow 1993.
5 Jerzy Pieńkos, Przekład i tłumacz we współczesnym świecie, Warszawa 1993, p. 408.
6 Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was a Polish poet and essayist.
7 Miroslav Holub (1923–1998) was a Czech poet and immunologist, widely published in English and lauded by such authorities as Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Al Alvarez.
8 Vasko Popa (1922–1991) was a Serbian poet, whose work has been championed by Ted Hughes.
9 Janos Pilinszky (1921–1981) was a Hungarian poet, translated into English by Ted Hughes in collaboration with Janos Csokits.
10 Marin Sorescu (1936–1996) was a Romanian poet, novelist and playwright, after the fall of Communism he became the Minister of Culture.
11 Bohdan Zadura (b. 1945) – Polish poet, novelist, literary critic and translator from English, Ukrainian and Hungarian.
12 Tony Harrison, Kumkwat dla Johna Keatsa, comp., trans. and foreword by Bohdan Zadura, Warszawa 1990.
13 Piotr Sommer (b. 1948) – Polish poet, essayist and translator. Author of highly influential anthologies of modern American, British and Irish poetry. Continued, his selected poems in English translations, was published by Wesleyan
University Press in 2012.
14 www.nieszuflada.pl, 14.02.2006.
15 Bohdan Zadura, Wiersze są zawsze wolne, Wrocław 2007, p. 5.
16 Zbigniew Herbert, Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems, trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, Hopewell 1999.
17 Jan Tomkowski (b. 1954) – Polish essayist, novelist and professor of Polish literature. His “Dzieje literatury powszechnej” was a bestselling popular introduction to world literature.

Jerzy Jarniewicz is the author of sixteen volumes of poetry, sixteen volumes of critical writing, has edited six volumes on literature and culture, and has translated nearly forty volumes of literature into Polish, including John Ashbery, Charles Simic, Umberto Eco, Philip Roth, Ursula K. LeGuin, James Joyce (and numerous others). He is a distinguished professor at the University of Łódź in Poland.

Katarzyna Szuster-Tardi is a translator. Recent book translations include To Feed the Stone by Bronka Nowicka (Dalkey Archive Press, 2021), the chapbook Codex of the Insane: Body and Related Matters by Bronka Nowicka (Toad Press, 2021), and Polish Literature and Genocide by Arkadiusz Morawiec (Routledge, forthcoming 2022). Recent translations have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Sextant Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Tripwire, LIT, Berlin Quarterly, and Seedings. She earned her M.A. in English studies from the University of Łódź, Poland.