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Ursula Phillips: translating the unknown and recovering Poland's Virginia Woolf

One of the Polish classics by Zofia Nałkowska has recently been published in English. Ursula Phillips, its translator, talks about the difficulties of publishing unknown foreign classics and about her reasons for choosing Nałkowska above all other writers.

Set in a sanatoria village in a French-speaking part of the Swiss Alps in the mid-1920s, the novel Choucas (1927) by Polish author Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) is remarkably relevant to today’s world. It covers issues such as international hatred, prejudice against foreigners, nationalism, genocide, societies in transition and political violence. Subtitled ‘an international novel,’ it bears certain resemblances to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, though research has found no direct influence. In her modest pension-cum-sanatorium with its magnificent view of the Dents du Midi, the female narrator and her male companion (both unnamed in the novel, but inspired by Nałkowska’s own stay in Leysin in 1925 with her then husband Jan Gorzechowski) encounter representatives of the European nations or their colonial counterparts, sufferers from bone or lung tuberculosis, or winter sports aficionados. Guests include Armenian survivors of the 1915-1916 genocide placed there by the Swiss Red Cross, thereby offering an early and independent view of that atrocity. Proximity in time to the aftermath of World War I, to the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, to attempts to establish international cooperation centred around the newly formed League of Nations in Geneva, to the troubles in Ireland and in the French or Spanish colonies, as well as to the birth throes of the fledging Polish independent state established in 1918 after 123 years of partition, provides the backdrop to the characters’ attitudes to war and political conflict, and the narrator’s pessimistic conclusions. She notes, quoting one of her characters, how certain things remain constant: ‘war, imprisonments, and the power of some over the lives and deaths of others.’

The title takes its name from an Alpine bird which Nałkowska identifies by its French name, although the birds are not strictly speaking choucas (jackdaws), but chochards à bec jaune (Alpine chough, pyrrhocorax graculus); they are often known locally as choucas, and so she merely adopts this usage. In the winter months the birds flock down from the high mountains, and the narrator feeds them on the balcony of her pension and befriends them. For other guests, as for the locals, the birds have a less benign symbolism: they are birds of ill omen. What then are we to make of the dramatic circling of the birds over the valley on the day the narrator leaves? A farewell from her friends? Or a warning of doom hanging over Europe?

Why did I decide to translate this book, or other works by Nałkowska, or indeed other neglected Polish classics, especially by women? Partly to counteract any perception that only contemporary authors are relevant and have anything to say to us. Certainly, because female authors are much less translated than male and so the ‘canon’ of Polish literature in English is a warped one. And certainly out of conviction that these texts are accessible to non-Poles, if only they could be read. I cling to my faith that readers know that the past is essential to understanding the present and that contemporary literature is itself the product of a process, a dialogue with the past and with earlier books. My desire to make Nałkowska more visible is also personal: I am full of admiration for her insights into human psychology and its connection with corporeal existence (her direct uninhibited approach, for example, to sexuality, illness, old age, motherhood and abortion).

As far as Nałkowska herself is concerned, certainly the ‘international’ subject matter of Choucas made it my first choice, as being perhaps the most ‘accessible’. It is not Nałkowska’s best-known work in Poland: but I don’t think that this should be the sole criterion for translation. It goes without saying that finding publishers willing to take a risk on lesser known, non-contemporary texts is an uphill struggle. Just as the translations themselves often depend on eccentric utopians with a sense of mission, so too the support of committed individuals is necessary to persuade publishers. Here I should mention my personal debt to David Goldfarb and his introduction to the Northern Illinois University Press, which accepted first my translations of two nineteenth-century Polish women, Maria Wirtemberska (1768-1854) and Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876), and then, following my advice, signed three contracts for works by Nałkowska with various translators. I remain grateful for the fact that the then commissioning editors were open to my judgment, although all the translations, of course, are subject to the publishing house’s internal reviewing process. The second Nałkowska novel has just been published: The Romance of Teresa Hennert (November 2014), translated by Megan Thomas and Ewa Małachowska-Pasek. Meanwhile, I have completed the third, perhaps Nałkowska’s best known novel in Poland since it is included in the secondary school curriculum: Boundary (Granica, 1935); however, this translation will not see the light of day for at least a year.

Once such works have appeared, however, there remains the problem of publicizing them. I do my best to get them reviewed in English language as well as Slavic reviewing journals. The Żmichowska novel was reviewed on BBC Radio’s ‘Nightwaves’. Promotional events can also help, although this again requires cooperation and commitment from various people supporting translated books. An event last June was held at the Armenian Institute in London to promote Choucas, with financial support from the Polish Cultural Institute, London. On 2 November, a similar event was held in the Leysin American School, now the owner of one of the magnificent Belle Epoque buildings portrayed in the novel. This event has revived interest in republication of the French translation (1936), a project I am now working on with a Swiss colleague.

The value of Nałkowska’s works, which cover all aspects of early to mid-twentieth-century life – world politics as well as Poland’s conflicted statehood, contemporary philosophical and cultural debates, feminism, sexual relations – is not, however, limited to their content. She is regarded as a pioneer of the psychological novel in Polish. She is an outstanding Modernist writer who developed remarkable stylistic brevity and experimented with narrative technique. I am often tempted to compare her favourably with Virginia Woolf. But Woolf is well-known because she wrote in English. What if Zofia Nałkowska had also written in a ‘major’ language?

About the translator

Ursula Phillips (Honorary Research Associate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) is a writer on Polish literature and translator of literary and academic works. Other recent translations include Maria Wirtemberska’s Malvina, or the Heart’s Intuition (1816) and Narcyza Żmichowska’s The Heathen (1846), also published by the Northern Illinois University Press. She is a translator of contemporary writers Wiesław Myśliwski and Agnieszka Taborska and editor of a recent book on post-1989 Polish literature: Polish Literature in Transformation (LIT-Verlag, 2013).

Posted by Emma Cleave, Thursday 29th January, 2015


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