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Translating Trans-Atlantyk: Behind the Scenes with Danuta Borchardt (Part 2)

Trans-Atlantyk CoverIn last week’s post, available hereDanuta Borchardt explained some of the immediate challenges she faced in translating Trans-Atlantyk, a novel by the celebrated Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. The farcical adventures of a penniless young writer stranded in Argentina are narrated in the style of the gawęda, a tale told by the fireside. The Polish Gombrowciz used in Trans-Atlantyk is accordingly replete with archaisms, inversions, and other variations that compound the difficulty of translation. Borchardt described her research on the gawęda and her serendipitous turn to baroque yet readable novels written in English including Gulliver’s Travels, Tristam Shandy, and Moby-Dick. This week, she writes about adjusting to the new style and reflects on the importance of careful feedback.

Danuta Borchardt—

At this point, I would like to draw attention to the collaboration of Thom Lane, my former husband and friend. This arrangement had already proved to be important in situations where, like myself, the translator was not a native speaker. (For example Stanisław Baraǹczak and Clare Cavanagh). Since Thom lived in Tucson and I in Gloucester, we worked mostly via emails.

“Dear Thom,

Translating Trans-Atlantyk will be a horrendous job. The book is not very long, about hundred and forty pages, but Gombrowicz uses different language variations, like a fireside chat, baroque, his own inventions, etc., etc.”

With Moby-Dick as background “music,” I tried to practice the 19th century style. Here is one of the samples I sent to Thom:

“Lo! So it is that art may be gifted from of the entrails of every suffering man or woman. Yet oft-times, as with the sperm whale’s flukes, it may be without suffering. The first is when the substance they call ambergris they wrench it from the intestines of the whale. The second, when with no suffering at all, as from the sperm whale’s flukes above water, without suffering to any beast or man, a perfume is perceived emitting and as gift received.”

“Dear Danusia,

That’s wonderful talk, it rings true.”

Thus went my practice of older English.

My note to Thom early in the process:

“Dear Thom,

I’m moving on with TA in its tragi-comic mode. I’m doing the first draft in long hand… At first, I want to do it all the way through, so that I can begin to establish a consistent voice, which will have to be in synchrony with the part we’ve already done.”

A few weeks later:

“Dear Danusia,

I am impressed by the quality of your translation… I do feel that it is a bit heavy and doesn’t flow too well, I think that has to do with the antique language and although it is an essential part of the translation, I think it needs some work.”

This kind of input, though not specific, was crucial, and I appreciated Thom’s careful reading and his sensitivity to the older form of the language. He also suggested the following:

“Since so many people have been made familiar with Shakespeare’s famous lines using conventions of his time there are many that are familiar and would be easily understood. That’s what I feel is most important, to get the feel without losing the readers.”

I proceeded to deal with the archaic aspects of Gombrowicz’s language. Words like forsooth (from Old English forsoth), perchance (from Middle English and French par chance), methinks (this, as far back as Shakespeare) are of frequent occurrence. To my surprise, on reading the older English of Swift, Sterne and Melville I did not find as many verb inversions as I had expected. I did use them but only sparingly, and when it worked well in the translated text. Thom’s pithy note was especially helpful here: “there is the problem that reading the inversions and constantly figuring them out is work for the reader, so when I came across ones that seemed tiresome I pulled them back to a more normal order, out of consideration for the reader.”

It was interesting to discover older origins of words such as dunderhead—17th century, to mosey—19th century.

I would like to give you the flavor of the language when the narrator is vociferating against the Polish consul in Buenos Aires where the action takes place:

“Oh, the Devil of it, the Devil! Thus the Pomp celebration more and more intense became, and H.E. the Envoy, evidently against my wishes and disregarding my vehement displeasure, had his own way and spread the Pomp in all directions. Pox-upon-him, why did I venture within his sight! And besides, ‘tis a dangerous business! One can raise such shenanigans [probably a 19th century word, D.B.] in ordinary times, but when there’s Murder, Slaughter, ‘tis better to sit quietly and wait ‘til it ends, and take care not to bring down some evil on oneself.

Thus I swore and decided I would not go to that reception, nor will I suffer my person to any further holy Pomp, oh, so Stupid perchance and Worthless.”

Somewhat later from Thom:

“Dear Danusia,

I think the translation is coming along very well, and as usual the true wild energy and difficult eccentricity of Gombrowicz is there, although this is sure a very unique piece of writing… I think you are on the right track with the choices you are making and it is a riot, I really laugh out loud at many things… Terrific stuff and I think you are doing very well in activating all these swirling forces.”

This kind of encouragement didn’t hurt.

Read Part Three

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