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Translating Trans-Atlantyk: Behind the Scenes with Danuta Borchardt (Part 3)

Trans-Atlantyk CoverIn the previous installments (part one, part two) of Danuta Borchardt‘s reflections on translating Trans-Atlantyk, she articulated why the variant of Polish Witold Gombrowicz used in the novel was so difficult to render in English. After considerable research and experimentation, she hit upon an approach that enabled her to translate the archaisms and idiosyncrasies of the gawęda (Polish fireside tale). As the project began she benefited from the thoughtful feedback of her ex-husband and friend Thom Lane. In this final post, Borchardt relates one more revealing anecdote from that collaboration. The episode sheds light on Borchardt’s process and exemplifies the frequently vexing but ultimately satisfying work of literary translation.

Danuta Borchardt—

A difference of opinion arose between us about the expression “to be born in a caul” with which Gombrowicz begins one of the chapters. It is a very well known expression in Polish. Some Americans have heard the expression in English, others, including Thom, have not.

My Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus for American readers gives the second meaning as “part of this (the inner membrane enclosing the fetus) occasionally found on a child’s head at birth, thought to bring good luck.” But this is what I found in the “all-knowing” Wikipedia: “… A legend developed suggesting that possession of a baby’s caul would give its bearer good luck and protected that person from death by drowning. Cauls were therefore highly prized by sailors. Medieval women often sold these cauls to sailors for large sums of money; a caul was regarded as a valuable talisman.”

I found this interesting, I hope you do too, though a bit befuddled. It shows you some of the specifics, of the labor, that the translation required.

Here was Thom’s response:


Interesting, but I still don’t like it in the context of the story, it has to do with sailors’ superstitions and drowning and children and childbirth… it is not in the spirit of the passage even now that I know a bit about it. But it is interesting and I’m glad you sent the reference… but but but



“Not in the spirit of the passage” was an apt and rather convincing remark. I felt that Thom was really paying attention to the intent of the original text.

I suggested “born with a silver spoon”, to which Thom reacted, and rightly so:

“Dear Danusia,

The born with a silver spoon means rich parents and no need for a job, so it has a much different feel too. ‘Born under a good star’ or ‘Born under a lucky sign’ might be candidates.


I went to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms and found this: “Very fortunate, as in Peter comes out ahead no matter what he tries; he was born under a lucky star. That stars influence human lives is an ancient idea, and lucky star was used by writers from Shakespeare to the present. The precise phrase appears in a compendium of English idioms compiled by J. Burvenich in 1905.”

“Born under a lucky star” was the winning expression.

Read Part One

Read Part Two

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