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Dyskurs, przeklad, interpretacja

Literatura staropolska i jej trwanie we wspólczesnej kulturze

Reviewer: Bogdan Czaykowski

Dyskurs, przeklad, interpretacja:
Literatura staropolska i jej trwanie we wspólczesnej kulturze

(Discourse, Translation, and Interpretation: Old Polish Literature and Its Presence in Contemporary Culture) By Piotr Wilczek. Katowice: Gnome, 2001. 236 pages. Paper. In Polish.

There are few contemporary Polish literary critics who write scholarly prose as elegantly as the author of this handsomely produced book. Similarly, Piotr Wilczek's erudition, while exceptionally broad and often arcane, is never merely pedantic. Each section of the book and indeed the book as a whole present an argument, though the argument of the entire collection is less explicit than of its individual sections. The reason for the latter is the complex relationship between the three main concepts that inform the book: discourse, translation and interpretation. It is also the result of the time span covered, from the sixteenth century to the present, and of the variety of the subject matter which ranges from an interpretation of a sixteenth-century poem through an analysis of religious polemics in Poland at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to a consideration of baroque elements in Tadeusz Rózewicz's poetry and the question of how to define religious poetry. What gives the book its cohesiveness is its overall conceptual framework and thematic focus expressed by the book's subtitle.

Part One focuses on Jan Kochanowski (1530-84), the greatest Slavic poet before Mickiewicz and Pushkin, whose work is presently beginning to receive recognition in Britain and North America, thanks mainly to several new translations of a cycle of poems titled Laments(Treny, 1580), of which Baranczak and Heaney's vies for first place with that of Adam Czerniawski's (a revised version of the latter has just been published by Legenda Publishers in Oxford). The Kochanowski section consists of three chapters. The first deals with the Laments. Wilczek argues that the Laments is a polyphonic poem presenting in a dialogic manner a series of approaches to the central question it addresses: whence suffering and death, while leaving a final answer open. Those approaches, Wilczek points out, are conveyed through the use of the personae including Job, Brutus, Niobe, Orpheus, David, and Cicero who are masks for the author's inner drama. In Wilczek's view, Kochanowski is an epistemological agnostic: human beings will never solve the enigma of suffering, not in this world anyway. There is much additional evidence in the poem to support the author's thesis that goes beyond his chosen focus. For the masks are not the only carriers of points of view. It may, in fact, be argued that the real debate in the poem is between the Christian and the humanist world view, with the Christian stance conveyed by the imitation of the Psalms and the long speech of the persona of the Mother--who, however, as Wilczek rightly insists, is not the poet's ‘mask'--and who addresses the poet in his vision in the last and longest poem of the cycle. At the same time, her restatement of the Christian outlook is not treated by Kochanowski as conclusive, since the nature of the vision is rendered ambiguous by the poem's last lines:

Here she vanished. I awoke.

Was she real or part of my dream?

Although Wilczek does not discuss directly the question of Kochanowski's own attitude to the orthodox religious viewpoint expressed in Lament XIX, he does return briefly to it in the last chapter of the book, where he quotes with cautious approval Wiktor Weintraub's contention that Kochanowski's religious outlook "resembles what Wilhelm Dilthey called ‘a religious-universalist' theism of the Italian humanists."

The second chapter deals with the translations of Kochanowski's Lament X, from the early rendering by John Bowring (1827) to the quite recent ones of Michael Mikos, Adam Czerniawski and Stanislaw Baranczak/Seamus Heaney. Here the analysis is stylistic and semantic, and it displays not only an excellent analytical apparatus but a balanced and fair treatment of the topic. Wilczek illuminates such crucial problems of translation as archaization, the choice of metrical patterns, and fidelity to the original. His conclusion is that a perfect translation (in Polish: przeklad kongenialny) is impossible. He thus challenges the views of those who, like Baranczak and Joseph Brodsky, want to reproduce in translation the largest possible number of formal features of the original.

The third chapter deals with Kochanowski's Polish version of Horace's ode "O nata mecum consule Manlio." Here the author has chosen for his analysis a poem that may well be considered untranslatable because of its strong cultural determination. The problem of how to find equivalents for elements that carry different values in discrete cultures was first addressed in a discursive way in connection with the translations of the Bible into vernacular languages. As is clear from the author's chosen example, practice preceded theoretical discussions. Wilczek considers Kochanowski's rendering of Horace's ode to be a masterpiece of Renaissance translation, in that it demonstrates that a poet of real genius can sometimes achieve what seems virtually impossible. But, he argues, it was not only Kochanowski's poetic genius that made this feat possible. What helped Kochanowski was the sixteenth-century concept of translation as a transfer from one culture into another of a poetic and semantic structure in such a way that the result is not a ‘faithful' version, but a version which is an equivalent of the original in the target language, in the sense of being a poem in its own right, or an original poem. Wilczek points out that in the sixteenth century, translations did not take the place of the original poems, but existed side by side with them. There was no need for the former, since readers knew the language (in this case Latin) and could read the original poems for themselves. A consideration of some recent translations into Polish of Horace's hymnic ode shows how attempts at transferring realia from one culture into another, while ostensibly more faithful to the original, burden the new version with elements which carry no meaning in the culture of the target language. The ‘ideal' translation, the author concludes (and one wonders how consistent this conclusion is with the argument of his preceding chapter), is one that does justice to both the poetic and the philological virtues of the original.

Part Two consists of six chapters, and it is devoted to religious polemics between the Jesuits and the Arians (Anti-Trinitarians) in Poland, with a separate chapter devoted to the critique of Luther by the sixteenth-century Polish Catholic polemicists. It ends with a consideration of the value of religious polemics in the history of ideas. This section of the book is varied, fascinating, and impossible to summarize. Wilczek's discussion of the content, style, and nature of religious polemics (the main issues being the nature of Christ and the authority of the sacred text) is exemplary in its clarity and balance. While it is obvious that the author does not share the approach of those who institutionalize a single point of view, he nevertheless treats all arguments as equal before the arbiter of reason. This chapter throws light on Polish culture between 1570-1620, and it shows how often it has been misinterpreted by those who apply anachronistic criteria to the past. One is especially struck by the imagination of the polemicists, their adept use of rhetoric and their vigorous style (often unsparing of the opponent) both in syntax and diction, which at times brings to mind Witold Gombrowicz. Finally, the contempt in which many modern writers hold the Jesuit order is certainly not justified on Wilczek's showing, at any rate not in the period in question. He demonstrates that the first generation of Jesuit theologians and polemicists in Poland matched in intellectual acumen their radical challengers, the Polish Brethren.

Part Three has, at first sight, a more disparate character than the first two parts. The most substantial chapter deals with the revival of interest in rhetoric among the postwar Polish literary scholars such as Miroslaw Korolko, Jerzy Ziomek, Adam Rysiewicz, Barbara Otwinowska and Jakub Z. Lichanski. The author subscribes to Rysiewicz's view about the importance of rhetoric for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Polish writing, and he illustrates this by analyzing a treatise on rhetoric by Stefan Mikanus which appeared in 1561 in Kraków. The difficult question of the relationship between rhetoric and poetics is posed (though not resolved), while the general thesis of the importance of rhetoric in literary studies is made amply convincing.

The role that an older poetic tradition may play in the context of a totalizing ideological offensive (in this case, Marxist) and the interpretive distortions that this can lead to, are well brought out in a discussion of the still valuable anthology of the Polish Arian poetry, Arianie w swietle wlasnej poezji, compiled by Jan Durr-Durski in 1948. Chapter three of Part Three deals with the question (already touched upon earlier in the book) of the practice of archaization in poetic translation. It analyses Jerzy S. Sito's translation into Polish of John Donne's Sonnet X. While Wilczek finds some of Baranczak's criticisms of Sito's translation unconvincing, he nevertheless puts forward several important arguments against the practice of archaization, and he clinches the argument by quoting Baranczak's modern and superior version of the sonnet. The last but one chapter looks at the persistence of the baroque tradition in contemporary Polish poetry by focusing on the example of Tadeusz Rózewicz's poem "Totentanz." Here the focus, while fairly narrow, serves to illuminate a whole spectrum of related issues. Finally, the essay on religious poetry is an interesting attempt to clarify this difficult concept by drawing on Helen Gardner's essay "Religious Poetry: A Definition" in the context of several other approaches, such as T.S. Eliot's and Michael Lieb's. A number of subtle distinctions allow the author to make the concept of religious poetry meaningful without committing him to an unnecessarily narrow definition.

Piotr Wilczek's book is written with admirable conceptual and stylistic clarity, and while it gives evidence of the author's considerable knowledge in the area of modern theory, it is free of jargon or convoluted theorizing for its own sake. The book is written in the best tradition of Polish literary scholarship, as exemplified for instance by the work of Wiktor Weintraub, one-time professor of Polish literature at Harvard. Had the Polish community in the United States established a Wiktor Weintraub Prize for a work of scholarship of a superior character and quality, Dr. Wilczek's book would undoubtedly be among the strongest contenders.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/16/02