This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


W. Martin in conversation with Alicja Jankowska, Tomasz Krowka, Anastazja Lubecki, Sebastian Szafranski, Tamara Zielinska and Piotr Wilczek

Chicago Review, a highly regarded literary journal published at the University of Chicago, devoted a double issue (46:3&4, Fall 2000) to New Polish Writing: poems, short stories, novel excerpts, reportage, essays, and feuilletons written by Polish writers since 1989. On March 7, 2001, a group of students from the University of Illinois-Chicago met with W. Martin, the guest editor for the issue. The meeting was part of a course on postwar Polish literature taught by Professor Piotr Wilczek. This is the transcript of their conversation.

QUESTION: What are you working on right now?

W. MARTIN: I'm doing a doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

Q: Going back, to your first contact with Polish literature, how did you come to Polish literature?

WM: As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I took a course on postwar central European poetry with Danny Weissbort, and he had included quite a lot of Polish poets on the syllabus, people like Herbert, Rózewicz, Szymborska--these were the first Polish poets I read. Around the same time, Northwestern University Press published the first volume of Gombrowicz's Diaries, and there was something in there, his anxiety over what he calls "interhuman" deformation and his insistence on the particularity of his own experience, that really struck a chord with me. I had learned German in high school, and lived in West Berlin as an exchange student, and I had always been curious about eastern Europe--my father was a product of the McCarthy era, and I had grown up with a lot of really obvious clichés about eastern Europe that made it seem all the more mysterious. Also, I never felt that my response to writers I really liked was ever adequate, so maybe my decision to learn Polish had something to do with wanting to have a deeper, more real relationship to these writers' work. I'd already been taking Russian, and decided I didn't want to learn another "language of empire." Besides, my grandmother was Polish, she grew up in the Polish neighborhood in New Haven, and although I had not been very close to her before (I am now), there was some kind of conflict in me between the WASP side, my mother's side, and my father's side of the family, which was Polish and French Canadian, and I guess it was time for me to find out more about that part of my background.

Q: What was your first major translation from Polish to English?

WM: I have just finished a book of short prose by Natasza Goerke, which is the first book-length translation I've done. Otherwise I have translated a few poems, and then some non-literary things for money. I first heard of Natasza's work through a friend of mine, the editor of an English-language journal in Prague called Trafika. So when I was in Warsaw later on, I looked for her books (there were only two at the time), and found the second one, Ksiega Pasztetów, and I really liked it. So far as I can tell, her work is completely different from that of any other contemporary Polish fiction writer. She's an inheritor of the wonderful European tradition of short prose, which includes writers like Johann Peter Hebel, Daniil Kharms, and Slawomir Mrozek, and which is often accompanied by an absurdist or grotesque sensibility and, especially in Natasza's case, a circumspect and playful relationship to narrative itself.

Q: Have you ever studied Polish?

WM: Yes, I went to Poland in 1989-90 and did a year-long language course at the Jagiellonian, and then did two more summer language courses later on. But no, I have never studied Polish in depth.

Q: How do you translate, then?

WM: Well, the problem with not being a native speaker of the language is that a whole linguistic dimension that is available to native speakers is simply missing. So it is hard to translate when you do not actually know the language you are translating from. I like to think of my translations as having the same relationship to their originals that the caterwaul rehearsed by entirely deaf people has to the natural, heard speech it seeks to reproduce.

Q: What is more difficult to translate, prose or poetry?

WM: It might be better to think of the difference in terms of horizontality and verticality. As a runner, the thing I liked best about living in San Francisco was the hills. Even now, though I have lived in Chicago for three years and really enjoy running along the lakefront, I still dream of running up to the top of Bernal Hill and looking out over the city in all directions, and how wonderfully difficult it was to get to that place. Prose is great for long distances, but poetry is better for the view.

Q: How did you decide to do a Polish project for the Chicago Review?

WM: It was something I had been thinking about for a number of years, and I felt I should do it, although I also felt that someone more qualified should be doing it, but no one was. Also, I had a particular idea of how it should be done. I wanted better known authors to be included, not only because North American and other English-language readers might be more likely to recognize their names and therefore buy and read the magazine, but because they are obviously representative of Polish literature in a way no one else is, and they are good writers. I was especially interested, however, in presenting other authors, both older and younger, who are not known or not very well known to our readers. I did not want it to be another single-genre anthology or to devote it solely to "high genre" literature, so it was important for me to include things like feuilletons, polemical documents, and especially critical essays and reviews. In this way I thought the issue could be interesting and useful in lots of different ways and for different audiences. We had a couple of different audiences in mind when we were putting it together. Of course we were thinking about general readers, people who might find the issue in the library or bookstore and spend time with it. And then was the Polonist and Slavist audience, people who would be interested in Polish literature, and Eastern and Central European literature in general. And of course I was also curious about what Poles in Poland would think about it. And then there was Chicago Review's regular readership, which tends to be interested in poetry, and especially a somewhat less visible, avant-garde tradition of poetry in Britain and North America.

Q: How long did it take?

WM: Well, the fact that it happened still surprises me. I never thought that it would not happen, but knowing myself, I was afraid it would not happen on time. I presented the idea to the previous editor shortly after I got back from spending a summer in Kraków in 1999--I had done some work for Polska 2000, a group that was organizing the Polish events at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, and knew that Poland would be the featured country at the fair, and I felt like it would be a good time to get the special issue out in time for it. I put the project proposal together in February, and we set about soliciting authors, translators, and potential sponsors. People were enormously generous with their time, work, and support. The person who was responsible for actually getting it produced on time was Eirik Steinhoff, who had just taken on the editorship in June. He would call me up pretty much every day and ask if I had taken care of certain things and generally forced me to get things done. Looking back, the months of July and August are a huge blur for me. We worked pretty much non-stop, and I was also working at another job that did not pay very much, so it was a lot of stress. But we did get it completed on time and had a modest presentation for it at the Book Fair, and then a really lovely reading here in Chicago at the Chopin Theatre, with Natasza, the poet Ryszard Krynicki with the translator Clare Cavanagh, and the poet and translator Piotr Sommer. It turned out to be much larger than we planned--we originally wanted it to be no more than 300 pages, but it turned out to be 400 pages. I gladly would have made it larger, though, since there are many people I would like to have included in it. Also, I wish we had had time to proofread it a few more times, since there is a lot of typographic errors in it. But I am pretty glad with how it turned out, generally, and there has been a lot of positive responses to it.

Q: What is the Chicago Review audience? Most people interested in Polish literature know only this one issue of your journal.

WM: It has been around since 1946. One of the editors in the mid-1950s started soliciting a lot of well-known writers and Chicago Review began to publish much stronger material and to be distributed internationally. Since then, it has been one of the most prominent U.S. literary journals. It is run entirely by graduate students, which is sort of unusual, since most journals based at universities have faculty members for editors. In the 1960s and 70s we became known for publishing experimental fiction and prose, and there was also a lot of enthusiasm for publishing special issues. There was an important German issue that came out in 1979, which published a number of well-known German-language authors and critics and was an early venue for work by Paul Celan, who has since become a household name, at least in the households of poets. In the eighties, the journal almost expired due to negligent management, but then was resuscitated in the early nineties. There has been a pretty broad audience for Chicago Review in the nineties, definitely in North America, but also in Great Britain. The journal is distributed to about eight hundred libraries and individual subscribers and it is carried by bookstores in this country. Before this issue there was even one regular subscriber in Poland. . .

Q: Since there is such a high population of Poles in Chicago, what took you so long to publish an issue on Polish literature?

WM: Well, the only connections between Poles in Chicago and Polish literature are that they each have something to do with the Polish language and that some Poles in Chicago may have read Polish literature. Also, I am not aware that Chicago Review has ever been obligated to represent local ethnic populaces in our editorial policy. I think most literary journals would find that a little restrictive. We did do a special issue on contemporary Indian literature a few years back, but that had nothing to do with the Indians in Chicago, either.

Q: How about publishing this issue in Polish, or a bilingual edition?

WM: What would be the point? In our regular issues we usually do publish translated poems with the original on the facing page. It is a nice gesture, but not for a whole book.

Q: How did it go with translating Chicago Review texts. . . did you translate 400 pages in four months?

WM: I didn't.

Q: I mean I know you didn't, but you and this group of translators. How did it work technically?

WM: I had an idea of some of the authors I wanted to have in it, and we also solicited translators directly for submissions and asked various other people for suggestions. Just as there is a variety of authors represented in the issue, there is a variety of translators with different approaches and experiences. Some of the translations came in perfect shape, others needed to be edited quite rigorously. Some of this was done by Eirik and myself, and some of it was done by Karen Underhill and Kinga Maciejewska, or all of us working in different stages on the same thins. For some of the translations there were multiple rewrites.

Q: Did it happen that you did not include a writer because you did not have a translation?

WM: Yes. There were many writers I would have liked to have included but did not have a translation for or time to translate myself. There were also situations where we had a piece that already had been translated, but we just were not satisfied with it and did not include it. For instance, Stanislaw Lem. I really wanted to include something by him, and there was a short piece, from a recent collection of essays, that we had available in English translation and we had already contacted the publisher about using it. For a number of reasons, though, we had to keep the issue under four hundred pages, and had to cut a few things, including the Lem piece. Since he is already incredibly well known in English, it was easier to make that decision about him than it would have been with another, less well known writer.

Q: There is no such anthology in English, or even in Polish. So you are like a pioneer, doing something new. Was it your ambition to produce something representative? Like include all important people? What about the criteria?

WM: Well, I think that I have mentioned before why I wanted to include different generations and different genres. The typical approach to anthologization is simply to do everything in one genre. This is useful, but I do not think that that approach is necessarily indicative of what is going on in the culture. I think it is much more interesting to combine different things. We wanted it to be both a magazine and an anthology, and we wanted to explore what had been going on in Poland for the last ten years. I have no illusions about it being representative. Even if it was another four hundred pages thicker, all sorts of people would have been left out. I do not actually understand why this particular issue of Chicago Review should be considered so singular or so radically significant or why I should be considered a "pioneer," after all, I did not invent the idea, I just implemented it. There are plenty of very competent people out there, people who know Polish literature far better than I do, who no doubt could do an even better job than I have done, and as a matter of fact, no one is stopping them. As for publishing important people: obviously I felt that every piece I selected is important, otherwise I would not have included it. But like I said, there are many other authors I wish I could have included as well. I certainly was not trying to determine in myself, or anywhere else for that matter, some kind of transcendental principle of "importance" that I could then refer to in making my selection. One of the ways we tried to be even more "representative" was by including the essays by Jerzy Jarzebski and Piotr Sliwinski, who discuss a number of authors not included in the issue. I definitely did want to include recent criticism in the issue, because I think it is as important to a literary culture as are the "purer" phenomena of poetry and prose, and both are strong critics and serve to represent two different generations. But I also figured that these essays might be a resource not only for teachers but for publishers as well.

Q: When was the last comprehensive anthology of modern Polish literature published? Thirty years ago? Twenty years ago? I have a feeling that the next anthology will be in thirty years. I have this desire to have a textbook. Of course, this is a different approach. You published an issue of a journal. But on the other hand, it is such a rare opportunity to have any kind of Polish anthology, Polish literature seems to be so marginal here. It is so unusual to have an anthology of Polish literature in English, or also in French, in German. You are a translator from German and know the German market. Is it better in German? German translations of Polish?

WM: The Germans are much better with translations generally. They translate everything. In fact, Karl Dedecius just published this huge anthology of Polish literature, three enormous volumes of Polish writing of the 20th century. It's remarkable. There's nothing like it here. Primarily because publishing in America is so commercial, what gets published by the larger houses is largely determined by sales potential, whereas in Germany you still have a tradition of publishing collected works of single authors and things that just need to be made available to a wider audience. You have intelligent people working at publishing houses who understand that translated literature and literature in general generate cultural revenue that cannot be equated with financial gain. Also, you have a very active critical culture, and there are many more significant venues for reviews of new books than we have here. European public spheres are much healthier than whatever it is we take for a public sphere in this country. When I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, I picked up five or six German newspapers that all had big sections devoted to the most recent Polish writing. I cannot imagine that happening here, in part because a much smaller percentage of the population is actually interested in books. For those who do read, I do not think Polish literature is any more marginal in this country than German or French literature. American writers of my generation are as likely to have read Schulz and Szymborska as Grass and Duras. Big names in Polish writing do make it over. And American writers, if they are interested, can go and find Polish writers (provided they have been translated), just as they can go find German writers.

Q: I think that most people like the easy idea of anthologies, because everything is in one book and you do not have to search around. They are for lazy people, I love anthologies. . .

WM: I love them, too. Somehow they promise an automatic entry to whatever it is that is being anthologized. And the anthology itself is a fascinating literary form on its own terms. In terms of their capacity to represent cultures, though, I think that what would really be great for Polish culture is if the rather unsubstantial notion of the anthology were expanded into the more impressive concept of the publishing program. That way, we could, for example, some day have in English a series of books by twentieth-century Polish critics, like Jarzebski, Glowinski, Sandauer, Wyka, or Irzykowski, that could be read by people who do not know Polish. Or perhaps something more general and more ambitious, like what Continuum Publishers has for German, "The German Library," which is basically a very extensive publishing list of anthologies of various sorts, like Heine's Collected Poetry and Prose or Eighteenth-Century German Criticism or German Essays on Music, which are assembled by scholars and are extremely useful in teaching. Something like that would transform Polish studies in the English-speaking world, and it would make the work of Polish writers and thinkers more available to writers and thinkers here. But it probably will not happen, because who on earth would want to invest money in something like that? And even if the money were there, who would do it?

March 7, 2001

Back to the September 2001 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 9/17/01