When Writers Turn Translators

Notes on W. S. Kuniczak's translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy

James R. Thompson

Recently, I was looking over some reviews of a translation of the first volume of Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, With Fire and Sword. Here are some excerpts:

He exhibits the sustained power and sweep of narrative of Walter Scott and the humor of Cervantes. (Philadelphia Inquirer )
A tremendous work in subject, size and treatment. (Providence Journal)
A novel that like Thackeray's Henry Esmond or Scott's Ivanhoe can be returned to again and again. (Boston Gazette )
Hearty praise indeed and well deserved. Here is an example of the scene where Hmelnitski and his Cossacks take their leave from Hmelnitski’s Polish rescuers:
When they had gone about half a furlong, the wind
bore back from them the words of the Cossack song,-
“O God, lead us forth, poor captives,
From heavy bonds,
From infidel faith,
To the bright dawn,
To quiet waters,
To a gladsome land,
To a Christian world,
Hear, O God, our prayers,-
The prayers of the hapless,
The prayers of poor captives."
The voices grew fainter by degrees, and then were
melted in the wind sounding through the reeds.
I am not referring to the new translation of W.S. Kuniczak, but the century old translation of Jeremiah Curtin.
The Thousand Hour Day and The Long March rank among the best of the novels of World War II written in the English language.
With reference to this older translation, the famous American historical novelist James Michener notes in the Introduction to the Kuniczak translation that when he wished to read the Trilogy a few years ago, "All I could find... were creaking translations that masked the glory and the fire of the original. As a boy I had loved and learned from Quo Vadis? but as a man I could learn little from the Trilogy." Since it was probably a Curtin translation of Quo Vadis? Michener had read, we might have profited by some explanation as to why he thought Curtin had messed up his translation of the Trilogy. The "creaking" reference does not ring very true unless one believes that a serious change in English prose has taken place in the last hundred years. In which case, I suppose, we desperately need modern English versions of Tom Sawyer and Kim. Michener praises Kuniczak who "has interrupted his own writing for more than six years to put into attractive English the more than 1,850,000 words of the Sienkiewicz masterpiece."

I believe Michener is wrong. Kuniczak's translation is useful, no doubt, but not clearly superior to Curtin's. And the time taken in this enterprise could have produced major novels by this best of current Polish novelists writing in English. Kuniczak's first language is not English, nor has he the English prose talents of Conrad. At the end of the Trilogy, we have Sienkiewicz's postscriptum, "Here ends this series of books, written in the course of a number of years and with no little toil, for the strengthening of hearts" (Curtin's translation). Kuniczak transposes and foreshortens this to his one phrase prelude to Fire and Sword "... to uplift the hearts". In so doing, he warns his readers early on to prepare themselves for "the's" improperly inserted and others improperly omitted. In many ways, his translation creaks a good deal more than Curtin's. Kuniczak insists upon the archaic practice of using Germanic neologisms when translating Slavic names into English. Hence he uses "Tchaplinski" and "Tchehryn" as opposed to Curtin's "Chaplinski" and "Chigirin". He even insists on Germanizing oaths, such as "Tfui!" as opposed to Curtin's "Fui!"

Kuniczak is not comfortable with transforming the leisurely style of Sienkiewicz into English.
When Kuniczak writes his own fiction in English, he utilizes a powerful Hemingwayesque style. For example, describing the hanging of a German spy in the first of the three volumes of his own trilogy of World War II, The Thousand Hour Day:
The German fell. He dropped down quickly until the rope stopped him. The rope was short and it snapped taut about his neck. It snapped his neck. You could hear the snap. The German who was no longer a German, who was no longer anything you could love or hate or frighten or condemn to death, swung stupidly under the branch. His body turned in little circles. He was dead. The sergeant-major wiped his hands on the seat of his pants.
A stark bloody rendition of an incident in a stark bloody war. Both The Thousand Hour Day and The Long March rank among the best of the novels of that war written in the English language.

But Kuniczak is not comfortable with and simply does not make a good showing in transforming the leisurely style of Sienkiewicz into English. It is clear that when it comes to translating lengthy descriptions, Kuniczak is not Curtin's superior. We can compare his

The night was just as calm and clear as the day had been. The starlit sky was glittering like a jewel box and a great white moon rose out of the east to cast its silver light across the misted fields.
with Curtin's
The night was clear as day. Myriads of stars shone in the sky; the moon rose and illuminated the fields covered with spiderwebs. The soldiers began to sing. Then white mists rose from the meadows and turned the land as it were into one gigantic lake, shining in the light of the moon.
Kuniczak uses a more sparse, and therefore perhaps more modern, style than Curtin, but a number of comparisons of passages such as that above does not seem to give Kuniczak the edge when it comes to making Sienkiewicz flow calmly into English.
The justification for the Kuniczak translation is the fact that it is more nearly complete than Curtin's.
Kuniczak's translation edits a great deal less out of Sienkiewicz's text than does Curtin's. In a sense, a major justification for his translation is precisely the fact that it is more nearly complete (by about 25%) than Curtin's. Nevertheless, the omissions that are present in Kuniczak frequently leave out important bits for the capturing of Sienkiewicz's tone. For example, he leaves out the Cossack song above, and he ends the novel in perhaps the most famous of the romantic scenes between Jan and Helena, instead of Sienkiewicz's Epilogue. In Curtin's translation we get the full Epilogue, ending with
The Commonwealth became a desert; a desert the Ukraine. Wolves howled on the ruins of former towns, and a land once flourishing became a mighty graveyard. Hatred grew into the hearts and poisoned the blood of brothers.
Some of the editing, one fears, is not simply to condense Sienkiewicz, but rather to omit passages which reflect Sienkiewicz's "more in sorrow than in anger" attitude toward the Ukrainian rebellion which forms the background of the novel. Kuniczak, a Pole from Lwow, with no doubt many an ax to grind, does not share Sienkiewicz's sympathy for the Ukrainians. In the powerful description of the impaling of a Cossack envoy by the order of Prince Yerema, Kuniczak breaks the description in the middle to add his own mitigating praise for the Prince.
On the other hand he provided homes and lifelong care for four thousand orphans, built either a cathedral or a temple for every faith and sect in his territory, founded five colleges in which the sons of his tenantry were educated at no cost, and turned his capital in Lubnie into a haven for the homeless and dispossessed whom he provided with lands, training, occupations and protection under his stern justice.
That this editorial addition weakens the power of the scene is clearly the intent of the translator. Too much pity for the horrible execution of a poor Ukrainian, who had been traveling under the implied immunity of an envoy, is clearly not consistent with Kuniczak's agenda.

I have not attempted fully to catalog Kuniczak's numerous deletions and his (more occasional) editorial additions, but I really see little justification for them. Insofar as the tilting away from Sienkiewicz's less partisan style is concerned, Kuniczak makes With Fire and Sword a good guys (Poles) versus bad guys (Ukrainians) epic. It is hard these days to see the utility of this partisan stance. A few years ago, an occupied Poland might understandably look on the Ukrainian rebels of With Fire and Sword as an artistic surrogate for the hated Russian occupier. But Poland is now free and the Ukrainians are not the enemy. Kuniczak's translation is a few years too late for its maximum utility.

Having said this, I should point out that I have already bought the next installment of the Trilogy: The Deluge, and I fully intend to purchase the third one, Pan Wolodyjowski. I could only wish that Kuniczak had continued to employ his very considerable talents in writing his own fiction about the Polish experience in World War II. No other author, writing in English, has been so effective in this endeavor as he.

James R. Thompson is a Professor of Statistics at Rice University.

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