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My interest in Polish and Slavic studies began through translation.  While living in Poland I began to translate for friends and colleagues. My translations have continued to grow out of personal relationships, but also have developed from teaching needs, or the conviction that a particular text ought to have an English version (Aleksander Fiut. The Eternal Moment. The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, 1990). In the case of Regions of the Great Heresy. Bruno Schulz. A Biographical Portrait  (by Jerzy Ficowski, 2003), I had admired its combination of research and poetic language. Its availability in English was essential to Schulz studies outside Poland and so my translation occurred as a logical next step.

Belief in a text or an author, enjoyment, and a desire to render a work of literary art or intellectual value accessible to others all motivate my translation work.  Translation demands an array of skills. Every project elicits pleasure in the game or puzzle of translation and brings challenges both of research and creativity. Currently, I am translating the prose of acclaimed contemporary writer Henryk Grynberg.  His novels like Uchodzcy (Refugees, 2004) or Memorbuch (2000) exist at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction. Their borderline narrative genre combining literature and history---documentary prose---particularly fascinates me. One of the generation of children who experienced the Holocaust, Henryk Grynberg writes with the immediacy of a witness, the care of a chronicler, and the artistry of a poet.  

Teaching in the Department of History at University of Michigan-Flint, I find that my language and literature background deepens student understanding of historical material.  A course in Polish history and culture entails translations for students’ reading use and on-the-spot explanations in the classroom.  Students need to grasp the meanings of words and phrases and as much of their rich connotations in the original as possible.  Polish literature and Polish history have been deeply interconnected. Translation enables students to enter both realities of distant times and of contemporary conditions otherwise closed because of a lack of knowledge of other languages. Translation is essential for the global perspective of today’s liberal education.

Poetry and drama have traditionally been strong genres in Polish literature. Contemporary Polish writing---especially poetry---has impressed English-speaking readers through translations which have been stimulated by Nobel prizes awarded to Polish poets (Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska). Some contemporary prose and drama are translated as well, but this is a small portion of Poland’s literature; much, much more remains to be done. And many works need retranslation---older English translations are out of print or their style is archaic or their rendering too simplified. Great works tempt translators in every generation.

Translation has had incalculable consequences for culture and history. I think here of Roman translation of Greek texts into Latin, biblical translation at Alexandria, Arabic texts translated in Spain and Sicily, the linguistic achievement of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Renaissance scholars emphasized new translations and new choices of what to translate. The translation of Russian writers was a revelation to Europeans and influenced English modernism. How different our world would be without translation.

Though the uniqueness of any writing cannot be reproduced in another language, literary translation probes the original and brings some measure of its richness to a wider audience. For me, this work involves the deepest knowledge of a text when as a translator I delicately handle---phrase by phrase, image by image---the tissue of a work of art. 


Copyright 2007 © Theodosia Robertson

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