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Polish Studies in Translation: An Interview with Kasia Szymańska

Series: Polish studies internationally

Contribution by: Ola Sidorkiewicz, Kasia Szymańska

Editorial supervision by: Polish Studies Working Group


Ola Sidorkiewicz: In this week’s blog entry, we talk to Dr Kasia Szymańska, Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Manchester, about the different modes of doing Polish Studies, crossing the borders of Polish literature via translation, the current international stars of Polish literature, Zuzanna Ginczanka and Olga Tokarczuk, and more.

Let us begin with a big question: what do we talk about when we talk about Polish Studies? How would you define the field?

Kasia Szymańska: This is a big question, indeed! What this term stands for in practice depends on many factors, including the institutional context and the academic tradition in a given country. For instance, the English-language coinage of “Polish Studies” (unlike the more continental tradition of philologies, taking the language and literature as a starting point) encompasses a wide range of topics including cultural studies, Polish history, politics and society, in addition to the study of the Polish language and literature. Since Polish studies in the English-language context often gets lumped together with other fields under the umbrella of Slavic studies or East-Central European studies, the discipline usually borrows a framework that already exists at a given institution for other analogous studies of the region. For instance, some institutions may follow the Cold War approach of “Area Studies” (e.g., UCL’s SSEES, Trinity College Dublin, some North American universities); this approach to the field is often defined by Poland as the object of the study, while its methodology may encompass many different disciplines such as history, politics and economics. On the other hand, other institutions (e.g., Oxford, some Slavic departments in the U.S.) may have a different institutional tradition and place the Polish language and literature at the very heart of its academic reflection.

Indeed – and it is very often the case that a lot of Polish Studies scholarship related to Polish literature and culture is produced outside of a clearly defined Polish Studies faculty or department, at the fringes of other disciplines, such as Comparative Literature, various Modern Languages departments, or Translation Studies.

You, for example, currently work at the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies of the University of Manchester, where a lot of the material you study relates to Polish literature and culture. Does your professional environment impact, or perhaps alter, the methodologies of your research?

The Centre at Manchester offers two MA programmes to almost two hundred students yearly, who usually hail from at least four different continents! Many of them have a different academic background and language expertise, and so our role is to encourage them to learn about concepts and approaches which could help them reflect on their own academic and translation practice across at least two different languages and cultural contexts. In other words, we're trying to equip our students with a toolkit which could later come in handy when working independently on their own language-specific examples. I think this very diverse teaching context has really affected the way in which I tend to first locate the Polish-language material on a much bigger map of concepts and more general topics, and then try to think of how our case studies can change, challenge or enrich the existing toolkits. And fortunately for us, Polish speakers, the material we usually bring to the table is often so quirky and uncanny that it can really turn things upside down!

I really like the multidirectional focus of your academic practice – both testing existing methodologies on Polish material and seeing how the Polish context might in turn complicate or compliment them.

In general, it seems to me that the study of translation history allows us to rethink the constructed boundaries of national culture – after all, the translated text enters multiple linguistic and cultural realms, where it changes its sense, role, and reception, thus impacting its original context.

Studying translation (and multilingual writing, as you know first-hand from your own research) makes us rethink what really counts as ‘original’ writing and ‘national’ culture, especially in how literature and culture are often studied within very narrow and ossified boundaries of ‘Polish’, ‘German’ and ‘Russian’ studies in their respective departments. Translation is perhaps the most tangible and obvious contact between different literary and cultural traditions, but also one of the most complex, hybrid and courageous acts of border crossing. In my research, I frequently gravitate towards those topics and texts which are situated in those cultural borderlands, interlingual spaces and disciplinary grey zones.

On the topic of border crossings – I would like to talk to you briefly about two Polish writers who seem to have done it very successfully: Zuzanna Ginczanka and Olga Tokarczuk. Ginczanka, a poet overlooked for decades, is now gaining unprecedented popularity. Tokarczuk, a contemporary writer and the most recent Polish Nobel Prize winner, has been on top for a few years now.

Let us start with Ginczanka. We recently had the pleasure of hosting you at one of the TORCH Polish Studies Working Group online sessions, where you led the discussion with Alex Braslavsky, translator of Ginczanka’s poetry into English. At the moment, there are three more translation projects of her poetry into English by Alissa Valles, Joanna Trzeciak-Huss, and Mira Rosenthal. This makes me think about your research on translation multiples – could you tell us more about it, and how it can help us think about literary and cultural transfer?

I think we’re very lucky to have four fantastic translators working on Zuzanna Ginczanka’s poetry almost simultaneously with each presenting a very different and distinctive voice in their project. This is really an ideal situation for any poet who reaches another audience through translation as their work is presented from many different perspectives and opens up to a more nuanced and wide-ranging discussion. On the contrary, I believe that single translations (however ‘accurate’ or ‘canonical’ they are deemed) usually monopolise the discourse around the original and tend to shut down other interpretative possibilities. In my previous research on translation multiples, I have argued that multiplying translation variants (e.g., by the same translator/writer/artist or a group of them) may have aesthetic, philosophical, ethical and even political consequences – both in the context of the literary production in ‘global’ English as well as the literary scene in post-communist Poland. I’ll refrain from more spoilers for now – you’ll have to read my book on Translation Multiples once it’s finally out!

We are very much looking forward to your book! And moving on to Tokarczuk, you are now co-editing the volume The Tender Translator with Joanna Trzeciak-Huss, which investigates translation trajectories of her oeuvre. Did you have a different view of her work before and after you read the contributions to the volume? What is the most surprising aspect of her work in translation?

This is a very interesting question - thank you! I did have some initial ideas about where this volume may take us in terms of reception studies, especially that Tokarczuk has become such a fascinating case of a writer from a ‘minor’ or ‘lesser-known’ culture going ‘global’ almost overnight, thanks to two major literary prizes (the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and the 2018 Nobel prize). In some contexts, as our contributors show, this coming to prominence has taken a very unexpected turn: for instance, in the Chinese context the critics used her example to argue that the Nobel prize committee has a new strategy of promoting lesser-known authors from ‘nowhere’; in Portugal, Tokarczuk’s writing style has gained a special label called ‘tokarczukiano’; in Germany, the Nobel prize announcement led to a conflict with her first translator over her surprisingly strong words.

That’s fascinating – could you tell us a little more about the contents of the book?

Our volume will feature both academic chapters on Tokarczuk’s global reception, as well as essays written by Tokarczuk’s translators into around fifteen languages. Since the volume is very much attuned to the voices of those ‘tender translators’, we are also getting a unique insight into their different personalities, working methods and interpretative takes on Tokarczuk’s writing. Some of Tokarczuk’s translators are also writers in their own right (e.g. Jennifer Croft – English, Ostap Slyvynski – Ukrainian, Esther Kinsky – German) and some are academics, so many of them juggle different roles - all that on top of promoting Tokarczuk’s writing for their respective audiences as well as participating in a curious translingual collaboration by staying in touch to discuss original passages and translation challenges with one another. This is why, I think, these translations have not only garnered attention for Tokarczuk and her work but also raised an increased awareness in the press and among the public of the role of the translator. Never before was there so much spotlight on a Polish writer and her translators at the same time, so this is a very exciting moment for us all! 

I agree – and it is great to see that your volume expands the modes of doing literary scholarship by engaging with translators, arguably the most perceptive of readers. I am very much looking forward to your book.

Thank you very much for your time, Kasia!


Slavic studies Translation studies Cultural studies


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