Novel Thoughts blog

Lost To Translation

May 28, 2014 7:29 am | 1 Comment

I have been absent from this site because I have not had a chance to read a Catholic novel in quite a while. I spent early May travelling about in Poland, and now I am in the middle of translating a speech I gave there into Polish. Fortunately a Polish friend in London is supervising this foolhardy enterprise. If I had the money I would hire a translator. Sadly I don’t, so it’s DYI for me.

A Polish friend in Edinburgh gave me the new English translation of the Polish poet Ewa Lipska’s novel Sefer, and I took it with me to Poland to read at bedtimes. It was a good book to read in Kraków, as the story is about a Viennese Jew who comes to Kraków to unearth his father’s Kraków roots. The translators skillfully interpret both the author’s and the narrator’s love of language. The book is so lyrical, it is a shame it is also so anti-Polish.

A large chunk of Poland was ruled from Vienna for over a hundred years, and a Polish-ruled Poland did not emerge again until 1919. Generally peasant farmers, forty percent of Poles at that time were illiterate. The new Polish government, desperate to create a Polish civil service and middle-class, did what it could to encourage Polish advancement–admittedly at the expense of the new nation’s German and Jewish minorities. Their efforts were smashed by the German and Soviet invasions of September, 1939: the Polish intelligentsia was liquidated and Poles barred from any more than a rudimentary education. The German plan for Poland was to wipe out its Jews and turn the Poles into an uneducated slave race. Important to Nazi racist ideology was the idea that all Slavic peoples, including the Poles, were sub-human and suited only for manual labor. As the music of Chopin rather flew in the face of this assertion, it was banned.

Knowing all this, it did not delight me that the eponymous Sefer’s one Polish Catholic acquaintance is his cleaning lady, and that his Austrian friends of Polish or Polish-Jewish descent groan about Polish backwardness and warn him that when he goes to Poland, he’ll be robbed.

But Dr. Sefer, a psychiatrist, has a marvelous time in Kraków because he is introduced to a worldly, educated, rich, privileged, cultured, etc, group of Poles, who are held up as a contrast to the drunken, poor, untidy, superstitious Poles who are still practicing Catholics. He and his friends see Catholic devotions as risible, giggling over the story of an elderly Polish woman who injures herself in a fall while crossing herself . Upon his return, Dr. Sefer discusses Kraków with a colleague: “I told him about delicious friends, eccentric encounters, crassness, drunkenness, and shallow dogmatic piety.” To an acquaintance he describes the city thusly: “There’s religion hanging from almost every washing line, but there’s not much faith.”

“Garbage,” quoth I, reading this nonsense in the Kraków Redemptorists’ home and retreat house. I had spent a weekend with over sixty faith-filled women and a few friendly priests. Polish churches invariably have people praying in them. Priests hear confessions day and night. The Catholic bookshops are crammed with new titles. Polish hymns either break your heart or make you want to dance. In the past two years I have discovered that the Polish Left and the Polish Right loathe each other, but I was amazed that a Polish poet would write such stuff.

Well, not amazed, exactly. Annoyed.

I was annoyed because most devoutly Catholic Poles in Poland will never have their thoughts, their poetry and their novels translated into English. And Polish is a difficult language—the only non-Poles outside Poland who learn to read it are privileged ones who can afford the time. Most, not to put too fine a point on it, are intellectuals. And most English-speaking intellectuals aren’t practicing Catholics. Left-wing American intellectuals loved priest-denouncing Wysława Szymborska, were divided on repentant ex-commie Czesław Miłosz, and sneered at Karol Wojtyła, the bestselling Polish author of the 20th century.

As a matter of fact, I love Szymborska’s poetry so much that I am willing to overlook her politics. And I very much liked Ewa Lipska’s Sefer despite its hero’s privileged Viennese sneering at Polish Catholicism. If I really want to read a great Polish Catholic novel, here are English translations of Henryk Sienkiewicz; he wrote Quo Vadis, after all. The trouble is, he died in 1916. Surely a nation that is now 90% Roman Catholic has produced great Catholic novels since 1916!

And that is why I am writing about Poland yet again. Canada has a nominal Catholic population of about 46%; the USA 25%. But Poland has a rich and universal Catholic culture which is only now under threat: any anti-Catholic intellectuals are bolstered by the secularist EU and sex-saturated Westernism. In Poland, too, Catholic writers are at risk of being shoved to the margins. And thus not only is it important for English-speaking Catholics to promote English-speaking Catholic writers, it is important to translate other Catholics’ works into English.

The author of Sefer, Ewa Lipska, gave a reading in Edinburgh when I returned home, and so I went to see her. The old-fashioned lecture hall was full of young expats and elderly scholars. There was some plan to secular Polish carols or, rather, anti-carols that the young expats found quite entertaining. They seemed excited to see Ewa Lipska, and no wonder: she’s one of Poland’s most important living poets and, as I heard from a mutual acquaintance, a gracious, friendly woman, too. At the Q & A listeners asked the usual questions: “Why did you use that name in your poems?”, “What inspires you?”, “What got lost in translation?”, etc. I felt very much the odd (emphasis on odd) woman out when I asked my question. Boiled down and sieved to remove my praise for the writing, it was “How do you justify the anti-Polonism of this privileged foreign narrator?”

And as she replied, explaining that the story was very subjective, and how by living in Vienna, she had learned to see Poland in a different way, I felt deeply unsatisfied. For I had not meant to critique the anti-Polonism, exactly. I had meant to confront the anti-Catholicism.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: anti-Catholicism Catholic literature Europe novels poetry Poland translation

1 Comment

  1. May 31, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    I was married to a Polish man and our two Children are half polish & so I have a concern and love for Poland. This is so sad but the secularization of the entire world seems to be at hand. I hope and pray for Poland and for the rest of us as well. (and I will keep trying to write my own book as a Catholic.) The world needs more Catholic authors, artists, actors etc.etc

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