We're very happy to welcome Anna Taborska to the blog, to tell us more about her work and her translation of the poem 'Transformations'/ 'Przemiany' by Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1937), which features in our October 25, 2021 issue, alongside the original Polish. Anna is a filmmaker, screenwriter and Bram Stoker Award-nominated short story author, and you can find out more about her on her website here.
You're a film-maker, screenwriter and author – is translation an important part of your work? Can you tell us a bit about how all this fits together for you?
I started out working in film – quite a few years ago now, and gradually drifted into writing, which currently takes up most of my time. Translation is something I get asked to do occasionally – generally prose or screenplays, but sometimes a poem or two. Poetry is special – it’s difficult to translate, and every word becomes even more important than when translating other written forms.
Bolesław Leśmian is known for the innovative and expressionistic style of his poetry - what drew you to his work, and what are some of the challenges and pleasures in translating it?
My mother, Halina Taborska, first brought Bolesław Leśmian to my attention. She was a university lecturer (in Public Art and Aesthetics), but in her spare time she taught Polish literature in a Saturday school in London. She knew that I had a penchant for (the dark side of) the weird and wonderful, and she figured that I’d love the poetry of Bolesław Leśmian. As usual, she was right. Leśmian’s poetry has been described as virtually untranslatable on account of his use of Polish words and phrases which cannot be translated into English in such as way as to accurately convey the power and the imagery of the original. For example, the verb “to bristle” in Polish is “jeżyć się”, which literally means “to hedgehog oneself”. In “Transformations”, an ear of barley violently mutates (with a vile rattling sound) into a golden hedgehog and, distressed and confused, runs whimpering and “hedgehogging itself” (i.e. bristling) at the meadow flowers. Whereas in Polish the words (and the images and sounds they conjure up, as well as the emotions they describe and elicit) work perfectly, in English there are no equivalent words with the same descriptive, alliterative and emotive magic. Not to the mention the fact that “Transformations” is written in perfect sestains, with an ABABCC rhyme-scheme, which I discovered early on that I didn’t have a chance of replicating in English if I wanted to finish the translation in this century. So, translating Bolesław Leśmian’s work has certainly been challenging, but the pleasure in being able to read my favourite poem of his in English, and share it (or at least share an impression of it) with others has greatly outweighed the frustration of knowing that I can’t do “Transformations” justice.
Are there any other Polish authors or poets whose work you'd like to see in translation? And can you recommend any recent works, for readers wanting to explore more?
I would love to see more of my father’s poetry in translation. My dad, Bolesław Taborski, was a poet, who wrote in Polish and was fairly well known in Poland. Like Leśmian, language fascinated him and he loved to play and experiment with words. But unlike much of Leśmian’s work, my father’s poetry didn’t have many speculative or fantastical elements; it was firmly grounded in reality, and often touched upon transience, the frailty of people (and animals), and the cruelty of the world we live in. Whereas nature played a large part in Leśmian’s poetry, my father’s poetry was often inspired by the arts – theatre, film, but predominantly music. Leśmian’s poetry rhymed; my father’s poetry was more contemporary both in form and content. My father published one slim volume of his poetry in his own English translation (For The Witnesses, 1978) and I translated a handful of his poems for a film I made about him, but I hope to translate many more. With regards to Polish poets who are better known in the West and translations of their work should be easier for English-speakers to get hold of, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska), Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz spring to mind.
Finally, can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the moment?
After my mother’s death earlier this year, I finished editing the English-language version of her book Art in Places of Death: European Monuments to Victims of Nazism. Now I’m proofreading my mum’s last book, which she was working on when motor neurone disease overcame her. It’s a selection of her lectures, conference papers and photographs, under the title Contemporary Public Art. Debates and Artistic Practice Revisited: 1970-2010. As for my own work, with my publisher, Zagava, I’m finishing a picture book (for children and adults) with illustrations by Reggie Oliver, called A Song for Barnaby Jones. Some years ago, my father translated the story into Polish, so I’m hoping that one day there will be a Polish book version too. Once these are finished, I hope to get back to writing my first novel, Tales from the Organ Grinder – a portmanteau of tales set in and around a gloomy and mysterious London pub.
Thank you, Anna!