Childhood 001

There is an old Polish joke from the communist days when managers were sent on placement among the ordinary workers so: a high-ranking director gets put to work on a conveyor belt sorting potoatoes into small, medium and large. Pretty soon there’s a bottle-neck, with a mountain of potatoes piling up and toppling around him and everything grinds to a halt. Comrade Director! cry the other workers, What’s the hold-up? You just have to sort them by size. Ah, replies the director, but each potato means a decision

It’s better in Polish but you get the idea. This is a translator’s – and a poet’s – life. Every word counts, must be weighed carefully. Rush these things at your peril. A kind of fever takes over your waking moments and many sleeping ones too. The search for les mots justes quickly develops into obsession. You become unbearable to live with. At inappropriate times you ask your partner – if you are lucky enough to still have one – endless, peculiar questions about the turn of a phrase, nuances of meaning.

When I translated the poetry of Iztok Osojnik I had the benefit of my co-translator’s, Ana Jelnikar’s, wonderful sensibility and immense experience. Recently I have been working on my own translating part of a Justyna Bargielska’s fantastic book Obsoletki. In it she uses the word ‘harpaganka’. It’s the female, and not used, form of ‘harpagan’, slang for a daredevil, a tough cookie who goes to extremes, gets away with stuff. I pestered friends and went on Facebook to see if anyone had any ideas. I thought maybe one or two nerdy friends would comment. Instead there was a massive response. I hadn’t even posted any pictures of kittens or fluffy ducklings or mentioned anything currently on TV. Maybe all my friends are nerds or perhaps translation really is fun. Or was it the idea of a heroine? It certainly helped me feel less alone in my obsessive state. In fact it makes all the difference having family and friends here in England, and in Warsaw and Bucharest, Stranraer and Copenhagen who are willing to share their wisdom with me.

Here are some words they came up with: Amazon, valkyre, geezer-bird, badass, dragoon lady, virago, ball breaker/buster, bodacious, Mame, audacious, mettlesome, vivacious, Pirate Jenny, sick-chick, Satan’s sista, kick ass, vixen, gutsy girl, Annie Oakley, kapasta (which is actually in Greek), tomboy and champion of extreme sports… I loved these yet stuck with my own choice: ‘hardcore’. However it’s an adjective and I really wanted a noun. At the last minute I switched to a word created to appeal to girls (sic) the way He-man had been created to appeal (sic) to boys… You can read the passage below. To reward those who gave of their generous time I enclose a picture of lambs.

And if you’re still wondering how to be a translator and stay sane, the answer is simple: you can’t.

Childhood 003

“‘How are you feeling?’ she asked seeing my double buggy from New Zealand and sleeping children. ‘I’ve heard you’re a She-Ra, you don’t feel pain, don’t feel tiredness. Piotruś told me. Oh God they’re rising,’ she added, peering inside the buggy. They were indeed rising, like a July dawn over Stalingrad, hazy but ultimately still threatening.

The phone rang and a friend asked me what I was doing tomorrow.

‘What do you think I’m doing? Sitting at home, the nearest decompression chamber is in Gdansk,’ I said. ‘Come on over.’”



Copyright Maria Jastrzębska, copyright original Justyna Furgal.

You can hear some of Bargielska’s poetry in my English translation at Modern Poetry in Translation and on )