Archives for posts with tag: Iztok Osojnik

Some years ago myself and the wonderful Brighton-based writer John O’Donaghue were kidnapped (metaphorically speaking) by two Slovenians, the poet-mountaineer Iztok Osojnik and scholar/translator Ana Jelnikar. They took us to an international poetry translation workshop in the lovely, peaceful village of Škocjan in the Karst region famous for its limestone and Dante-esque caverns, festivals and plum brandy. This was The Golden Boat (a name referencing Srečko Kosovel, Slovenia’s iconic poet, translated into English by Ana Jelnikar and the American poet Barbara Siegel Carson who was also there). We met poets from Finland, Romania, France and Slovenia. That’s how I – who’d foolishly said I wasn’t really keen on translating poetry as it’s so hard – came to translate Iztok Osojnik’s poetry in collaboration with Ana Jelnikar, with Elsewhere his selected poems (Pighog Press 2011). It was extremely hard. And inspiring!

Elżbieta Wójcik Leese that most prolific of Polish poetry translators, and a very fine poet herself, then introduced me to the work of the Polish writer Justyna Bargielska and I have not looked back. Modern Poetry in Translation published an issue with a focus on Polish poets, among them Bargielska. She is the author of eight poetry collections, two fiction books and two children’s books, has won the Rainer Maria Rilke poetry competition, twice won the Gdynia Literary Prize and her work appears in a myriad of journals and anthologies and in a variety of languages in Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Russia and Slovenia as she gains a rapidly expanding international reputation.

I’ve written more in another blog about the challenge  – what Canadian poet Anne Carson would call ‘maddeningly attractive’ aspects of translation  – of translating Justyna Bargielska. Or keeping up with her as Jamie McKendrick accurately sums it up below. But now I am delighted to tell you for the very first time in the U.K Justyna Bargielska’s work will be published by Smokestack Press later this year in my translations of her selected poems The Great Plan B . I’m hoping audiences here will soon get to meet her for themselves. To translate a book I think you have to fall in love with the work and that’s definitely what happened to me.

Two poets I admire put it like this:

“Justyna Bargielska’s poetry is an art of fierce surprises. Poems that might look small and docile on the page are anything but: they soon reveal themselves to be rigged boxes of devilish wisdom, opening out onto a world that is both familiar and suddenly, unpredictably, luminous, frightening, or both at once: ‘Do you know what our odds are? Zero./ But I’ve learnt to play for time / as it’s the body no less which is left on the battlefield’.  Bargielska’s flexible idiom accommodates the most intimate, absurd and profound aspects of our contemporary lives at an almost breathless speed: like telegrams these poems demand to be read over and over. And Maria Jastrzębska’s razor-sharp, glittering translations now bring the full range of Bargielska’s extraordinary voice to an English-speaking readership. If there can be such a thing as a tender rallying cry, this poetry is it: ‘I’m not enclosing hugs, I don’t send kisses, I wage /war on all fronts. Write back to me asap’.” Tiffany Atkinson

“These poems by Justyna Bargielska make the word ‘daring’ sound tame. They move at a cruel speed, or as she puts it with characteristically mordant wit “I’m not leaving you, shoes, I’m merely walking ahead.” In a fairer world talent as prodigal as this would not be allowed. Maria Jastrzębska’s translations are urgent and electric, and effortlessly manage to keep up.” Jamie McKendrick

The Great Plan B cover




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 )

In the late 80s when I was on a scholarship in Warsaw meat and chocolate were still being rationed, censorship was rife, dissidents jailed. In Russia the poet Irina Ratushinskaya had been arrested in 1982, convicted the following year of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” with a sentence of seven years in a labour camp and five years of internal exile.

In prison she wrote poems about love and Christian theology on soap, memorising them before they were washed away. She was released on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed.

With artist friend Jola Scicińska we produced a book at that time called Postcards from Poland (Working Press). Travelling back and forth between Poland and England I felt a huge cultural gap and as usual found myself somewhere in the middle.  I was writing about the euphoria of banned books being suddenly available as well as the (inevitable but depressing) influx of Western porn. Things aren’t simple but then they never were.

Over two decades later, this August,  Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a labour camp for their oppositional punk prayer in the Temple of Christ Saint Saviour in Moscow.

“Absurdity’s on the increase/spirit wanes” writes the Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik in Mister Today (Elsewhere  by Iztok Osojnik translated by Ana Jelnikar and Maria Jastrzębska (Pighog Press). Clearly governments continue to feel threatened enough by musicians or writers self to respond viciously.  Moscow has also banned Gay Pride for the next century, Warsaw banned it a few years ago but the ban has now been overturned.

Sitting comfortably in front of my PC at home it’s humbling to think of those behind bars for their words. English Pen has published an e-book anthology of poems for Pussy Riot CATECHISM: POEMS FOR PUSSY RIOT, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer with an introduction by George Szirtes – a fitting title since the women are accused of being anti-Christian. I’m proud to have a poem in it.

On a smaller scale censorship succeeds when it gets inside our heads, whether in or outside the literary world.  I like writing workshops (both teaching them and going myself) – they’re a chance to trick the internal censor, to bypass authorial intention and discover things we might otherwise not have said. Here in the Developed World it’s impossible to calculate the exact weight of social/media pressure, except to say how profoundly it influences our choices, whether as writers or not.

“ …it is a

wonder we

can use the word free and have it mean anything at all to us. We          stand still let the cold wind wrap round …”

says American poet Jorie Graham in Dialogue/(Of The Imagination’s Fear) in P L A C E (Carcanet).

And it is no wonder that back in the 1970s and 1980s (in the West) revolutionary or separatist movements sprang up in an attempt to escape and create alternatives.  While in former Eastern Europe the concept of internal exile (self-created as opposed to state imposed) was developed. From the perspective of time we may see the task differently (apart from anything both literary and political styles change..) but having the word free mean something – that has got to be what do for ourselves.