Interview with Iza Wojciechowska
by Christopher Schafenacker for the Massachusetts Review
Massachusetts Review: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2013 Jules Chametzky Translation Prize for your work on Anna Piwkowska’s poem, “A letter from Paul Éluard to his wife who is in Cadaqués with Salvador Dali”!
Iza Wojciechowska: Thank you! I was delighted when I found out.
MR: You certainly deserve it. The translation is beautiful. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in translation? When did you begin translating poetry, and what drew you to it?
IW: My parents were very strict about speaking Polish at home when I was growing up, so from a very young age I was existing in both languages: reading in both, writing in both, and thinking about both. I’ve always been interested in language and words, so working in two languages was fun for me and came pretty naturally. I didn’t actually start translating until I enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University, which was just beginning its Literary Translation program. It gave me the opportunity to add a translation concentration to what I was already doing, creative nonfiction. I took great classes with great translators like Susan Bernofsky and Idra Novey, and began to workshop some translations. I started with prose but ultimately settled into poetry and began translating Anna Piwkowska in earnest.
MR: How did the “settling into” poetry come about? Did you first decide that you wanted to translate poetry and then find a poet you were interested in, or was it the other way around?
IW: Well. . . Anna Piwkowska is my aunt, so I was already very familiar with her poetry and with her. I’ve always really loved her poems, and I studied and wrote poetry a bit in college. Although I decided to pursue nonfiction in the MFA program, I thought I could keep a part of my writing self involved in poetry by translating it. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t also have been writing my own poetry, but I haven’t.
MR: I, myself, began translating as a way of keeping myself writing, and nowadays it has, happily, become all that I do.
IW: It’s a nice break from writing my own things—still writing, but very differently.
MR: To what extent do you collaborate with Anna Piwkowska herself? Does the fact that you are family affect the degree to which you collaborate? What do you do when you disagree?
IW: Certainly it makes it very easy to ask her questions when they come up. I’ll email her about ambiguity or context, or we’ll talk about it when we are together, which has been very helpful. But we’ve never really sat down together to work on a poem, which is something I would actually really love to do and hope to still.
I don’t think there have been any real disagreements about the translations. But she has discussed with me how important rhyme and rhythm are to many of her poems, and sometimes I feel a bit guilty that I can’t entirely recreate that in English.
MR: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of translating a work of poetry? And more specifically, what are some of the challenges particular to translating from Polish into English?
IW: I think balancing all the elements is very challenging. You have rhyme and rhythm on top of content and meaning, and inevitably something somewhere has to get sacrificed. For me, it’s an enjoyable puzzle, knowing that if I get rid of a rhyme here, I can perhaps make something else rhyme elsewhere. Or I can move a sentence around to get the rhythm right. It’s definitely challenging to connect all those moving parts, and some poems are easier to translate than others.
Polish is a much more flexible language than English. It has a very complicated grammar, but as a result, the same sentence can be said in any number of ways, changing the order of the subject, object, or verb, and declining or conjugating appropriately. This makes it pretty easy to rhyme, for example, but the rigidity of our syntax thwarts doing something similar in English. Polish also has an enormous literary history, and though this may be unique to Piwkowska’s work, I read a lot of poems with allusions to Polish literature. This is challenging in translation because that context just doesn’t exist for an English readership.
MR: How do you navigate that? Do you assume that your reader, if interested enough in the work, will seek to learn more and perhaps unearth some of the literary references that do not translate? Or do you ever add material or a paratext to the original? What techniques do you work with for dealing with such problems?
IW: To be honest, so far I’ve avoided translating her most allusion-heavy poems. There’s one in particular that is sort of a collage of lines drawn from or alluding to old Polish literature. I’ve approached that one several times and haven’t been able to crack it yet—but soon, I hope! In any case, for the times I have run across this problem, I’ve generally not included any additional material or context, but I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed if I thought it was absolutely necessary to understanding the poem. It’s my hope, however, that the poem can stand alone and convey its meaning even if the reader might not be familiar with some of the allusions. A translated poem is inherently going to be a different poem for a reader in a different language, even without this sort of trickiness.
MR: Concerning “A letter from Paul Éluard to his wife who is in Cadaqués with Salvador Dali,” are there any words, lines, or sections that exhibit the sorts of challenges you’re talking about? Are there pieces you would like to tinker with further? Are there moments where you wish you could whisper in the reader’s ear to help them grasp ambiguities that simply do not translate poetically?
IW: You know, this one is a relatively unambiguous poem; it has these stunning images that come across just as effectively in both languages. It does lose a little bit of rhyme though, in translation. As for wanting to whisper in the reader’s ear: yes, all the time! I particularly felt this when I first started translating. I would workshop a poem and if I got positive feedback, my reaction would so often be, “Really? How can you like this when you don’t understand this line, or you’re missing this particular wordplay?”
MR: Workshopping a translation is such a curious experience, and for just that reason. About process, then, how do you go about translating a poem? What variables speed up or slow down the process? Do you work on one poem at a time, or is your process oriented more toward an author’s body of work?
IW: I’ll usually work on several poems at a time, but hone in on one when I feel it’s really beginning to take shape. I nearly always start with a pretty fast, literal translation with little regard to the poetics of the thing or even concern for whether the sentences fully make sense. Then I’ll go back and work on a sentence level to smooth them out, and then go back again and tinker with it on an individual word level. This is where a big Polish-English dictionary and a thesaurus come into play. I look up words in the dictionary even if they’re very familiar, easy words, just to get a sense of whether there are alternate definitions that could be useful, or if there’s something I might have missed.
Once I’m happy with that, I read the poem through several times, often out loud, to get a sense of how it sounds and how the rhythm can be adapted; whether to change words to get a better assonance if necessary; where to insert rhyme if I can. This takes place over a few weeks, because I find that stepping away from a poem and coming back to it afresh later helps with smoothing it out. I tend to get lost in the nitty-gritty of synonyms or vowels or syllables, and letting the poem breathe for a few days works wonders.
What slows down the process is what we talked about earlier—the sort of allusions or wordplay that really need to be addressed in a certain way that’s not immediately obvious. Poems with a lot of nouns, lists of things, names of trees or animals, things like that tend to go faster because those are generally pretty unambiguous.
MR: Have you ever gotten midway through your process with a given poem and decided that you cannot finish? That it simply won’t work?
IW: I have quite a few half-finished poems saved in a Word document, and I revisit them occasionally. Once in a while, I’m able to salvage one or two, but often only after not working on them for months. It’s definitely frustrating, and I can’t even really pinpoint what it is about a particular poem that makes it so stubborn, but some just really do seem so untranslatable.
MR: Is your personal writing process similar to your translation process?
IW: My personal writing process is sort of similar: I definitely have the same habit in my own writing of going back to something that’s already written and giving it a very close read on a sentence and word level. I put a lot of stock in words and rhythm in my own prose, and translating poetry has really helped me develop a voice in prose. But I also pay a lot more attention to detail when I start a first draft of my own writing, so in that sense, the beginning of the process is different.
MR: That brings us to a good note to end on. What current translation projects are you working on? What can we expect to see from you (and Anna) next?
IW: Lots of writing and translating for the foreseeable future, which I’m very happy about. I am finishing a few remaining poems from a book of Anna’s called Farbiarka (The Dye Girl), which I hope to be able to publish. She published a new book of poems in Polish last year, which I immediately fell in love with, and I’ve started translating poems from that as well. So I hope there are a lot more poems to come!
The project I’m working on now is nonfiction rooted in a particular place in Poland that’s significant to my family— about a palace, aristocracy, art, war, and family—and getting fairly close to being able to shop that around. My aunt writes a lot of poems about this place too. So in that way my translation work and my own writing are very related; it’s interesting to me to see very specific things or experiences described in her poems that maybe I’ve also written about, but differently.
MR: If the rest of Anna’s work is as striking as “A letter from Paul Éluard to his wife who is in Cadaqués with Salvador Dali” I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an eager publisher, Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us —it truly has been a pleasure.