My first encounter with Hanna Krall, in her cozy apartment in Warsaw, is tinged with delight and trepidation. When I emailed Krall, she expressed surprise at my interest in translating her work from the 1970s. This was modesty, I realize, or else, Krall’s distinct playfulness. She can speak earnestly of her vanity—as a woman, a writer, or both—and, somehow, make fun of it at the same time. As I soon learn, she is being translated into French for a new publication of her reportage that will come out in the fall in Paris.
On this August day Krall asks, “Just what are we doing here?” She smiles, yet I sense where some of her resistance comes from. Krall, whose reportage have inspired generations of writers, has grown accustomed to artists borrowing her stories. Yet no one respects poetic license more than she does. The piece that I have chosen to translate for Words without Borders, “I Don’t Want Much, But I Must Have It All,” is living proof of that.
Documentary and fiction filmmakers from Wojciech Wiszniewski and Marcel Łoziński to Krzysztof Kieślowski have been inspired by Krall’s stories. I myself presented Łoziński’s short Front Collision at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, in 2015, not realizing that the story of the conductor who works such long hours he causes a train accident was inspired by Krall’s reportage. Nor did Wiszniewski’s short that I showed, A Story of a Man Who Fulfilled 552% Quota—an artful retelling of Krall’s reportage—bear any acknowledgment.
When I ask Krall about the latter, she laughs. “Wojciech was a genius!”
Between biscuits, Krall shows me a compilation of photographs and anecdotes recently published in her honor. Included is a note from Krzysztof Kieślowski that had been left on her doorstep asking her to please call him. No small feat. Krall had no phone back then, and Kieślowski dropped in when he wanted her to consult on his screenplays. One time he asked Krall to find him “an honest communist.” Another time he wanted help finding a lawyer on whom he could base a character in a film about the political trials of dissidents in the 1980s. Krall introduced Kieślowski to Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and the two Krzysztofs subsequently wrote together the famed television series The Decalogue and a number of feature films.
Before we get started, Krall points to the recorder that I have placed on the table. “You’re not recording, are you?” I respond that she must have used a recorder plenty of times. After all, her reportage are dialogue-driven. Her protagonists’ voices, strikingly direct, mingle with her first-person voice. But Krall shakes her head, “Never.” Stunned, I ask if, in all the years of her journalistic practice, no person complained about being misrepresented. “None,” she says.
The radical synthesis of Krall’s art—the unique filtering of another’s voice through hers—suddenly makes sense. No poetry is so readily encountered in literal speech. There is clearly a unique turn to a Krall phrase (in Polish, it has been called Krallian). Uncanny, it sounds vaguely Chekhovian. Perhaps it’s not a style, per se, but rather the subjects Krall chooses to portray: Small towns, colossal dreams.
Take the story of one man who ends up in jail after he blackmails the mayor, demanding a huge sum of money. Why does he do it? His wife is too Rubenesque! Too perfect to be denied material riches. This man’s resentment, the immensity of his longing, is straight out of Gogol. It reminds me that Krall traveled to and reported from the Soviet Union. There’s the doomed romanticism. The Cold War.
People rob and steal, yet they do it out of love. The dwarfed protagonists of Krall’s stories are pathetic, for sure, but Krall is there, by their side. And when a cynical note sneaks it, Krall usually redirects it at herself.
As I translated Krall, I began to discover an entire vocabulary—and a physical world—of communist Poland, from cooperatives to the intricacies of forming a line at a butcher’s or specific types of local porcelain and fabrics. For this arcane knowledge, I turned to my Polish friends and, mostly, to my mother who, gently and with mild surprise at times, walked me through the oddities she lived.
The story that I translated for Words without Borders, “I Don’t Want Much, But I Must Have It All,” is about an ordinary woman who bewitches Krall, not just with her wild money schemes, but also with her stupendous gift for poetry. The poetry, however—as Krall said in her amendment in the journal Polityka—turns out not to be hers. It has been stolen from Polish poet Ewa Lipska.
Are all of the poems Lipska’s? I exchanged emails with Krall, and Lipska herself proved generous. She and Krall talked at length about the poor woman. In her email, Lipska confided that, not long ago, a friend of hers was even approached by yet another fake Ewa Lipska. “So that does happen, apparently,” she added.
In the end, it turned out that the poetry thief made quite a bit of mischief. She quoted Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Lipska’s poems, and one fragment that Lipska said isn’t hers (to be deciphered someday).
Lipska put me in touch with her longtime translator, Barbara Bogoczek, who wrote that only one poem was previously translated into English—the others were fragments that Bogoczek and Lipska composed together.
I will mention but a few of our parallel translation choices.
Bogoczek and I open the poem, “Recepta,” or “Prescription,” with the identical line: “Suicide /should be committed after breakfast.” I love this line’s brutality and directness, which I take to mean that the poem is written in an ascetic tone, as if found in a prescription booklet. Bogoczek’s translation proceeds,
For breakfast you should have a glass of
Milk contains plenty of vitamin A.
Vitamin A protects you from disorders of
The eye is for looking.
And you should look at
Here we diverge subtly, but in telling ways. I do not use the word “should,” but instead “it is best,” and I say “eye diseases” rather than “disorders,” though “disorders” is a lovely choice in a poem that strives for such an orderly, passive voice. I have also opted for “behold,” a word that has a slightly dated, perhaps biblical connotation. Bogoczek keeps her language more neutral and uses “looking,” instead.
In the following lines, I speak of a “fuzzy” sound of a fly that passes through a violin string; Bogoczek says “downy,” suggesting further delicacy. Then in the final lines, I stick to “leftover bread” rather than “crumbs.” The poem in Bogoczek’s translation ends:
And the crumbs from your bread
should be scattered for the birds.
So they might go on living.
This last line gave me particular trouble. I wanted to make it as succinct as Lipska’s, and so I opted for:
All leftover bread
should be thrown to birds.
So that they can live on.
In this way, I emphasized the punch-like ending, but stopped on the possibly weaker “live on.”
The translation experience is always humbling. Yet, in the end, it leaves me with an urgent desire to dive into more poetry. Not to mention a boundless appreciation for the fine work of recent translators into English, from Bogoczek herself, to Robert Hass (trans. of Czesław Miłosz), Clare Cavanagh (trans. of Wisława Szymborska), Danuta Borchardt (trans. of Witold Gombrowicz), Antonia Lloyd-Jones (trans. of Olga Tokarczuk, Pawel Huelle), and Bill Johnston (trans. of Stanisław Lem, Tadeusz Różewicz), to name but a few who have made Polish literature ring true.