In the Valdemar Questionnaire, we give voice to translators who reflect on their work and role as intermediaries between languages and cultures. In this instalment of our series, Valdemar takes on Megan Thomas and Ewa Małachowska-Pasek, two translators of Polish and the authors of the featured translation from the book The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz.
You can read Megan and Ewa’s translation of the excerpt from Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz’s “The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma” here.
Why did the two of you decide to translate The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz? After all, it’s a book written almost 90 years ago and its subject matter is very much connected to the socio-political reality of that inter-war Polish state.
Ewa Małachowska-Pasek: It’s not possible to translate every single piece of literature from one culture/language to another, so translators very often choose to focus on works of monumental importance, classics that define culture. The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma has never been perceived as such. Gombrowicz once said that Sienkiewicz was “a first-rate second-rate writer”; it marvelously describes Dołęga-Mostowicz’s works as well. He was a masterful storyteller, and I hoped his satirical novel would add a distinctive, humorous dimension to the (heavy and serious) canon of Polish literature in English translation. I also wanted to closely compare Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There and The Career to investigate to what extent the claim about plagiarism was justified.
Megan Thomas: I’m a sucker for comic novels and am usually the type to laugh instead of cry (a therapist once admonished me for “making too many jokes about serious things”). So Dyzma was very appealing – it’s a novel filled with righteous anger and disgust at a society riddled with craven corruption, but which also is constantly making fun of everyone involved. And the time was certainly ripe: I have a vivid memory of attending a 2017 Eurovision Song Contest viewing party thrown by University of Michigan grad students, and Ewa leaning in and shouting over the music, “Now that Trump is president, we need to get going on Dyzma!” We’d both been fiddling around with a few chapters, but that was when we started the work in earnest.
Was it a mutual decision?
EM-P and MT: Yes!
Nicodemus is a universal figure of an ignoramus who by sheer turn of luck makes a brilliant political career. There must be other classic figures of this kind in literature in other languages. What makes Dyzma special?
EM-P: For me? He is our own. He is so very Polish yet so universal!
The Dyzma figure might be very powerful and convincing in its own right. But what if reality outlives literature? Where lies the relevance of the book today? Can this book still teach us something?
EM-P: The book is so relevant that it’s almost frightening. It raises the question of who can rise to power. What kind of person can be propelled to power and, most importantly, by whom? No-one can reach the highest circles of the government on his/her own, many people are necessary. Money supports money, limited intelligence supports limited intelligence, and lack of any kind of scruples seeks justification and affirmation in the eyes of others.
MT: Right, it really is a book about systemic failure.
The Career has often been brought up in the context of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1970 novel Being There, which according to some readers plagiarized the Dyzma plot. What’s your opinion on that? In what way can these be seen as similar and in what way are they different? (Valdemar has noticed that Kosiński’s middle name is Nikodem... Coincidence?)
EM-P: Perhaps the middle name is a coincidence, but there are astonishing parallels between both Nicodemuses’ strategies of survival. Both entered strange worlds as outsiders, both mastered the art of confabulation, both used the ideas of others to establish their positions, to gain power and fame: Dyzma, to become a bank president and a wealthy landowner; and Kosiński, to become a mainstay in Manhattan literary circles.
MT: Is this the right time to bring up that my childhood nickname was Nicodemus? My dad was a fan of whimsically applying random names to his kids and pets (the family dog was called “the Venerable Bede”). While working on the book, I did read Being There, and I will say that there are many remarkable similarities. Our Dyzma is funnier and a lot darker, though.
What is it like to translate a book in a tandem? What’s your strategy? Do you split pages? Divide it by chapters?
EM-P: I don’t know whether there is one universal answer to the first question. I only know that being in a tandem with Megan is a fantastic, inspiring intellectual experience. We immensely enjoy negotiating meanings and discussing Polish and American culture through the lenses of languages. A translator constantly makes choices, and has to take responsibility for his or her decisions. Sometimes this responsibility feels like a burden. It is easier and safer to carry it together. The final shape of the book is not born in the mind of one person, but in a conversation between two. It creates a third, almost perfectly objective, entity.
MT: Ewa, I’m blushing. I love our tandem, too – we’ve been translating together for years now and have settled into a very comfortable and pleasurable rhythm. To start, we divide the chapters (I take odds and Ewa takes evens), and once the first drafts are done, the discussions and arguments start. I love what Ewa said about the safety of translating in a team. Having a partner like her, for example, lets me enjoy working with colloquial language more freely than I might if I were translating alone. I get to experiment with lots of different words and expressions, and I know that if I drift too far out to sea, Ewa will throw me a life preserver and haul me back in toward the Polish text.
What was the most difficult thing about translating The Career?
EM-P: Socio-dialects and homonyms.
Were there any parts where you couldn’t decide on what the translation should sound like?
MT: There were a few parts where my translation veered too literally into Trump-speak. I spent a few weeks convinced it would be a great idea to sprinkle in actual presidential quotes where applicable – by the way, it’s pretty incredible how closely some of them matched Nicodemus Dyzma’s dialogue – but Ewa steered me away. She was right, of course.
What one word will you remember from this book?
MT: Cwaniak – a con man, a weasel, a wise guy.
What part of your job do you like most, Megan?
MT: Reading great books and playing with words – what’s not to like?
What part do you hate most, Ewa?
EM-P: Giving interviews.
What would you compare the act of such a ‘team’ translation to?
EM-P: A sniper team: spotter and sharp-shooter.
Do you sometimes feel like a medium/media? (Valdemar wants to know…)
MT: Every once in a while, Valdemar! Like Nicodemus Dyzma, I grew up in a very small town far from the loci of power and education, and when I translated scenes with Dyzma and his hometown acquaintances hanging out in smokey rooms and knocking back drinks, I channelled the guys I grew up with, with whom I hung out in smokey rooms and knocked back drinks.
What is your next translation project?
EM-P: We won’t tell.
What is your favourite occupation (translation excluded)?
EM-P and MT: We both love being teachers.
What is your idea of a translator’s perfect happiness?
EM-P: Becoming deeply focused on a translation and having dinner delivered.
MT: Every once in a while, I’ll be on a run or walking the dog or something and – seemingly apropos of nothing – a translation problem will become unstuck and the perfect adjective will bubble up to the surface of my consciousness. Bliss!
What is the quality you most like in a translation?
EM-P: Finding good cultural equivalences.
Who is your favourite fictional hero in Polish literature (aside from Nicodemus)?
MT: Mine’s Wokulski, too! Okay, I’ll stick with Boleslaw Prus’s The Doll, but I’m switching my answer to the salesmen who work at Wokulski’s haberdashery. The conversations between them were among my favourite scenes in the novel – I’d definitely read a spin-off series that was just those guys complaining hilariously about each other.
Is there any author you are afraid of (translating)? (Valdemar wants to know…)
EM-P: Stanisław Lem. He creates worlds I cannot perfectly visualize. I am afraid to translate texts that hide too many possibilities of realization, materialization or non-materialization.
MT: I think translating is just terrifically fun and I’m foolhardy enough to tackle most challenges, but I once spent a gruelling week translating a very long passage on dressage (a kind of fancy exhibition horse riding). I lead a generally horse-free existence and had to look up every other word in Polish and then also in English to figure out what part of the bridle or segment of horse leg was being referred to. No more horses, please!
If you were to die and come back as a person (but not a translator) or a thing, what would it be? (Valdemar wants to know...)
EM-P: A perfectly translated good book.
MT: And I’ll be the take-out dinner that accompanies it.
Ladislav Matejka Collegiate Lecturer in Polish and Czech Studies at the University of Michigan.
Alongside Ewa Małachowska-Pasek, the translator of Zofia Nałkowska’s Romance of Teresa Hennert.